Why does the state exist?
There are different types of government of course: there is church government, self-government, and so on. But here I refer to civil government. The main aim of this article is to look more closely at how Scripture actually defines it. What does the Bible teach about the state and our response to it? I will look at the two main texts on this in a moment.
Let me start by sharing something I found on the social media the other day. It was a short passage of Scripture. Nothing unusual about that: Christians share Bible verses there all the time. Generally that is a good thing. But sometimes a verse can be yanked out of its context, resulting in something that is less than helpful. It can even become quite misleading.
As we know, every text without a context is a mere pretext. So when I saw what this person had posted, I wondered if he was pushing an agenda, and if I should respond – at least by giving the full text. This person had posted Romans 13:1-2 which says:
“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. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.”
Now that’s fine – nothing wrong with sharing it. BUT, it is what comes immediately after this that is crucial, and by omitting it, one really does send out a rather misleading message. That is, if one wanted to push the view that Christians should always fully submit to the state, no questions asked, then just running with these verses is the way to do it.
But as soon as you post the entire passage, then you get a rather different view of things. So let me give you this text in its entirety. Romans 13:1-7 says this:
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. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 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. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.
Verses 3-4 are absolutely crucial here to this whole discussion. Why does the state exist? What is the chief purpose of government? Rulers are to be ‘a terror to those who do evil.’ The main thing government is to do is administer justice – and that mainly involves punishing evildoers.
Yet we live in a culture where almost the exact opposite is now taking place. Rulers are punishing good people. Cases of this would be too numerous to fully list here. But when the state throws a pastor in jail for keeping his church open, it is punishing good people.
When the state makes it illegal for counsellors to help those wanting to address their unwanted same-sex attraction, it is punishing good people. When the state legalises baby killing and turns on those seeking to defend the unborn, it is punishing good people. When the state makes it difficult for ordinary citizens to affirm that marriage is between a man and a woman, or that there are only two biological sexes, it is punishing good people.
The list can go on and on. So the Romans’ passage makes it clear that the state exists to punish those who do evil, but we seem to live in a time when it punishes those who try to do good, while often rewarding and protecting those who do evil.
I mentioned that there are two primary passages on the role and purpose of civil government. The other is 1 Peter 2:13-17. And guess what? It says the exact same thing in terms of the main business of government. Here is what the passage says:
Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.
The state is to ‘punish those who do evil.’ That is the main duty of the state. That is its primary calling. It is not commanded to do the thousands of things that most governments do today. What it is said to do from the authority of God is quite limited.
Administering justice, especially in the sense of punishing those who do wrong, is the main task of the state. Yet so many Christians think that Big Government is just fine, and that somehow unchecked Statism expresses God’s perfect will as well. And too many believers think that Christians must do whatever the state demands – end of story.
Simply reading through the New Testament will show that this is patently wrong. Instances of disobedience to the state are found often. Yes, the norm is to be submissive, but that is when the state does what God has called it to do. But when the state no longer does what it is ordained to do, then its authority comes into question.
Always remember that the state is delegated authority. It is not absolute, and when it goes against the express purposes of God, things like civil disobedience become an important response of its citizens. See more on this here: billmuehlenberg.com/2008/11/02/christians-and-civil-disobedience/
There are plenty of commentators one could draw from on these matters, but let me close by utilising just one: R. J. Rushdoony (1916-2001). He often warned about the rise of Statism, and need to see how only biblical Christianity – and it rightly applied – can really keep it in check.
One need not agree with everything he has written throughout his career to appreciate what is expressed in the following remarks. The first two come from the 1986 volume, Christianity and the State, while the last one is taken from his 1970 book, Politics of Guilt and Pity.
Not only is every church a religious institution, but every state or social order is a religious establishment. Every state is a law order, and every law order represents an enacted morality, with procedures for the enforcement of that morality. Every morality represents a form of theological order, i.e., is an aspect and expression of a religion. The church thus is not the only religious institution; the state also is a religious institution. More often than the church, the state has been the central religious institution of most civilizations through the centuries. . . . [T]he real issue is not between church and state, but is simply this: the state as a religious establishment has progressively disestablished Christianity as its law foundation, and, while professing neutrality, has in fact established humanism as the religion of the state. When the religion of a people changes, its laws inevitably reflect that change and conform themselves to the new faith and the new morality.
The churches represent the great area of freedom from statist controls in many countries. This is a condition which the modern state finds intolerable and is determined to alter. The state’s great ally in this struggle is all too often the church itself. The humanism of so many churchmen makes them dedicated allies of statist objectives.
In this rise to totalitarian power, the state has smoothed its way at every turn by claiming to act in behalf of man, as the representative of the people. In the name of man, the state has usurped the place of God. . . . The state denies man the liberty which the Creator grants man. Under God, man is responsible and therefore liable to judgment. Under the caretaker state, man is not responsible nor is he free, for the state alone is free, and the state supplants responsibility with cradle-to-grave security….
To obey the state, therefore, when it enters into the domain of the church, whether to deny or to grant it the right of life, or of liberty of worship, or merely to regulate its existence, is to disobey God and to render to Caesar what belongs to God. This the early church refused to do. To obey the state when it enters the domain of the family, school, business, and other like areas, is again to disobey God and to make a god of the state….
1 Samuel 8:7ff. makes clear, first, that statism is a rejection of God, and the growth of statist power coincides with the decline of the true faith. Second, when men seek their security from the state rather than from God, they lose security and gain slavery. Third, men who will not be God’s servants become the state’s servants or slaves.
Christians are not anarchists, because God has ordained the state for a fallen world. But Christians are not to idolise nor worship the state either, making it absolute. Only God is absolute. Getting the biblical balance right here is crucial.