Because the teaching of the apostle Paul on civil authority is widely misunderstood and misrepresented, we need to review some basic principles. As we do, we need to remember something that Abraham Kuyper once said: “In any successful attack on freedom the state can only be an accomplice. The chief culprit is the citizen who forgets his duty, wastes away his strength in the sleep of sin and sensual pleasure, and so loses the power of his own initiative.”
So here are 21 principles concerning civil government that the Christian must understand.
“Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God” (Rom. 13:1).
1. Civil government and rule is a blessing from God, and not a necessary evil. “The God of Israel said, the Rock of Israel spake to me, He that ruleth over men must be just, ruling in the fear of God. And he shall be as the light of the morning, when the sun riseth, even a morning without clouds; as the tender grass springing out of the earth by clear shining after rain” (2 Sam. 23:3-4). We are not anarchists.
2. God establishes a righteous throne with majesty. “It is an abomination to kings to commit wickedness: for the throne is established by righteousness” (Prov. 16:12). “And the LORD magnified Solomon exceedingly in the sight of all Israel, and bestowed upon him such royal majesty as had not been on any king before him in Israel” (1 Chron. 25:29; Dan. 4:36).
3. The law of God is the soul of a good ruler. “Moreover thou shalt provide out of all the people able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating covetousness; and place such over them, to be rulers of thousands, and rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens” (Ex. 18:21). Rulers who don’t fear God will try to be God.
4. God requires true humility of His rulers. “That his heart be not lifted up above his brethren, and that he turn not aside from the commandment, to the right hand, or to the left: to the end that he may prolong his days in his kingdom, he, and his children, in the midst of Israel” (Dt. 17:20).
5. Our basic demeanor toward civil rulers should be one of honor. “Honour all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the king” (1 Pet. 2:17). What the kings of the earth bring into the New Jerusalem is not a sham or a pretense (Rev. 21:24).
6. Tyrants love moral corruption, and hate virtuous men. As Chesterton once put it, free love is the first and most obvious bribe to offer a slave. Tyrants therefore love public entertainments and private vices because they love an enervated people. “But I have a few things against thee, because thou hast there them that hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balac to cast a stumblingblock before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication” (Rev. 2:14). Porn is therefore politics, and reveals your true political allegiances.
7. Absolute perfection in our rulers is not the point. “Cast me not away from thy presence; and take not thy holy spirit from me” (Ps. 51:11). David had forfeited his throne, as Saul had done, and he knew it. When Saul’s dynasty fell, it was because the Spirit had departed from him. But God in His mercy allowed David to remain as the king, despite this gross imperfection. And it is said of a number of kings that they were good, like Asa, but that they did not remove the high places (1 Kings 15:14). In Scripture, a king can get a B minus and still be a good and godly king.
8. Tyranny is a judgment from God for the sins of the people. “And he said, This will be the manner of the king that shall reign over you: He will take . . .” (1 Sam. 8:11). But remember that the God who sends tyrants to chastise us may also send a deliverer to save us.
9. Every manner of civil government is under the authority of God. God rules in His own name, and princes rule by derivation. Civil rulers are the lieutenants of God. In Romans 13, the word for deacons is used of them several times (Rom. 13:4). The ruler is therefore an appointed, delegated, and deputized servant.
10. Civil disobedience is required when matters of worship and the gospel are concerned. “But if not, be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up” (Dan. 3:18). “Then Peter and the other apostles answered and said, We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).
11. Civil disobedience is lawful in other areas as well. David honored Saul (1 Sam. 24:5), but did not turn himself in (1 Sam. 24:22). Neither did Peter turn himself in (Acts 12:11), or Paul for that matter (2 Cor. 11:32-33). Examples could be multiplied.
12. Civil government is covenantal, and has a double covenantal nature. It involves God, the magistrate, and the people (2 Chron. 23: 16).
13. No human authority, civil magistrates included, can be absolute. God alone has absolute authority; man’s authority is always limited and bounded. This is what Nebuchadnezzar confessed—after his sanity returned (Dan. 4:35).
14. Not everything that is legal is lawful (Rev. 13:17).
15. Faithful believers will often be accused of lawlessness and treason. Ahab was the troubler of Israel, and so that is what he accused Elijah of being (1 Kings 18:17). But the cause of the trouble is the problem; the solution is not the problem (2 Chron. 23:13).
16. The Bible teaches the principle of the “consent of the governed.” Rehoboam was elected to be king (1 Kings 12:1), and he was no anomaly.
17. The lot of the people and the character of their rulers is linked together. “When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice: but when the wicked beareth rule, the people mourn” (Prov. 29:2).
18. Resistance of tyranny is not the same thing as resistance of the established civil order. Jehoida defended the throne by removing someone from it (2 Chron. 23:11).
19. Lesser magistrates obeyed Jehoida, and they were right to do so (2 Chron. 23:1-3).
20. We must care what company our rulers keep. Panders, whores, flatterers and “other mushrooms of the court” are to be despised. “Take away the wicked from before the king, and his throne shall be established in righteousness” (Prov. 25:5).
21. And last, Christian history matters. Included in our definition of “the powers that be” (Rom. 13:1) must be things like: the Constitution, the will of the people, the lesser magistrates, and the balance of powers.
Originally posted in March of 2010. Slightly edited.
Triune Jehovah has libertarian, small-government preferences. Read I Sam 8, the Israelite constitutional convention, and consider what He gave as reasons to reject a form of government: It would practice eminent domain! It would collect taxes at a rate of 10%! It would practice national service! Is our God big enough to challenge all these? Also read Rom 13 and I Tim 2, and consider how very short the lists of jobs for government to do are: basically, terrorize evildoers so doers of good can in peace pursue whatever goods they choose. (Cf “To preserve these rights, governments are instituted… Read more »
I just finished II Samuel this morning and David was horrified by God’s command to perform a census.
I do not fully understand why David was horrified by it, but I very much appreciate the sentiment.
God did not command the census, David performed it against God’s command, but at God’s provocation.
Joab was concerned by the request; David found it problematic only later.
No, I don’t get the part about God provoking David to do something against His command, either.
The king wasn’t supposed to count up the people in that way, because it was essentially a war census. The king was supposed to rely on God to provide sufficient numbers to fight the right battles, and not be tempted to fight the wrong ones by confidence in a large army.
Thank you Jane.
I will give the last portion of Samuel a re-read with your comment in mind.
I reread it and now see the provocation.
No, I don’t get the part about God provoking David to do something against His command, either.
God’s provocation is typical of His withering sarcasm(?) towards we who rely on our flesh (God talking to Job is another example)
I think of it as a variation of God saying “thy will be done” ; the purpose is the hard lesson David endured that perfected his character.
Where is the command not to take a census?
A census required payment.
Further, David wanted to know the size of his army which in the situation probably was an issue of faith.
God was annoyed at the Israelites for their disobedience so God allowed Satan to tempt David in this area. David did not need to give in to this temptation and Joab warned him against it.
How do you distinguish between rights which the Bible prohibits be funded by threat of prison and rights which the Bible REQUIRES be funded by threat of prison? Food and healthcare are typically put in the former category and police protection, statutory (i.e. random) law creation and enforcement, and dispute resolution are typically put in the latter. But what standard is used to decide which right falls into which category? The Bible doesn’t lay out a specific list for us. Have all societies in history, including in the Bible, that have been able to satisfy one or more of the… Read more »
he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer… For because of THIS you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to THIS VERY THING.
You didn’t answer my question, so let me ask it again: How are societies which fund police protection, law creation, and dispute resolution through voluntarism collectively sinning? Voluntarily paying big dudes with guns to enforce social ostracism by physically preventing certain people (the social outcasts) from entering private property IS wielding the sword, yet involves no actual aggression against innocent people. Does what Paul said not apply to this? If not, why not? Forget whatever previous assertions I’ve made about how all taxation is theft. Just answer this simple question. I think if we’re reasonable here, we can at least… Read more »
One might as well debate the moral implications of riding unicorns.
That could be a somewhat pointed conversation.
Ha! I needed that.
There is, based upon your example, a difference with a distinction. Self-defense, IDOL (in defense of life) in and of itself, does not ordain the defender as a minister of God. He has granted you the authority to act IDOL in emergent situations. He has not authorized you to actively and aggressively pursue and apprehend, with lethal force if needed, those who violate the law. The possession of weapons by your putative “big dudes” is not to enforce the law (as deacons), but for their own (or others) protection if they are threatened with force while maintaining their posts. They… Read more »
I like this very much. It speaks well to the idea of consent and personal responsibility. We consent to submit to authority, we voluntarily surrender some of our will. That truth leads to other unpleasantries, like the fact that we are now responsible for our own actions, our own leadership, what we have set ourselves up to consent “to.” You see this dynamic play out in politics, in marriage, in relationships between men and women. This piece of the puzzle is broken in the world, people have forgotten the nature of power, who grants it and why, and how authority… Read more »
What, then, are the obligations of Christians to governments they don’t consent to?
I think we are instructed to submit and to live to see another day. To obey authorities in a totalitarian situation. It’s a complex situation in a country such as America because we are our government, our gov serves at the consent of the governed. “We” are responsible for creating what we now experience.
An even more challenging question is, what do you do when your brothers and sisters seemed to have jumped the shark and ushered in something you didn’t want?
That’s the same question. 155 years ago my ancestors expressed their non-consent to be governed by Washington in the strongest possible terms. I don’t think anyone can credibly claim that “consent of the governed” is anything other than a pleasant myth since then. There’s no single “we” here.
Of course, had your ancestors been successful that wouldn’t have settled the question either, as many of those over whom your ancestors would have imposed a different authority than Washington did not consent to the proposed change.
Certainly. It’s an idea we’d be better off without.
Could be. Sometimes that leaves us with a question of to which competing claimant to authority we ought to submit. Perhaps once the dust settles we can conclude whoever holds the power was supposed to hold it? (Rhetorical, I’m half musing here – but feel free). It wasn’t academic for a good many Americans 155 years ago. It wasn’t like they were being asked nicely to decide, by either side. Now, if a people join a rebellion against established authority and their side prevails – were they right? Anybody who cares to….
Your wanting the thing or not shouldn’t be the criteria for determining if you will obey governing authorities or not. Perhaps not exactly what you meant?
Also, there’s a lot more possibilities beyond “government by the consent of the governed” and “totalitarianism” — historically, those two cover a very small percentage of actual governments.
There exists more than a few myths and their accompanying idols. One is that we are our government and the idea that we have a Constitution is our opiate. We have the department of energy, the department of education, the department of departments…
The DC Show, brought to you by the Medianites creating popular prejudice and electoral optics.
Was the statue really Zeus? We watch.
And last, Christian history matters.
How does this notion differ from the Catholic Magisterium?
The only argument that I have with this for now is that I think you should have 1 Chronicles 29:25. But you did cause me to spend 20 minutes on 1 Chronicles 25 trying to see your point.
#1. Civil government and rule is a blessing from God, and not a necessary evil. The Fall brought about the curse which was a necessary evil. We had to die and we couldn’t live in paradise because we were broken. So it was right for God to do this. A necessary evil (from our perspective). Civil government may be similar. Would civil government existed outside a fallen race? We have the family made by God. When Christ returns (or if you are postmillennial, when the world is fully discipled) he will reign, though it seems as if the church and… Read more »
If civil government was not a blessing, then it would not be fitting for Jesus to bear the title of King.
The state may be good because we need it. Death is an enemy but death needed to come else man would have made the earth even more diabolical, and death needed to come so that Jesus could die for our sins.
I don’t think you need to have an evil concept of the state to think it was a necessary evil. And I think Revelation shows us that the state does and will attempt to be God, a grievous evil.
#8. Tyranny is a judgment from God for the sins of the people.
I would agree with this if it is taken proverbially. This is the case in Judges. It is variably the case in Kings. And it may not be so in every situation.
#11. Civil disobedience is lawful in other areas as well.
We don’t turn ourselves in if we commit an act that is a crime but is also righteous behaviour.
#12. Civil government is covenantal, and has a double covenantal nature. It involves God, the magistrate, and the people
Don’t know what is meant by double here. 2 covenants?
So 1 between God and the magistrate
And 1 between the magistrate and the people with God as the witness
Need help here.
#14. Not everything that is legal is lawful.
And not everything that is illegal is unlawful.
(Doug is using “lawful” here to refer to God’s rules, not the state’s rules.)
#16. The Bible teaches the principle of the “consent of the governed.”
Going to need convincing of this. There may be some truth in this statement, but if the majority had wanted to get rid of David I believe in attempting to do so they would be sinning
A question for those who honour the Puritans: why was it appropriate for the Puritan Parliament to murder their king, Charles I, when it was not appropriate for David to attack Saul?
Reasonable question. Well, those who honor the Puritans had their chance, now I’ll stick my nose into it, for fun if nothing else. ;) Kind of an aside, but was it appropriate for the Scots to turn their king over to the Puritans? Was Charles I God’s anointed, to rule over God’s people, the way David understood Saul to be? I mean, Saul is specifically identified as such in scripture, Charles I, not so much. Does the history of Old Testament Israel teach us the divine right of kings? In 17th C. Britain was Charles I *the* authority appointed by… Read more »
Well, both David and Saul were anointed as king. Neither Charles I, Cromwell, nor the Rump Parliament were directly designated by God to rule. So I don’t think that directly affects the question. Are you proposing “might makes right” as the rule for legitimacy? I think that’d be a better basis for Christian understanding of government than “consent of the governed”, certainly.
“Are you proposing “might makes right” as the rule for legitimacy? I think that’d be a better basis for Christian understanding of government than “consent of the governed”, certainly.”
‘Might makes right’ is a darwinian/Neitzschean concept how is that better than ‘consent of the governed’ ?
I suppose I was half asking you, and you answered. But no, I don’t think “might makes right” all by itself makes a better basis for Christian understanding of government than consent of the governed, or anything else. Authority is ordained by God, not by man’s might; outcomes arguably provide a basis for just who was the ordained, though I don’t think circumstances are absolutely reliable as indicators. However, if in your understanding might makes right is the basis for legitimate authority, then back to my comment in reference to Cromwell – you can have no beef with him, and… Read more »
We will not have This One rule over us. We have no king but Caesar. Israel seems to have practised the principle. Yes, it may be sinning but what if I apply the principle to sin or the devil as Cain was instructed to do? The principle certainly seems to exist.
#17. The lot of the people and the character of their rulers is linked
“When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice: but
when the wicked beareth rule, the people mourn”
This is also true when the wicked rule over the righteous. It may be more true when the people are righteous than when they are wicked.
#6 is huge in my book. It is not an accident that President Obama has been spending years suing nuns to force them to buy birth control for the promiscuous, and it is not an accident that he illegally modified the workfare requirements from the welfare reform act. People ruled by their glands are not the ones politicians need to worry about.
Meanwhile, Trump has been denounced by the Pope, making him the clear Presbyterian candidate…
Principle #22: DJT4POTUS