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Bridgeway Bible Dictionary


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God is the supreme ruler of the world and he desires that all countries be governed orderly and justly. He is the source of all authority and he has given to governments, as his representatives on earth, the authority to administer society (Jeremiah 27:5; Daniel 4:17; John 19:11). Citizens therefore have a responsibility to obey the laws of their country (Romans 13:1-2; cf. Jeremiah 29:4-7). Christians share in this responsibility. Since they know that the authority of government comes from God, they should give their obedience willingly (Romans 13:5; 1 Peter 2:13-15).

The role of government

Two of the basic functions of civil government are to promote the well-being of society and to restrain wrongdoing in society. God has given to governments the right to reward good conduct and punish wrongdoing (Romans 13:4). Governments exist for the benefit of the people, and should want to control affairs so that citizens can live peacefully and contentedly (1 Timothy 2:1-2).

Christians are taught to cooperate with the government in pursuing these goals, and at the same time to maintain their loyalty to God (Mark 12:17; Romans 13:5-7; Titus 3:1; 1 Peter 2:17). They have a duty to pay taxes to the government for the benefits they receive from it, and a duty to be loyal to God because of all he has done for them (Luke 20:25; Romans 13:6-7).

Tensions will arise, however, when the ruling authorities pass laws that are unjust or anti-God. The only obligation to absolute obedience that God’s people have is obedience to God. They may find that if they are to maintain their loyalty to him, they have to disobey the government. As a result they may suffer penalties (Daniel 3:8-12; Daniel 6:13; Daniel 6:16; Matthew 10:18; Acts 5:29; Acts 5:40; 1 Peter 4:12-16). If that is the case, they must, like Christ, accept suffering without retaliation, praying for their persecutors and committing their cause to God (1 Peter 2:20-23; cf. Exodus 3:7; Daniel 3:16-18; Luke 6:28; Luke 23:34; 1 Timothy 2:1-2; see PERSECUTION).

At the same time God’s people should be concerned about the government’s behaviour. At times they may decide to speak and act in support of the principle of justice that the government is supposed to administer (Isaiah 3:14; Isaiah 5:22-23; Micah 3:1-3; Acts 16:35-39; Acts 22:25; Acts 25:10-11).

The sort of response that God’s people make to unjust government action will depend to some extent on what rights citizens have in their country. In some countries Christians are in a similar position to Christians of New Testament times, having no rights in deciding who governs them or how they are governed. In other countries the citizens themselves decide who governs them, and they can openly try to influence government decisions. In such countries Christians can not only pray for God’s will to be done on earth, but they can actively work for those values of justice, freedom, morality, honesty and compassion that God desires for human society (Matthew 6:10).

One difficulty in all societies is that those in a position to bring about social change are the least likely to want it, for they are the ones who benefit most from the existing order (Isaiah 3:14-15; Ezekiel 34:4; Amos 5:11-12). Jesus refused to use violence, either to protect what was good or remove what was bad (Matthew 26:52; John 18:36), but he did not keep silent when he saw disadvantaged and defenceless people ignored or exploited (Matthew 21:13; Matthew 23:4; Matthew 23:23; Matthew 25:42-45; Mark 12:20; Luke 6:24-25; Luke 16:19-26; cf. Amos 2:6-7; Micah 2:1-2; Zephaniah 3:3; see JUSTICE).

This does not mean that the church should try to govern society. That is not the church’s job. God has entrusted the government of society to civil authorities, not to the church (Romans 13:1; Romans 13:4). When governments misuse their God-given authority, God holds them responsible (John 19:10-12). In due course he will deal with them, in whatever way and with whatever means he chooses (1 Kings 11:29-37; Isaiah 1:23-26; Daniel 5:24-28; Amos 6:4-7; Micah 3:1-4; Revelation 18:1-2; Revelation 18:24).

Limitations of government

Although governments can help society by their efforts to promote good and oppose evil, the basic problems of human sin cannot be overcome merely through government action.

The primary concern of Christianity is not to change society in the hope that people might improve, but to change people so that through them society might improve. The gospel is basic to God’s work among the people of the earth, and Christians must proclaim that gospel (Ephesians 4:17-24; Titus 2:14; see GOSPEL). But they cannot ignore problems in a society of which they are part (Amos 6:4-6). They have a joint responsibility to work positively for what is good (Matthew 5:13) and openly condemn what is wrong (Matthew 14:4; Ephesians 5:11).

As Christians understand more of God and his Word, they will understand more of the sort of life God wants for people. The Creator knows what is best for his creatures, and his standards are best, not just for Christians but for everyone.

Yet if Christians, even with the help of God’s indwelling Spirit, cannot live perfectly according to God’s standards, non-Christians have much less chance. Because of the hardness of the human heart, God’s ideal may be too high a standard to aim at in the laws that a government makes for society as a whole (Matthew 19:8). While Christians may seek the highest standards for themselves and may try to persuade others to accept those standards, they cannot expect the government to enforce those standards by law (e.g. Matthew 5:39-42).

Human society has been so spoiled by sin that when a government makes laws, it may be forced to choose the lesser of two evils. That does not mean there is a change in God’s standards. What was formerly evil is still evil. It does not become good simply because the government makes laws to regulate it (e.g. Matthew 19:3-10).

Christians, therefore, should not be satisfied merely with doing what is legal (for something that is legal may still be morally wrong), but with doing what is right (Matthew 5:21-24; Matthew 5:46-48). The laws of the state may represent the minimum requirements for an ordered society; Christian morality goes beyond that, even to a person’s thoughts and motives (Matthew 5:27-29; see ETHICS).

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These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Fleming, Don. Entry for 'Government'. Bridgeway Bible Dictionary. 2004.

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