Politics According to the Bible (3): Biblical Principles

[This is the third in a series of posts on Wayne Grudem’s Politics According to the Bible: A Comprehensive Resource for Understanding Modern Political Issues in Light of Scripture].

Before we can examine specific political questions in light of the teachings of the Bible, it is necessary to study what the entire Bible teaches about civil government.  Where did the idea of government come from? What should be the purpose of government? How should governments be chosen? What kind of government is best? What are the responsibilities of governmental rulers? (77)

This is how Wayne Grudem introduces his third chapter, “Biblical Principles Concerning Government.”  In the pages that follow, Grudem offers a positive view of politics from the Bible.  He begins with three keys texts, he wrestles with the laws of Old Testament Israel applied today; he expounds what the goal of government should be, he makes a biblical case for democracy, and he discusses some of the issues regarding church state.

THREE KEY BIBLICAL TEXTS

Genesis 9:5-6 is the foundational passage in the Bible for the role of government to wield the sword.  It says, “And for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man.  From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of a man. ‘Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image” (Gen 9:5-6).  By extension, Grudem extrapolates, “Once this principle is established, then the imposition of lesser penalties for crimes is also validated” (78).  In time, this ideal would be fleshed out in the law of Moses.  The Lex Talionis established degrees of punishment, but it goes back to this fundamental teaching in Genesis 9.  Because man is made in the image of God, harm done against another human is a criminal act, and is punishable by death, says the Lord.  Thus in establishing a basis for government, Grudem points out that from the very beginning, God was a law-maker, who entrusted men to rule well on the earth–this after all is part of what it means to be made in the image of God (cf. Gen 1:26-28).

From this passage, Grudem lists 3 principles: (1) Anarchy is a highly destructive evil; (2) Governments should execute justice and defend the weak (cf. Ps 82:2-4); and (3) Government should execute swift punishment as a deterrent to crime (cf. Ecc 8:11) (78-79).

Next, Grudem turns to the New Testament, where he examines Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Peter 2:13-14.  These read as follows:

Romans 13:1-7
[1] 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. [2] Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. [3] 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, [4] 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. [5] Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. [6] For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. [7] 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.

1 Peter 2:13-14
[13] Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, [14] or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.

Spending most of his time on Romans 13, Grudem lists 6 principles:

(1) God has appointed the authorities who have governmental power. (cf. John 19:11)
(2) Civil rulers are a “terror to bad conduct.” (cf. Genesis 9:5-6)
(3) They give “approval” or praise.
(4) Governmental officials serve God.
(5) Government officials are doing “good” as they carry out their work.
(6) Government authorities execute God’s wrath on wrongdoers and thereby carry out a task of retribution.

Grudem is quick to point out that these elements of government do not result in “good” governments, but they do show the way God has instituted governments to function in the world.  Grudem also shows how governmental authority relates to personal ethics.  Reading Romans 13 in context, he notes that three verses prior to this instruction, Paul says, “Beloved, never avenge yourself, but leave it to the wrath of God…” (Rom 12:19).  It is appropriate to see this negative command towards personal vengeance in two ways: (1) God will avenge all injustice at the end of the age (and by means of the cross of Jesus Christ for the sins of believers), but also (2) God institutes kings and elected officials to dispose his wrath in this age.  Grudem articulates,

While Paul tells Christians not to take personal vengeance when wrong has been done to them, he tells them they should rather allow the wrongdoer to be punished by “the wrath of God.” Then just a few sentences later (in Rom. 13:4) he explains that “God’s wrath” against wrongdoers is carried out by civil government when it inflicts punishment on them. This means that it is often right for Christians to turn to the civil government to ask for justice to be done when they have suffered wrong at the hands of others. The civil government, in this life, is the means that God has established to carry out justice in such cases (81).

OLD TESTAMENT LAWS AND MODERN POLITICS

Next, Grudem asks the question: What about the detailed laws for Israel given in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy? (83-85).  In short, he distinguishes the covenantal differences between Old Testament Israel and every other nation that has ever existed. Only Israel was a true theocracy.  Therefore, there are principles to be gleaned from the Torah, but many specifics are impossible to implement without a temple, a Davidic king, an Aaronic priesthood, and an ark of the covenant.  Moreover, he sees in the New Testament a move away from the Old Testament laws when Paul instructs the Galatians and the Colossians that celebrating particular days will not save (cf. Gal 4:10-11; Col. 2:16-17).

THE GOAL OF GOVERNMENT

So what is the goal of government?  Romans 13:4 tells us that rulers are in place as “God’s servant for your good.”  In other words, government exists to promote the good of the people.  Grudem points to the difference between Samuel’s good leadership (1 Sam 12:3-4) and his warning about the greed of the kings of the nations (1 Sam 8:11-17).  According to the Bible, rulers who serve themselves are not fit for the office.  Sadly, this practice is commonplace in our country and in every civilization that has existed since Cain built the first city (cf. Deut 16:19; Ps 26:10; Prov 15:27; 17:23; Isa 33:15; Ezek 22:12; Amos 5:12; Hab 1:2-4).

Instead of personal gain, governments are instituted to defend and promote the liberty of human beings.  Grudem again goes to the Bible to make his case appealing to pattern in Scripture that loss of freedom is always a kind of judgment or curse, while liberation is a blessing.  He then points at passages like Deuteronomy 30:19 and  Joshua 24:15, to argue that God intends that men and women are created and called to make free moral choices (92).  This applies today to the measure of governance a country should have, and makes a case for limited government, based on the principle that the more a government  increases regulations, the more it obstructs the freedoms of the people (94).  He sees this as an increasing problem and gives numerous contemporary examples (94-95).

Therefore, since the goal of government is societal good, citizens (Christian and otherwise) should submit themselves to their ruling leaders (1 Pet 2:13-14), but this command is not absolute.  Pointing to Peter and John (Acts 4:18-20; 5:29), Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (Daniel 3:13-27), and the Hebrew midwives (Exod 1:17, 21), Grudem shows that at times it is appropriate to “obey God rather than man” (Acts 5:29).  This is always true when the government commands Christians to do things that go against the Bible and conscience.  And sometimes, this civil disobedience leads to overthrowing governments in power.  To prove his point, Grudem examines the history of America’s birth and gives a compelling case for the “morality” of of lower government officials resisting higher officials for the sake of the greater good (89).  Moreover, “the Bible does not ever say that it is wrong to change an existing government” (90), and in fact it even “gives examples where God raised up leaders to deliver his people from the rule of tyrants” (91).

With that said, it must be cautioned that the biblical deliverances in the Bible are in a totally different category than anything that would take place today.  Liberation theologians will appeal to Moses and the exodus to affirm the radical resistance of the powers that be, but they are applying the commands to Moses in ways that are not consistent with the whole counsel of Scripture.  So while, there may be moral grounds for overthrowing a government based on the ethical teachings of the Bible, it is another thing to say that any “chosen people” have the right to resist governing powers the way that Moses did, because they are some kind of New Moses.  There is only one New Moses, and his name is Jesus, and his church uses spiritual weapons (2 Cor 10:3-6).

CHURCH AND STATE RELATIONS

Grudem gives three straight forward points on how the church and state should relate: (1) “The church should not govern ‘things that are Caesars.'”  Based on the distinction Jesus made in Matthew 22:21 and Jesus refusal to arbitrate between a man and his brother over the distribution of property (Luke 12:13-14), we should see two different spheres of governance in the world–the church and the state.  (2) The civil government should not govern “the things that are God’s” for the same reason as number 1–church and state are two different “systems of government” (100). (3) “Civil government should support and encourage churches and bona-fide religious groups in general” because this promotes the greater good of the society.

Finally, in Grudem’s third chapter he also addresses the idea that powers should be separated and that a democratic system can be inferred from Scripture.  On this first, point he appeals to the wickedness of humanity and the fact that absolute authority is shown throughout the Bible to corrupt (e.g. Saul, David, and Solomon).  Moreover, as Scripture establishes governance in local churches, it does so with plural eldership (cf. Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5; 1 Peter 5:1-4).  This positive example of the ‘separation of powers’ commends itself to national governance.  Along the same lines, even the rulers should be subject to the laws of the nation.  Here Grudem quotes Deuteronomy 17, where kings are called to copy the Mosaic Law in order to rule in accordance with its commandments.

On the second point–democratic government–Grudem says that a number of concepts coalesce to commend a broadly democratic form of government–though it should be noted that he doesn’t affirm this as strongly as the previous points. He insists that while no one system is commanded in Scripture, he urges that a government that has the consent of the people, will do better than any other.  He bases this on the equality of mankind, the need for rulers to be accountable, and the fact Scripture shows many positive examples of kings gaining consent from their people (Exod 4:29-31; 1 Sam 7:7:5-6; 10:24) and negative examples where kings failed to gain their people’s consent (e.g. Rehoboam in 1 Kings 12:15).  The result of Rehoboam’s dictatorial rule resulted in a fractured kingdom.  On this point, Grudem concludes with a fascinating world statistic.  In 1950, 22 democracies existed; today 120 (out of 192) countries hold a democratic process in governance.  What could this mean?  Perhaps, it is another example of the way that God’s wisdom has permeated as salt and light into the world. But then again, that might be too optimistic and even sounds a bit post-millenial.

FINAL THOUGHTS

As it concerns the Bible and democracy, I think that Grudem is working with biblically-informed concepts to be applied in a fallen world, and for the most part they are helpful.  Still it must be remembered that the Bible’s overarching purpose is explicitly theocratic–with a Davidic Son reigning over the nations.  Democratic government is derived from the Bible’s teaching, not explicitly mandated; and cannot be, because the system of government that the whole Bible is driving at is the one that begins when Christ comes to reign in Zion.  The Bible assists in evaluating today’s forms of government, but the only one that it fully commends is the one that has not yet been established.

On the whole, this chapter is packed with biblical perspectives on government and makes a great resource on the subject.  These are important matters that must be weighed with care, and while I might emphasize the kingdom of God and rule of Christ more than Grudem does, I believe he presents a positive, biblical framework to think about the Two Kingdoms.

For a recent sermon on this subject, see Mark Dever, “Pay Your Taxes But Trust in Christ.”

Soli Deo Gloria, dss

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