How should believers think about the state? Is there one type of government better than another? Can believers endorse all types or forms of governments? Is there a biblical ideal of what government should be like? These sorts of questions have been debated intensely for the past two millennia.
But there are some basic biblical principles that can be drawn upon here as we seek to address these concerns. The first and most basic principle is that God in fact created the institution of the state. It was his idea of restraining sinful humans in a fallen world.
The basic purposes of the state are clearly laid out in such passages as Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Peter 2:13-17. These passages tell us that the state is from God to maintain justice and punish evil. The state thus exercises delegated authority, as do God’s other institutions, such as family and church.
Another key principle is that of self-government. God’s ideal is self-government, where we put constraints upon ourselves. By means of God’s common grace, and the moral law written on our hearts, this is possible to a limited extent.
But because we are all fallen, this inner law of conscience is helped out by the external law. Thus government is ordained of God, as are police, courts, judges and the like. Cops and conscience are the two main ways we exercise restraint on sinful behaviour.
As to an ideal type of government, Israel was of course under theocratic rule in the Old Testament. But in the New Testament, the ceremonial and civil laws applied to Israel do not have the same binding force on Christians. The moral law of course continues, as expressed in the Ten Commandments, but Christians can and do disagree as to the exact correlation between OT law and what takes place in NT times.
But because of the ability of sin to spiral out of control, and the constant temptation for humans to take unwarranted powers unto themselves, then we must always seek to limit human powers. As Lord Acton famously said, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”.
This is especially the case with the state, where it can take upon itself powers it should not have. As was seen in the above NT texts, the scope, authority, range and powers of the state are limited. Thus a form of government which keeps powers dispersed and diffused, which has a system of checks and balances, and so on, is the preferred form of government.
Some type of federalism or democracy may be the best shot here. It may not be ideal by any means, but other options can be worse. As Winston Churchill once put it, “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.”
One important Christian thinker, Reinhold Niebuhr, expressed it this way: “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.” Or as the authors of the Federalist (No. 51) put it, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”
In a fallen world all we can hope for is a modicum of peace, order and justice, and the protection of basic human rights. We certainly should not expect secular utopian ideologies to be of any use. Indeed, the last century witnessed a number of experiments with humanistic attempts to bring heaven to earth, and they have all been monumental failures.
All these end up being coercive utopias, where the heavy hand of the state seeks to micro-manage every aspect of life, in order to forcefully bring about the particular vision for the good society. Hitler for example wanted to create an ideal world by getting rid of all non-ideal classes of people: non-Aryans, Jews, gypsies and other ‘defective’ types.
In similar fashion the Marxists wanted to create the New Man. They believed that by wiping out whole classes of people (the managers and owners of capital) that they could create their ideal, classless society. Of course these attempts simply resulted in hell on earth, not paradise.
As Chesterton so rightly put it, “The secularists have not wrecked divine things; but the secularists have wrecked secular things, if that is any comfort to them. The Titans did not scale heaven; but they laid waste the world.” Whenever we seek to set up the ideal world, without the help of our Creator, all we end up with is a dystopia, not a utopia.
And the only way to establish and maintain such an earthly utopia is by the jackboot and the bayonet. Only the brute and unchecked power of the state can seek to enforce these grandiose ideologies. And whenever they are attempted, they always result in mass graves and unparalleled bloodbaths.
God created the state for quite specific and limited purposes. He did not create the state to bring about utopia on earth. There is only one ruler who can do that, Christ the King. Nonetheless, we should all work toward having the best state we can in a fallen world.
We all have responsibilities to be good citizens, and to pray for our rulers. Indeed, we need Christians to be involved in every sphere of governance. We need Christian politicians, judges and rulers. That will not result in utopia, but it will help make life in a fallen world better, and more Christlike.
But governments, even the best of them, can and will get things wrong. Indeed, they will often be tempted to promote ungodly and anti-Christian agendas. Thus there of course will be times when the Christian has to disobey the state. I have written about this elsewhere: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2008/11/02/christians-and-civil-disobedience/
But we are called to use the means which God has delegated to maintain a degree of order, justice and civility in a fallen world. Thus Christians are not anarchists. But neither are they naive idealists and foolish utopians. We know that government can only do so much, even at the best of times.
In this very brief and sketchy outline I have only scratched the surface of what is a rather complex discussion. But we can all agree with the words of Paul found in 1 Tim 2:1-2: “I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone – for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.”