This week we will continue to look at what the Bible has to say about the responsibilities of civil government…from a New Testament perspective. The New Testament supplements and reinforces what was found in Genesis 9 about the authority to punish evil. The longest dissertation on the subject is found in Romans 13:1-7:
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 the same reason 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.
So what is this telling us? (1) God has appointed the authorities who have governmental power; (2) Civil rulers are a “terror to bad conduct”; (3) They give approval or praise to those who do what is good; (4) Governmental officials serve God; (5) Government officials are doing “good” as they carry out their work…that is governmental rulers do “good” when they carry out their responsibilities in a just and fair way, following God’s principles for government; (6) Government authorities execute God’s wrath on wrongdoers and thereby carry out a task of retribution. This particular function of government is addressed thusly: Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay”, say the Lord [Rom. 12:19]. Further we are instructed that the wrath of God is carried out by civil government. It is civil government that is tasked with carrying out justice. As a personal note, this to me is the most difficult part of the Bible to understand based on history and what I have experienced in life. I hold the highest of respect for those who truly try to live up to the standards God has established for civil government but when I observe what I do by some ‘civil servants’ I am truly ‘attacked by the doubt monster’. My initial response to reading Romans 13 was that Paul was trying to pander to the Romans and the church officials. I hope I was wrong.
Peter has a similar view of the role of government in his epistle:
“Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to the governors as sent by Him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good”. [1 Peter 2:13-14].
Peter, like Paul, begins with a command to “be subject” to human institutions such as emperors and governors. He also says they are to restrain bad conduct and give praise and encouragement to good conduct. The idea of the government being established by God is not made explicit, but it is hinted at when Peter says that Christians are to be subject “for the Lord’s sake” to every human institution [v. 14]. Peter explicitly includes the idea of retribution against wrongdoers when he says that governors are sent “to punish those who do evil”. It is at times that this is difficult to accept when we observe the evil that some governments do, and in the process punish those who do good.
Then there are those who would object to the idea that government should punish wrongdoers. They say government should instead try to correct the causes that led a person to commit a crime…blaming society much more than the person who did the wrong. Such people will often refer to Jesus’ statement in Matthew 5:39:
“But I say to you, do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also”.
Does this prohibit even government from executing punishment on wrongdoers? This “turn the other cheek” verse should be understood within its proper context. Here Jesus is not talking about the responsibilities of government but is giving principles for individual personal conduct. Jesus is giving specific, concrete illustrations of what personal conduct will often look like in the life of a Christian. To take another example, it would be disobedient to the rest of Scripture to obey in every situation the command that comes just three verses later, “Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you”. [Matt. 5:42]. If that were an absolute requirement, then any one beggar could bankrupt any Christian simply by repeatedly asking for more and more! The Bible also requires Christians to be good stewards of their resources. [See Luke 16:10; Corinthians 4:2; and Matt. 25:14-30]. Jesus’ command to turn the other cheek is not a valid argument against governmental use of force or retributive punishment on wrongdoers. Such government actions are explicitly addressed in several other passages of Scripture.
Is government only required because there is evil in the world? Even if there were no evil in the world there would still be some need for government. This need could very possibly fall into the category of what the Constitution calls “promote the general welfare”. Such needs might include the building and regulation of roads, the establishment of standard weights and measures, the maintenance of public records, the establishment of laws for safety, the standardization of electrical power, the establishment of currency to be used as money for legal exchange, the establishment of relationships with other nations, etc. Note that the Constitution uses the term “promote”, not “provide”. This would mean that government provided universal health care is not a federal government obligation. Where the defense of “life” is a government obligation it has permitted the taking of innocent life…the unborn…to the tune of about a million a year. Such flaws in government cause much confusion among citizens and within the Christian community. It is here that the will of God expressed through the Bible needs to be discussed from the pulpit. Many Christians have been led astray through the confusion.
Another area of Biblical guidance concerning the government involves the laws given Israel in Exodus thru Deuteronomy. Atheists have used this part of the Bible to create much confusion in the world and bring to question just where the Bible stands on justice, forgiveness, punishment, and the validity of Christian principles to provide any standards to today’s society. Next week we will take a look at how these Old Testament laws were in place during a time they were appropriate and needed.
– Bob Munsey