A Concise Theology of Government: Its Institution, Purpose & Law

What follows is by no means an exhaustive treatment of a political philosophy of government, nor does it contain a comparative approach to government.  Instead, what follows is the laying of a foundation and framework for the guidance of further study and structure of thought.  The content of this article is structured on Romans 13:1-10, which is the largest didactic passage of Scripture on the subject of government.  This is not to say, of course, that the Bible says nothing else to the matter.  Such a conclusion would be woefully in error.  The Bible has much to say about government scattered throughout its pages, both prescriptively and descriptively.  Nonetheless, this text is perhaps the fullest explication of political thought in all of Scripture.

The Text

Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil. Therefore you must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience’ sake. For because of this you also pay taxes, for they are God’s ministers attending continually to this very thing. Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor. Owe no one anything except to love one another, for he who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not bear false witness,’ ‘You shall not covet,’ and if there is any other commandment, are all summed up in this saying, namely, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 10 Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.

Romans 13:1-10 (NKJV)

Government’s Institution

The first thing to notice is the fact that governing authority exists, and its existence is not objected to but recognized as a proper authority worthy of submission: “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities.” (v. 1a).  This authority is not merely for show; for an authority merely for show can hardly be said to carry with it an authority requiring submission.  To be for show is to be a facade, and that which is false can truly be said to have no authority at all.  In a matter of a sentence, the apostle Paul affirms government as a proper institution bearing an authority worthy of submission.  Anarchy is swiftly taken off the table.

It is important to remind the reader that we are not here considering the various forms of government and their strengths and weaknesses.  Rather, we are simply recognizing that government per se, as an authoritative institution, is a proper institution worthy of submission.  The scope of government’s authority will be discussed under the purpose and law of government.

The remaining portion of verse 1 reads, “For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God.”  In other words, governing authority is a derivative of God’s authority – it is a lesser authority, but a genuine authority, nonetheless.  Its authority or power is not ultimately entrusted to it by the people but by God.  While a particular form of government may be determined by the people, the ontological authority of government can only be entrusted by God, who has ultimate authority and gives order to the world.  Paul is essentially saying the same thing in a different way when he refers to government being instituted by God; that is, government is a necessary institution of society, founded in the very wisdom of God.  This parallels what the apostle had said to the philosophers at the Areopagus in Acts 17:26: “And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their pre-appointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings.”

The origin or existence or justification of government (sometimes referred to as “the state” or “the State”), has occupied the minds of political philosophers over the centuries.  This justification is often made by way of the social contract/compact theory (from here on, SCT).  This theory may be summarized as follows: “Essentially, for Locke and the social contract theorists, the state is justified if, but only if, every individual over whom it claims authority has consented.”[1]  Others have opted for a utilitarian approach to government.  Wolff notes, “The fundamental idea of utilitarianism is that the morally correct action in any situation is that which brings about the highest possible total sum of utility.”[2]  In other words, society should subject itself to the governing authorities if it is more likely to benefit the society, but resist otherwise.  Under such a scheme, government is thought of as a convenience, and perhaps the lesser of other evils.  Wolff examines at length the pro’s and con’s of both the SCT and utilitarianism, but I do not wish to venture down that path at this time.  For brevity’s sake, I will simply say that the challenge with the SCT is determining an agreed upon manner as to how each individual expresses their consent.  As regards the utilitarian perspective, the challenge is determining an agreed upon understanding of utility, or happiness, and how exactly that is to be measured.  Wolff also posits “the ‘scapegoat’ objection: utilitarianism will permit enormous injustice in the pursuit of the general happiness.” In other words, utilitarianism results in questionable moral standard and tends to strip mankind of its humanity.  The SCT, however, is the more popular of the two, and the theory upon which America has its founding, so I wish to discuss the problems I see with it further.

While there are certain elements to the SCT that I think are right, I do find issue with its underlying emphasis – namely, a strict individualism to the exclusion of natural communal obligations as fellow human beings (and from a biblical perspective, fellow image-bearers; Gen. 1:26-27).  This comes through in Thomas G. West’s words on the transition from the state of nature to a governed society: “First, if all are born free in a state of nature, then government is an artificial construct, made by human beings and not by God or nature.  Second, given our original natural freedom, the only non-coercive way to initiate government is by a ‘social compact’ entered into voluntarily by each individual.”  As we have seen from Romans 13:1, however, government is not an artificial construct derived by man, but is in fact instituted by God.  Perhaps a better way of thinking about the social contract is from the perspective provided by Edmund Burke, which has come to be known as the “eternal contract”:

Society is indeed a contract….  It is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue, and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.[3]

Roger Scruton, a contemporary philosopher in the vein of Burke, presents a similar explanation of a social contract, framing it as first-person singular (the original concept of a social contract theory) vs. the first-person plural (the alternative).

The theory of the social contract begins from a thought-experiment, in which a group of people gather together to decide on their common future.  But if they are in a position to decide on their common future, it is because they already have one: because they recognize their mutual togetherness and reciprocal dependence, which makes it incumbent upon them to settle how they might be governed under a common jurisdiction in a common territory.  In short, the social contract requires a relation of membership, and one, moreover, which makes it plausible for the individual members to conceive the relation between them in contractual terms.  Theorists of the social contract write as though it presupposes only the first-person singular of free rational choice.  In fact it presupposes a first-person plural, in which the burdens of belonging have already been assumed.[4]

Look, if you will, to the animal kingdom and see there a natural partnership among the species; a partnership, no doubt, fundamental to their very survival. If the sluggard can learn an economic thing or two from the ant (Prov. 6:6-11), certainly all of mankind can learn a societal thing or two from the animal kingdom in general. Nature itself seems to speak to us of communal obligations (not to be mistaken for communism), of a sense of “we” rather than merely “I”. This is not an attempt to equate animals with man, thereby exalting the animals, nor to equate man with animals, thereby belittling man. It is simply an attempt to draw out a principle of nature as further proof of the singular point made by Burke and Scruton, though both in their own way.

A proper justification of government must start, not with man among his fellow men, but with man in relation to God.  Before considering obligations to our neighbors, we must consider our obligations to God, from whom all other authorities derive their being and duties.  It should not be a surprise to hear that the SCT came about during the Enlightenment, a time when the individual was largely emphasized and man’s reason exalted above God’s revelation.  But we come into this world already in a covenant with our Maker, the derivative of which is the experience of living under lesser authorities instituted by God.  This experience is predicated on the in-born obligations to fellow image-bearers and the ultimate authority of the One whose image we bear.  This is not to say that the consent of the governed is not important.  It is to say, however, that we must first feel the weight of obligation – to God and to fellow man – before we go off parading our individualistic desires.  If this starting point be exempted from one’s thinking, it shall become a theory of subjectivity and permanent revolution.

Government’s Purpose

The purpose or end of government is summed up well in verses 3-4:

For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil.

It should be noted at the start that government is here presented, not as a necessary evil, but as a necessary good.  This does not mean that bad, tyrannical governments have not existed; they certainly have!  Paul is here presenting what the governing authority ought to do, as well as what those under the governing authority ought to do.  In that regard, it is a word on imperatives rather than indicatives.  The fact of abuse or disobedience in no way negates the reality of said obligations.  It is the obligation of the people to do that which is good.  It is the obligation of the governing authority to punish the wrongdoer, which assumes a law has been transgressed (see next section).  What is more, this said obligation further assumes that those holding positions within government are likewise held accountable.

The governing authority is for our good and seeks to protect us from injustices.  The fact that we are dealing with concepts of good and bad means we are dealing with a moral order.  It is the responsibility of the governing authority to safeguard this moral order.  This power is symbolized by the sword, which may be utilized to end the life of a wrongdoer if the law transgressed requires it.  This is to put some degree of fear in the people – a psychological preventative.  When evil actions have negative consequences, people are less inclined to commit such evils.  This means that the governing authority exists as an institution for the people.  When such a government is in place, the society is in a better position to flourish.

Before moving on to the final section, I want to comment briefly on verse 7, which lists several “payments” that allow for a properly functioning government and society.  The first thing listed, which may be surprising to many, especially those of the libertarian tradition, is taxes.  Verse 6 says “For because of this you also pay taxes, for they are God’s ministers attending continually to this very thing.”  In other words, governing authorities devote themselves to the administration of law and order, and therefore receive taxes as payment in return for their service.  Taxes, therefore, are not bad (in and of themselves).  It is true, however, that taxes can become exorbitant.  Paul is obviously not advocating for exorbitance.  Taxation becomes exorbitant when it is used to expand the size and power of government, thereby centralizing the economy in the hands of the governing authorities, essentially destroying the market economy and the voice of the people.  An apt illustration of this can be found in 1 Samuel 8:10-17 when the people of Israel asked the prophet Samuel for a king to be over them rather than have God as their king.

10 So Samuel told all the words of the Lord to the people who asked him for a king. 11 And he said, “This will be the behavior of the king who will reign over you: He will take your sons and appoint them for his own chariots and to be his horsemen, and some will run before his chariots. 12 He will appoint captains over his thousands and captains over his fifties, will set some to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and some to make his weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers, cooks, and bakers. 14 And he will take the best of your fields, your vineyards, and your olive groves, and give them to his servants. 15 He will take a tenth of your grain and your vintage, and give it to his officers and servants. 16 And he will take your male servants, your female servants, your finest young men, and your donkeys, and put them to his work. 17 He will take a tenth of your sheep. And you will be his servants.

This king would become king Saul, and as we can see from this text, he would rule with a heavy fist and demand an exorbitant amount of property from the people to fund his large military and economic programs.  Under such a regime, taxes are not gathered for the purpose of keeping law and order, but for the purpose of luxury and personal political agendas.

The other things listed – revenue, respect, and honor – are just as important for a properly functioning and flourishing society.  A society where revenues are not properly distributed is a society that will soon lack good work ethic and trust.  A society where respect is not shown, even to those who you may disagree with, is a society that will soon find itself in utter chaos.  The same can be said of a society that shows no honor to those in positions of authority.  We see here that every member of a society has a responsibility in helping to preserve law and order.  When this is lost sight of, decadence and revolution are all we can expect.

Government’s Law

We know that the purpose of government is to preserve law and order, but just what exactly is that law?  At this point it would be easy to fall back on exploring how nations throughout history have formulated their laws; however, we’ve already seen that Paul is here concerned with imperatives, not indicatives, and I believe that emphasis is carried through here.  Verses 8-10 reads as follows:

Owe no one anything except to love one another, for he who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not bear false witness,’ ‘You shall not covet,’ and if there is any other commandment, are all summed up in this saying, namely, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 10 Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.

Perhaps some would want to argue that this passage is unrelated to verses 1-7.  As I see it, this passage is an obvious continuation from the preceding ones that speak of doing good and fearing the just wrath of the governing authorities for wrongdoing.  Paul is here bringing up the law that is to govern a society; the law that the governing authority is to enforce.

In a recently published article by The Davenant Institute entitled “’Nursing Fathers’: The Magistrate and the Moral Law,”[5] an argument is made for the view that the governing authority, or magistrate, is to enforce or administer both tables of the Decalogue (the Ten Commandments).  The first table pertains to laws concerning man’s relation to God (commandments 1-4), whereas the second table pertains to laws concerning man’s relation to fellow man (commandments 5-10).

If the magistrate is the minister of God ordered to an end, and that end is equivalent to what is objectively good, what is the standard of that good? One might suggest that it is the law of nature. But the law of nature is equivalent to what theologians have long called the moral law, and the moral law is “summarily comprehended” (in the words of the Westminster Shorter Catechism) in the Decalogue. But the Decalogue includes commandments about our relation to God as well as to our neighbor. The implications of this view are immense: if the magistrate is the “guardian of the law,” and if the laws should be framed according to the moral law, and if the moral law is comprehended in the Decalogue, and if the Decalogue includes laws pertaining to religion, then the magistrate has public duties in the realm of religion.

The logical weight of the argument is certainly admirable and gives it the appearance of being impenetrable.  I do believe, however, that there is a kink in the armor.  The assumption in the argument is that it’s the governing authority’s responsibility to take every good thing into account; that the entire standard of goodness of necessity falls under government’s jurisdiction.  Yet, if this were true, then we would be hard-pressed to make an argument against government having its hands in the home and the Church, thereby usurping the authority of parents and elders (or whatever church polity structure happens to be observed).  In short, the argument supplied above proves too much.

I believe this error could have been avoided if the author of the article, who started out by looking at the beginning of Romans 13, had likewise taken verses 8-10 into consideration; for the apostle Paul has nothing to say on the first table of the law, only the second table.  Each of the commandments he mentions are second table commandments.  What is more, Paul explicitly speaks of doing “no harm to a neighbor”, which certainly seems to parallel what he said earlier about the governing authority’s duty to punish the wrongdoer.  I believe this point in Paul’s political philosophy is captured well by John Locke (though I do not embrace en toto Locke’s political philosophy, as should be evident from my critique of SCT above).

But idolatry, say some, is a sin, and therefore not to be tolerated.  If they said it were therefore to be avoided, the inference were good.  But it does not follow, that because it is a sin it ought therefore to be punished by the magistrate.  For it does not belong unto the magistrate to make use of his sword in punishing everything, indifferently, that he takes to be a sin against God.  Covetousness, uncharitableness, idleness, and many other things are sins, by the consent of men, which yet no man ever said were to be punished by the magistrate.  The reason is, because they are not prejudicial to other men’s rights, nor do they break the public peace of societies.  Nay, even the sins of lying and perjury are nowhere punishable by laws; unless, in certain cases, in which the real turpitude of the thing and the offense against God are not considered, but only the injury done unto men’s neighbors and to the commonwealth.[6]

Yes, the governing authority should utilize Natural Law, which is summed up in the Decalogue, but it does not therefore follow that the entirety of Natural Law (or moral law) should be utilized in this particular institution.  I would say that it’s certainly the Church’s jurisdiction to make use of the entire law, excommunicating its members who become idolatrous or practice licentiousness (note, the Church does not have the authority to imprison or put to death those who commit evil).  But it does not follow that this is the jurisdiction of the governing authority.

One final word on this matter.  I am not necessarily against government encouraging or promoting Christianity, but this is not the same thing as legislating on the first table of the Decalogue.  The command to have no other gods before God is not a mere suggestion or encouragement.  Its transgression certainly brings with it punishment, but it is punishment of an eternal nature in the hands of the eternal God.  God has not given the governing authorities the responsibility of governing man’s relation to God, but of governing man’s relation to fellow man.  This, I believe, is quite evident in the biblical text just examined.

Conclusion

We have seen that government is a necessary good, instituted by God, not man.  It has the purpose of keeping law and order in a society – promoting the good and discouraging the evil.  Whether those in offices of authority realize it or not, they are there by God’s appointment and serve their Creator when they do right.  The people of society also have an obligation to obey those whom God has established in such offices, and to hold them accountable.  Everyone has a part in promoting the flourishing of society.  Lastly, the law that is to govern a society ought to pertain to man’s relation to their neighbors (fellow man), not man’s relation to God.  The latter is the responsibility of the Church and, ultimately, of God.


[1] Wolff, Jonathan. An Introduction to Political Philosophy. Oxford University Press, 2016. 35.  Please don’t view my quoting of Wolff as a full endorsement of his political philosophy on certain issues.  One of the things I like about his book is that he by-and-large leaves the final conclusion on issues up to the reader.  His book reads like a string of thought processes from one subject to the next, considering pro’s and con’s along the way.

[2] Ibid., 49.

[3] Burke, Edmund. Reflections on the Revolution in France.

[4] Scruton, Roger. A Political Philosophy: Arguments for Conservatism. Bloomsbury Continuum, reprinted 2019. 8.

[5] Hutchinson, E. J. “’Nursing Fathers’: The Magistrate and the Moral Law”. https://davenantinstitute.org/nursing-fathers-the-magistrate-and-the-moral-law/?fbclid=IwAR2XcCJ_T9HQlUE_lIQpW9Bz_zBvkTKeluq0AI8LZ93O_Ii8hZCkTkaU2qo Last accessed on January 4, 2020.

[6] Locke, John. A Letter Concerning Toleration.  Emphasis added.