Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Biblical government

For my devotions this morning I was reading Romans 13.  I've been working my way through Romans and today I just happened to get there -- I didn't go seeking this chapter out especially.  But what a lot this chapter has to say about the origin and function of government!  I would encourage every American Jesus-follower to read this chapter and ponder it repeatedly over the next few weeks.  This would be an excellent way to ground yourself in God's word before our upcoming elections.

Now, let me say a word first of all about the "separation of church and state."  Though our Constitution does not use this language, nor does the Bill of Rights, I recognize the basic principle here as something that is set up by our First Amendment.  The language there actually says,

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

So what does it mean that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof?  In context, this language ensures two things:  First, that the United States does not have an official religion like so many countries in Europe had at that time.  The U.S. government is run separately from the exercise of religious freedom.  Second, the government is to keep its hands off religious freedoms.  The U.S. is designed to be a country where people have legal freedom to choose their religious participation and practice.  Some countries in Europe had been experimenting with this concept of religious freedom for a few decades leading up to the writing of the U.S. Constitution, but the concept of religious freedom was still largely untried.

Interestingly enough, the issue of "separation of church and state" -- language that comes not from the Constitution but from a letter by Thomas Jefferson -- comes up these days when we think government is favoring one religious practice or institution over the others.  Note that this is not the concern of the First Amendment.

Okay, before we get too far down that road, what about Romans 13?  We should point out that Romans was not written under the authority of a government allied with Christianity.  Quite the opposite, in fact.  The government in Rome had all kinds of official religion, from the worship of the pagan gods to the religious tribute given to the Roman emperors, most notably Caesar Augustus who had been dead for decades but who was worshiped at this time as a god.  (At the time of the writing of Paul's letter to the Romans, people didn't worship the current Roman emperor; that practice came about a few decades later.)  In Romans 13 Paul makes a few salient points.

1. Governments are instituted by God.  They receive their authority from God.  This means that those who serve God should overall be obedient to the existing governments.

2. Governments have a legitimate interest in the good conduct of their citizens.  They exist to punish wrongdoers so as to limit lawlessness and keep basic order for the good of all.

3. Governments use physical means, including violence, against wrongdoers.  They "bear the sword" in order to keep a basic sense of peace in the face of those who would break the law.

4. Governments have a legitimate need to levy taxes upon their citizens, and those who serve God are obliged to pay their taxes.  Along with the obligation to pay taxes, those who serve God recognize our call to give honor and respect to our governing authorities.

5. Interestingly enough, Paul calls the governing authorities "ministers of God."  Since Paul sees God as sovereign over all creation, governments are instituted to serve God's purposes.  This does not mean that the emperor (or president) should be a Christian.  Such a thought would have been far from (though not inconceivable to) Paul's mind.  Rather, "ministers" here means servants.  So the same idea is in 13:4 and 13:6 -- that the governing authority is God's servant, quite possibly without recognizing it himself or herself, to do the basic function of government -- that is, to keep order.

So what does this mean for us?

Lately I've been watching the new NBC show, "Revolution."  This is a post-apocalypse sci-fi show in which all electronic technology has ceased to function.  Governments fall and chaos ensues.  People kill each other for food and for the most basic of needs, and anarchy reigns.  Very soon after, warlords arise -- much like what has happened in Somalia, Afghanistan and many other places -- and through their militias, they keep basic order, even if it is brutish and unpleasant.  There are interesting undercurrents in the show about the role of government and the need for basic order.

Note that the words of Romans 13 are not just written to Jesus-followers with amazing freedoms like we have today; they are also written to Jesus-followers in places like mainland China, where it is a crime to be part of an unregistered church and registered churches are carefully limited by the government.  These words apply to believers in England, where church attendance is around 3%, and to believers in Kazakhstan, where speaking about Jesus in order to convert another person is a criminal offense.

We are called to honor the government, and the government is instituted by God to keep basic order, bearing the sword for the peril of the evildoer.  Note that the government is not called to follow Jesus, at least not according to Paul in Romans 13.  The government serves God by serving the basic needs of its citizens for order.  You can add a lot of stuff into the category of "basic order."  Roads and bridges.  Police and fire fighters.  Basic legal structure.  Some sort of care for the most needy to prevent them from turning criminal.

One interesting political discussion in this election year is this:  How much of a "safety net" do we need our government to provide for the sake of good order?  Both Republicans and Democrats (and Libertarians, for that matter) recognize the need for a government to keep good order.  The larger question is, how much should government go beyond that basic task?

Romans 13 says little or nothing about this.  What do you think?

1 comment:

  1. Interesting. Neither the Bible nor the United States constitution get very specific - (probably intentionally). Both are remarkably similar.

    The US constitution lists only three primary responsibilities of the federal government:
    1) Ensure domestic tranquility;
    2) Provide for a common defense;
    3) promote the general welfare.

    Paul, in Romans 13, also mentions three:
    1) Punish wrong doers;
    2) Bear the sword;
    3) Collect taxes and make laws.

    The devil is in the details. When have we attained the general welfare? How many swords do we need?

    For everything I dis-like about our current two-party government, it does provide a tension that seems to balance those three primary tasks reasonably well. It would be nice if we could figure out a way to conduct the work of government in a more civil and honest manner. (I do like your idea of "honesty bells" during political debates.)

    At a personal level, I think our society expects too much from government. We need to get back to Kennedy's "ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." Individually, each of us must our desire for "rights" with an acceptance of "responsibilities".

    Thanks again for the post.