On The Role of Government

As the government starts spending a lot of money to prevent our economy from falling apart, I started reflecting on what scriptures say about the role of government. How far can government go in ďsavingĒ the people? There are no clear cut answers to what is appropriate for government to do as it goes about its duty to rule. However, there are wisdom principles and clues that point to Godís attitudes and expectations concerning rulers.

The king as a new center of trust and loyalty

In 1 Samuel 8, we find Godís people longing for a king. How did this longing come about? Godís people were inundated by enemies in the land. Whenever Godís people stopped following Godís law, those enemies became stronger and oppress them. God would then raise up a leader, called a judge, to lead them to defeat their enemies. Now they faced a strong enemy (1 Samuel 12:12), and they wanted a king who would lead them to battle against that enemy. They wanted to be just like the other nations around them.

What was wrong with wanting a king? God was supposed to be the king of his people, and they are to trust him for all their needs. They were supposed to be focused on following him, his laws, instead of finding a strong king who can defeat their enemies. What is the difference between God raising up leaders and having a king? The king is a tangible institution, a stable presence at the head of the nation. The people are basically saying that they want to have something in creation (the king) that they could rally around and that could meet their needs.

The raising up of judges (those leaders raised up by God before the kingdom was established) was a temporary measure to unite the people of God against certain enemies. Samuelís warning to the people is that, unlike the judges, the king will require their allegiance (they will have to contribute to the kingís coffers, to the kingís household, and to the kingís army). This is a normal function of the king or the state, to gather the resources of the people and use it for governing (roads, army, social services). Because of this allegiance that the king requires, the king is susceptible to being tempted towards corruption- to use the people's resources to enrich himself.

The political left is more inclined to make government the benefactor of the nation, the source of all good. They are more willing to make government take on Godís role, to be an institution that people give their trust and allegiance to. There are several problems with that:

  1. God is the true source of all good. The reason government is able to help is because God empowered it to help. It is idolatry to put our trust and allegiance in government.
  2. The government is powered by people. Peopleís labors (taxes) pay for roads, social welfare of those in need, security. Therefore, when we put the onus on government to help some people, we are putting burdens on other people. Government unwittingly acts as an oppressor even though it meant to be helpful. This is because it could side with one groupís interests over another. One way or another, one group of people will have to sacrifice so others may prosper. It is not that it is absolutely wrong for government to help, but it is something to think about when we put expectations on government to take care of social problems like poverty. This calls for humility, especially for those in the left of the political spectrum.
  3. Although having a safety net in life (social security, medicaid) is something that make us all feel secure, there is a cost in relationships. The welfare system encourages a non-relational mindset. Since government is going to take care of my neighbor, I don't necessarily have to help him. Throwing money (or goods) at a problem is not helping people to the best of my ability. If the good samaritan just threw money at the hurting person on the road, would he have been a model of a good neighbor? People need something more than money to really grow as persons- everyday mentoring, love, accountability. It is expecting too much of case workers to provide the kind of focused attention that people need for the healing of their whole person. Government may have good intentions, but it could not replace relationships. Relationships are what makes people whole, not money alone. Another thing, we are sometimes good to people because we might need them someday. I understand it is not the best motive to be good, but to have that in the back of our minds stops us from easily burning bridges with our families, friends, etc. Our neighborly connection to each other, not impersonal government, is the primary means that God uses for the help of humanity. Humans are to take care of each other, without having to be forced by an institution.

God uses government to preserve people

Another story that gives us a glimpse into Godís attitude towards government is the story of Joseph. Let us reflect on the statement that Joseph made in Gen. 50:20, ďYou intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.Ē What was the harm intended? That Joseph was sold into slavery in Egypt. What is the good intended by God? That many lives were saved. God used government, Joseph as Prime Minister of Egypt, to engineer the preparations for a big famine that was to occur. That requires corporate action mobilized by central authority. Sometimes government have to step in and make people help each other. However, I don't believe it should be the norm but crisis sometimes require it.

What did Joseph do? First, God gave Joseph a vision of the future famine. He collected the crops seven years before this big famine occurred (Gen 41:47-49). Notice that the government (represented by Joseph) took the initiative in doing this. Joseph saw what he did as part of being a ruler of Egypt. It was not a grassroots movement. When the people asked the government for help (v55), there was food. God intended this ďgoodĒ, that because of Joseph, the people were saved from starvation. This leads me to believe that government help is not under Godís disapproval. It was a necessity in Joseph's time. This preservation of the life of the nation is understood to be part of governing, and the governing authority compelled the people to support it's mission. Government has the duty to protect life, and they may have to use coercion (taxes) to do it.

Notice though that help is not free (Gen 47). The people had to pay for the food. When they did not have any more money, the government took over the land. The passage is silent concerning the appropriateness of the government take over of the land. The point that can be gleaned is that the principle of ďif a man will not work, he shall not eatĒ (2 Thessalonians 3:10), was upheld, even in the midst of a government bailout. Man finds his purpose in all his work, not just in his paid vocation, but in his raising up others and any other activity God calls him to accomplish. Handouts destroy that sense of purpose.

The political right is more inclined to have government not interfere in the life of the nation. I believe that the story of Joseph illustrates Godís willingness to use government to preserve the life of the nation. That preservation of the life of the nation can take the form of government programs to fund public works, which provide jobs and utilizes creation for the benefit of the people, and public safety.

Godís expectation for rulers

ĒYour rulers are rebels, companions of thieves; they all love bribes and chase after gifts. They do not defend the cause of the fatherless; the widow's case does not come before them.Ē (Isaiah 1:23)

We can glean Godís expectation of rulers by looking at what he abhors. The ruler that God abhors is one that does not stand for the weak. The government then is supposed to uphold the rights of the weak, sort of a referee to make sure everyone play by the rules. Government is appointed by God to do this (Rom 13).

The point that governmentís main role is to uphold justice is strengthened by the description of the great ruler who will bring peace to Godís people. This is a picture of what a ruler is supposed to be like, and in Christian theology, Jesus is the one who fulfills this description. Government could never completely fit this description but Christians should influence government to become an upholder of justice. Government does not just use the sword in its rule but also its influence, just like Nehemiah did when he pointed the people back to the law of God.

ďAnd he will delight in the fear of the LORD. He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; but with righteousness he will judge the needy; with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth. He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.Ē (Isaiah 11:3-4)

Here is a summary of what I believe to be the role of government. It should uphold the laws of the nation, thereby preventing the oppression of the powerless by the powerful. However, it should be careful that in protecting certain groups, those groups would not become violators of the freedom of conscience of others. Government should be on the side of everyone, respecting everyone's right to justice, and not be captive to special interests, especially if the agenda of those special interests is to bring society under their control.

Maintaining law is how government is primarily going to help the nation avoid catastrophes. If laws and contracts people got into have been respected, we probably have lesser economic problems. People signing laws they could not pay is unwise, and it leads to the suffering of others. Government could have regulated better. In emergencies, the government should help preserve the life of the nation. The economic bailouts are not completely wrong. However, government help should not come in the form of hand-outs. Food stamps are not the optimum way government can help. A better help is to support job creation and follow through with people until they become working members of society.

Jesus as the final king

Should Christians revive the theocracy of Israel, Godís law being upheld by the government? This is a big topic and I will just share a couple of reflections.

  1. The earthly theocracy is ended and it is God's plan that it ends. This means we are not to seek for its return. Jesus, the god-man is now king over all the world, but he rules the Christian church from heaven and through the Holy Spirit. The church is a place where Godís law and grace is upheld and proclaimed to all the nations. The church does not have the power of the "sword" (legislation is a form of "sword"), and it ought not to seek it, but it has the keys of heaven, through the preaching of the gospel (Godís grace to repentant sinners) and church discipline. Therefore, in a way, it has power to take away life just like the theocracy.
  2. Old Testament law points to Godís values and the church has the mission of representing Godís values in the public sphere. It has a mission of making known the evil of adultery and the benefits of marital faithfulness, for example, and proclaiming the gospel of God's goodness to humanity. The law is Godís voice and the church must proclaim the values behind Godís law, thereby influencing people's hearts. Whereas man looks at external obedience, the Lord looks at the heart, which means that the heart condition is what is most important. Trusting government above the spirit's influence on people's hearts to promote godly values is dangerous. Despite good interntions, imposing values through government can be seen as power-mongering and results in resentment.

I believe that Christians are to be a conscience in every aspect of society- in every workplace, in business, in government, in education, etc. They are to speak up on behalf of God's values. For example, if gossiping pervades the workplace, the Christian is to be an example of kindness to neighbor. Christians, just as other human beings, are called to stand for things that preserve creation (respect for life, for fairness, etc.).

Jesus' lordship is a spiritual lordship. His kingdom is not of this world. This means that Jesus does not stand on the side of political parties, or social policies, which can be hijacked by ungodly forces. For example, welfare law which seems to be loving to the poor can be taken advantage of by people who resist their responsibility to be contributors to society. Jesus' lordship is over the spiritual realm, and granted, the spiritual affects the physical (and vice versa). The human propensity to put his own convenience above the life of others is a reason why there is a move to keep abortion legal (alternatively, legalized abortion keeps that human propensity unsuppressed). Jesus' lordship confronts this human propensity to glorify oneself, instead of humbling ones's self. To proclaim Jesus' Lordship means then to exalt his values over the values of the world, not embracing political or social bandwagons. The reign of the kingdom is the manifestation of the fruits of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness), not an externally obedient society.

There was a man long ago who was a devout Christian and leader of his nation. He made a statement that basically said, "Jesus Christ is Lord of every inch of creation, and there is no area of life in which Jesus does not say 'mine'". I have grown troubled by this statement because I believe it could lead Christians to being assimilated into the values of powers that are really anti-Christian. Christians fully support politicians who oppose Christian conscience because this politician will "help" them or their ideas. Christians, in their zeal, lose their objectivity about certain issues, thereby causing them to be blind to pitfalls in certain movements (e.g. environmentalism, tea-party). It is as if the Lordship of Christ is something that is made real through the victory of a certain politician, or the advance of a movement.

Don't get me wrong, I believe Christians should be involved in helping others and they should speak up for the weak and for what is beneficial for society, thereby creating a merciful and just and prosperous society. God does require humans to do justly and to love mercy, and this would require engagement with the world and service towards it. God requires Christians to seek the peace and prosperity of the place where he has put them. However, I believe we need a nuanced understanding of the nature of Christ's lordship. This nuanced understanding takes account of the reality of the prevalent sinfulness of man (even the Christian is simultaneously a sinner and saint), a sinfulness that could not be restrained by law or policy. This sinfulness will find loopholes to get around law. Christ's Lordship does not mean the growth of democracy or socialism.

Christian effort in the social sphere is a manifestation of God's kingdom or reign on earth, not in the sense of saving the souls of humanity which can only be saved through the work of Christ and the Spirit. God has appointed the state, the family, and other institutions regulated by the state, to make for a peaceful, just, and prosperous society; and Christian involvement in those spheres is God's way of reigning in the world. There is another sense of God's reign, his bringing souls into reconciliation with him through the agency of the church, saved by Christ and indwelt by the Spirit. Christians should not get the two confused.

Taxation

Here is a section I add to bring some perspective on the issue of redistribution of wealth, a more down to earth term being taxation. God intended for mankind to work and to be paid for his work, have wages. This means building businesses and offering services. To help those who are in poverty (and for other projects and necessities like defense), government is given authority to collect taxes from the wages of those who work. Remember that government does not have money of its own to give, it only takes. Therefore, helping others comes at the cost of taking something from others. Wealth has to be redistributed, and those who want to take more money from people to give to others must show humility, not deceiving people into thinking they are the good guys and those who oppose more taxation as the bad guys.

In an ideal world, wherever there is poverty, the rich will immediately come to the rescue of the poor. It is an indictment on society that government has to redistribute wealth for that purpose. In an ideal world, there will also not be a need to have a cenralized military and a police force. People will just take care of their conflicts. However, social programs and defense are a necessity because of hardness of heart. Some people are so affirming of government redistributing wealth. The problem is that those who are not too rich and not too poor suffer. They lose some of the income they need to live and also the ability to support causes they love, which makes taxation a form of limitation on freedom. There is also the added complication that wages of government workers may be higher than the wages of non-government workers which brings the issue of fairness into question. Also, the money of the wealthy could be invested in creating jobs and developing creation, which is the instrument by which people survive and pay taxes. Less money in the pocket means less money to stimulate the economy (or to be generous)- buying, investing. Therefore, it is not an easy solution to pick the pockets of the rich.

On the other hand, there are those who are very much against the redistribution of wealth. The problem is, they have to sacrifice some social programs and even defense. They have to humbly acknowledge this. Another problem with just letting people accumulate wealth is that some people would have more power over the economy. Wealthy people get to buy more things and spend money on things that may not be ethical. Therefore, they get more power. However, they do stimulate the economy more- helping people keep their jobs and creating demand for certain products. Wealthy people can contribute to charities, thereby relieving the burden from government, therefore the taxed masses. However, they are assuming that the wealthy would invest their wealth in a way that would benefit society. In an ideal world, trickle down economics would work.

There lies the problem. We need an ethical people to have an ethical government. Government should not become entangled with the wealthy, whose economic power becomes political power as it supports politicians who protects their interests at the expense of the less wealthy. Wealthy people can fuel evil practices like human trafficking, and other practices to satisfy their vices. On the other hand, wealthy people can also support good causes.

Government should work hard to make sure its benefits aren't abused by its recipients, which would require more oversight. I also suggest to prevent idleness, and to maintain the dignity of man, that benefits be tied to work. Maybe government can function as a work agency, mandating that the beneficiaries of government programs do work assigned to them by the state. The state (or approved private agencies) forms the unemployed into a labor force to be deployed wherever it needs until they find a job. Refusing to work should be grounds for taking away benefits. The point is everyone should be doing some work, even if they have to be forced to live. I know use of force is extreme, but I think it is valid for the protection of society. Expectations could be adjusted for the disabled who can't work. But even then, energy must be expended in giving the disabled a sense of purpose not tied in to society's expectations. We can't make the disabled as "productive" as the non-disabled and that is fine.

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