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GOVERNMENT. The Bible begins with God, and all thinking on human government must also begin there. Exclusive stress on human autonomy and self-sufficiency in government leads either to ruthless tyranny or to anarchy. The ideal is an ordered society subject to law with the consequent possibility of a normal life in the community—this becomes possible in so far as the Biblical conception of the state is, in some measure at least, actually realized.


Its source.

Human sovereignty as it is exercised in the state has its source in divine sovereignty. The starting point is the doctrine of creation. God the Creator made all things. All that is owes its beginning to His creative act and to His sustaining power. This inevitably implies God’s sovereignty over His creation. Since all is dependent upon Him, so everything is subject to Him, whether the solar system, the world of nature, or human society.

This creative activity is the work of the Trinity. God created (and creates) through the agency of His word and the Spirit of God was (and is) present in life-giving power (Gen 1; cf. Prov 8:22-31; John 1:1-4; Col 1:15-17; Heb 1:1-3). The Son is not only the One through whom the Father created all things, but “in him all things hold together” (Col 1:17). Hence, the sovereignty of God in creation is exercised through Christ. He is not only the Savior of His people but also the Lord of all creation.

This sovereign authority of God over men is expressed in law. Prior to the Fall God dealt with Adam in terms of law. The prohibition of the forbidden fruit was the expression in legal terms of the absolute rights of the sovereign God. Adam’s disobedience was thus lawbreaking, and as such, because the law was the expression of God’s will, it was a personal affront to God Himself.

Sin, however, is not only culpable so that all the world is guilty before God, but it has adverse consequences in the sphere of man’s relationship with his fellows. God’s purpose in creation was that men should subject the created order to their control and live in harmony with each other. Sin entered, however, as a divisive influence so that men ceased to contribute to each other’s welfare. Instead, they preyed on each other. Hence, it is in the natural course of events that in place of a harmonious society, murder and lust, theft and war appear as symptoms of a humanity that has lost its bearings spiritually.

The law of God declared to man in his fallen condition is His gracious corrective. This applies both to the law written on the conscience of every man and to the revealed law of the OT. Whereas law has a redemptive function in that it shows men their sin and so turns them to the Savior, it has also a secondary but none the less important function of restraining men from reaping the consequences of their own sinfulness.

God remains the God of Grace, even in face of Adam’s sin and men’s persistence in willful defiance of their Creator. This grace is seen not only in His redeeming work by which He saves His elect, but also in His gracious dealings with men in general, “for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matt 5:45). If men were left to their own devices they would destroy each other. Certainly, social life would be impossible. So God has graciously imposed restraints that ordered social living is possible.

These restraining influences may be seen in the various sanctions to which men submit themselves—the pressure of conscience, the influence of the family, the customs and standards of the community. The concern in this article is, however, with one particular sphere in which God’s gracious restraint is seen; namely, the state, which in Scripture is always viewed as divinely instituted.

The nature of the state.

The term “state” in this article is employed in its widest sense. There is a wide gulf between the primitive jungle tribe and the highly sophisticated community of a technological society; there is a deep gulf between the totalitarian regime of a fascist or communist dictatorship and the freedom of a democracy. None the less, all of these have certain fundamental characteristics. Each group is a community and not merely a collection of warring individuals. They are not bound together necessarily by national ties, for many different ethnic groups may be knit together under one state, while on the other hand, a single ethnic group may be divided into two states. What constitutes a state, at the rudimentary tribal level and at the most advanced level, is the common submission of a community to law. Whether it be a tribal chief, a dictator, or a democratically elected parliament, there is an organ of government and that government exercises authority over those who are subject to its jurisdiction. This authority is expressed by laws which are promulgated (whether the unwritten code of the tribe or the precisely drafted legislation of the modern state). Law is not mere exhortation to the people to conform; it is enforced. The government must have the means of compelling its subjects to obey the law and must have the power to impose penalties on those who disobey.

There is no explicit description of the state in Scripture. There is no attempt to define precisely what constitutes the prerogatives of government. All that has been said above is implicit in Biblical teaching, whether it is expressed in the narratives of God’s dealings either in mercy or judgment with nations; in the record of God’s word to kings and those in authority, or in the attitude to the state, either adopted by God’s people or prescribed for them by prophets and apostles and by Christ Himself.

There are two spheres in which human authority is exercised in Scripture—among the people of God, and among men in general. In the OT Israel appears as a nation under God in a special sense, but the other nations are also subject to Him and although they may not acknowledge the fact, yet the authority exercised even by pagan kings was entrusted to them by the God of Israel. Similarly in the NT there is the company of the redeemed where the kingly rule of Christ is gladly accepted. There is also the Rom. empire in which the believers find themselves under civil control. However, this is not a realm where God’s sovereign power is not present; for the NT writers echo the prophets of the OT that “the governing authorities....have been instituted by God” (Rom 13:1).

The authority of God exercised among His people is an anticipation of the final consummation of the purposes of God when every knee shall bow. That same authority mediated through the agency of human rulers is a standing witness to God’s common grace, even to men in a state of rebellion against Him. Although some features of government as exercised in Israel are common to any properly ordered state, because of the peculiar position of the chosen people, it is best to consider them separately before looking at the wider aspects of the Biblical view of the state.

Government in Israel.

The ancient nation of Israel was unique in that it was organized as a theocracy. Although the precise form of government varied during the nation’s history, the underlying conviction was always there in the OT that the Lord is the true ruler of His people. Whoever exercised rule over the nation, the ultimate authority belonged to God.

The Lordship of God over His people is seen in the way that leaders and kings owed their appointment to Him. Moses was commissioned directly by God to lead the people out of Egypt. It was under his leadership that they ceased to be a collection of tribes and were constituted a nation, the people of the Covenant. Joshua, his successor, owed his position to the same divine commission, and in the stormy days after his death the judges who ruled were raised up by God—“Then the Lord raised up judges who saved them out of the power of those who plundered them” (Judg 2:16). In the rise of the monarchy there was the same firm insistence on divine appointment, as Saul was first selected and then rejected, and as David was summoned to the throne by Samuel, God’s prophet. The king in Israel was “the Lord’s anointed.” He was not merely the head of the civil administration or the commander of the army. He was essentially the representative of the kingly rule of God. His government of Israel embodied and illustrated the sovereign authority of the Lord.

This meant that in Israel the ideal of creation began to be realized. Because of the sinfulness of the men called to govern the nation this realization was all too often sadly impaired. Nonetheless, a nation was established distinct from the other nations which surrounded it, in which God’s purposes for man whom He had created were to some degree manifested. God’s original purpose for man was that he should live in submission to his Creator, in harmony with his fellows, and in enjoyment of the bounty of nature. Sin by contrast brought rebellion against God, division among men, and discord into the whole created order. Whereas the original purpose envisaged the communion of men with God, the sad consequence of man’s sin was the judgment of God, leading to exclusion from God’s presence and to misery.

All this was reflected in ancient Israel. Insofar as they submitted to God’s law the original pattern of creation began to be seen. When a godly ruler on the throne led the people in submission to the law, the result was unity in the land between the different tribes. There was peace and security against the disruptive forces from without. “Every man under his vine and under his fig tree” (1 Kings 4:25) enjoyed the fruit of the land but when they rebelled against God the warnings of Deuteronomy were realized. The nation was divided; they faced plague, pestilence, and famine; they became subject to their enemies, and finally they were banished from the land.

There was also the eschatological element. The glimpses of the glory enjoyed in the land were flickering tokens of the surpassing glory to come at the end of the age, when the Israel of God would be brought into perfect submission to His rule. On the other side, the sin and the consequent judgments were tokens of the solemn outcome of the final “day of the Lord,” when the nations that knew not God were consumed by the fire of His wrath.

There is, of course, the important Messianic element in the history of government in Israel. Just as the anointed prophet and priest foreshadowed the Word made flesh, the great High Priest at Calvary, so the king of Israel was a foreshadowing of the Messianic king. Thus Jesus began His ministry preaching the gospel of the kingdom. The rule exercised by the kings of Israel failed to declare adequately the sovereignty of the Lord because of the sinfulness of even the best of the kings. In the Messiah there is no such imperfection, in Him God’s rule is perfectly manifested.

Within the Church, Christ’s kingship is the dominant truth. The government that is exercised by the spiritual leaders within the redeemed community is really the mediation of the royal government of Christ. To a greater degree than in Israel, the ideal of creation is realized. However, because the Church is comprised of men who although justified, are still sinful, the final realization is yet future, and the Christian still prays, “Thy kingdom come.”

This consideration of government in Israel and in the Church of Christ has not been a mere parenthesis in the discussion of the Biblical view of the state. Apart from its positive value in stressing the ultimate authority of all human government, it needs to be related in a Biblical fashion to the wider issues, for it is at this point that historically there has been much confusion. There has been a failure to see the unique character of the theocracy in Israel with the subsequent misguided attempt to organize nations on a theocratic basis. In a similar way some Christians have viewed the government of God exercised within the Church as the blueprint for society, so that the laws of the Church become the pattern for the laws of the land.

In the 16th cent. many of the Reformers were clearly dominated by the theocratic ideal. The godly prince of the OT found his fulfillment in the Lutheran, Reformed, or Anglican ruler so that the magistrate had a responsibility to protect the Church and to enforce the moral standards that the Church declared. In its more ugly manifestation the magistrate also assumed the further responsibility of defending the “truth” and resisting “error” to the extent of punishing offenders.

This concept of the Christian state fails to do justice to the Biblical understanding of the new Covenant. It is true that there is in Scripture one Covenant of Grace. However, within that one Covenant there is the period of preparation and of fulfillment. When Jeremiah rejoiced in the prospect of the glories of the new Covenant and when the writer of Hebrews discoursed at length on the implications of this new Covenant they were not using empty words. The OT was a period when God was graciously at work, but it was still a preparatory period. It looked forward to the age of the Messiah, the Gospel age, the age of fulfillment.

The restrictive national character of the old covenant was shattered by the divinely commanded inclusion of the Gentiles. There is no longer a theocratic nation, as men and women of every tribe and nation are gathered into the Church. The godly prince of the OT finds his fulfillment in the Messiah. To look for a modern counterpart to David or Hezekiah is to miss the concept of the unique kingship of Christ. It may be that the ruler is a true believer, but that does not give him the status that the theocratic concept requires, for in the kingdom of God there is only one king, Christ Himself.

For this reason the Anabaptist wing of the Reformation movement (in its more sober and Biblical manifestations) insisted on the separate spheres of church and state. The Church is the realm of God’s special grace where God governs His people by means of those whom He ordains and whom the Spirit endows with gifts for their task. The state is the realm of God’s common grace extended to all men. The government, although it is of divine authority, will reflect Christian standards only insofar as the members of that government themselves exercise Christian values.

In other words, a Christian man who reaches a position of authority in the state will be motivated by his faith in the same way as a business man is influenced in his decisions by the standards of integrity and righteousness that are his because he is a Christian. This does not mean that the Christian politician can submit a nation including both believers and unbelievers to a pattern of conduct which belongs properly to believers only. The separation of church and state is not a mere slogan, but is rooted in the Biblical doctrine that there are two realms; secular government and the spiritual household of God. God is at work in both, but each enjoys a relative autonomy—relative, that is, in view of the overriding fact of God’s final authority.

Government in general

Its divine authority.

The more general aspects of human government overlap with some of the elements already discussed concerning Israel and the Church. All authority is ultimately from God and, although men may either ignore or reject God, He still remains King. Men scheme and plot and kill to seize power. Nations go to war and national boundaries change. Dictatorship gives way to democracy or vice versa. But above and beyond all political changes and the ebb and flow of national powers, the Lord God omnipotent reigns.

Daniel, the prophet, insisted on this derived character of all government when he reminded Nebuchadnezzar that “the Most High rules the kingdom of men, and gives it to whom he will, and sets over it the lowliest of men” (Dan 4:17, 25). This same Nebuchadnezzar was humbled by God, and at another time he was used to carry out God’s purposes. “Now I have given all these lands into the hands of Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, my servant” (Jer 27:6). The word of the Lord to Belshazzar declared that the fall of his kingdom and the rise of the Medo-Persian empire was by the decree of God (Dan 5:28). When Cyrus acted to liberate the Jews, it was because the Lord stirred up his spirit (2 Chron 36:22; cf. Isa 44:28).

The judgment of God upon nations stresses the same truth that all government is derived from God, and therefore when rulers misuse the responsibility entrusted to them they are liable to God’s judgment. So Pharaoh was overthrown, a great OT illustration of God’s supremacy. The prophets declared the same theme, as in the prophetic warnings to the nations by Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. Not only Judah and Israel, but pagan nations as well were subject to the moral law, and all alike came under the lash of Amos’ passionate invective.

The NT contains the same position. The state for most believers was the Rom. empire, paganistic and powerful. But it was established by divine decree. So Christ accepted the authority of Caesar as the legal authority in civil affairs (Matt 22:15ff.) even though Caesar controlled Pal. by force of arms. Peter counseled the same attitude. Christians were to “honor the emperor” (1 Pet 2:17). Paul in the emphatic statement already quoted (Rom 13) insisted that all human authority is derived from God.

Most significant is the fact that divine authority over government is independent of the moral character of the leaders who control the government. Nero was a blackguard, yet the same word applies—he was to be honored. An institution like the family or the state is devised and established by God, and yet many of those involved may fall far short of the ideal. To destroy the institution, however, is to produce an intolerable chaos. A father may behave like a brute and forfeit any right to respect, but this does not give cause to despise or repudiate the vital necessity of family life and parental authority. No more does the failure of one ruler to administer justly give the right to anarchic overthrow of authority. God in His own way deals with such men. In spite of individual failure, the authority of the office still stands.

The duty of obedience.

The obvious corollary to the divinely given authority of the state is the obligation to submit to the laws of the land. Obedience to duly constituted civil authority is written into the canons of Christian conduct. To honor the emperor did not mean for Peter simply to pay lip service to the dignity of his office. It meant a readiness to obey the laws that the emperor promulgated, and to submit if need be to the penalties imposed on disobedience. The issue of disobedience for conscience sake will be discussed later.

Obedience to the government was practiced by Jesus Himself. He lived in the midst of nationalistic resentment of the alien rule of Rome (one of his disciples, Simon the Zealot, was drawn from this background). It would have been easy for Him to fan the embers of bitterness into a flame of opposition to the Rom. occupation, but this He refused to do. The currency bearing Caesar’s head was a reminder of the benefits of stable government. The use of that currency was an implicit acknowledgment of the authority of the government that had issued it. Therefore they must obey Caesar in practical ways by paying the tax with the same coinage used to enjoy the privileges of Rom. rule. Rome was an alien occupying power, but her government was a fact of the providential ordering of God Almighty. Therefore they must obey, for to refuse to pay the tax would be to rebel against God (see Matt 22:15-21).

When standing before Pilate, the Lord affirmed the same attitude. The man who tried Him was unworthy of his office, and the trial was a travesty of justice. Nonetheless, Pilate was the governor and as such was the representative of the imperial government, and therefore to him Jesus submitted. When Pilate began to bluster there was a firm word of rebuke—“You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above” (John 19:11)—but in His general attitude He maintained the same approach as He had earlier in the garden when He rebuked Peter for using his sword and submitted quietly to arrest.

The Apostle Paul followed his master in this as in all other things. His frequent assertion of the essential legality of his actions in the eyes of Rom. law is an implicit acknowledgment of the authority of that law. It is a standard to which he saw himself called to conform. When in the final stages of his prolonged imprisonment at Caesarea he made his appeal to Caesar, he was acknowledging the supreme authority of the emperor whose laws he had obeyed and to whose justice he now appealed.

When he spoke in explicit terms about the authority of the state and the responsibility involved in citizenship he expressed a reflection of his own personal attitude. As already noted (Rom 13), he emphasized the divine institution of the state.

God’s purpose in thus ordaining the power of government is a gracious one. It is to restrain evil and punish wrongdoers. Thus the demands of the law for honesty and preservation of life reflect the demands of God. The justice of the law carried out upon evil reflects in some measure the righteous judgments of the Judge of all the earth.

This realization lifts the Christian’s obedience to a new level. He does not obey merely because it is the best policy and because disobedience to the law if detected will lead to punishment. He obeys “for the sake of conscience.” Seeing the hand of God in the demands of the state, hearing the voice of God in the just requirements of the powers that be, and believing himself to be a man not simply subject to the laws of the state but to the authority of God, he yields a willing obedience.

The same applies (Rom 13) to the payment of taxes, an echo of Jesus’ teaching about Caesar’s rights. Since the state is divinely ordained and since obviously it requires money to carry out its divinely appointed function the citizen must pay taxes to furnish the necessary resources. The Christian, says Paul, will pay taxes for conscience’ sake. There will be no manipulation of his tax returns, no defrauding of the tax authorities. The tax demand note is a requirement with heaven’s seal upon it, and there must be a scrupulous honesty in complying with it.

Crete was noted for its turbulence, but Christians even in such an atmosphere were to show a different spirit. Paul wrote to Titus (3:1) to remind the Cretans of their responsibility, “to be submissive to rulers and authorities.” This injunction was linked with the requirement that they should be “ready for any honest work.” Obedience to the demands of the government means not only an avoidance of what is illegal but also a positive participation in any task that is obviously the responsibility of a loyal citizen.

There is a unanimity in the apostolic teaching. Peter who once used his sword in Gethsemane had learned his lesson. Whether it is the emperor as the supreme authority, or the various governors who are his representatives, all must be seen by the Christian to be sent by God Himself. Government is viewed not simply in its restraining and punitive capacity but in its positive role of promoting the public good. The state praises those who do right (1 Pet 2:14). This public recognition of worth is an implicit acknowledgment of the responsibility of the state to promote moral standards in the community. If the state acts to provide education or welfare for its citizens the Christian citizen should recognize the positive side of the state’s function and should readily pay his taxes to provide the means for accomplishing these programs. This submission is rendered “for the Lord’s sake.” This involves not only an honest compliance with the state’s requirements but an ungrudging and ready obedience, since it is not merely a government that makes the demand, but the Lord Himself.

The limits of obedience.

There are, however, limits to the obedience that the state may demand. No one is entitled to qualify his response on the ground of personal inconvenience or of personal dislike of any particular legislation. Once such considerations are substituted for submission a condition of subjectivism exists, which if unchecked leads to anarchy. A question of conscience, however, is in a different category. It is one thing when the state imposes repressive measures that may be very hard to accept, or even when the state acts unjustly. In such cases submission is due. It is a very different matter when the demands of the state conflict with the law of God. What is the Christian to do if the government commands him to act in a way that is plainly contrary to Scripture?

Where there is a conflict of loyalties the higher one must take precedence, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). Although the Lord was quite insistent that one must render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, He added an important and qualifying requirement, “and to God the things that are God’s” (Luke 20:25). Caesar had a divinely given authority to which submission was due, but his authority was always subject to a higher authority, God Himself. If Caesar then went beyond his prerogatives and required from men something that God forbade, then Caesar must be disobeyed.

It must be stressed, however, that disobedience must be limited only to matters of conscience. In every other point the Christian must remain a loyal citizen. It is only at the point where his loyalty to God is in danger of being violated that he must take his stand. This point emerged in Peter’s first epistle. He wrote about the likely persecution and suffering that Christians would face. They must be prepared to endure trial for Christ’s sake. At the same time he reminded them that it is only in the cause of righteousness that such resistance to the state is permissible. If a Christian suffered the consequences of other unlawful actions he need expect no word of commendation from God (1 Pet 4:12, 13).

The limits of disobedience.

A further question arises: what form should this legitimate disobedience take? If for conscience sake one cannot obey the dictates of the state, how should he show his resistance? Should the disobedience be active or passive? This is no academic issue for it constantly recurs as an existential problem. Is it right, for example, when a dictatorship is repressing the country in general and the Church in particular, for a Christian to take part in a conspiracy to overthrow the government? Is it right for Christians to participate in civil disobedience or should a Christian’s resistance be that of suffering only?

Any active participation in subversion is apparently ruled out by the basic Biblical insistence on the divine authority of government. To take steps to overthrow an existing government is to deny this fact. It means that men have rejected what is a fact of God’s providence and this the Christian cannot do. He must suffer for conscience sake and await God’s hour of deliverance. It may be that God will use an armed revolt to overthrow a tyranny, for God uses men’s schemes and plans even when those who formulate them are not His people and their action may be contrary to His revealed will. However, the Christian cannot himself share in the planning or initiation of such a rebellion. Until the existing regime has manifestly been overthrown, his calling is to submit.

In the matter of civil disobedience guidance must come from Biblical principles rather than from explicitly stated Biblical mandates or prohibitions. Neither the OT nor the NT envisaged the type of state as the Western democracies of today, but rather the Bible knew only the authoritarian regime where the subjects’ only duty was to obey. Clearly the situation is different in a democracy where opposition to the government’s policies is both allowable and desirable. Indeed, organized political opposition to the government (the political party in power) is the life blood of democracy. No Biblical injunction is violated here. The “powers that be” in a democracy are the people themselves acting through their elected representatives. If then by educating public opinion, pressure is brought to bear on the government, or if by the use of the vote the political party in power is defeated it is still consistent with submission to the duly constituted authorities.

Civil disobedience, however, is in a different category. It is one thing to agitate for a particular position, or even to organize demonstrations. These are within the law. But once an activity goes beyond the law, at that point it becomes illegitimate for the Christian. There are times when it is difficult to come to a clear decision. There are areas of action that are neither black nor white, but an indefinite gray. At such times the Christian whose attitude to the law is governed by such phrases as “for conscience sake” or “for the Lord’s sake” will give the law the benefit of the doubt.

A situation may also arise when there is a revolt leading to civil war with two competing authorities claiming to be the rightful government. Should the Christian take sides? What is his attitude to be? Again, he must admit that in the confusion that prevails at such a time, it is hard to come to a firm conclusion because of the lack of information, and also because of the misleading propaganda that usually issues from both sides. The Christian will stand on his basic position. Since he has accepted the existing government as the one appointed by God he will continue to treat it as such until it is quite clear that a de facto situation has made the de jure situation unreal and empty. Recognizing that God has often used rebellion to sweep away a corrupt government he will not cling blindly to the status quo but will be ready to submit with an equal obedience to the new government. One extreme is the readiness to side with any movement that looks likely to topple an unjust government. The other extreme is the conservatism that makes the Christian reluctant to accept the inevitability of a change that is already a fact, and yearn after a day that is gone. The middle course between these extremes is not easy to chart, but unless the Christian constantly relates himself to the basic Biblical principles, the way will not be merely difficult to chart, but well nigh impossible.

Prayer for the government.

Paul urged that prayer should be offered “for kings and all who are in high positions” (1 Tim 2:1-4). Clearly he was not concerned with the formal prayer that make a brief and perfunctory mention of the government in the public worship of the Church. On the contrary, he embraced the whole range of prayer as he called for “supplications, prayers, intercessions and thanksgivings.” The Christian is to be as fervent in his prayers for the government as he is in what he might be tempted to consider as more spiritual concerns.

It is also important to note that Paul did not add any moral or spiritual qualifications in designating those for whom we are to pray. He knew only too well that a blackguard like Nero might be on the throne as emperor. His own experience verified the corruption that could exist at lower levels of government. His prolonged captivity at Caesarea had been due largely to the hope of a bribe on the part of the corrupt and immoral Felix, the governor. But Paul did not qualify his exhortation in any way. If a man is in a position of authority, whatever may be his personal character, he must be prayed for. Even if he is an avowed enemy of the Gospel and a bitter persecutor of the Church, he is still to be the object of intercessory prayers.

Paul knew from experience the resistance to the Gospel on the part of the Rom. authorities, who always viewed with suspicion any group which might prove to be a source of disaffection or subversion. The Christians might claim to be unconcerned with political issues, but the fact that they did not conform to the general social pattern marked them out as politically suspect. The likelihood of continuing and intensified persecution was present. To pray for the government was really to pray for the well-being of the Church. Paul gave as the aim of this praying, “that we may live a quiet and peaceable life, godly and respectful in every way” (2:2). He was declaring his concern not merely that Christians might enjoy peace, but also that they might be enabled to live as good citizens, respecting the government.

Christians at peace are never Christians at ease. Peaceful conditions in Church and state mean opportunities for preaching the Gospel. Paul followed this in his own experience. Roman roads were open to travelers because of the protecting might of the Rom. legions stationed at strategic points throughout the empire. Those roads provided opportunity for the missionary of Christ who wanted to spread the Gospel. Obviously it was a vital matter that these lines of communication be kept open. In modern times civil war and consequent anarchy are closing doors of opportunity. This call to pray for governments in all parts of the world is a continuing aspect of missionary intercession.

Paul also knew from experience the value of citizenship as a barrier against injustice. He would not use any external powers to forward the Gospel for “the weapons of our warfare are not worldly” (2 Cor 10:4). At the same time, when he was subjected to injustice or to the possibility of mob violence or assassination, he was ready to appeal to the authorities. In Philippi he was insistent that the authorities in the town must themselves be subject to Rom justice, which they claimed to administer. In the final resort, as Paul faced the plots of the Jews against his life, he was ready to invoke his right as a citizen to appeal to Caesar. The stable government of Rome was therefore not only a condition of peaceful existence but, also was a valuable instrument for restraining unjust attacks on Paul’s life. To pray for Paul’s evangelistic work, to pray for his protection in carrying out that work, and to pray for the government, were not different areas of intercession, but aspects of the same basic concern.

Paul did not have in view simply the stability of the social order when he urged people to pray for rulers. He was also concerned for them as individuals, who are as much in need of the Gospel as any other sinner without God and without hope. He doubtless recognized the possibility of unbelief bordering on incredulity with which many Christians might receive the request that they pray for the emperor’s conversion. They might well have doubted whether there was any likelihood of such a remote possibility being realized. Paul reminded them of the width of God’s purposes of grace. “God our Savior...desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:3, 4). Taken in its immediate context the words “all men” would seem to refer to all sorts and conditions of men. God’s purpose embraces not only the weak things of the world, who comprise the bulk of the Church, but also rulers. When Paul emphasized God’s choice of the humble to confound the mighty (1 Cor 1), he did not exclude altogether those from a more exalted social or intellectual position—his phrase was “not many” rather than “not any.” Therefore He declared that the gracious purpose of God reaches out to kings, so that prayer for them should petition their conversion.

There may come a time when the government of the day has gone far beyond its rights, and blatant unrighteousness and injustice control a nation. However, the Christian cannot, even then, have recourse to violent means to overthrow such a regime, but he can pray. In the Revelation is described such a conflict between the Church and the persecuting state. Therein is a symbolic glimpse of the souls of those who had been slain “for the word of God and for the witness they have borne.” They were crying to God for vindication, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before thou wilt judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell upon the earth?” (Rev 6:10). This prayer in heaven may well be echoed on earth. The Christian may be prepared to suffer for his testimony, but he is not inactive. God is his vindicator and to God he commits his cause, for in this matter his cause is no more a personal matter since it is the cause of the Gospel itself. The psalms provide inspiration for prayer at such a time (Pss 35:1; 43:1; 119:154) and also provide the ground of hope. The rulers may defy the Lord and His Christ, yet God still reigns. “He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord has them in derision” (Ps 2:4). The solution may be in the ruler’s conversion or in his overthrow, but in either case it will be the power of God that will effect it, and believing prayer is faith’s laying hold upon this divine power.

Participation in government.

Is it right for Christians to use their vote? Can the Christian conscientiously enter political life and stand as a candidate for election either at the local or national level? These are questions that are obviously relevant only in a democracy where such possibilities exist. A similar question confronts Christians who live under some form of dictatorship. Is it right for a believer to accept employment that involves carrying out government policy? Does the believer’s attitude to the world commit him to a policy of withdrawal from political affairs?

As noted above in the matter of obedience to the state the political context of the Biblical writers was different from a democratic situation of today, though very similar to that of many contemporary dictatorships. The Bible does not give definite precept or prohibition, but does provide guiding principles.

An appeal to the situation in Israel seemingly is ruled out because of the unique character of the theocracy. The ruler or king in Israel was involved not only in civil but in spiritual functions. However there is abundant OT illustration of the attitude of godly men toward Gentile and pagan governments. Joseph accepted a position of authority in Egypt, Daniel in Babylon, and Mordecai in Persia. Their positions are attributed to God’s providence. Naaman continued to serve the king of Syria, and Obadiah remained in the service of Ahab, whose apostate northern kingdom approximated the surrounding heathen nations. In the NT there is no hint of the Ethiopian eunuch being called upon to renounce the office he held in the court life of his country. The same applies to Cornelius, the Rom. centurion in Caesarea, Sergius Paulus the pro-consul in Cyprus, and the Philippian jailer. When Paul sent greetings to the Philippian church he associated with him “those of Caesar’s household.” Although it might be argued that these were prob. only slaves in the palace, it is not probable that Paul would single out palace slaves for special mention. More likely they had an official status that would be of particular interest to a church in Philippi, which was a Rom. colony.

Some might accept the legitimacy of employment by government who would question the Christian’s entry into political life. In the latter case it is a choice freely taken, and it involves a man not merely in carrying out the policy of the government but in helping to formulate it. Can a Christian thus be involved? Does the call to come out and be separate not apply here?

One preliminary point needs to be made. There would seem to be no fundamental difference between using one’s vote and entering actively into political life. In both cases one is taking an active part. One vote may seem a very insignificant cog in a great machine, but a few hundred such votes can change the whole future of a country. Whether or not to allow a Christian to enter politics is basically the same issue as the question—to vote or not to vote.

The continuing principle of submission to the powers that be must again be the starting point. Assuming a democratic situation, that authority is vested in the people themselves, the men who actually rule the country are there as representatives of the people. The means by which they reach their position of authority are part of the constitution of the social order in which they live. According to the NT the ruler has divine authority, and in a democracy that power is vested in the people. Thus the procedure for electing representatives shares in that divinely given authority. To exercise the vote is thus simply to comply with the standing requirement of Scripture.

As far as active participation in politics is concerned, a Christian should only enter if he is strongly motivated by Christian principles of service. A Christian entering a political career encounters special problems. The lust for power, the unfair denigration of opponents, the dubious methods used to finance the party, the underhand and sometimes dishonest methods employed, deceit for the sake of party advantage—these are some of the features of political life that make it a particularly thorny area for a Christian. Yet, it is in the darkness that the light is needed to shine all the more brightly. Salt is not to be stored but to be used where corruption is likely. The Christian politician thus becomes a moral preservative in an area where corruption is too often an ugly reality. Also, a Christian politician can exert his influence in forming and passing the best possible legislation.

Another live issue is the attitude of the church to the political struggle. Many contend that the church has a political role and should be ready to exercise its powers in a lobby aimed at influencing government policy. The NT reply to this would surely be to stress the respective roles of the church and state. The task of the Church, as church, is to preach the Gospel, edify the believers, and lead men to worship the living God. Individual Christians may enter the political field but they will do so primarily as citizens, not as representatives of a church lobby. However, their convictions will be influenced by the presuppositions of the Christian faith and they will aim to realize in social life patterns of truth and equity. In this they will be strengthened by their membership in the Church and by the fellowship they experience there.

The Church as a body aims not primarily at improving the social order but her main objective is the salvation of men. The social improvement that may result when many men are saved is desirable, but when the Church forsakes her primary task of preaching the Gospel to engage in political enterprises her true mission is lost.

A further consideration is Paul’s attitude to the standards in the Church and those in the world. Dealing with the problem of discipline at Corinth he is quite insistent that high standards be maintained in the Church. As for the world outside, he cannot judge them, for they are not subject to the Scripture that provides the criterion of judgment in the life of the Church (1 Cor 5:9-13). The Church therefore cannot insist that the state must conform to standards that are only applicable to Christians. The Christian in political life will know the standards, and in his own life he will strive to realize them. Knowing that unregenerate men can be restrained but not regenerated by legislation, and realizing that politics in a democracy is the art of the possible, he must be prepared to work for something less than the ideal lest he makes the best to become the enemy of the good.

Such an active role obviously brings its own problems of conscience. There can come a point when compromise is impossible and when a policy to which one is so committed is a clear violation of the law of God. In such an eventuality the Christian in a dictatorship must do what Daniel did in a similar situation, and face the consequences of disobedience, whereas the Christian in a democratic country has no option but to resign.


J. Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 4 (Beveridge tr. 1943); J. Wesley Bready, The Evangelical Revival and Social Reform (1938); H. F. R. Catherwood, The Christian in Industrial Society (1964); C. F. H. Henry, Aspects of Christian Social Ethics (1964); C. F. H. Henry, Christian Personal Ethics (1965); D. Möberg, Inasmuch (1965); L. Verduin, The Reformers and their Stepchildren (1966); A. G. Dickens, Reformation and Society in 16th Century Europe (1966).

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

guv’-ern-ment: The government of the Hebrews varied at different periods, of which we may distinguish seven:

(1) the nomadic period, from the Exodus to the entrance into Palestine;

(2) the period of transition from nomadic to civil life;

(3) the monarchy;

(4) the period of subjection to other oriental nations;

(5) the period from Ezra to the Greeks;

(6) Greek rule;

(7) Roman rule.

1. The Nomadic Period:

The government of the primitive period is that proper to nomadic tribes composed of families and clans, in no wise peculiar to the Hebrews, but shared in its essential features by the most diverse peoples at a corresponding stage of civilization. Though we might draw illustrations from many sources, the government of the Bedouins, Semitic nomads inhabiting the steppes of Arabia, affords the most instructive parallel. In the patriarchal state the family is the household (including slaves and concubines) of the father, who is its head, having power of life and death over his children (Ge 22; Jud 11:31 ). A clan is a collection of families under a common chieftain, chosen for his personal qualifications, such as prowess and generous hospitality. The composition of the clan was essentially shifting, subject, according to circumstances, to the loss or accession of individuals and families. Although the possession of the same grazing-grounds doubtless played a large part in determining the complexion of the clan, the fiction of descent from a common ancestor was maintained, even when kinship was established by the blood covenant. In all probability community of worship, which cemented the tribe, served as the most effective bond of union also in the clan. Vestiges of such clan cults are still to be detected (1Sa 20:5 ff; Jud 18:19). The familiar tradition of the twelve tribes must not be allowed to blind us to the evidence that the tribe also was not constant. Mention of the Kenites (Jud 1:16) and the list of tribes in the So of Deborah (Jud 5) remind us that such organizations vanished. In the readjustment incident to the change from the pastoral life of the nomad to that of the settled agricultural population of Palestine, many units were doubtless shifted from one tribe to another, and the same result may be assumed as following from the endless strife between the tribes before and during the period of the kings. The large and powerful tribe of Judah seems to have originated comparatively late. The union of the tribes under the leadership of Moses was essentially similar to the formation of a new tribe out of a group of clans actuated by a desire to accomplish a common end. Many such temporary aggregations must have originated, only to succumb to the centrifugal forces of jealousy and conflicting interests. Even after the entrance of the Hebrews into Palestine, their history for long is that of kindred tribes, rather than that of a nation. The leadership of Moses rested on personal, not on constitutional, authority, and was rendered precarious by the claims of family and of clan, as in the case of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram (Nu 16). The authority of Moses naturally extended to the administration of justice, as well as to matters pertaining to war and religion. He appointed officers to assist him in this judicial function (Ex 18:21 ), but the laws according to which they rendered judgment were those of custom and usage, not those of a written code. As among the tribal chieftains, important matters were referred to the leader, who, in cases of doubt or in default of recognized custom, resorted to the lot or to the oracle.

2. The Period of Transition:

When the nomad tribes settled in Palestine to become an agricultural people, there ensued a period of unrest due to the necessity for read-justment to changed conditions. The old tribal organization, admirably adapted to the former, ill suited the new requirements. These may be summed up in the demand for the substitution of local organization, based on the rights of individuals, for the tribal government, which had regard solely to the interests of family, clan and tribe. Such readjustment did not, of course, at once ensue, but came piecemeal in answer to the gradually realized wants of the community. Nor was the development entirely from within, but was unquestionably in large measure influenced by the institutions existing among the Canaanite population, only a part of which had been expelled by the invaders. Although the tribes still clung to the fiction of descent from a common ancestor, which was embodied in the accepted genealogies with their filiation of clans into tribes and of tribes into a nation, that which henceforth passed as a "tribe" was less an aggregation of kindred units than a geographical unit or group of units. The times were turbulent, disturbed by contending elements within and by foes without the tribes. Then it was that there arose a class of chieftains of strongly marked character, called by a new name. The "judge" (shophet) was not the ruler of a nation, but the chieftain of a tribe, winning and maintaining his authority by virtue of his personal prowess. The cases of Gideon and Abimelech (Jud 8, 9) show that the authority of the "judge" was not hereditary. Agreeably to the generally changed conditions, the "elders" (zeqenim), who were formerly heads of families or kindreds, now came, possibly under the influence of the Canaanites, to be constituted an aristocratic upper class, with certain functions as administrative officers and councilors. Cities also grew and acquired importance, so that the adjacent hamlets were subordinated to them, probably even ruled from them as executive centers. In all this there is a certain similarity to the process by which, in the period just preceding the beginning of real history, Athens became the metropolis of Attica, and conventional tribes supplanted those based on kinship, while the rise of the purely local organization of the demos led speedily to the appearance of the "tyrants." The high places of clans and tribes continued to be frequented, and certain "seers" (1Sa 9:6 ) enjoyed considerable prestige by virtue of their peculiar relation to the tribal god.

3. The Monarchy:

While the succession of tribal chieftains and of the "judges" depended on personal qualifications, the principle of heredity is essential to the institution of monarchy, which originated in the desire to regulate the succession with a view to having an assured authoritative leadership. This principle could not, of course, be invoked in the appointment of Saul, the first king (melekh), who won this distinction in virtue of his personal prowess, supported by the powerful influence of the "seer," Samuel. His son Ishbosheth ruled two years over Israel, but lost his throne through the disaffection of his subjects (2Sa 2-4). The accession of David, king of Judah, to the throne of all Israel was likewise exceptional, owing as much to the character of the heir presumptive as to his own qualifications. Solomon, as the choice of his father David, succeeded by right of heredity with the support of the military and religious leaders. In the Southern Kingdom of Judah, heredity was henceforth observed because of its homogeneity and the consequent absence of internal discord; whereas the principle often failed in the turbulent Northern Kingdom of Israel, which was distracted by tribal jealousies. But even when not effectually operative, heredity was recognized as constituting a claim to the succession, although the popular voice, which had been supreme in the institution of the monarchy, was a power always to be reckoned with.

(1) Royal Prerogatives.

The history and functions of monarchy defined the prerogatives and duties of the king. Just as the head of the family, or the chieftain of a tribe, functioned as representative of those subject to him in matters of religion, war, and the administration of justice, so also was it with the king. In all these spheres he was supreme, exercising his authority either personally or through representatives who thus became part of the royal establishment. It is to be noted that the sacerdotal or sacral character of the king, which was merely an extension of his privileges as individual and head of a household, was not emphasized among the Hebrews to a like extent as among other oriental peoples; and the priests whom he appointed were perhaps in the first instance court chaplains, though in time they came to assume greater authority. The responsibility of the king for the public safety carried with it the obligation to guard the state treasures, to which the treasures of the temples were felt to belong; and it was his privilege to use them when necessary for defense. The levying of taxes, also, and the collection and use of revenues from various sources likewise fell of necessity to the king and his representatives.

(2) Officers.

In regard to the constitution of the king’s court under Saul and David we learn comparatively little; even touching that of Solomon we are not fully informed, although we know that it must have been far removed from the original simplicity. We may classify the known officers as follows:

(a) religious: priests (2Sa 8:17; 20:23 );

(b) household: cupbearer (1Ki 10:5); master of the vestry (2Ki 10:22); master of the household (1Ki 4:6), who probably was a eunuch (1Ki 22:9; 2Ki 8:6; 9:32);

(c) state: scribe or clerk (2Sa 8:17; 20:25, etc.); recorder, or prompter (1Ki 4:3); king’s counselor (2Sa 15:12); and, perhaps, the king’s friend (2Sa 15:37; 16:16); overseer of taskwork (2Sa 20:24);

(d) military: commander-in-chief of the army (2Sa 8:16); commander of the king’s guards (?) (2Sa 8:18; 20:23).

(3) Fiscal Institutions.

(4) Administration of Justice.

The king, like the tribal chieftain of the steppes, still sat in judgment, but chiefly in matters of moment; less important cases were decided by the prefects of provinces and other officers. Under the earlier kings there was no code except the Book of the Covenant (Ex 20 Ex 22 Ex 23), but judgment was rendered on the basis of the law of custom or usage, the function of the judge being essentially that of an arbiter. For the later code see Deuteronomy.

(5) Religion.

The king was regarded as the natural representative of his people before God; but while he did exercise certain sacerdotal functions in person, such offices were generally performed by the priest whom he had appointed.

(6) Secular Administration.

The authority of the king in matters of state was exercised partly by him in person, partly through his ministers, the "princes" (1Ki 4:2 ). Among these functions are to be classed the communication with subject and foreign princes and the direction of the taskwork, which was employed for public improvements, partly military, as in the fortification of cities, partly religious, as in the building of the temple. Local affairs had always been left largely to the tribes and their subdivisions, but, with the gradual increase of royal authority, the king sought to exercise it more and more in the conduct of the village communities. Conversely, the "elders of the people," as the (albeit aristocratic) representatives of the communes, occasionally had a voice even in larger matters of state.

4. Israel under Oriental Potentates:

The principle of local autonomy; was widely observed in the oriental states, which concerned themselves chiefly about political and military organization and about the collection of revenues. Hence, there is no occasion for surprise on finding that the Jews enjoyed a large measure of autonomy during the period of their subjection to other oriental powers and that even during the exile they resorted, in matters of dispute, to their own representatives for judgment. Under Persian rule Palestine formed part of the satrapy lying West of the Euphrates and had, for a time, its own governor.

5. After the Restoration:

Ezra and Nehemiah endeavored to introduce a new code, which, after a period of perhaps two centuries, established a dual form of government subject to the supreme authority of the suzerain power. By the new code the secular officers were subordinated to the high priest, who thus virtually assumed the position of a constitutional prince, ruling under the Law. The "prince," however, as the representative of the tribes, and the "elders of the people," as the representatives of the communes, continued to exercise a certain limited authority.

6. The Greeks:

Under the Greek rulers of Egypt and Syria the Jews continued to enjoy a large measure of autonomy, still maintaining in general the type of internal government formulated under Ezra and Nehemiah. We now hear of a council of "elders" presided over by the high priest. The latter, appointed by the kings, was recognized as ethnarch by both Ptolemies and Seleucids and held accountable for the payment of the tribute, for the exaction of which he was, of course, empowered to levy taxes. The brief period of political independence under the Hasmoneans (see Asmoneans) did not materially alter the character compare the government, except that the high who had long been a prince in everything but in name, now openly so styled himself. The council of the "elders" survived, although with slightly diminished authority. In other respects the influence of Greek institutions made itself felt.

7. The Romans:

When Pompey terminated the reign of the Hasmoneans, the government still continued with little essential change. Following the example of the Greek kings, the Romans at Romans first appointed the high priest to the "leadership of the nation." He was soon, however, shorn for a time of his political dignity, the country being divided into five districts, each governed by its "synod"; but Caesar once more elevated the high priest to the office of ethnarch. Under Herod, the high priest and the synedrium (Sanhedrin), appointed or deposed at will as his interests seemed to require, lost much of their former prestige and power. After the death of Herod the land was again divided, and a procurator, subordinate to the governor of Syria, ruled in Judea, having practical independence in his sphere. In their internal affairs the Jews now, as under former masters, enjoyed a large measure of freedom. The high priest no longer exercising any political authority, the synedrium, of which he was a member, now gained in influence, being in fact an aristocratic council in many respects not unlike the Roman senate. It combined judicial and administrative functions, limited in the exercises of its authority only by the provision that its decisions might be reviewed by the procurator. (See Governor.) Naturally the outlying jurisdictions were organized on the same model, each with its synedrium competent in local matters. The synedrium at Jerusalem served also as a governing board for the city.