The Purpose and Limits of Government

If Christians are to submit themselves to the governing authorities per Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2, if Jesus Himself submitted Himself to governing authorities and taught others to do likewise with His “render to Caesar that which is Caesar’s” comment, then is there any scenario where the government can ask Christians to do something and we refuse? Romans 13 describes the state as “God’s minister” after all, and explains that anyone who resists the authorities actually is resisting God and will incur judgment (Rom 13:1-4).

In our current circumstances with vaccine mandates the question takes a very serious tone because not only is the government mandating something external to us (pay taxes, drive a speed limit), but something within our own bodies–an injection. Does the government have the authority to make my own health decisions? Doesn’t my bodily autonomy seem to be something sacrosanct?

When to Disobey

The “low-hanging fruit” answer to “when can Christians disobey the government?” is that whenever the government requires us to sin. If the government forbids something that God has commanded, or commands something that God has forbidden, Christian’s are not only exempt from obeying, but we are required to disobey the government. This is what happens in the book of Daniel (Dan 1:8; Dan 3; 6) and what happens to the apostles (Acts 4:19; 5:29). These refusals are not arbitrary or based on preferences; Daniel, his friends, and the apostles refuse to obey the authorities because to obey them would require them to break commands God had given.

Article 36 of the Belgic Confession (1561) On Civil Government states:

We believe that because of the depravity of the human race our good God has ordained kings, princes, and civil officers…Moreover everyone, regardless of status, condition, or rank, must be subject to the government, and pay taxes, and hold its representatives in honor and respect, and obey them in all things that are not in conflict with God’s Word.

So, the Belgic Confession understands that so long as the government is not conflicting with God’s Word, we are to obey them. But when they require us to disobey God’s Word? We are not bound. However, the Belgic Confession seems to add another element to the puzzle when it turns towards the government and addresses them:

They should do this while completely refraining from every tendency toward exercising absolute authority, and while functioning in the sphere entrusted to them, with the means belonging to them.

In traditional Reformed fashion, the confession restricts government’s authority to “the sphere entrusted to them.” This, of course, requires us to ask: what “spheres” of life does the government have authority over?

The Purposes of Government

I have been greatly helped in thinking through these issues by the writings of Jonathan Leeman (PhD, University of Wales), particularly his books How the Nations Rage and Political Church. In those works Leeman points to Genesis 9:5-6 and the Noahic covenant as the Biblical foundation for the establishment of government. Space won’t permit the detailed exegesis needed to demonstrate all of this, but I would highly recommend Leeman’s books (for an introduction, you can read this). The sum of Leeman’s argument is that in Genesis 9:5-6 God grants authority to human beings to create government to (1) render judgment for the sake of justice, (2) to build platforms of peace, order, and flourishing, and (3) to set the stage for redemption. For time’s sake, we will only look at the first two.

To Render Judgment for the Sake of Justice

This is the most easily recognizable purpose of government in the Bible. In Genesis 9:5-6 we are told that if “a man sheds the blood of another, by man shall his blood be shed.” That is, God authorizes human beings to punish evil with reciprocal, proportionate judgment (cf. Exodus 21:23-25). This is what Paul and Peter recognize in their explanations of the purpose of government:

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. - Romans 13:3-4

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. - 1 Peter 2:13-14

God has given the sword into the hands of the state to render judgment, to punish evil so that justice may be upheld and human life preserved (cf. 1 Kings 3:28; Proverbs 20:8).

To Build Platforms of Peace, Order, and Flourishing

The verses that preceded and follow Genesis 9:5-6 are Genesis 9:1 and 9:7, repetitions of the creation mandate given to Adam and Eve in Genesis 1:28: “Be fruitful and multiply.” Leeman writes:

The authority God gave to shed blood for blood (vv. 5-6) facilitates the larger enterprise of filling the earth and ruling over it (vv. 1 and 7). Governments establish peace, order, and some measure of flourishing so that people can fulfill God's greater dominion mandate. Purpose one leads to and allows for purpose two. - How the Nations Rage, p. 112-13

Look back again at Romans 13:3-4 and 1 Peter 2:13-14. You’ll notice that the governing authorities are not there only to “punish the evil” but also to “praise” (ἔπαινος) those who do good and to give “approval” (ἔπαινος) for doing good. So, government is not here only to punish evil but to incentivize good behavior, to promote human flourishing. You can see this in Joseph’s governing in Egypt, Daniel’s advising in Babylon, Solomon’s reign over Israel, or the numerous laws given in the Torah that deal with the provisions given to care for the poor–all of these examples demonstrate government using authority to yield positive goods, not only negative punishment (cf. 2 Sam 23:3-4).

In Paul and Peter’s day one example of this benefit of government would have been Rome’s vast network of roads throughout their empire. The road system was a staggering feat, stretching hundreds of miles across the Roman Empire. Bridges and roadways were not only built, but also maintained by the Roman government, and open to be used by anyone. Further, the Pax Romana that had been created, albeit through sometimes brutal means, did ensure that whether traveling by land or sea the chances of being accosted by pirates or bandits were slim. Thus, merchants, messengers, soldiers, visiting relatives, actors, athletes, letter-carriers, artisans, teachers, sightseers, government officials, and yes, even apostles were able to more easily network across the empire, sharing knowledge, goods, cultures, and religion.

Today, consider how our government provides tax benefits to owning a home and having children. Some state governments will even go so far as to provide a first-time home buyer grants to incentivize its citizens to purchase homes. Why would they do these things? Is this governmental overreach? I don’t think so, but rather this seems to be an effort to promote peace, order, and human flourishing. Neighborhoods that have a higher percentage of homeowners tend to also have lower percentages of crime and have citizens more invested in their community. Children likewise usually compel citizens to become more responsible, better employees, and more active in working for civic good. So the state has an interest in incentivizing behavior that leads to more just, peaceful, and sustainable communities; they are “praising” the good.

Of course, just because this is what governments should do, doesn’t mean it is what they always do. Many tinpot dictators throughout history have not cared about creating “peace, order, and prosperity” for their citizens. And, even in the best of governments there will be serious debate on just how involved government should be in the promoting of societal flourishing–does this mean, for example, the government should provide universal health care or free college? Or should we leave that up to the market? Those are great conversations to have, but in those debates, both sides need to start with seeing government as a God-given gift to promote justice through the proportionate punishing of evil (do evil, and you’ll receive his sword) and to promote human flourishing and order (do good, and you’ll receive his praise).

With all of that fleshed out, we could even pack those two purposes into one phrase: government exists to preserve human life (understanding “life” in the fullest sense of the word).

Though government can often be beastly (Rev 13), it also is one of the major ways we see the cultural mandate of Genesis 1:28 play out, mankind striving to be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it.

When Government Goes Beyond Its Limits

If the government makes decisions that are arbitrary and have no bearing on their responsibility to preserve human life, or worse, contradict that responsibility, are we obligated to submit to them? If the government tells you to hop on your left foot every other Tuesday for thirty minutes must you consent? The government isn’t requiring you to sin, so must you obey? We might determine that it is pragmatically wise to go along with such a mandate to preserve our witness to outsiders, as Jesus (Matt 17:24-27) and Paul (1 Cor 9:19-23) did with submitting to various customs. But would we be morally bound to hop on our left foot?

There are some Christians who would say: Yes, if the government has not required us to sin, we should submit to them, even if it is ridiculous. Let’s call this the “maximalist” response. Maximalists believe that we should obey whatever government requires, provided it isn’t sinful. So, since hopping on your left foot for half an hour isn’t sinful, they would consent.

There are other Christians who would say: That’s ridiculous, of course I wouldn’t consent to that. We should only consent to the areas over which we can clearly see the government operating in its prescribed lanes. Let’s call this the “essentialist” response. Essentialists believe that we are only bound to submit to what is essential to the government’s God-given domains: the punishing of evil and the promotion of peace, order, and flourishing. Since hopping on our left foot does nothing to preserve life, it is an illegitimate use of its authority, and can be disregarded. This would be what Leeman calls a “jurisdictional transgression” where the authority has gone beyond its God-given limits.

In Defense of Essentialism

Only God has unconditional authority that must be submitted to at all times. He grants certain institutions on earth (government, churches, pastors, husbands, parents) parts of His authority, but only over certain domains. When the Bible teaches that “wives should submit in everything to their husbands,” (Eph 5:24) does that mean that a wife is never permitted to disagree with her husband? Or even worse, does that mean a wife who is being abused must continue to submit to her husband and not seek to escape the abuse? Absolutely not. Why? Because, again, only God has unconditional authority. Every other institution of authority has derived authority and thus limited authority; there is a prescribed lane. A husband’s authority is to be used to love his wife as Christ did the church, to “wash her with the water of the Word,” to “nourish and cherish” her like his own flesh (Eph 5:25-29). So, when a husband uses his authority in domineering or abusive way that goes beyond his God-given bounds or directly contradicts them, his authority is now illegitimate and the wife is not bound to continue submitting to those abuses.

A similar example could be used of pastors. Hebrews 13:17 says that church members should “obey” and “submit” to their pastors. If I walked up to one of my congregants and read Hebrews 13:17, and then told them to give me all the money they had in their wallet, they would rightly be suspicious. They would intuitively understand that I am misunderstanding the nature of the authority Hebrews 13:17 grants me, that I am going beyond the limits of my prescribed lane.

The same applies to the governing authorities. God has prescribed certain limits to the government’s jurisdiction. There are some things that “belong to Caesar”–but not everything. Their God-given task is to preserve human life through the punishing of evil and the promotion of human flourishing.

In Defense of Maximalism

On the other hand, as I argued earlier, when Jesus taught His disciples to “go the extra mile” when compelled by Roman soldiers (Matt 5:38-42), it is difficult to understand how this is an appropriate use of the God-given authority to preserve life. This seems, rather, to be a perfect example of the government abusing its authority at the expense of the human lives it is supposed to be preserving. Maybe, one might respond, Jews in Jesus day had no legal protection to avoid bearing the soldier’s burden; if they refused, they could have forfeited their life or been thrown in jail. Perhaps Jesus was just trying to avoid putting His disciples in harm’s way or inciting them to rebellion. Since we Americans have more protections from governmental abuses, we don’t need to be so compliant. That’s a commendable consideration and surely the differences between our government and the government of Jesus’ day adds a perplexing wrinkle in trying to apply these commands to ourselves.

But, if that were true, then why would Jesus exhort His disciples to go above and beyond the carrying of the burden? He did not tell His disciples to merely consent to bearing the burden, but to be willing to bear it twice as long as is normally required. Further, why would Paul and Jesus command Christians to pay their taxes (Rom 13:6-7; Mark 12:13-17) when they knew that some of those tax revenues would go towards what they considered to be evil, such as the construction of pagan temples?

If we embrace an unqualified essentialism we run the risk of muting Jesus’ and Paul’s commands to submit to imperfect governing authorities.

In Defense of a Nuanced-Middle

If Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 do not teach an unqualified obedience to the law, then we should understand them to be advocating that the general posture of a Christian towards its government to be one of submission and compliance.

If we return to Matthew Henry’s commentary I quoted in my first article he explained that in regards to the “extra mile” command, “Small injuries must be submitted to, and no notice taken of them.” The emphasis on “small injuries” was also repeated in his comments on the “other cheek” and the “stolen cloak.” I think Henry’s realistic wisdom in these comments are worth paying attention to.

When a person uses their authority in ways we deem to be a minor overstepping of bounds, a Christians’ response should be to continue to submit; our default posture is one of submission. But, if the exercise of the authority goes beyond a “minor” overstep, if it results in serious harm or is a major overstep, then we may be free to resist.

In the diagram below we see three categories of an individual or entity’s use of authority. The blue circle represents the legitimate uses of authority. This would be what an essentialist would say we are strictly bound to submit to. The orange circle would be the illegitimate uses of authority. This would be the extent to which a maximalist would say we are to submit. The red-striped circle in the middle is the questionable area of authority that might be an individual or entity stretching beyond its legitimate bounds. The nuanced-mediating position I am advocating is that in these questionable domains, Christians should usually continue to submit.

Consider another marriage example. Say a husband is wanting to take the family on a vacation. The wife thinks that this is a poor financial decision for the family. The husband sincerely listens to the wife’s concerns, goes back to examine their budget and does more research on the cost of the vacation. The husband returns to the wife and says, “Sweetheart, I know you are concerned about this, but I really think this is the best thing we can do for our family, will you please trust me?” Let’s say the wife is still convinced that this is a poor financial decision for their family, that this is not wise. Let’s even say that the husband isn’t particularly great with money. What should the wife do? Well, that depends on the specifics.

Is the husband planning on taking the family on an exorbitant vacation that will saddle the family with tens of thousands of dollars in credit-card debt? Or will this vacation be more modest, but result in them not being able to save as much in their “rainy day” fund as the wife would like? I would argue that the wife, even if the husband isn’t making the wisest financial decision, should submit to her husband in the latter example, but not in the former. Having a “rainy day” fund is a good and wise thing to do, but choosing to take a modest vacation, while perhaps unwise, is not an example of a husband stretching his authority to an illegitimate extreme. Even if it is a questionable application of his authority to love and cherish his wife, one can still recognize it as an attempt to love and cherish her. Sinking his family under a mountain of debt, however, is using his authority in such a way that his loving and cherishing of his wife is no longer recognizable. It has ballooned into an illegitimate application of his authority that is far beyond the “questionable” realm and his headship in this area has now become invalidated.

Therefore, as Christians living in a fallen world, we need to have a posture that is inclined to normally submit to the authorities that God has placed over us, even when we see the authority being wielded in a way we deem to be questionable, or even unwise. Different Christians may disagree on where the boundaries of what is “questionable” are, and we should all be charitable with one another in those disagreements. However, once an authority exerts its influence in such a way that its original domain of authority is left far behind, is no longer recognizable, then in those instances we may be free to not submit.

The reason I say “may” is because of Jesus’ example of the “extra mile.” It is very hard to recognize how this is a legitimate use of government authority. And yet, Jesus encourages an “above and beyond” submission. This tells us that our parameters for the “questionable” application of authority likely needs to be flexible and our default setting should still be to submit to those in authority over us.

But remember only God possesses unqualified authority. No individual–be that a husband, pastor, or governor–has the right to pretend they are God by stretching their authority infinitely. And when, in particular, they are using their authority in such a manner that directly contradicts their God-given domain and purpose, their authority is rendered defunct. If a husband think this authority grants him the ability choke his wife when she disrespects him, that man has created a satanic inversion of the Christ-like model of what a husband’s authority is intended for; he is no longer laying down his life for the good of his bride, he is laying down her life for his own selfish-ends (cf. Eph 5:25). A wife in that setting is not bound to stay under his abuse and should flee.

Should the Government Issue Vaccine Mandates?

Now, we come to the nub of the issue. Do vaccine mandates fall within the God-given purposes of government, or is that outside of its bounds? While it would be some kind of Orwellian nightmare where the government made all our medical decisions for us, when it comes to infectious diseases there then becomes a more compelling argument for the government to be involved. If the role of the government is to preserve human life, and there then comes along a highly contagious virus that profoundly affects our community’s ability as a whole to thrive and flourish, then a vaccine mandate could be an appropriate application of the God-given authority granted to the government. Which is what our country has done in the past, for example, with smallpox vaccine mandates (read my previous post on this).

Of course, covid is nowhere near as infectious or deadly as smallpox is, thus the legitimacy of a smallpox vaccine mandate was much easier to discern than the legitimacy of the covid vaccine mandate. And this is where we hit a wall of sorts. Depending on what you think of covid, the reasonableness of the government mandate will wax or wane. If you think the virus is very serious, the mandate seems to be imminently plausible. If you think otherwise, the mandate may seem like an overreach.

To be candid, I am somewhere in the middle. I personally do not agree with the vaccine mandate, but I do not believe that it is an example of the government veering far beyond their lane of God-given authority. If they are out of line, I think they are still within the questionable category that still should be normally submitted to.

I could be wrong, of course and this could be the first step in a slippery slope of the government shoring up a totalitarian-like amount of authority. This is another common argument I hear for why Christians should resist the mandate. In my next article I would like to offer some balance to this slippery slope argument, not by necessarily rebutting the argument, but by encouraging people to consider the opposite slope we could begin slipping down.

7 thoughts on “The Purpose and Limits of Government

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