What’s the Point of Government?

Posted on August 26, 2011 at 8:03 pm,

I’m continuing the series critiquing Wayne Grudem’s book Politics According to the Bible. Today, we’re looking at the question of what government is actually for. It’s one that doesn’t get asked all that often in political debate (at least this side of the Atlantic), but it is well worth looking at. Grudem covers this in chapter three, which we’ll cover today. But I’m going to pull out four particular issues to look at in more depth in future posts. The first is the question of human liberty, the second is Grudem’s assertion that the Bible supports democracy, the third is the question of patriotism, and the fourth are some issues around the relationship between church and state.

Punishing evil and rewarding good

Grudem begins by saying that God instituted the concept of human society punishing criminals in Genesis 9:5-6, and that justice is not just about punishing crimes, but also about defending the weak and needy (he cites Psalm 82:2-4), and that punishment should be swift in order to be a deterrent (he cites Ecclesiastes 8:11), although he doesn’t mention the necessity of due process in order to ensure that the correct verdict is reached.

He then goes on into New Testament passages which talk about the same principles, bringing in two Bible passages he relies on repeatedly throughout the book (Romans 13:1-7) and 1 Peter 2:13-14). He points out that, whilst governments are there to punish evil and reward good, not everything that they do is good. He also argues that punishment by government is an instrument of God’s wrath as well being a method of preventing wrogndoing. He also says that the view some Christians (I don’t know who) apparently hold that Matthew 5:39 (turn the other cheek) means that government shouldn’t have a police, judicial, or penal system is wrong, because the passage applies only to personal behaviour.

Whilst the details of Grudem’s argument on Matthew 5:39 feel a little on the weak side (does the passage really rule out a corporate application?), I think he’s got it pretty much right on this issue, even though the way he talks about the state delivering justice makes me feel a little bit uneasy – my instinct is towards a more liberal judicial system which focuses on rehabilitation (an issue which we’ll cover when we get to Grudem’s views on the death penalty).

Anarchy is not an option

As a minor point in establishing the above point, Grudem addresses the question of whether we need government (which really should have been covered earlier). He cites a number of verses from Judges 18-25, which tell some of the most horrific stories in the Bible, and comment that it was because “in those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” Concluding, rightly, that anarchy is not something a Christian should welcome. He also says that, even if there was no sin in the world (and hence no need for a judicial system), there would still be a need for government in order to promote things that are for the common good.

Governments are there to serve the people, not the rulers

Grudem points out that rulers abusing their power to enrich themselves, their family, and friends is repeatedly condemned in the Old Testament, and suggests that preventing this requires that rulers have more checks and balances, and are held accountable to the people. Again, this is something that should be self-evident in a democratic society, although even there you don’t have to look too far to see plenty of examples where politicians have violated this principle.

Civil Disobedience

On this issue, Grudem goes back to Romans 13:1-2 and 1 Peter 2:13-14, saying that Christians should, as a matter of course, obey the law of the land. On the other hand, he says that there are clearly cases when we should disobey the law – citing an incident in Acts 4:18-5:20 where the Apostles refused to stop preaching the gospel when commanded not to by the Jewish authorities, and Shadrach Meshach and Abednego being thrown into a fiery furnace for refusing to worship an idol in Daniel 3:13-17. He also cites the Egyptian midwives refusing to murder newborn Hebrew boys in Exodus 1:17-21, and a couple of other Biblical examples. His principle is that it is right to disobey the government when obeying them would mean directly disobeying God. This definition is wide enough to allow for things like the Seeds of Hope Ploughshares action, but wouldn’t allow for disregarding laws that happen to be stupid, rather than morally wrong.

He then moves on to the question of whether it can ever be right to overthrow the government. The way this section is written is back-to-front, as Grudem argues that the American Revolution was justified, before looking at the reasons overthrowing a government might be justifiable. He portrays the revolution as an act to defend the people of the thirteen colonies against the tyranny of George III. His account of history comes across as a very one-sided view of that historical era (what I’ve read on the period suggests that George III wasn’t particularly tyrannical, particularly when compared to the standards of the time – and, in any case, Parliament made most of the decisions). I can’t help wondering whether Grudem takes the charges in the Declaration of Independence to be objective fact, rather than the propaganda they were clearly written as.

It’s only after this argument that Grudem points out that there are plenty of examples in the Bible of it being OK to change a government, but doesn’t really say much more on the subject. By the end of this section, I’m left wondering what criteria Grudem thinks sufficient to justify violent overthrow of a government, but judging by his defence of the American Revolution, I get the impression that the bar is set fairly low.

Separation of Powers

After this Grudem argues that, because all humans are sinful (which is a basic Christian belief), we should ensure that there is a strong and clear separation of powers at every level of government, to ensure that no one person or group has too much power to abuse. He points to a number of Bible passages that show abuses of power, the principle in the Old Testament that kings had no authority over priests and prophets, and that the New Testament Church ensured that decisions were made by groups of leaders, rather than a single leader.

Whilst I completely agree that separation of powers within government is a very good idea, the examples Grudem chooses are pretty weak – separation of powers is a way of checking abuse of power, but not the only one ever devised (elections – especially when there’s a recall option – are one alternative), the second example could be considered to be separation of church and state (even though Israel was theoretically a theocracy), and the third is an example from within the church, rather than the government. Which leave us with a fairly weak case for claiming separation of powers to be, in itself, a Biblical principle. At best, it’s one way of limiting the damage caused by human sin.

Rule of Law

Finally (excepting the bits I’ve saved for later), Grudem points out that the rule of law must apply to the rulers of a nation. He cites Deuteronomy 17:18-20 and 2 Samuel 12 as examples of the Bible insisting that even kings (who, in those days, had unchecked power over their kingdoms) had to obey the law and be subject to it in the same way that everybody else is.


So there we have it, the majority of Grudem’s theology of what government is supposed to be there for. There’s not really much I can say as commentary on this, it’s all pretty sound from a theological point of view (mostly because I’ve taken out the controversial bits for a more in-depth look), although the bit on civil disobedience could do with a bit more depth.

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