If there is confusion regarding the place of government in society, there is even more so when it comes to the extent of government in society. Here we are focused not so much on how a particular nation’s government is set up—whether it’s a democracy or a dictatorship or something in between—but the scope of government’s ability to shape society. Of course government type is related to this topic, but our aim in this post is to determine the specific boundaries of government’s influence according to a biblical worldview. Oftentimes the confusion at this point can rear its head by either relying too much or too little on government. And so believers must keep the gospel in focus when addressing this important matter. They can do so by remembering the following three truths:
- Government is an answer, but it is not the ultimate Answer. There are instances and circumstances that require government involvement for the well being of men and women. Working toward a common goal and common good without some type of organization and authority structure is nearly impossible for a hundred people, never mind millions of them. But as Christians, whose worldview is shaped by the Scriptures, we understand that humanity’s biggest problem (sin) is not something that can ultimately be solved by the organization and authority of men and women. Therefore, creating a sort of utopian paradise where there is no more crime and no more need is going to always and forever be unattainable through legislation.
Government can provide a structure to daily life that protects the interests of its citizens, and it can foster physical wellbeing and moral boundaries for human flourishing. But human government is not the means by which mankind will ultimately escape the brokenness of this world; that only comes by a kingdom not of this world. Failure to realize this will either lead to an authoritative government that seeks to impose its iron will or a pessimistic disappointment with government’s inability to meet expectations that are too high.
- Government is an authority, but it is not the ultimate Authority. Specifically, this has to do with morality. Currently there is a lot of talk about not allowing government to “legislate morality,” and this type of language has come mostly from the left-leaning, more liberal sector of the American population, specifically in regards to social issues. Interestingly, the right-leaning, more conservative American public is beginning to echo the same sentiments as the government’s goals have shifted to a more liberal agenda. No one really wants the government legislating morality when the morality it’s pushing doesn’t align with one’s own views.
But for believers, the issue goes far deeper than personal preferences and subjective morals. As the Gospel informs us, we ultimately answer to a Creator whose very being defines goodness, justice, faithfulness, and righteousness. These are not concepts that man defines, but they are rooted and grounded in God Himself. The more we know God, the more we know what justice is or what righteousness is. We have objective morality—as opposed to subjective, personal morality—for the simple reason that God does not change, and therefore, the morality that flows from Him does not change either.
This is important for the topic at hand because the reality is that government does legislate morality, regardless of whether we like it or not. The government tells its citizens, “You can do this, but you can’t do that. This is legal, but that is not. This is considered right within our borders, and that is considered wrong.” And most of the time, we comply with no complaint because, at least in America, the country’s moral legislation generally reflects the will of the majority of its citizens; there’s no real conflict. And therefore, Christians, for the most part, are to follow the rules and regulations set forth by their respective governments.
However, by holding a biblical, gospel-centered perspective, believers understand that their allegiance is ultimately to an Authority higher than their own government: God Himself. Because of this, when government attempts to usurp to the authority of God by requiring its citizens’ compliance with a law or moral standard that goes against the expressed will of the Creator, Christians have the right and necessity to refuse (cf. Acts 4:17-21). Believers are to submit to government’s authority, but only as a people who understand that the ultimate authority lies in the hands of the One who reigns over all.
- Government is a judge, but it is not the ultimate Judge. In order to protect and order human life, government exercises the power to punish those who violate its laws. In order to restrain individual acts of vengeance, God grants temporary rights to human governments to act as an arm of His justice, to establish righteousness and to penalize wrongdoing. This is a good function of government that is meant to operate for the good of mankind.
However, because of its limitations and its leaders’ faults, government cannot perfectly fulfill this function. There are times when innocent people are punished for crimes they didn’t commit, and there are other times where the punishment exacted on a person fails to match the crime—either it is too severe or too mild. Take for a true example, a Nazi war criminal who, having fled after the war, is found decades later when he is on his death bed. No matter if he is given a life sentence, the punishment cannot possibly be adequate for his crimes against thousands if not millions of people. A worldview that does not account for God and His gospel is left in this situation with an unsatisfying ending; justice seems to have escaped the situation.
But the Christian worldview understands that justice is eternal because justice is grounded in the eternal God. Such unsatisfying results will not stand forever; justice will be done and done perfectly and completely. Those who are wrongly accused in this life will be wholly acquitted in the next and those who escape perfect punishment in this life will face it in the next. And of course, the clearest example of this is the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ, for if God was so committed to judgment against sin that He sent His own Son to take it for His children, all sin not accounted for at the cross will most assuredly be dealt with before the judgment seat of Christ.
Government is a great and wonderful gift from the Creator, but it is not intended to replace the answer, authority, and judgment of the Creator. There is only one who is sovereign, and His reign is preeminent and over all human institutions, including government. Confusion on this point leads to confusion in many others.