What Does the Bible Say About the Role of Government?

Dispensing Justice and Promoting Healing

Are the Government’s Biblical Obligations

by Rev. Paul J. Bern

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This week I want to write about why implementing single-payer national health care is so important, and what the Bible says about that. The passage of so-called “Obama-care” a couple years ago makes this issue worse, not better. All the US government had to do was put the whole country on Medicare, and include all those on Medicaid as well. Then, we could just do away with Medicaid, saving the country roughly $650 billion per year! There is hardly a more controversial political battle in America today than that swirling around the role of government. The ideological sides have lined up, and the arguments rage about the size of government: How big, how small should it be? But I want to suggest that what size the government should be is the wrong question. A more useful discussion would be about the purposes of government and whether America’s is fulfilling them in a Christlike manner. So let’s put the politics to the side for the moment and look at what the Bible has to say about this topic.

The words of the apostle Paul in the 13th chapter of Romans are perhaps the most extensive teaching in the New Testament about the role and purposes of government. Paul says those purposes are twofold: to restrain evil by punishing evildoers and to serve peace and orderly conduct by rewarding good behavior. Civil authority is designed to be “God’s servant to do you good” as it is written: “For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from the fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience.” (Romans 13, verses 3-5, NIV)

Today we might say ‘the common good’ is to be the focus and function of government. The Declaration of Independence defines this as being life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Thomas Jefferson famously said, “The primary function of government is the care and welfare of its citizens”. According to the apostle Paul, the purpose of government is to protect from evil and promote the good, to punish the ‘takers’ while rewarding those who freely give. We are also obligated by law to pay taxes for those purposes. So to disobey, disrespect or circumvent good government is simply not a biblical position. Jesus summed this up very well during his ministry, as it is written: “Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap Him in his words. They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. ‘Teacher’, they said, ‘we know you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are. Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?’ But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, ‘You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used to pay the tax’. They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, ‘Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?’ ‘Caesar’s’, they replied. Then He said to them, ‘Give to Caesar what is Caesar, and to God what is God’s.’ When they heard this they were amazed. So they left Him and went away”. (Matthew 22, verses 15-22)

First, government is supposed to protect its citizens’ safety and security. Crime and violence will always be a real and present danger in this world, and that’s why we have the police, who are meant to keep our streets, neighborhoods, and homes safe. Governments also need to protect their people judicially, and make sure our legal and court systems are procedural, just and fair. The biblical prophets regularly railed against corrupt court decisions and systems, in which the wealthy and powerful manipulate the legal processes for their own benefit and put the poor into greater debt or distress. The prophet Amos speaks directly to the courts (and government) when he says, “Hate evil, love good; maintain justice in the courts” (Amos 5:15 NIV). Again it is written, “Do not deny justice to your poor people in their lawsuits. Have nothing to do with a false charge and do not put an honest or innocent person to death, for I will not acquit the guilty. Do not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds those who see and twists the words of the righteous. Do not oppress an alien; you yourselves know how it feels to be aliens, because you were aliens in Egypt.” (Exodus 23, verses 6-9)

But along with protecting, what should governments promote? The Law of Moses holds kings, rulers, judges, and employers accountable to the demands of justice and fairness, therefore promoting those values. And the Scriptures say that governmental authority is to protect the poor in particular. The biblical prophets are consistent and adamant in their condemnation of injustice to the poor, and frequently follow their statements by requiring the government to act justly. That prophetic expectation applies today to the governments of all lands and peoples. Jeremiah, speaking of King Josiah, said, “He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well.” Psalm 72 begins with a prayer for political leaders and the entire population: “Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to a king’s son. May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice. May the mountains yield prosperity for the people, and the hills, in righteousness. May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor.”

There is a powerful vision here for promoting the common good — a vision of “righteous” prosperity for all the people, with special attention to the poor and to “deliverance” for the most vulnerable and needy, and even a concern for the land. The biblical understanding of justice is that the procedures must be fair and it demands unbiased courts (Exodus 23:2-8; Leviticus 19:15; Deuteronomy 1:17; 10:17-19). Immediately after denouncing Israel and Judah for the absence of justice, the prophet Isaiah condemned the way rich and powerful landowners have acquired all the land by pushing out small farmers when he wrote: “Now I will tell you what I am going to do in my vineyard: I will take away its hedge, and it will be destroyed; I will break down its wall, and it will be trampled. I will make it a wasteland, neither pruned nor cultivated, and briers and thorns will grow there. I will command the clouds not to rain on it. The vineyard of the Lord Almighty is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are the garden of his delight. And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed; for righteousness, but heard cries of distress. Woe to you who add house to house and join field to field till no space is left and you live alone in the land. The Lord Almighty has declared in my hearing: ‘Surely the great houses will become desolate, the fine mansions left without occupants.’ (Isaiah 5:7-9, NIV). It is important to note that even though in this text the prophet does not say the powerful acted illegally, he nevertheless denounces the unfair outcome.

The real truth is that fair outcomes do not always match equal outcomes. The historical attempts by many communist governments to create equal outcomes in terms of social and economic status have dramatically shown the great dangers of how the concentration of power in a few government hands leads to totalitarian results. The theological reason for that is the presence and power of sin, and the inability of such fallible human creatures to create social utopias on earth. Yet the biblical prophets do hold their rulers, courts, judges, landowners and employers (even slave owners!) accountable to the values of fairness, justice, and even mercy. The theological reasons for that are, in fact, the same: the reality of evil and sin in the concentration of power — both political and economic — and the need to hold that power accountable, especially for the protection of the poor and the sick. So fair outcomes, and not necessarily equal ones, are the goal of governments. Governments should provide a check on powerful people, institutions, and interests in the society that, if left unchecked, might run over their fellow citizens, the economy, and certainly the poor. And coming to a better moral balance in achieving fiscal responsibility, while protecting the poor, should be a bipartisan effort. The radically anti-government ideology of the current right wing Tea Party/Republican ideology is simply contrary to a more biblical view of government. The need for checks and balances, the sinfulness of too much concentrated power in either the government or the market, and the responsibilities we have for serving the common good, are all the Biblical definitions of good and just government. Anything less is the same as poking your finger in God’s eye.

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