We live in an age of big government. There seems to be no limit in the modern era to the size and scope of the state’s activities. Government spending, programs, initiatives, and stimulus continue to grow commensurate with hundreds of thousands of laws, regulations, codes, and rules that manage every aspect of modern life. Christians seeking a biblical worldview understanding of government should ask whether ths level of state activity is consistent with the government’s original, biblical purpose. Are we on the right path, or have we strayed far from the standard?
The Bible affirms that God is sovereign over all nations and all governments, that He alone raises up kingdoms and brings down empires (Exod. 9:16; Ps. 75:6-7; Isa. 44:28-45:1; Dan. 2:21; 4:25). God is the one who ultimately holds nations accountable for how they rule over and treat their people (Isa. 13-23; Jer. 46-51; Ezek. 25-32; Amos 1-2; Hab. 2; Zeph. 2). If God holds them accountable for administering justice, how should governments function with this end in mind?
In their most basic function, governments are responsible to restrain evil, and by so doing, encourage good behavior. The clearest description of this is given in Romans 13:1-7. In these seven verses, the Apostle Paul lays out the framework of the state’s basic function to restrain evil.
Governing authorities are appointed by God and ordained for this purpose (vs. 1-2). Government is responsible to maintain order by threatening punishment on evildoers (vs. 3). By fulfilling its basic function, governments operate as God’s servants on earth, carrying out vengeance on those who commit evil (vs. 4; cf. Rom. 12:19). Those who disobey governments (by doing evil) disobey an institution that God has established.
Essentially, governments are responsible to uphold a basic and universal moral law by restraining the evil impulses of human society. They uphold this basic moral law through civil law, which is necessary to set parameters on the power and limit of government and define proper behavior for citizens. We see from biblical examples that in the absence of law violence and bloodshed increase (Gen. 6:1-6; 9:5-6; Eccl 8:11). We also see that in the absence of law, fraud, coercion, and economic oppression increase (Ps. 82:2-4; Dan. 4:27). Hence, a biblical worldview affirms the basic necessity of law and its enforcement mechanism, the state.
By fulfilling this primary function, governments also fulfill a secondary function of being God’s servants for the good of those who obey the law (vs. 4-6). In the context of Romans 13, this is the Christian community whom Paul instructs elsewhere in the New Testament to live quiet and peaceful lives, to work with their hands, and to offer prayers for governing authorities. However, the principle applies to more than just Christians. When governments perform their primary function of restraining evil, they can be a benefit (rather than a hindrance) to peaceful citizens.
Unfortunately, many people confuse this secondary function of government — of being a servant for the good — as another primary function that is of equal importance to the punishment of evil. This error usually occurs when someone interprets Romans 13:3-4 as giving the government the responsibility of “doing good” rather than simply “commending” or “praising” the good done by other people.
To see why this interpretation is wrong, consider first that Paul describes the state as a terror to “evil doers,” but a servant to “good doers.” Notice also that Paul does not say the state is the one directly “doing” the good; it is only a servant “for [the] good.” Rather, the state actively punishes evil and verbally “commends” or “praises” the good done by others. The state explicitly bears a sword and takes vengeance on evildoers. It does not explicitly “do good.” The state merely serves the good by giving verbal ascent to those who do good.
In other words, when the state punishes evil, it indirectly rewards and encourages those who do good. Christians, in contrast, are commanded to do good, and one benefit of doing so is a peaceful relationship with the state. The state serves the good, both for God and for His people, by performing its primary negative function of restraining evil.
Consider that the Bible offers other evidence in line with the idea of government as the servant of good. Governments should serve their people, not leaders, by instituting systems of fairness and equality (1 Sam. 8:11-17; 1 Sam. 12:3-4). Corrupt economic policies and justice systems are repeatedly condemned throughout the Old Testament (Deut. 16:19; Ps. 26:10; Prov. 15:17; 17:23; Isa 33:15).
Governments are expected to maintain order so that everyone, including Christians, can live “peaceful and quiet lives, godly and dignified in every way” (1 Tim 2:2). In other words, governments are expected to safeguard basic forms of justice and human liberty so that people can thrive and prosper in peace and safety.
Given this divinely ordained function, all people have a general obligation to submit to government (Rom. 13:1-2; 1 Pet. 2:13-14). This is only a general obligation because there are times when disobedience to government is justified and necessary (cf. Acts. 4:18-20; 5:29; Dan. 6:10). However, generally speaking, people should obey the law and support the basic function of government.
Christians, however, also have a Gospel-centered reason to support governments (1 Pet. 2:13-16). By obeying the law and living as good citizens, they maintain a good testimony among an unbelieving world and can mitigate attacks from their critics. This is why Paul gives such strong warnings in Romans 12:14-21 for Christians to be peaceful and patient in the face of injustice.
Christians should “leave room for God’s wrath,” Paul explains, and to continue doing good works and blessing their enemies. It is no accident that Paul follows this advice with his teaching in Romans 13 that the state is an “avenger who carries out God’s wrath on evildoers” (Rom. 13:4).
It is not the business of Christians to punish evil and take vengeance, and it is not the business of the state to perform the work of the Lord by “doing good” in society. The ultimate purpose of government is to restrain evil so that the people of God may continue in the good works to which God has called them for the sake of the Gospel (Eph. 2:10).
In closing, a biblical worldview response to government overreach is to work toward limiting the size and scope of the state to this minimal function of restraining evil. Christians could do this in a number of ways by working to decentralizing state power and reclaiming the role of private associations like churches in the virtue-forming activities of society (e.g. education, charity, and welfare). By restricting the state to its minimal, primary function of restraining evil, mediating institutions like local churches can play a greater role in shaping society’s moral and religious landscape for the common good.
Follow Tim on Twitter! @TimYonts
Ready to dive deeper into the intersection of faith and policy? Head over to our Theology of Politics series page where we’ve published several long-form pieces that will help Christians navigate where their faith should direct them on political issues.
1 month ago