In the last several months, not only our own church, but churches throughout the country have struggled to adapt as government regulations have affected our public worship in ways that we’ve never experienced before. Many of us have struggled to reconcile our duty to our nation and communities with our duty to God. Furthermore , many Christians fear that the regulations being imposed and the ways in which they are being imposed constitute real threats to our religious liberty. This series seeks to deal with the biblical approach to how God’s people interact with governing authorities.
“The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help.” These words spoken by Ronald Reagan summarize the feelings of many Christians in regards to government action. We feel that regulation by the government can at best have unforeseen consequences but, more often than not, it does more harm than good. Social welfare can create state dependence, safety regulations can stifle small businesses, and we can often feel that state bureaucrats seem more intent on preserving the benefits of employment than promoting the common good.
The Preacher recognizes the reality of the fallenness of human government in Ecclesiastes. Ecclesiastes 5:8 states, “If you see in a province the oppression of the poor and the violation of justice and righteousness, do not be amazed at the matter, for the high official is watched by a higher, and there are yet higher ones over them.” In other words, the author of Ecclesiastes is saying that whenever we have multiple layers of government, we can expect that sandwiched within those layers we’ll find corruption, abuse of power, and the rights and needs of the vulnerable being marginalized.
However, the Preacher doesn’t stand on the reality of this fallenness alone. Actually, neither did Reagan. Even Reagan’s most devoted supporters forget that Reagan made that statement while defending government actions that were being taken to relieve farmers who were suffering from a depleted agricultural market, inflation, and drought. In other words, Reagan was saying, “I know that you don’t want to have government interference if you don’t have to have it, but I see your struggle and sometimes we just have to do what we just have to do.” Similarly, the Teacher follows his acknowledgement of government corruption in Ecclesiastes 5:9 stating, “But this is gain for a land in every way: a king committed to cultivated fields.” What he’s saying is similar to that quip from Winston Churchill: “Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Even though government has been affected by the Fall, and we always find evidence of it, if the basic commitment of the governing authorities is to cultivate fields, people benefit.
Phil Ryken summarizes the point well when he writes,
“The Preacher sees something that we all see — oppression and injustice at every level of society. We see it in communism, where the state seizes control of the means of production. But we also see it in capitalism whenever profit is pursued without regard for the well-being of other persons. Somehow poor people always seem to get the worst end of the bargain. Ecclesiastes tells us not to be surprised by the vanity of all this injustice. This is not to excuse unrighteousness; it is simply being realistic about life in a fallen world.”
In other words, while government is a positive good, in a fallen world it is always accompanied by evil, and there is wisdom in figuring out when it’s necessary to live with a certain level of fallenness in government. We can state it in another way by saying that government is not a curse, but we find that after the Fall it is cursed.
Now, perhaps you missed what I just said or perhaps you were shocked by it. So let me say it again: government is not only not a necessary evil, but rather, it is a positive good. How can I say that government is a positive good? Because it is written throughout the Old Testament.
Have you ever noticed the detail that is given in Old Testament history to good government work? David and Solomon are hailed not only for the buildings and cities they built but for the way they administered the labor and resources they utilized to build Israel. Likewise, the priests are hailed for their good stewardship of the resources given to them for the management of the temple and, in the post-exilic period, Nehemiah and Ezra are praised for their wisdom in dividing and managing the labor to rebuild Israel’s temple and Jerusalem’s walls. Furthermore, Solomon’s Proverbs are full of counsel not only of how kings should govern justly but also how the wise person should regard the king with honor. How does our usual suspicion and disregard for government line up with the warning given in Proverbs 24:21–22? The proverb states,
“My son, fear the LORD and the king,
and do not join with those who do otherwise,
for disaster will arise suddenly from them,
and who knows the ruin that will come from them both?” (ESV)
Even in the New Testament we see glimpses of this. In John’s Revelation we get a glimpse behind the curtain to where God reigns in heaven. Even in God’s presence, where all things are made right, we see government officials. Elders bow before Him and faithful servants are placed on thrones, given crowns, and act as judges. Jesus promises the same thing to His apostles.
All this is to say that while it is foolish to place our trust in government to be our savior, our cynical belief that government is a necessary evil doesn’t square up with the Scriptures. That being said, this isn’t the only picture the Bible gives us of government. Most of the examples I’ve used here come from the Old Testament, where God’s people were organized as a nation, but my New Testament examples come from the redeemed world, where sin no longer reigns.
Much to our frustration, we Christians in America today find ourselves in a different situation. In the last generation, Protestantism lost much of the influence it had enjoyed in previous generations of American history. We find ourselves now in the position of having to relate to governments that do not necessarily share all the same values that we do. In fact, many of us feel that our government is actively seeking to suppress our freedom to worship God according to our own consciences. Whether we experience this or not, the early church faced this situation in ways we can’t conceive of. Jesus Himself was crucified under Pontius Pilate, a government official, and many of the twelve apostles were killed under state persecution. In my next post, I will look at what the New Testament has to say about our relationship to governing authorities when those governing authorities are not controlled or dominated by God’s people.