This is not a good time to be a statist in the West. The utopian promises of the past century are increasingly drowning in a sea of debt and unstable currencies dissolving into self-evident failures. Those who saw the reins of government as a means of creating a brave new world have only succeeded in creating the largest system of bureaucracy and regulations in history.
There has been push back. Unfortunately, most of the opposition to statist government has been piecemeal and issue-oriented, unfocused, and lacking a consistently principled alternative. Hence, in the last U.S. presidential election, it coalesced around a candidate who was also unfocused and lacking in principles.
When the state tries to play god, it is sure to fail. When it tries to rewrite the laws of God, justice will be perverted if not inverted into legislated injustice. As unpleasant as this process is to watch, and as destructive as it is to experience, God’s people and purposes have repeatedly survived such eras of history and outlasted the regimes which have implemented them. We are coming to the end of the era of statism. The pure partisanship in Washington is the infighting and finger-pointing of a losing cause. The heyday is over; the decline and fall of any state is not a pretty sight.
Government Is Necessary
Despite what men have done with it, government is not an evil. It is, in fact, a necessary aspect of man’s existence. As my father pointed out many times, we think like statists when we equate “government” with “civil government.” We constantly live with many forms of government in our lives. The most important level of government is self-government. Family and church are major governing influences in our lives, but there are many others. Our employers and vocations impose rules which govern much of our lives. Every student is governed by his school or tutor. You may be governed by a homeowner’s association, or, if you belong to a private club or volunteer organization, to its bylaws. If you so much as download an app or access the internet at your local coffee shop, you must agree to abide by their “terms and conditions.” Government is inevitable, and in a free society it should be spread out to many administrations. Civil government tends to be our problem, however, because it tends to be the means whereby evil men seek power rather than justice.
Some have suggested that civil government is a product of man’s fall into sin and man’s consequent need for restraint. This would effectively make civil government a punishment. Others have seen the origin in the sixth commandment as an extension of the family. Taken to its logical conclusion, this would justify the paternalism of the state acting as an uber-parent over the family sphere.
Both views read into Scripture. Before the fall, Adam and Eve were given the responsibility of exercising dominion in terms of God’s revealed Word. When the Hebrews were given their liberty by God, He gave them a law as a standard of justice (or righteousness, as the two English words come from a single word in both the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures) and He organized the tribes in family groups in multiples of ten. This tribal confederation was its first civil government later seen in the land-deciding matters of war and peace for the nation of Israel, then Judah.
The Kingdom of God
All spheres of life and their governance represent an extension of men’s activity and responsibility to exercise dominion under God’s authority and in terms of His Word. Once given the land, the nation, and later the kingdom, was the civil context of God’s collective people.
With the coming of the Messiah, man’s dominion mandate was expressed in an expanded metaphor. It was still a kingdom, as John the Baptist first proclaimed (Matt. 3:2), and later by Jesus as well (Mark 1:14). Now the metaphor for the rule of God through His people was not a Palestinian kingdom or a Jewish people, it was the Kingdom of God (or Heaven) with a rule that transcended the geography of the Middle East. Our Lord often spoke of life in the Kingdom and the responsibilities of its citizens. Man has a duty to serve God, to exercise dominion in His Kingdom. The Kingdom of God is the new context for thought and action in the Messianic era.
When Jesus taught us to pray, He gave us a model of prayer and thought that looked to the providential government of God over both heaven and earth:
Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven … For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever. Amen. (Matt. 6:10, 13b)
All life and thought, including man’s governing, can serve a role in the Kingdom that is neither a punishment nor paternalistic.
There is no reason to expect that there will not be a civil government in the fullness of the Kingdom in history, when God’s will is, in fact, done “in earth as it is in heaven.” In fact, another part of the Lord’s Prayer requires us to place our administration of law and justice under God: “And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (Matt. 6:12). This is the only part of the prayer to which our Lord added a commentary: “For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (v. 15). To pray that is to ask God’s help in applying His standard of righteousness to ourselves as well as to others. We know that God’s standard of justice, at times, demands the intervention of a civil authority to uphold His righteousness.
Contrary to what is often preached, God does have a standard of righteousness and justice, one that demands restitution. For some offenses no monetary restitution was allowed; the lawless man’s life was forfeited. There was no cheap and easy forgiveness, and God’s justice required that His Son die in our place before atonement was made.
God’s justice does not change and its demands will remain the same as the Kingdom grows. Right now the Kingdom seems in decline in the West, but in many parts of the world it is growing. The low ebb we see in our culture is due to two primary factors. One is a lack of faith. This is a problem in the church as well, as many churches have abandoned Christian faith in favor of any number of contemporary philosophies. A second cause of decline is the lack of any objective ethical standard in the church, which instead follows an antinomian subjectivity. Because the church today does not itself hunger and thirst after righteousness, its moral impact on the culture is nominal.
A commonly expressed observation is the change in society in the last two generations or so. The decline in morals has created an inherent distrust and suspicion. We assume for good reason that we must take extra precautions to safeguard our family and property. Vulgarity, blasphemy, and sexual deviancy are now protected. It is obvious there has been a cultural regression of enormous proportions. The problem is more than a lack of Christian faith; the abandonment of Biblical law has left the church without an ethical direction of its own much less a light for the darkness. Few Christians know what a Christian civil government would look like because a subjective, “Spirit led” piety cannot be translated to a civil administration.
Forms of Government
We tend to seek good government in legislation, procedural forms, or constitutions. Scripture, on the other hand, stresses man’s accountability to God and His law in every sphere. There is no procedural form which guarantees good government or prevents its corruption by evil men.
When the American republic was effectively reduced by the rise of centralism occasioned by the U.S. Civil War, its public schools began promoting democracy as the means to just government. The argument used presumed the Christian ethic that still prevailed. It assumed the basic problem of governments was their control by a few bad men. Most men were assumed to be good, so democracy sounded like a solution that would protect the “good” majority from the bad minority.
But what can democracy do if that proportion changes? It can itself become the mechanism of tyranny when the civil power is used to deprive others of property and freedom.
The only protection against any power is its limitation by spheres of authority, by a division and separation of powers. This can be cumbersome, and absolute power by a tyrant is a simpler alternative, but one far more threatening than complexity. It was, in part, the difficulty of getting the elders of twelve tribes to agree on war that caused Israel to demand a king (1 Samuel 8:20). The result was a simpler and more efficient means of going to war, but at the cost of their liberty (vs. 10–19).
The Hebrew commonwealth of tribes had a very limited cost. The only civil tax was a half shekel of silver for every man over the age of twenty. Scholars debate the exact weight of that amount of silver in any given period, but it was somewhere in the range of two or three-tenths of an ounce. That would today be the cost of a fast-food meal. Many functions of law were likely administered by elders at no cost as part of their tribal responsibilities.
An observation is here in order. The most effective means of limiting the power of government is through limiting its funding. “The power of the purse strings” has been effected in various ways throughout history, but these were all bypassed by the advent of central banks, particularly when they were given the power to print currency. A civil government allowed to create currency can fund any activity. A civil government limited to a tax the price of a Whopper meal would represent strictly limited power. Constitutional limitations are good; fiscal constraints are far better.
What’s the Problem?
If a Biblical government would be smaller, cheaper, and more conducive to liberty, what is the objection to it? Have you noticed the first objection to Biblical law as a standard for civil government is always the criminalization of some sexual activity? Western man is one of the most regulated, tracked, taxed, and controlled peoples of history, yet he believes he is free because his sexual morals are not questioned. This is the mark of a truly degenerate social order.
My father, at times, spoke of Christian libertarianism. Secularists see that as an oxymoron, and are quick to point out his “puritanical” moral code. But we should note that such offences were very difficult to prove. Two witnesses were required for conviction, which made prosecution difficult. Sexual offences would have to be done flagrantly for there to be two witnesses. This is why the woman taken in adultery (John 8:1–11) had her case dropped by the Scribes and Pharisees. Jesus merely asked who the witnesses were who would testify against her and be required to take part in her stoning. No witnessing accusers were forthcoming as required so Jesus would not discuss the matter. No formal accusers meant no formal charge and hence no case.
Paul described the role of civil magistrates as being a terror to those who do evil (Rom. 13:3–6). Instead, we know that rulers are often a terror to those who do good. A smaller government would necessitate stronger self-government and family government, as well as a multitude of interlocking levels of structure based on a uniform code of justice. This code of justice we have; it was given to Moses three and a half millennia ago. We cannot force men into righteousness. We cannot organize them into it by governmental forms, constitutions, or legislation; they must grow into it by the sanctifying power of the regenerating Spirit of God.
Remember the lesson of the Soviet Union: a government is never too big to fail. Western governments are fiscally unsound, top-heavy in bureaucracy, and face the ever more vocal contempt of their citizenry. The present size and scope of government is tottering. Our solution for big government should be the same as our approach to self-government, “If ye love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15).