The Nature of the Government and how the Church should relate to it
The nature of the state and how the church should relate to it, has been a matter of concern from the beginning of the Christian faith. Because when we look at the bible and especially the old testament, we have what we call a theocracy, which is a state ruled by God through anointed kings. Though the church and state had distinctly different roles to play as kings and priests, they were integrated with one another so deeply; it is was hard to distinguish between them. This changed in the new testament when the church became missionary focused. Christians had to deal with the question of how they should relate and organise themselves in secular governments.
There are different types of governmental structures, for example, we have democracies, federal systems, dictatorships and monarchs to name a few. Whatever type of government, the fundamental role can be summed up in one word ” Force” specifically, “legal force”. Government is a structure that has been given rights legally to use force to compel citizens to abide by the rules and regulations that are put in place. If you take legal force away from the government, then all that is left for the government is to issue suggestion on how people should behave and hope for the best. In other words, when the government enacts laws it is always with the intention that it will enforce the law through the use of force.
In Christian thought, it is known that there is no such thing a perfect government. Christians believe that human beings are fallen creatures, hence no system of government will ever be perfect. St Augustine said “the government itself is evil, but it is a necessary evil. It is a necessary evil because of evil”. St Augustine and Thomas Aquinas believed that the reason government exists is to restrain human evil. So, the first task of Government according to Christians is to support, maintain and protect human life from harm done by other human beings. We need the government in place for the protection of private property from people who may want to steal, abuse and bring violence to other people. The government is also there to regulate agreements, uphold contracts and to ensure a fair exchange of goods and services among retailers and consumers.
Also, there has never been any people in any land or country in history that have lived in absolute freedom. Anywhere there is a government there are restrictions on people’s liberty, any law that has ever been enacted by any legislative body restricts someones freedom. For example, If we make laws against murder, we are taking away a criminal’s rights to kill. Another example is, changing marriage laws to include SSM has meant people who work as civil marriage celebrants that hold traditional views about marriage no longer have rights refuse to perform SSM ceremonies.
It is also important to point out that some laws can be unjust, what is legal and what is moral under the law is different. Just because laws are passed does not mean that all of a sudden they are moral. For example, nothing in the German Laws would have convicted Hitler for evils the Jewish people suffered at his hands, but morally they were wrong. This is why we need to be extremely careful the type of laws that we put in place because laws ultimately take people’s freedoms away. Another example is, at one point segregation was part of the laws in the deep south In America, this did not make it moral. This is why we never take our ethics from the laws, but laws should be formulated based on ethics. The question then is, when is it moral for the church to disobey the state?
In Christianity, Christians are instructed to be model citizens; the bible says Christians have to submit the powers in charge. For example, Jesus in the gospel says “give Caesar what belongs to Caesar and God what belongs to God”. Paul in Romans 13 says “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. God has created the powers that exist. In short, ultimate loyalty is to God then to the state. Christians believe that there is a hierarchy of authority and at the top of all that hierarchy is God.
In the next essay, we will look at civil disobedience, and how the church should relate to the governments that have gone bad. Because while at the same Christians are commanded to respect authority, it should never come at the expense of Christian doctrine. On the other hand, Christians cannot use the bible to impose their own version of morality on the bible. People elected to office who happen to be Christian should not govern based on the Bible, but based on particular laws of the land. If Laws are deemed unfair or unjust, countries can always vote to change them.
This essay is mainly from a Christian worldview and its understanding of the “Government” the ideas in the article are based on lectures done by the late RC Sproul.