This is the tertian installment of a three-part series on sphere sovereignty.
You can find part 1 here and part 2 here.
Sphere sovereignty is a helpful framework for understanding God’s orderly creation and where he has vested authority. The family is the first sphere, born on day six of creation. The family is the primary building block of any functioning society. We only destroy or redefine a family at our peril. The family has received commands from God that neither the church nor the government has.
The church is made up of many families and individuals. By the church I mean God’s elect throughout the ages. We rightly say that Israel was chosen by God and was the sole conglomerate of God’s people on the earth. The New Testament church, now made up of both Jews and Gentiles, is grafted into Israel. So the church is distinct from Israel in the same way a branch is distinct from the tree. But the church and the branch are both naturally and necessarily connected the root, who is Jesus Christ. And the church has received commands that neither the family nor the government has.
But what are we to make of the government, especially when a government rejects the authority of God, whether in word or in deed? What makes a government good and just? What is the responsibility, chartered by God, of any civil government? Are there more and less biblical forms of government? We’ll try to address some of these issues now.
For many, the locus classicus of earthly, civil government is Romans 13. It most clearly addresses a government that is not a theocracy or a theonomy, as it was in ancient Israel. Jews and Christians will find themselves under a variety of governmental forms, so they must be ready to live in any set of conditions under any kind of ruler.
Paul begins by saying that everyone should place themselves under the governing authorities. As Americans who value our freedoms, and rightly so when many people around the world have far fewer than we do, we might not exactly love the idea of submitting to the government. This does take some understanding. Starting in Romans 12, Paul is describing not just civil government but how the church should live. Christians are not to seek vengeance for wrong done against them (12:19). Is God therefore unjust? Not at all. In fact, God has set up earthly rulers to deal with injustice. Enter Romans 13.
Civil governments are actually a good thing and a gift from God. Governments, when ordered biblically and without stepping outside their sphere of authority, bring order to a nation. Resisting such divinely-ordered authority is to resist God himself.
Biblically-minded Christians can and should have conversations about whether a government should be small or big. Small governments typically recognize that most decision-making should be done at the lowest level possible, which is the principle of subsidiarity. Small governments actively try to be as unintrusive as possible. Larger governments, which we must admit come with a heftier price tag, are generally more intrusive. Larger governments make more decisions that affect more people and are usually program-oriented.
Political philosophies come in to play. Classic conservatism holds that human nature is both capable of great good and great evil. The purpose of traditional institutions is to promote the good and to temper the evil. The individual receives the most good when the group is prioritized, creating structures of support from which many individuals can be helped. Classic conservatism also believes that decisions are best made by those people who will be affected the most, hence, the principle of subsidiarity. Civil government must therefore promote group health over individual idiosyncrasies.
The other end of the spectrum is classic liberalism. This political philosophy holds that human nature is a blank slate, and individuals are generally good. The highest good is expressive individualism, or the belief that the individual has complete autonomy over him- or herself. Therefore, everyone should be permitted to live any kind of lifestyle they so choose as long as it truly expresses their true nature. Outside forces, such as family expectations and traditional foundations, prohibit such expression. Civil government must therefore be about deconstructing oppressive institutions.
One of the most dangerous tricks of the enemy has been the widespread acceptance of the notion that the church should stay out of politics. If that were the truth, Romans 13 would never have been written. You will, as a matter of fact, develop doctrines about what a government should do. Case in point—if you have ever been mad at a president, then you have a doctrine of civil government. If you align yourself with one political party over another, then you have a doctrine of civil government. If you think that whoever did not vote in like manner as you was wrong, then you have a doctrine of civil government.
So why not develop your doctrine of civil government from Scripture? Romans 13:3 assures us that under a good government, no one should fear those in authority except those who have done wrong. If you have done no wrong, and yet you have cause to fear what the government will do, you have a responsibility to participate in civic processes. In America’s democratic republic, you do that by casting your vote against the guilty party. Having said that, if you live under a just government and you do wrong, you have every right to expect the government to punish your wrongdoings.
Paul had already mentioned how the church is not to act in vengeance. Now he even goes so far as to say that the government is who bears the sword (13:4). This means that the government is to take certain matters out of the hands of the people and to ensure those that threaten the people are dealt with swiftly. We do not have to worry about justice because God has set up governing authorities for that very purpose. God sends his wrath on those who reject his rule, which he often mediates through governing bodies. Do you want to avoid the wrath of God? Do you want to have a clean conscience? Don’t make the government notice you for the wrong reasons.
No one has ever been happy to pay their taxes. No. One. But Paul does tell us that taxes support governmental structures, which in turn serve us (13:6). Even if we have reason to believe that not every cent is used honorably, we continue to pay our taxes in obedience to God. To be clear, he does say that taxes serve to support a government that is concerned with justice. So this begs the question, what is the purpose of government? What do you do when governments no longer concern themselves with justice?
Clearly, Paul sees the purpose of government as protecting the innocent and punishing the guilty. Is there an argument to be made to expand government beyond that? In the same way that a lack of government is a problem, an outsized government is also a problem.
There are times when rebellion against civil authority is not only permitted but necessary. The governmental structure of the Egyptians preserved Isaac’s family from starvation and offered them a safe place to live and prosper. Several generations later, the same structure proved to be a wicked system laser-focused on treating the Hebrews like machines. God raised up Moses to act in defiance of Pharaoh.
Daniel openly prayed in full view of the tyrannical system of government that demanded he cease. For that, he was thrown into a den of lions, though God spare him. His three compatriots refused to pray to the earthly king, and they were therefore thrown into a furnace to be burned alive, though God spared them.
Paul was held in prison for years for refusing to cease in preaching the gospel. He was mistreated and poorly judged. God did not spare him from this, either.
Though this line was used to stand up against religious authorities, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). There is no excuse for Christians to submit to any law or command that prohibits worship of God, especially if it insists upon worship of another god.
Peter also addressed the issue of civil government (1 Peter 2:13-17). He even recognizes various levels of government, from the emperor to local governors. In fact, in honoring our government officials, we honor God and silence those who mock us. We should seek our freedom and the freedom of others. We show those in government offices honor despite their foibles. We are blessed that if we don’t like them, we can voice our concerns and hopefully give them das boot at the end of their term. We should strive to live at peace with everyone.
In general, Christians should pay their taxes and take part in civic responsibilities. We can come to different conclusions about the size of government with a clean conscience. But if we prefer a bigger government, we must be ready to pay for it. Praise God that we live in a country where citizens are represented in their governments. That is a fragile thing we must never take for granted. But Scripture clearly outlines that governments are a blessing from God that foster good order and peace.
The sphere of civil government is still under the sovereign lordship of Jesus Christ, as are the family and the church. One day, every knee will bow. The glory of the nations will be subsumed into his kingdom. Emperors, kings, presidents, and mayors will be brought low. That day will be the beginning of eternity. Until that day, we honor the empower and live at peace with all men as far it is reliant upon us.