In these times of government-mandated quarantine for many US states and even countries around the world, the issue of the biblical role of government, and the response of individual Christians and churches collectively to government, is an understandable topic of concern. While our current dilemmas—particularly with churches being encouraged not to meet—are complicated, and I do not intend here to offer any simple solutions, I would like to provide some clarity on what the Bible teaches about the purpose and role of human government.
God rules in two ways
First, it is important to recognize that God rules over his creation in two related by distinct ways. First, God sovereignly rules universally and eternally. The psalmist proclaims, “The Lord has established his throne in the heavens, and his kingdom rules over all” (Ps 103:19) and “Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and your dominion endures throughout all generations” (Ps 145:13). All aspects of the universe fall under this rule, including social and family structures, agriculture, the arts, and so forth. God rules it all.
But second, God also rules in a more specific way over his redeemed people. He takes those who place their faith in Christ and makes them “sons of the kingdom” (Matt 13:38) who have been delivered “from the domain of darkness and transferred . . . to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sin” (Col 1:13).
God exercises his rule through humans
Some of how God rules in these two ways is indirectly through providence. He might use weather, for example, or a pandemic (!) to orchestrate his will among the peoples of the earth. However, God has also chosen to exercise his rule in both respects through human beings.
In terms of his redemptive rule over his chosen people, God rules in this age through his church and the mandate Christ gave her—make disciples (Matt 28:19).
On the other hand, God has chosen to exercise his universal rule over all things partly through two fundamental human institutions that he created: family and government. In Genesis 2:18–24, God established the institution of marriage—and by extension, family—as one of the fundamental building blocks of human society and one of the central human institutions he would use to cultivate and preserve order and flourishing in his world.
Additionally, in Genesis 9:6—notably after the Fall and after the Flood—God established the institution of human government:
Whoever sheds the blood of man,
by man shall his blood be shed,
for God made man in his own image.
Human government is an extension of God’s universal rule
God gave the responsibility of capital punishment—an exercise of his just judgment of sin—to all humankind as a means through which he would sovereignly control man’s sinfulness and preserve the world and its order. This responsibility, which takes shape in formal human governments over the course of history, has been given to humankind collectively, not just believing people. Thus, even unbelieving governors, when they exercise justice against wrongdoing, are an extension of God’s universal rule.
Romans 13:1 reiterates this point:
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.
The governing authority Paul references is not the redemptive rule of God over his people; this is the earthly administration of making and enforcing laws that preserve peace and justice in the common, everyday affairs of life. This kind of earthly rule—a rule that comes with authority derived from the ultimate Ruler—has been instituted by God himself. Even something seemingly mundane and “earthly” has been instituted by God in just the same way as he instituted the church and rulers within the government of God’s redeemed people.
And not only that, look at what Paul says about a governmental ruler who does what God has instituted in punishing wrongdoing and protecting the innocent:
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. (Rom 13:4)
Do you see what he is saying there? A government employee, like a governor or legislator or judge or police officer, who does his job and enforces laws that help to establish peace and order in society is a servant of God.
And you know what’s really remarkable? The word translated “servant” there is the word diakonos—it’s the same word from which we get our word “deacon.” A governor who is doing what God appointed him to do is literally a minister of God—even an unbelieving one.
And what does it say at the end of the verse? When he punishes wrongdoing, he is actually carrying out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. God is ruling over his universal, common kingdom, and he is doing that through unbelieving human rulers.
This reminds me of what Martin Luther said when interpreting Psalm 147:13–14:
For [God] strengthens the bars of your gates;
he blesses your children within you.
He makes peace in your borders;
he fills you with the finest of the wheat.
How does God strengthen the bars of your gates, Luther asked? By politicians who pass good laws to protect the city. How does God make peace in your borders? By means of good legislators, judges, and policemen. These governing authorities, Luther said, are like the “masks” God wears in caring for the world.
These two rules and their human governments are related, but distinct
This biblical theology is the basis for separation of church and state. God is ruling the world in general and his people specifically, and he does so through two separate ways: civic governments govern the world in general, and visible churches govern God’s people. Church government does not have authority over the civic realm in its earthly functions, and neither does civic government have authority over churches in their redemptive functions.
However, because individual Christians are members of both the civic realm and the redemptive realm, church leadership should instruct believers in what it means to live Christianly in civic society, how to live out the implications of their relationship with God, and how to obey the Great Commandments through being holy, active citizens in the society for the good of their fellow man. Church leadership should also speak to God’s people when moral issues are under attack in society as part of discipling Christians to know how they should live in that society.
And civic government does have God-given authority to speak to the “earthly,” non-redemptive aspects of Christians’ lives and even the operations of churches in its role in preserving safety and order in society, matters like building codes, child safety, health regulations, and so forth.
A Christian’s response to civic government should be one of participation and submission
This authority given by God to civic government as an extension of his sovereign rule over all things is exactly why Jesus himself said render to Caesar that which is Caesar’s. A healthy government that protects the innocent and punishes injustice is part of God’s universal reign, even if that government is pagan. In the context of teaching Christians how to live as sojourners and exiles, Peter specifically says that Christians should submit to earthly authorities and even honor them (1 Pet 2:13–18). Government was instituted by God himself, and inasmuch as governing officials rule with equity and justice, they are doing exactly what God intends for them to do. Paul commands that “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions” (1 Tim 2:1–2). Why? So that “we may lead a peaceful and quite life, godly and dignified in every way,” exactly why God established human government in Genesis 9.
Understanding this biblical theology certainly doesn’t solve all of the complicated church/state issues of our day, especially when human governors are corrupt and use their power for purposes other than God’s institution, but it would help to resolve many of the extreme positions on either side of the debates.