New Horizons

The Godliness of Government

David C. Innes

Judging by the low voter turnout in American elections—even in a presidential election year—some people just aren’t that into politics. But for a Christian, politics is not a choice; it’s an obligation, even if it is not always a passion.

Politics is not just one subject among many, which one may take up with interest or lay aside with indifference or perhaps distaste. God is political, and so the godly must also be political and demonstrate to the world what the beauty of holiness looks like in political life.

God made all things, and so he is king over all his creation. He is not just “like” a king; he literally rules, and with absolute authority. It is no surprise, then, that we find political language throughout the Bible to describe, as the Shorter Catechism puts it, “what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man.”

The Fall was an act of rebellion against God’s divine government. Graeme Goldsworthy calls it “man’s unilateral declaration of independence.” In reconciling us to himself, God chose a nation, Israel, brought that nation into a covenant that resembled a suzerain treaty, and gave it a law. He was Israel’s king. Eventually he gave his people a human king, but one who foreshadowed the Redeemer-King, who would bring them peace and make them once again willing subjects of his righteous rule. This Redeemer, the son of royal David, came preaching “the kingdom of God” (Mark 1:14–15), which the apostle Paul preached as the gospel (Acts 28:31). In the book of Revelation, God presents this Savior, Jesus, as King of kings and Lord of lords, judging the nations in righteousness and bringing in his New Jerusalem.

The Goodness of Government

Divine government does not invalidate earthly government or deny its importance. As we eagerly await the full manifestation of the kingdom of God, praying, “Thy kingdom come,” we live under human government that God has appointed for our good (Rom. 13:4). Government is important to God because our good is important to him. So government should be important to us.

The governments that God establishes come in all shapes and sizes: monarchies and democracies, cruel tyrannies and free republics. But regardless of the form of government or how it came to power, God calls us to obey our government (provided that it does not require us to sin—Acts 5:29) precisely because he has appointed it as his “minister” for our good.

Obedience, or good citizenship, in a republic like ours involves political participation. Free government is, as Abraham Lincoln phrased it, “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” It is authorized by the people and operated for the benefit of the people, but it also functions properly only when the people participate in its operations. That can mean petitioning the government, expressing one’s views on matters of public concern, or even running for elected office. At the very least, citizens of a republic have a moral obligation to vote when called upon to do so.

Voting is an act of government. By it, citizens select officers of the public trust and steer the country in one policy direction or another. If these votes are to be acts of good government, voters must inform themselves, deliberate on their choices, and make the wisest decisions they can. So the Christian citizen in particular, in faithfulness to both God and neighbor, needs to know about government, the challenges facing it, and, above all, what God says about these things.

I wrote Left, Right and Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics, with my coauthor, Lisa Sharon Harper, to encourage evangelical Christians to be more conscientiously active in political life and to be more thoughtfully and faithfully biblical in their involvement.

God’s Purpose for Government

There are many dimensions of political life that require biblical understanding, such as God’s creational purpose for government, the common good, peace, moral flourishing, and spheres of authority. But I focus mainly on God’s restraining purpose for government, that is, his purpose for us specifically as fallen people.

When the apostle Peter exhorts the church to “be subject for the Lord’s sake” to every level of civil government, he specifically notes how God calls government to serve us. It exists “to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good” (1 Pet. 2:14). The apostle Paul identifies these same goods in Romans 13. The first and most obvious purpose for which God has mercifully established government in a fallen world is “to restrain the rapacious tendencies of sinful human beings” (Left, Right and Christ , p. 59). Without it, to borrow the eloquence of Thomas Hobbes, life would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

But the second half of Peter’s statement is often neglected, especially by Christian libertarians. Political society is not an alliance for the maximization of self-interest by autonomous human beings. It is a moral relationship. Because God is a Trinitarian community of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, eternally communing with one another in love, we who are made in his image are made for community with one another. For this reason, the political life we share is natural and moral, not simply a useful human convention. As the Godhead is a community of love (so John tells us that “God is love,” 1 John 4:16), so too God calls our political communities to reflect his moral character in bonds of love.

Some take Paul’s description of government as “God’s servant for our good” out of context and present the apostle as meaning that we are free to use government to provide any good we think might be useful or morally commendable. However, I argue that

if it were government’s responsibility, even in part, to do the good deeds of society, people would gradually surrender more and more private responsibility to it.… Where it ends is not the sort of noble liberty that God intends for his image-bearing vice-regents [I Tim. 2:2]. At best, you get the control of well-meaning masters over grateful slaves, or some kind of happy human zoo. At worst, and more likely, you get the totalitarian rule of a self-serving administrative class over a docile people who have entirely forgotten how to provide for themselves. (p. 63)

Such a careless and expansive reading of Romans 13 would also violate the principle of limited government, which is a fundamental principle of biblical civil government for at least three reasons.

First, God gave us government for our good (Rom. 13:4). But whereas he is good, we are not, nor are the people who govern us. Because, on account of our wickedness, we need the restraint of government, so likewise those who govern us, equally wicked, must be limited in their power to govern us. For this reason, “limited government is not only a good idea; it is essential to good government” (p. 63).

Second, God gave us government for specific purposes that are distinct from the tasks he gave to individuals, families, and churches (1 Pet. 2:14). God’s purpose for government must therefore be limited, if only with respect to what is proper to people in those other relationships. As I state in Left, Right and Christ, “Government is a limited good, and so only limited government can be good” (p. 63).

Third, God gave us government to secure us in the liberty to serve him and one another (1 Tim. 2:2). Jesus summarizes the whole of God’s law, and thus all of life, with the word “love.” The work of Christ frees us to love, but the work of expansive, do-everything government attempts to make love unnecessary. It makes us incrementally less inclined to love and even drains us of the means to love. For this reason also, godly government is limited government.

Everything is good when we use it according to the Creator’s purposes—no more and no less. Government, especially the civic life of a free people, is good. It preserves us in liberty and defends our morality, and through it we order our corporate life. It is the Christian’s calling and privilege to inform this governing work with the good Creator’s mind.

The author, an OP minister, teaches politics at The King’s College in New York City. He is the coauthor of Left, Right and Christ, and also writes a weekly column for WORLDmag.com. New Horizons, February 2012.

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