A quick overview of Christian notions of civil authority.
This excerpt from previous essays reviews the Biblical principles of government. The questions of whether America is (or was) a “Christian Nation”, and “separation of Church and State” are addressed elsewhere. John Sterling
Regardless of the form of government, whether king, chieftain, monarch, dictator, congress, or committee, the fundamental principles of governance are the same, according to Christian doctrine. Although not universally accepted, most American Christians apprehend that government must act as the influencing force for God’s principles in society and its primary legitimate role is to protect the "rights" and compel the "duties" of its members. The “Christian” view of government, as understood by America’s founders, holds that "rights" were granted by God and were not able to be "alienated" (except by acts of the individual amounting to forfeiture) and these “inalienable” rights were emphatically NOT the creation of the state! Further, one could not possess rights without having a corresponding duty to God. Thus, our duty to render love and obedience to God created a right in our fellow man to expect that performance from us. This was the basis of social order in the Hebrew sense and the apparent understanding of America’s founders, even those who may not have been particularly “religious”.
"A fundamental purpose of the Mosaic polity was the abolition of idolatrous worship, and the substitution in its place, and the maintenance, of true religion in the world." (Rev. E. C. Wines, “Roots of the American Republic”, 1997) Many of the Levitical laws (found in Deut. Exodus, and Leviticus) are difficult to understand unless we understand the historical, social and theological context. Drawing from his research, Rev. Wines concludes in his book that these (and similar difficult to understand verses) would have been absolutely clear to the receiving audience as a specific prohibition against imitating the idolatrous practices of other nations. One may conclude that one of the legitimate functions of the civil government, according to the Bible, is to proscribe behavior which is destructive to the social order and that includes, specifically, idolatrous practices.
Moses wrote in Deuteronomy 17: 14-20 that if the people desired a king over them, the king was not to be an absolute ruler, but would himself be subject to the written law (v. 18-19). Although the Hebrew form of government remained a commonwealth for many years, it eventually changed into a monarchy by the will of the people. In chapters 8 through 10 of I Samuel, the people complained because they had no civil figurehead like the neighboring countries. God told them that such a system of government would result in conscription of the young men for an army, both men and women being pressed into service for logistical support, and a restructuring of the agriculture and the economy to support a shift to a military footing. God instructed His people that the selection of an earthly king to rule over them, after the fashion of their neighbors, would result in a form of idolatry that would be destructive of their society. Nevertheless, the people declared what they wanted so God gave them a candidate by way of the prophet Samuel. After Samuel finished the interview process and presented Saul to the people, they endorsed the new king and Samuel wrote the new Constitution that limited the authority of the king. (1Sam 10:24-25) This process is indicative of all of the principles articulated above. When the people are obedient to God, they select leaders from among themselves whom God anoints. It is an example of a form of representative government, democratically elected by the people and yet constrained by a written constitution.
Attributes of God that are nearly always found in conjunction are RIGHTEOUSNESS and JUDGMENT. Seldom, when reading of the character and nature of God, does the reader find one without the other. Mishpat is the word in the Hebrew language that conveys the sum total of what we understand a just government to be.
The Hebrew understanding was that government was responsible to administer the law, decide the law, and enforce the law, thus fulfilling the legislative, judicial, and executive functions of any legitimate system of social order. In addition, since God possessed all authority, no other authority could exist except as an extension of God. (Ro 13:1) God created man distinct from all other creatures in that man alone possessed the image of God. Man was therefore delegated a certain limited authority by God to have dominion over the creation and to act as God’s moral agent in the administration of an ordered society. (Ge 1:28; 9:2; Ps 8:6; Job 32:8; Ja 3:7)
Given the historical background and the theological framework of the Jewish relationship to God, it is no surprise to see that Jesus does not give much more than a cursory nod to the authority of the Roman rulers. Indeed, it is surprising that so many Christian pastors have apparently missed such an obvious principle as the true nature of authority. A good example of how a biblical passage may be interpreted in conflicting ways is Matthew 17:24-27. The Jewish tax collectors, whose job it was to extract money from their fellow citizens for the Roman Coffers, approached Peter and inquired whether Jesus paid taxes. Peter answered in the affirmative but either he lied, was uncertain or was otherwise troubled by the implications because Jesus thereafter asked him, "What thinkest thou Simon, of whom do the kings of the earth take custom or tribute? Of their own children or of strangers?" (verse 25). When Peter answers that, in the normal course of things, only strangers are obligated to pay taxes, Jesus answers (can you see Him smiling?), "Then are the children free." Momentarily, we will look at what follows in verse 27, for it is rich in truth as well, but, stopping here for moment, let’s identify what Jesus said to Peter. The moral obligation (duty) to pay taxes to the king arises out of one’s relationship to the king. If the person (or system) in POWER (Gr. Dunamis) lacks AUTHORITY (Gr. Exousia), then that person or system is undeserving of support. Since it was commonly understood that ALL authority is held by God and is subject to God (Ro 13:1) and only limited authority is delegated to men to either minister good works or avenge evil doers, (Ro 13:4), then any earthly leader whose POWER exceeds his AUTHORITY is a covenant-breaker. His authority ends at the boundaries of the grant of authority by God. Jesus’ answer to Peter in Mt. 17: 26 seems to suggest that when the basis of the relationship does not conform to the covenant, the person in breach has no legal (or moral) claim to the fruits of that relationship (taxes). Compare this with Romans 13:6-7 where the duty to render support is tied directly to the moral authority of the leadership.
Clearly, the civil ruler, when distinct from any ecclesiastical role, is limited in his jurisdiction to matters of civil administration. Social order is best accomplished when the conduct of individuals within the social framework is regulated to the least degree, and then, only in a way consistent with natural (revealed) law. This view was taught by Sir Edward Coke and later, by Sir William Blackstone and was adopted by virtually all of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.
Romans 13 endorses the concept of civil government, albeit constrained by the doctrines and the precepts of the Creator. The role of the magistrate (civil ruler) is to punish evildoers, executing God’s wrath against those who would pervert His righteousness. For this cause, it is legitimate for citizens to pay taxes. However, the role of the state is limited with regard to how much it can require of its citizens in the regulation of individual liberty. With regard to acts of worship, or any belief, the state has no authority whatsoever! The civil government may never regulate "thoughts" or "beliefs" as these attributes are properly the jurisdiction of the Church. Civil authority is limited in its reach to those acts or conduct that constitute a breach of social order.
In Romans chapter 13, verse 2, the Greek word for "ordinance" is diatage` which most nearly means "institution" or "instrumentality". This would comport most closely with the idea that God has ordained the System of civil government (although not the precise form) through which a society is ordered. In 1Pe 2:13, the Greek word is ktisis which most nearly means (in this context) "the foundation principle." If this verse is to be understood as consistent with Ro 13:2, then Peter has instructed his audience to submit to the basic principles of the law so that Christ will be glorified (". . .for the Lord’s sake"). The word translated as "supreme" in the Greek is huperecho which implies a haughtiness or self- reverence rather than one having legitimate authority. Thus, it would seem a reasonable interpretation that a "good" law (one which flows out the legitimate operation of civil authority) must be obeyed even if it is commanded by a leader who is not operating within his legitimate office. This is quite different than mandating absolute obedience to unrighteous rulers.
SUMMARY: Legitimate authority comes from God alone. Moral obligation to obey the law applies to the leaders and to the people. Whatever duty there may be for the Christian to support the mechanism of the state is tied to the moral legitimacy of the state and, in that context, it is subject to certain constraints and limitations. If the civil government were totally lacking in moral authority, it would be totally undeserving of support. Christians should ponder our proper role in restoring to government the moral legitimacy that God has ordained civil governments should possess as both a function of our moral and civic duty.NOTE: Much of the information presented in this article came from my class notes and material received from Dr. Gary Amos at Regent University in the late 1990’s. Dr. Amos authored “Defending the Declaration”, a book I highly recommend. My understanding of the ideas presented here has also been influenced by Dr. Alan Snyder whose classes I attended at the same time. Dr. Snyder is also the author of several good books on this subject. JAS