Before we get into the nitty gritty of public policy and how Christians should behave in today’s environment, we need to discuss the Christian understanding of the role of government. And because there is no blueprint for politic, we need to understand the purpose of God’s law.
Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. Galatians 3:23,24 ESV
Paul is constantly participating in this tug-a-war between law and gospel, jew and gentile. The image that we see in these verses is that of slavery, giving credence to his description of Christ by comparing his liberating work to that of Moses. By doing this he gives us a better picture of what Christ’s loving work actually accomplished.
To illustrate this a little better, my own management experience may prove relevant. In my experience, there are two general ways to manage people, 1) through fear or 2) through respectful empowerment. With the former, tasks are typically done on time but performance is relatively flat. This makes it incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to move an organization forward in any significant way. If I choose to lead through respectful empowerment, however, my employees buy more into the organization and work to innovate rather than just maintain.
Now for a world filled with selfishness and sin the only way to progress is through love. The law, alternatively, has a very useful purpose, to show us our sin. But when it comes to Kingdom building, the law proves futile because it simply allows you to tread water. While this is better than the alternative, complete destruction, I don’t believe it’s what God has in-store for our future.
So how does the law relate to the government? Take a look at these famous verses from Romans and Titus.
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. Romans 13:1-7 ESV
Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work Titus 3:1 ESV
These are nothing short of law verses in reference to government authorities. How do we know that? The theme is clear, obedience and good works. Government, just like the law, is there to manage this natural selfish chaos. Without it, again like the law, Christ would have never had the ability to do his redemptive work. Government and the law are essentially God’s placeholders until he is able to walk with us for all eternity.
God’s Law vs. Man’s Law – Action Through Government
The biggest difference between the role of government vs the role of the law is the fact that although God commands us to obey our state authority–the made man laws they then enact are not equivalent to God’s law. Naturally, God’s law is superior to man’s law as Peter tells us in Acts 5:29. This only becomes an issue, however, when the laws conflict. Therefore, the government is only God’s placeholder when they obey him, or at least don’t disobey him.
Our direction as God’s image bearers is pretty clear; do loving good work for your neighbors. Kingdom growth is our game, and Jesus gave us the blueprint. There is no clear blueprint, however, for the government. In my view, the best and only way to identify this function is to draw out our comparison to our own image bearing role.
King David gives us our best example of this unique intersection of our own individual role, and how that translates into leadership. When David obeyed God he was rewarded, and when he disobeyed God he was punished. But the rewards and punishments didn’t stop with him. 2 Samuel 12:10 describes one of the punishments imposed on David after his marriage with Bathsheba in which he had her husband killed.
Now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house, because you have despised me and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife.
God is cursing David with a future of bloodshed for him and his family. This punishment, however, does not just affect David, it trickles down to the people of Israel. David was not the only one punished, the entire nation was punished for him as well.
David demonstrates how actions in roles of leadership are magnified. His individual decisions have an impact on all those he leads. Government is not a living being, it is simply an organization full of individuals, bound by a social contract. The number of individuals varies from nation to nation, but in a democracy a piece of that role is allotted to all of us.
So what makes the government’s role different than that of an individual? The simple answer is necessity. We get a picture of the selfish state of the world in Genesis before the flood.
Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw the earth, and behold, it was corrupt, for all flesh had corrupted their way on the earth… Genesis 6:11-12
Without government (and more importantly, a sufficient number of image bearers on earth), society was simply too anarchical for God to make any progress. Unlike us as individuals, the government has the authority to judge, and this likely has a very practical purpose. Some semblance of civility allows our work as individuals to bear fruit.
Returning to the example of David (and other biblical leaders for that matter), judgment is not Governments only function. David’s obedience to the Lord was rewarded, and as a result the people of Israel were rewarded as well. Governments strong authoritarian function, however, does not mean that we can’t still accomplish our work as individuals through government.