What does the Bible tell us government is actually for? Is it exclusively for punishing criminals or waging war? Or is it responsible to provide societal benefits and infrastructure?
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.
*This was adapted from a much longer post, The Purpose and Limits of Government, from my series on vaccine mandates.