What Does God Expect of Governments?The Bible has much to say about the roles and responsibilities of governments. The expectations and guiding principles for good government are clear and constant.
Part Two of a series of three webitorials on the relationship of believers with government.
We begin with the acknowledgement that God established the institution of civil government (see Genesis 4:15). A mark was placed on Cain. The purpose was to prevent anarchy. In biblical times the political jurisdictions were nations and peoples, not states in the modern sense. Therefore the main focus is on judges administering God’s laws. Later on kings rook over.
… in the Old Testament alone there are more than 100 admonitions for governments to rule justly.
In Romans 13:1 we are told that “there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.”
Many biblical writers have addressed this topic. As we review these passages of the Bible we get to read the mind of God concerning governments. For example, in the Old Testament alone there are more than 100 admonitions for governments to rule justly.
- “The Lord looked and was displeased that there was no justice” (Isaiah 59:15).
- “Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and rob my oppressed people of justice” (Isaiah 10:1 – 2).
- There are very clear, very specific, and very forthright assessments.
- Why do the Old Testament writers focus so extensively on justice? Because governments were generally exploitative, because many kings in Israel and Judah were unjust, and because the people of Israel were themselves often the victims of injustice. In addition it must be noted that governments in ancient times carried out very few positive activities and focused almost entirely on security and justice issues.
In the New Testament we also encounter statements describing what governments should do. The clearest and most comprehensive description is found in Romans 13:1 – 7.
The general biblical mandate given to governments, the specific prescriptions for government activity, and the expectations of government apply to all rulers. This is an amazing reality because God specifically does not mandate the same ethical expectations for non-Christian individuals as for Christians. For individuals there is differentiation; for governments not.
The basic theological perspectives
- God’s “eyes watch the nations” (Psalm 66:7).
- “…Woe to the Assyrian [king], …his purpose is to destroy, to put an end to many nations….I will punish the king of Assyria for the willful pride of his heart and the haughty look in his eyes….” (Isaiah 10:5 – 12).
- God Jehovah says of the ungodly King Cyrus, “He is my shepherd and will accomplish all that I please;…This is what the Lord says to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I take to subdue nations before him…I will go before you and lead you….I call you by name and bestow on you a title of honor though you do not acknowledge me,…” (Isaiah 44:28 – 45:15).
- God Jehovah punished Pharaoh of Egypt for not acceding to Moses’ requests. In part Pharaoh acknowledges God’s request. “Pharaoh said, ‘The Lord be with you [but] have only the men go and worship the lord, since that’s what you have been asking for’” (Exodus 6:1ff).
- The prophet Jeremiah speaks for God Jehovah to King Jehoiakim, King of Judah, “’But you did not listen to me’, declares the Lord, ‘and you have provoked me….Because you have not listened to my words, I will summon all the peoples of the north and my servant Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon’, declares the Lord, ‘and I will bring them against this land and its inhabitants….’” (Jeremiah 25:7 – 9).
- The prophet Elijah has harsh words for the ungodly King Ahab: “You have abandoned the Lord’s commands….” (I Kings 18:18).
- “But you…, O Belshazzar, have not humbled yourself…. Instead, you have set yourself up against the Lord of heaven…,you did not honor the God who holds in his hands all your life and all your ways. Therefore he sent the hand that wrote the inscription….’God has numbered the days of your reign and brought it to an end. You have been weighed in the scales and found wanting. Your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians” (Daniel 5:22 – 30).
Government or state and the Christian church are two agencies established by God, they both serve God but in different ways. They have differing mandates, partly differing ethical directives, and differing goals. Governments are servants of God, they are his agents (see Romans 13:1 – 7). This is the case whether or not the rulers are Christians and whether or not they acknowledge their servanthood.
… God wants governments to rule, to take their trust very seriously.
In various biblical passages we find the qualities God looks for in rulers. For example, Exodus 18:15 – 26 describes Moses’ expectations for judges. The judges, who had a broad mandate, should be “capable,” knowledgeable about “decrees and laws”, God-fearing, “trustworthy”, “men who hate dishonest gain.”
Dimensions of God’s general mandate for governments
Governments are established by God to rule, to govern, to lead, to maintain an enlightened perspective!
It has been said that for some politicians the guiding leadership axiom is “If it’s going to happen, be for it!” Good governments lead, they do not merely follow. They are not swept off their feet. As needed, they provide a moderating, stable influence. A December 10, 1941 public opinion poll in the US discovered that three days after the Pearl Harbor attack, 67 percent of the US population favored unqualified and indiscriminate bombing of Japanese cities. Fortunately cooler and wiser government heads prevailed.
The many biblical exhortations for governments to rule wisely and ethically certainly imply that God wants governments to rule, to take their trust very seriously. At times governments need to increase intervention in society, at times they need to decrease it. But they should not adopt President Nixon’s assertion that “Every time a law is passed, you lose a little freedom!” That is simply not always true!
Governments have a mandate to uphold the public interest, the public good. Special interest groups and the privileged sectors in society should not get preferred treatment (see Isaiah 10:1 – 2).
Governments need to see their role as a trust
The reasons for adopting such a stance are rooted in both theology and political logic. God created the institution of government to serve society, not to serve the interests of rulers. Similarly, in mature political situations the locus of authority and power lies in the office, not in the rulers of the day. The incumbents, at any given time, are only the office-holders temporarily entrusted with exercising the powers of the office. Rulers, thus, serve as trustees.
Governments, when true to their calling, should be committed to the establishment and maintenance of free societies. The emphasis on freedom and choice runs like a red thread throughout the Bible, beginning with the choice Adam and Eve faced to choices describe in the book of Revelation.
Joshua challenged the people of Israel, “choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve”. (Joshua 24:15). In Proverbs 8:10 people are told “to choose my instruction instead of silver.” In 2 Corinthians 3:17 we read that “where the spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”
Being committed to freedom does not mean that there will be no limits to freedom. As the jurist Robert Bork has put it, “liberty can only be ‘the space between the walls’, the walls of morality and law based upon morality. It is sensible to argue about how far apart the walls should be set, but it is cultural suicide to demand all space and no walls.”
Moral dimensions of God’s mandate for governments
Governments ought to uphold, promote and practice integrity and honesty. There must be no acceptance of bribes. Some ill-intentioned wag has spread the rumor that “Ottawa has the best politicians that money can buy.” To which another wag replied, “No, we have them in BC.”
God speaks candidly about such matters. “Do not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds those who see and twists the words of the righteous” (Exodus 23:8).
“By justice a king gives a country stability, but one who is greedy for bribes tears it down” (Proverbs 29:4).
In Daniel chapter 6 we read that Daniel’s critics tried to find fault with this God-fearing ruler’s governance, “in his conduct of government affairs, but they were unable to do so.” In frustration they concluded that “We will never find any basis for charges against this man Daniel unless it has something to do with the law of his God” (4 – 5). Daniel was a godly ruler who exemplified integrity and honesty.
In Micah 7:3 we read that “the ruler demands gifts, the judge accepts bribes.” God’s requirement of government in this respect is unequivocal.
A key moral expectation of God-pleasing governments is that they respect and uphold human dignity. Human beings are not merely the highest form of animal life. Every human being is ”made in the image of God.” (Genesis 1:26 – 27). And every person’s soul is described as being worth more than the whole physical world. (see Matthew 16:26).
In Canada respect for human dignity was not upheld when from May 23 until July 23, 1914, 376 British subjects with brown skin, aboard the Komagata Maru, were denied entry to Canada because of their brown skin and finally forced to sail back to India. Nor was it upheld in 1939 when some 900 desperate Jews, fleeing for their lives, were turned back from ports on Canada’s east coast because they were Jews. They returned to Nazi Germany and Hitler’s extermination gas chambers. One can also cite the mistreatment of native Canadians in boarding schools and the fact that slaves were sold at the Toronto slave market until 1806.
Fortunately, we can also cite a vast number of instances in which Canadian governments have practiced high respect for human dignity. One can cite welfare policies, the country’s stellar example in accepting refugees, the welcome extended to the Vietnam Boat People in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and much more.
Governments are called to promote public morality
In the Old Testament numerous judges, kings and other governmental officials are chastised for the immorality they themselves practiced or that they condoned.
… God and government consistently seek to reduce evil in society...
In the New Testament John the Baptist challenged King Herod about his adultery, a challenge which cost him his life (see Matthew 14:1 – 12).
In our day this call for governments to uphold and promote morality encounters many problems. What should governments do concerning issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage, and polygamy if judges want to legitimize such practices and such practices are backed by majority public opinion? As I see it, the challenge for governments concerning such matters is to educate the public about the consequences of such decisions and to reduce the negative results as much as possible. God allows people to make wrong moral choices and to a large extent governments must do likewise but both God and government consistently seek to reduce evil in society and in the world.
Governments have a mandate to serve the public, “to do you good” as we read in Romans 13:4.
Rulers are called to practice humanitarianism
One list of components of humanitarianism is found in Matthew 25:31 – 46: giving food to the hungry, giving water to the thirsty, practicing hospitality toward the stranger, clothing the naked, looking after the sick, and addressing the needs of people in prison.
In Deuteronomy 15:4 we read: “there should be no poor among you.”
In Proverbs 14:31 we read that “He who oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God.”
In Isaiah 1:23 rulers are severely criticized because “they do not defend the cause of the fatherless; the widow’s case does not come before them.”
The Psalmist makes a similar case. “Defend the cause of the weak and the fatherless; maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked” (Psalm 82:3 – 4).
While the record is less impressive than it might be, governments in Canada have come a long way in promoting and implementing humanitarian values. One can point to the Family Allowance program introduced in 1945, Canada’s first universal social assistance program. One can point to other social assistance programs such as pensions for seniors, for the disabled, for the blind, and for other needy groups. Decent treatment of the destitute and the marginalized is a central Christian virtue but it is also a mark of moral people who claim a different faith or no faith.
It is wrong for a government to adopt policies which make the rich richer and the poor poorer. It is wrong for a government to ignore urgent needs. The biblical teaching is clear in such matters. It is not coincidental that the governments which have done the most to assist the destitute and the needy in foreign countries are those who rule in countries where Christianity is the dominant religion. Being other-oriented and service–oriented, even globally, lies at the heart of Christian ethics.
Given what is happening in our time, we are well advised to add care for the environment to the category of service provided for the public. While the biblical text does not specifically address this issue, we read that Adam was instructed to “take care” of God’s creation (see Genesis 2:15). We also read that the people of Israel were to treat the land well and to give it times of rest (see Leviticus 26:34 – 35).
While the wording may have had a fairly narrow meaning, it is interesting to note God Jehovah telling His people “Do not pollute the land where you are” (Numbers 35:33).
Government has a God-given mandate concerning justice and security matters
The clamor for justice is universal and timeless. Governments have the responsibility to maintain law and order.
In the general mandate spelled out in Romans 13, the assertion is clear. The ruler “is God’s servant, an agent of wrath, to bring punishment on the wrongdoer” (verse 4). Traditionally, conservative-oriented people are more inclined to support law and order policies. Incidentally, do you know the definition of a conservative? It has been said that “A conservative is a liberal who has been mugged!”
Upholding justice in the courts is centrally important in God’s eyes. The citations are numerous. I cite a few examples. It is noteworthy that in the description of various categories of punishment, God prescribes the most severe punishment for “The man who shows contempt for the judge…” (Deuteronomy 17:12). The structures of governance and law must be respected.
“Do not deny justice to your poor people in their lawsuits. Have nothing to do with a false charge and do not put an innocent or honest person to death” (Exodus 23:6 – 7).
“Do not exploit the poor because they are poor and do not crush the needy in court” (Proverbs 22:22).
“To show partiality in judging is not good; whoever says to the guilty, ‘You are innocent” – peoples will curse him and nations denounce him. But it will go well with those who convict the guilty, and rich blessing will come upon them” (Proverbs 24:23 – 25).
When Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for their wickedness one of his key charges was that “you neglect justice” (Luke 5:42). Justice concerns were central to government activity in ancient times because governments had few positive roles and very limited service functions. The quality and adequacy of a government was therefore determined largely by the quality of its system of justice.
Government has a responsibility concerning finances and taxation
Government has the right to tax its people. “Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?…Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” (Matthew 22:17 – 21). I can give no support to any tax-withholding movement.
Taxation must be fair and honest. When some tax collectors encountered John the Baptist they asked him, “Teacher…what should we do?” Given that in those days tax collectors had a notorious reputation because they collected too much tax money and pocketed the surplus, these questioners, who said that they wanted to be baptized, likely wondered whether they should change jobs. But John said to them, “Don’t collect any more than you are required to.”
Jesus clearly impressed the wealthy chief tax collector, Zacchaeus, concerning the godly requirement to be fair and just. Zacchaeus’s conscience must have troubled him sorely for he said, “Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount” (Luke 19:2, 5 – 8). That civil servant must have had a keen memory and substantial assets.
Interestingly, God seems to intend that governments should strive for economic success. Speaking to elders, priests and prophets who found themselves to be exiles, Jeremiah spoke these words which he received from “the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel….seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you…Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (Jeremiah 29:4 – 7).
Governments have international interests and responsibilities
The call for peace and the challenge to be peacemakers runs throughout the Bible, especially in the New Testament. Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God” (Matthew 5:9).
Even rulers who do not believe in the God of the Bible are held accountable.
In Psalm 122:6 – 7 we read, “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem; may those who love you be secure. May there be peace within your walls and security within your citadels.”
“Seek peace and pursue it” (Proverbs 34:14).
Governments and citizens are urged to treat aliens and immigrants fairly and with generosity. Exodus 23:9 tells us: “Do not oppress an alien; you yourselves know how it feels to be aliens, because you were aliens in Egypt.” Similarly, Deuteronomy 10:19 states: “And you are to love those who are aliens, for you yourselves were aliens in Egypt.”
Governments must acknowledge their accountability
Governments are accountable to the people. In ancient times the masses generally had virtually no political influence but we do find many statements reminding rulers that they govern for the people, not for themselves. We also find a few instances which describe how the people impacted or even determined political matters. A classic instance is the selection of Saul, the first king of Israel.
After the leaders of the people clamored to have a king, God acquiesced. The Lord spoke to Samuel, the head judge. “And the Lord told him, ‘Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected as their king, but me’” (I Samuel 8:7).
In I Samuel 8:22 we read that “The Lord answered, ‘Listen to them and give them a king’.” Governments are accountable to God. Proverbs 8:15 – 16 states: “By me kings reign and rulers make laws that are just; by me princes govern and all nobles who rule on earth.”
Psalm 2:10 – 11 addresses rulers: “Therefore, you kings, be wise; be warned, you rulers of the earth. Serve the Lord with fear and rejoice with trembling.”
Psalm 72:8, in a classic statement says “He shall have dominion also from sea to sea….” (KJV) This statement has special meaning for Canadians, it is etched in the Parliament Building.
Habakkuk 2:12 observes, “Woe to him [a ruler] who builds a city with bloodshed and establishes a town by crime.” That’s denunciation for at least one type of urban crime.
Even rulers who do not believe in the God of the Bible are held accountable. Referring to King Belshazzar, ruler of Babylon, the prophet Daniel writes: “…you have set yourself up against the Lord of heaven.…you did not honor the God who holds in his hand your life and all your ways….God has numbered the days of your reign and brought it to an end” (Daniel 5:23 – 26).
Although modern era-related specifics may be lacking, the Bible has much to say about the roles and responsibilities of governments. The expectations and guiding principles are clear and they are constant. The principles and ethical guidelines spelled out in the Bible are intended to provide good government for the people; they are not given for the benefit of those who rule.
These principles and guidelines, emanating from the Lord of lords and King of kings, (see Revelation 17:14) apply to all governments in all political jurisdictions and for all times.
In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the place of government ranks very high. In fact, when God describes His exalted status, He repeatedly describes Himself in political and governmental terms. He is the Lord of lords and the King of kings. Christian rulers, in fact, all rulers and governments should understand the implications of that designation.
This webitorial is based on Dr. John Redekop’s book Politics Under God, Herald Press, 2007.
Politics Under God
“Dr. John Redekop provides a timely and passionate primer on politics, citizenship, and the relationship between church and state from a Christian perspective.”— Bruce Clemenger, President, The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada.
John H. Redekop Ph.D., is D. Hum. (hon.) Ottawa, Laurentian Leadership Centre.
What Does God Expect of Citizens?
Can Civil Governments Function According to Christian Ethics?
Used with permission. Copyright © 2009 Christianity.ca.