The Purpose and Role of Government
Michael Oh | Japan
God Instituted Government for the Good of All People
Every ruling authority that exists has been established by God (Rom. 13:1–2). Human government is a derived authority. Those in authority are described as “the servant[s] of God” (Rom. 13:4) and “ministers of God” (Rom. 13:6). Those who reject governmental authority reject God’s authority (Rom. 13:2). It is also a limited authority. Those in power hold their power because of God (John 19:10–11) and can be removed by God (Ps. 75:7; Dan. 2:21). Such derived and limited authority is to be exercised for the good of all people (Rom. 13:4). Let us consider three specific ways in which government serves the common good.
Government provides earthly justice and protection.
Civil governments act as God’s agents of justice. Romans 13:4 says, “For he [the magistrate, the government’s representative] is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.” Ultimate justice and vengeance belong to God alone (Deut. 32:35; Ps. 94:1; Rom. 12:19; 1 Thess. 4:6). Yet governments “bear the sword” (Rom. 13:4) and carry out earthly justice against wrong. Romans 13:5 says, moreover, that our subjection to political authorities is not merely “to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience”—that is, obeying the government grants peace not only to those in authority (over us) but also to our conscience (within us).
The largest-scale expression of the power of the sword (Rom. 13:4) is in the waging of war. The clearest Biblical justification for war is in defense of the citizenry from “those who do evil” (1 Pet. 2:14). Various principles can be applied from Scripture concerning the circumstances that justify war.
Governments are to act on behalf of the good of all people (Rom. 13:4).
This is not merely social justice based on secular human rights; it is essentially rooted in the purposeful and gracious creation of humanity by God in his own image (Gen. 1:26–27). It is right, therefore, for Christians to seek to influence governments to protect society’s weakest members, including the poor (Ex. 23:6), foreigners (Ex. 22:21; Deut. 27:19; Zech. 7:10), and the helpless (Ps. 82:3–4). The life of unborn children, in particular, as image bearers of God and as the weakest members of society, ought to be protected. Psalm 139 celebrates the mystery of God’s creative work of generating life in the womb, while other texts in the Bible condemn the harming of unborn human life (Ex. 21:22–23; 2 Kings 8:12; Amos 1:13).
Another realm of governmental protection and stewardship is the care of God’s material creation. Humanity was given the responsibility as caretakers to “work” and “keep” the garden (Gen. 2:15). In recognition that God has created all things (Genesis 1; Ps. 24:1), humans are called to steward the rest of God’s creation, and political leaders are to wisely direct and oversee the proper use of earthly resources.
Government creates social space for the display of good conduct.
God instituted government to establish ordered and peaceful social space where not only is judgment carried out, but good is recognized and encouraged (see 1 Pet. 2:14). Government leaders should not be “a terror to good conduct” (Rom. 13:3). Rather, as Paul states, “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” (Rom. 13:3–4).
This is true for all people but especially for Christians. Ordered and just social spheres should be forums for obedience to the greatest commandment, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matt. 22:37). It is right to desire and seek religious freedom as Christians; however, civil governments should neither compel allegiance to nor forbid the practice of any particular religion, whether Christianity or any other faith. Jesus makes a clear distinction between spiritual and political authority (Matt. 22:21; John 18:36). To be sure, the early church benefited from the legalization of Christianity under Constantine by the Edict of Milan in 313. Arguably, however, the church also lost some of its vitality when the lines between spiritual and political responsibilities became blurred.
Well-ordered social space should also allow for obedience to the second great commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:39). By such love the light of the gospel shines forth through God’s people, and by God’s grace many will be turned “to righteousness” (Dan. 12:3; see Matt. 5:14–16; Eph. 5:8–9). Such neighbor-love, we must always remember, is sustainable only as it is founded in and empowered by God’s love for his people (1 John 4:19).
Government often serves to sanctify Christians.
Throughout world history various governments have been, to greater and lesser degrees, a challenge to Christians and the church. Often these situations have been used toward the sanctification and good of God’s people (see Rom. 8:28). Obedience and disobedience to civil government at their appropriate times are both challenges and opportunities for our blessing and God’s glory.
Christians are called to (1) respect and honor government leaders (Rom. 13:7); (2) be subject to government and obey its laws (Rom. 13:1–5; 1 Pet. 2:13–14); (3) pray for civil leaders (1 Tim. 2:1–2); and (4) pay taxes (Matt. 22:17–21; Rom. 13:6–7).
Our obedience is not in response to the worthiness of the leaders but in joyful submission to the One who is worthy and who calls us to be subject to civil authorities (Rom. 13:1; 1 Pet. 2:13–14). Obedience is not always easy but it can be used as a part of our sanctification.
At times, however, Christians must choose not to obey governments or laws, when such obedience would mean disobedience to God. Clear examples include Daniel’s disobeying the law forbidding prayer to any god or man other than King Darius (Daniel 6); the wise men disobeying Herod’s instructions to tell him of the Christ’s birthplace (Matt. 2:7–12); and Peter’s conviction that “we must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29) when commanded not to preach the gospel. Civil disobedience is justified when authority is exercised in ways contrary to God’s express purposes and commands for his people.
At different times and in various places governmental opposition has sought to crush the church. Such suffering is to be expected and is often a vital part of our sanctification (see Rom. 5:3–5; 2 Cor. 12:9–10). Indeed, many times persecution and martyrdom have actually fueled revival and great spiritual advance as part of God’s wise purposes (see Gen. 50:20; Prov. 19:21).
God Instituted Government for His Glory
All things exist under the sovereignty of God and serve not only the good of people but also God’s ultimate purpose to bring glory to his name (Ps. 115:1–2; Prov. 16:4; Isa. 42:8). Government, too, has been instituted by God not only for the good of humanity but also for the glory of his own name. We can see such glory in both the expression and the limitations of civil government in its universality, sovereignty, and temporality.
Global expression and limitation.
God created the world with incredible diversity and beauty (Genesis 1–2). Such variety in creation displays his power, creativity, and glory (Psalm 8; Rom. 1:20). Similar glory can be seen in the diversity of cultures, languages, and governments. Variety throughout the world in governmental style, form, and function can bring glory to God, as long as the particular government in question is operating within God’s defined purposes for government. The vast global scope of political authorities is astounding.
At the same time, the varied governments of the world have geographic, authoritative, and location-specific limitations. Every attempt at global unification under a single recognized authority has failed and will fail until the global diversity of the nations finds its ultimate purpose in worship of the King of kings and Lord of lords (Ps. 86:9; 1 Tim. 6:15; Rev. 15:4; 19:16).
Sovereign expression and limitation.
The authority and sovereignty of civil government, which is real even if delegated and limited, instructs us about the kingdom, rule, and reign of God. The exercise of power, authority, and judgment, whether just or abusive, encourages a longing in humanity for God’s more perfect kingdom. In the limitations of what government can and cannot do, will and will not do, should and should not do, there is the opportunity for an increased awareness of humanity’s need for God and his Kingship. Where government is unable or unwilling to promote justice, the perfect justice of God remains holy and satisfying (see Ps. 9:7; 103:6; Isa. 16:5; 30:18; Matt. 12:20). Where government is unable or unwilling to exercise power and authority for the good and protection of all people, the omnipotence and mercy of God remain holy and unlike any other authority in the universe (see Job 42:2; Lam. 3:22; Matt. 19:26; 2 Cor. 1:3; Rev. 19:6).
“The nations rage,” “the people plot,” and “the kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and against his Anointed,” but “he who sits in the heavens laughs” (Ps. 2:1–2, 4). God’s kingdom and Christ’s kingdom rule stand in vivid contrast to the kingdoms and nations of the earth, to the glory of God (see Matt. 20:25–28). All earthly authorities will ultimately be superseded by the rule of Christ (see Dan. 2:44; Rev. 22:1–5).
Temporal expression and limitation.
God is sovereign over governments large and small, evil and good, long-lasting and short. “He makes nations great, and he destroys them; he enlarges nations, and leads them away” (Job 12:23; see Ps. 75:7). While every earthly government will one day come to an end, God’s kingdom alone shall never be destroyed and never end (see Dan. 2:44).
Until that day, we who are the people of God are to faithfully fulfill our responsibilities as citizens both of our respective governments and of heaven (Phil. 3:20). Our prayer must be the prayer of Psalm 72:11: “May all kings fall down before him, all nations serve him!” Our message is the gospel message of the kingdom that is to be proclaimed to all nations and until the end comes (Matt. 24:14). Whether our behavior is commended by governments (Rom. 13:3) or we are delivered up “to tribulation,” “hated by all nations,” and put “to death” (Matt. 24:9), we persevere with hope. And we eagerly await the Lord’s return, with passion for the global and eternal worship of Christ that we see mirrored in Revelation 7:9–10:
After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”