Scripture On Government

Just War, Rebellion, and the American Revolution: John Keown and Modern Critiques on whether the War of Independence was Just.

Part Two: Scripture and Rebellion, Scripture on Government

by Leonard O. Goenaga


On the authority and purpose of government, most Christian thinkers first turn to Paul’s New Testament treatment in Romans 13. However, the aim and function of government may be found much earlier in the Old Testament. After judging a wicked world through the flood, and by grace saving Noah, God issues to Noah what is known as the lex talionis principle: “From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man,” (Gn. 9:5).18

Assuming this “fellow man” incurs some form of government, the lex talionis principle establishes the power of government to utilize capital punishment against the wrongdoer. In addition to this power, the legitimacy of rightly placed authority is presented in the Decalogue’s commandment to honor one’s father and mother (Dt. 17:14-20). Davis Brown also argues that Deuteronomy’s treatment of the duties of kings supplies the “foundation of Judeo-Christian political theory” from the Pentateuch.19

From such passages, Brown devises the following basic responsibilities of civil government as it relates to right governance versus tyranny: First and foremost, to never forget that its authority is temporal not spiritual, that is, to never deify itself. Second, to be of the same nation as that over which the authority rules. Third, to be the person whom God chooses to place in a position of authority. Fourth, to not be greedy, lustful, or proud. These responsibilities lie at the heart of good governance; a violation of any of them is the root of what in Western parlance is known as tyranny.20

In addition to setting some parameters for an understanding of a government’s responsibilities and the occurrence of tyranny, the Old Testament evidences the highly destructive evil of anarchy as recorded in the book of Judges.21

In opposition to anarchy, the Old Testament speaks of the responsibility of a government to execute justice, to defend the weak (Ps. 82:2-4), and to execute swift punishment to deter crime (Ec. 8:11).22

It can also be evidenced that Just War principles are present in Scripture, such as having a just cause (Rv. 19:11; Mi. 6:8), a competent authority (Ps. 144:1; Rm. 13:1), and a right intention (Rm. 12:19, 21; 1 Pt. 3:11; Rm. 14:19).23

It is after a rich treatment of war in the Old Testament that Paul reiterates principles established prior in Genesis and Deuteronomy. Wayne Grudem notes six expansions on the role of government by Paul in Romans 13:

[1.] God has appointed the authorities who have governmental power (vv. 1-2) . . . [2.] Civil rulers are a “terror to bad conduct” (cf. v. 3), which means they restrain evil by the threat of punishment for wrongdoing. This is consistent with what is taught in Genesis 9:5-6. . . . [3.] They give “approval” or praise (Greek epainos, “approval, recognition, praise”) to those who do what is good (v. 3) . . . These verses indicate God has a role in promoting the common good of a society. It should not only punish wrongdoing but also encourage and reward good conduct, conduct that contributes to the good of society. . . . [4.] Government officials serve God . . . This means we should think of government officials as serving God when they punish evil and promote what is good, whether or not they realize it . . . [5.] Government officials are doing “good” as they carry out their work . . . [6.] Government authorities execute God’s wrath on wrongdoers and thereby carry out a task of retribution.24

With the role and authority of government established, one relevant component is left in need of treatment. As noted in Romans 13:1 and 1 Peter 2:13, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities,” and “be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution.” There would seem here to be a paradox. If there exists a general obligation to subject to government as to God, what are we to do if the government calls us to sin? Grudem acknowledges this assumed paradox while asking the question whether it is ever right to disobey the civil government. He argues “God does not hold people responsible for obeying the civil government, however, when obedience would mean directly disobeying a command of God himself.”25

Grudem proceeds to provide a number of passages from narrative sections to prove his point: (1) the episode of the early apostles preaching the gospel after the Jewish governing authority commanded them not to (Ac. 4:18-20; 5:29), (2) the episode of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who denied King Nebuchadnezzar’s commands to bow down and worship a golden statue (Dn. 3:13-27), (3) the episode of the Egyptian midwives disobeying Pharaoh’s commands (Ex. 1:17, 21), (4) the episode of Daniel disobeying a law to prohibit him from praying (Dn. 6:10), and (5) the episode of the wise men disobeying the commands of Herod (Mt. 2:8).26

Although such episodes establish the right of disobedience, they leave the question of armed rebellion unanswered. This will be treated later during this paper’s survey on relevant Church tradition.

Footnotes

18 Bible verses are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).

19 Davis Brown, The Sword, The Cross, and The Eagle (Plymouth: Rowman & Littlefield) 146-147.

20 Ibid. 147.

21 Specifically, Judges 21:18-25 presents evidence of how destructive anarchy becomes. “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes,” (Judg. 21:25). It is also worthy of note that YHWH had intended Himself to be their King and leader, and that the allowing of the Israelites to appoint a king was outside God’s desire for them. They sought to be like their neighbors, while God called them to be a chosen people. As if in satire, the Israelites would appoint for themselves Saul, who, besides being a failure, would be of the same Benjamite tribe they nearly eradicated at the end of Judges. Grudem states in Politics According to the Bible: “The stories in Judges 18- 25 include some of the most horrible sins recorded anywhere in the Bible. These passages teach us the dreadful results of anarchy, a situation when there is no effective government at all, for ‘in those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.'” (Grudem 78).

22 “Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” (Ps. 82:3-4)

23 See Table 4 for a list of possible Scriptural support for ad bellum and in bello Just War principles. It is also noted that certain passages speak of God’s role in war (such as Rv. 19:11). At times, God’s actions may prove to be a model for our own behavior. Also noted is that we find two types of War ethic in Scripture. We find (1) Crusade, as evidenced in YHWH leading the Israelites to war in the promise land, and (2) Just War, as evidenced in the moral limits of war and rules of engagement in Deuteronomy 20 and Amos 1-2. Not all occurrences of war in the Old Testament are crusades.

24 Wayne Grudem, Politics According to the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan) 80-81.

25 Wayne Grudem, Politics According to the Bible, 88.
26 Ibid. 88.

 

The Moral Liberal Research Writer, Leonard O. Goenaga, is a Baptist Associate Pastor (assigned to the Youth) at Glory of God Christian Fellowship, Raleigh, North Carolina; a Mentor (Computer Lab/Technology) at the Wake Forest Boys & Girls Club; a husband (to Katrina); and rugby coach. He holds a B.A. in Political Science (with a specific concentration in Political Theory, Social Contract, and Constitutionalism), a second B.A. in Religious Studies (with a concentration in World Religions and Early Christianity), a Master of Divinity in Christian Ethics, and an A.A. in Entrepreneurship. He has begun Ph.D with a concentration likely centered on an analysis of Locke’s Social Contract, H.L.A. Hart’s Legal System, American Constitutionalism, and Baptist Ecclesiology of Covenant. Visit his website at Leonardooh.com