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Biblical Worldview: Principles of Government from the Old and New Testaments

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“Contextually speaking, in the United States of America, there is no ‘Caesar’ like there was when Paul wrote to the church in Rome. Rather, we are a people governed by the Constitution, which secures for us God-given rights that cannot be infringed, among them, first and foremost, that ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.’”

WILLIAM WOLFE

Old Testament Examples

The institution of human government can be found as early as the very first chapter of the Bible. As John and Paul Feinberg explain in Ethics for a Brave New World, “Gen. 1:26-28 is the first passage relevant to government, for it records the creation of man and the divine mandate to subdue and rule the earth.”[1]

In these verses, we learn that 1) God creates mankind in His own image, giving them worth; 2) God grants mankind dominion, giving them the right to rule; and 3) God commands mankind to multiply, implying that dominion comes through a multiplicity of image-bearers, who will need to be organized together in naturally occurring systems of governance (Gen. 1:26-28).

At this stage of covenantal history, mankind is in perfect communion with God, and so God’s rule, His kingdom, would be mediated directly through Adam, the federal head and proto-prophet, -priest, and -king. In a pre-fall paradigm, church and state were, in many ways, one and the same institution.

As Jonathan Leeman explains in Political Church, “…life in the human polis, as it increasingly spread over the surface of the earth, was to look like in the divine polis of Father, Son, and Spirit, a society that spreads beyond all time and space.”[2]

Sadly, this would not continue.

When Adam and Eve sinned in Genesis 3, they broke the covenant and brought curses on all mankind and creation. We see the initial tear in the political peace when God tells the woman that her “desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you” (Gen. 3:16). This fallen state, which ultimately necessitates the sword, is confirmed in no uncertain terms when “Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him” (Gen. 4:8).

The now-bloody reality of the Adamic Covenant precipitated the need for the Noahic Covenant, established in Genesis 9:5-6, ESV, where God establishes the principle of retributive justice. God tells Noah,

“…for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man. From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed for God made man in his own image.”

Here, as David C. Innes underscores, we see that “politics is important because political authority carries with it what the ancient Romans called jus vitae et necis, the ‘power of life and death.’”[3]

Thus, even before we arrive at the Abrahamic Covenant, and the renewal of God’s kingdom-reign mediated through one people, Abraham’s descendants, we learn the specific ends for which government is instituted by God. These ends are, namely, to bear the sword in protecting life, family, property, and peace and delivering retributive justice against the guilty when these are violated, desecrated, or destroyed. These are the “goods” that the government is designed to bear the sword on behalf of, which we will consider further in Romans 13:1-7.

As the storyline of Scripture moves into the Abrahamic, Mosaic, and Davidic Covenants, God brings about a merger of civil and religious laws, attaching them to one particular people in one particular place: The nation of Israel in the Promised Land. Under the Old Covenant writ large, church and state were the same. For those who worshipped the One True God, there was no fear that the civil government would interfere with that worship (if it were ruling rightly).

New Testament Examples

This all changed with the coming of Christ. As a result of the arrival of the long-awaited Messiah, we learn that while “the kingdom of God is at hand,” the Messiah’s kingdom is “not of this world” (Mark 1:15, John 18:36). The already-but-not-yet nature of inaugurated eschatology means that mankind’s final hope is not in civil governments but rather in the return of the King. And entrance into this now-and-future kingdom is brought about through redemption and faith (John 3:3) and made manifest in the local church.

In the New Covenant, the Church, as the body of Christ, doesn’t seek to usurp the functions of the state or take up the sword. Rather the Church bears the keys (Matt. 16, Matt. 18) and mediates the foreshadowing of the eschatological culmination of all government — God’s people living together in perfect harmony under the eternal, monarchial rule of King Jesus (Phil. 2:9-11, Daniel 7:13-14).

Finally, with these parameters established, we can consider the seminal passage on the nature of church and state in the New Testament — Romans 13:1-7 — wherein Paul writes,

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.”

As David C. Innes has pointed out, verses 1-7 form a chiasm, with a “central unparalleled section that indicates the main point.”[4]

What is that main point? It is verse 4, that government is “God’s servant for your good.”

As we have already traced, the “good” here is not just anything conceivable under the sun. Rather, the good must be in keeping with God’s revealed moral order. Therefore, the primary good that a legitimate government, deriving its authority from God, must secure for its citizens is the right to freely and fully worship God within His Church, as well as to protect life, family, and property and to punish evil.

Far from teaching unlimited submission, Romans 13:1-7 properly constrains and contextualizes the role of government in submission to God and for the good of society.

Furthermore, Christian ethicist and academic Oliver O’Donovan has argued that 1 Peter 2:13-15 echoes similar themes in Romans 13:1-7. He claims,

“Nevertheless, in evident dependence on Romans 13, the same pair of terms, ἐκδίκησινn and ἔπαινον, ‘vengeance’ and ‘praise,’ characterize judgment for the sole purpose for which emperors and governors are ‘sent out’ by God, while the Christian community continues to live in its own social spaces, free in relation to the authorities of the world and subservient directly to God.”[5]

In light of this, it is clear that the main emphasis of Romans 13:1-7 is not that the Church must submit to the state in every single possible matter outside of clear cases of righteousness or sin. O’Donovan’s evaluation agrees with theologian Abraham Kuyper that, ultimately, “maintaining God’s honor is a duty that rests on the magistrate in the civil government…and…that the magistrate is called to support and protect the church.”[6]

Therefore, it is right, and appropriate, for the Church to demand that the state perform this role. When the state does not perform this role, the Church is not necessarily obligated to obey or cooperate with the state.

Conclusion

Finally, it would be entirely remiss to ignore the fact that, contextually speaking, in the United States of America, there is no “Caesar” like there was when Paul wrote to the church in Rome. Rather, we are a people governed by the Constitution, which secures for us God-given rights that cannot be infringed, among them, first and foremost, that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”[7]

Rulers in the United States swear oaths of office to defend and uphold the Constitution, and according to Article VI, “The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the members of the several state legislatures, and all executive and judicial officers, both of the United States and of the several states, shall be bound by oath or affirmation, to support this Constitution.”[8]

Therefore, whatever an executive branch agency, or governor, or mayor may ask of the Church, the Church must first judge the order by the standard of the true governing authority — the Constitution. Failure to do so, and then to act accordingly, is an abdication of responsibility on the part of the Church.

As theologian David VanDrunen has cautioned, “…the state is the sphere most prone and most able to usurp the functions of the other spheres.”[9]

Therefore, far from offering unlimited and unquestioned submission, churches must instead fulfill their contextual duties in America. Given the evidence of the biblical data concerning what the “good” is in Romans 13:1-7, this includes holding the government accountable to perform its duties before God. When the government oversteps, this much is clear: “On some occasions, civil disobedience is not only morally permissible but perhaps even obligatory.”[10]


Follow William on Twitter! @William_E_Wolfe

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] John S. Feinberg and Paul D. Feinberg, Ethics for a Brave New World (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), 700.

[2] Jonathan Leeman, Political Church: The Local Assembly as Embassy of Christ’s Rule (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2016), 162.

[3] David C. Innes, Christ and the Kingdoms of Men: Foundations of Political Life (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing), xiv.

[4] Innes, Christ and the Kingdoms of Men, 43.

[5] Oliver O’Donovan, The Defense of Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 149.

[6] Abraham Kuyper, On the Church, Collected Works in Public Theology, edited by John Halsey Wood Jr. and Andrew M. McGinnis (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016), 392.

[7] First Amendment, “U.S. Constitution,” Constitution Annotated, accessed May 11, 2022, https://constitution.congress.gov/constitution/amendment-1.

[8] Article VI, “U.S. Constitution,” Legal Information Institute, accessed May 11, 2022, https://www.law.cornell.edu/constitution/articlevi.

[9] David VanDrunen, Natural Law and Two Kingdoms: A Study in the Development of Reformed Social Thought (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010), 297.

[10] Feinberg and Feinberg, Ethics for a Brave New, 725.

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