By Peter Amsterdam
January 15, 2019
(Points for this article are taken from Christian Ethics,1 by Wayne Grudem)
As we saw in the previous article,2 believers are commanded to honor their father and mother. Whatever age we are, from child to adult, we are called to give honor and respect to our parents. How that honor is shown changes as we grow older, but it should always be there in the appropriate form.
Besides the honor which the fifth commandment teaches us to give our parents, the same commandment also addresses another authority we are obliged to honor and obey in the form of civil government, also known as the state.
State government evolved over time from family government. In the earlier part of the Old Testament, the nuclear family was the basis of authority, with the husband over the wife and the parents over the children. In the time of the patriarchs’ extended families, the authority structure fell under the senior males or patriarchs. For example, Abraham watched over the family of his nephew Lot, along with his own.
When Jacob (later called Israel) moved with his family to Egypt, they grew and prospered, eventually becoming too numerous to be subject to a single patriarch. At that time, the sons of the children of Jacob became heads of clans.3 After God delivered the children of Israel from the slavery of Egypt, Moses, following his father-in-law Jethro’s advice, set up judges over “thousands,” “hundreds,” “fifties,” and “tens.” As the ruler over the whole nation, Moses ordained others to help solve problems and make judgments at various levels. While this wasn’t an official government, it was a form of governing—a structure for solving problems which arose among the people.
Much earlier in Scripture, we find some basis for civil government at least in the sense of meting out retribution for the heinous crime of murder. When Noah and his family exited the ark after the flood, God declared that the punishment for the crime of murder would be death.
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.”4
While there was no government at that point in Scripture, the concept of human beings carrying out the ultimate punishment (death) in retribution for the ultimate crime (murder) was established. This laid a foundation for the concept of punishment for crimes in general. (Later, according to the Mosaic Law, a family member of a murdered person would be the one to take the life of the murderer. This person was called the avenger of blood, which comes from the Hebrew word go’el, meaning “next of kin.” If, however, a person killed another without intent, what is known today as manslaughter, they could flee to a city of refuge where their life could not be taken by the avenger of blood until he stands before the congregation for judgment.5)
The book of Judges (chapters 17–21) contains stories of terrible things people did within Israel during the time when there was no functioning government. Within those chapters, four times we read that because there was no king (governing authority), there was anarchy.
In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.6
With no king/government in place, individuals were able to do what they wanted, and as sinners they chose to continuously do evil. (The books of 1 and 2 Kings and 1 and 2 Chronicles, which follow the book of Judges, describe a time in Israel’s history when there was a more structured government.)
One of the purposes of government is to punish those who break the law, as well as protect and benefit those who follow it. Rulers are supposed to judge fairly, according to the law; defend the weak and those who are unable to defend themselves; and punish those who harm others.
The concept of government as a body to legitimately punish wrongdoers, and such punishment acting as a deterrent to wrongdoing, is also found in the New Testament. The apostle Paul wrote:
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.7
From this passage we understand that:
1. God has ordained government and given it authority. Jesus expressed this concept when He said to Pontius Pilate, the governor of Judea, You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above.8
2. Governments are meant to restrain evildoers through the threat of punishment. Those who do wrong should be afraid of authorities, as when they enforce the law and punish lawbreakers, they are acting on God’s behalf.
3. Civil rulers give “approval” to those who do good. They promote good conduct and encourage and reward behavior which contributes to the common good of society.
4. Government officials are servants of God in that when they punish evil and promote good, they are acting as the servant of God for your good. Paul was making the point that in general, the institution of civil government is good, and if it rewards good and punishes evil, it should generally be seen as a blessing from God. However, this doesn’t mean that everything everyone in government does is right, as people who work in the governments of this world are sinners like the rest of us and they can do evil, and be unjust and corrupt. In both the Old and New Testaments, God’s prophets rebuked rulers. Over and over we read that Old Testament kings did what was evil in the sight of the LORD.9 In the New Testament, John the Baptist rebuked King Herod for all the evil things that Herod had done.10 (There are times when it is legitimate for the citizens of a country to disobey and even remove a government. This will be addressed in an upcoming article.)
5. Government authorities are responsible to punish wrongdoers. They are an agent of punishment that carries out the appropriate penalty for the wrong done. At the end of Romans chapter 12, Paul stated, Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”11 Paul was stating here that Christians aren’t to take personal vengeance on those who wrong them, but rather should allow the person to be punished by the “wrath of God.” In chapter 13, he called the ruler (the government) an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.12 The government is responsible to punish wrongdoers and is the God-ordained means for doing so.
The apostle Peter made a similar point about Christians being subject to legal authorities:
Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.13
Like Paul, he taught that governments are tasked with administering punishment as retribution to those who break the law as well as promoting the common good.
Some wonder if punishing lawbreakers stands in opposition to Jesus’ command, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.14 The Greek term translated as “slaps you” refers to a slap with the back of the right hand to the right cheek, which in those times was specifically meant as an insult. Jesus was referring to personal situations, making the point that one should take an insult without retaliating. The concept of turning the other cheek has to do with personal conduct, not with the responsibility of government to punish wrongdoers.
Christians have a responsibility to be subject to the government in the country where they live. However, they are not responsible to obey the government when it directs them to act in a manner which would cause them to disobey a commandment of God. For example, in the book of Daniel three Jewish men—Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego—refused the command to bow down and worship a statue,15 as it would have caused them to disobey the second commandment, You shall not make for yourself a carved image … You shall not bow down to them or serve them.16 Their refusal resulted in them being thrown into a fiery furnace; however, God protected them, showing His approval of their decision to disobey a command which would have meant disobeying Him. In the New Testament, we read of the apostles defying the commands of the Jewish religious authorities when they were told to stop speaking about Jesus.17
Throughout Scripture, we read of God’s people living peaceably with the civil governments where they resided, except when the government instituted laws which contravened God’s laws or instruction. The Hebrew midwives disobeyed Pharaoh’s command to kill all of the male newborns.18 Esther broke the law by coming into the presence of King Ahasuerus without an invitation in order to save the Jews.19 Daniel prayed to God, breaking a law which prohibited anyone from praying to any god other than the king for thirty days.20 Jesus commanded His disciples to preach the gospel;21 and when the captain of the Jewish temple and the chief priests heard the disciples preaching, they brought them before the Jewish authorities, and the high priest said, We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching. Peter and the other apostles answered, We must obey God rather than men.22
As believers, we are to be subject to civil government and obey its laws, providing they do not require us to disobey God and that the government isn’t committing crimes against its citizens. A government which becomes tyrannical, ruling unjustly with absolute power, cruelly insisting on complete obedience and harshly punishing those who don’t obey, may no longer be a legitimate government, and the people living under such tyranny may have the right to rebel.
Not every form of legitimate government is the same, and some forms are better than others; yet overall, humanity is better served living under the laws of civil government than living in anarchy, because government restrains evildoers and promotes good conduct, thereby contributing to the common good of society. While governments aren’t perfect, and as citizens we may disagree with some or many of the policies of the government under which we live, generally speaking, we should thank God for the blessing of human government.
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
1 Wayne Grudem, Christian Ethics (Wheaton: Crossway, 2018).
3 These are the heads of their fathers’ houses: the sons of Reuben, the firstborn of Israel: Hanoch, Pallu, Hezron, and Carmi; these are the clans of Reuben. The sons of Simeon: Jemuel, Jamin, Ohad, Jachin, Zohar, and Shaul, the son of a Canaanite woman; these are the clans of Simeon (Exodus 6:14–15).
4 Genesis 9:5–6.
5 Numbers 35:12.
6 Judges 17:6. Also Judges 18:1, 19:1, 21:25.
7 Romans 13:1–6.
8 John 19:11.
9 I counted this phrase, in reference to Hebrew kings, 42 times within the books of 1 & 2 Kings and 1 & 2 Chronicles.
10 Luke 3:19.
11 Romans 12:19.
12 Roman 13:4.
13 1 Peter 2:13–14.
14 Matthew 5:39.
15 Daniel 3:13–30.
16 Exodus 20:4–5.
17 Acts 4:15–20.
18 Exodus 1:17, 21.
19 Esther 4:16.
20 Daniel 6:7.
21 Matthew 28:19.
22 Acts 5:27–29.