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The Biblical Model for Civil Government

There have been various attempts to set up a distinctly Christian civil government throughout the New Testament era. Some more recent endeavors have been that of Calvin in Geneva, Knox in Scotland, and the Puritans in New England.

  • William O. Einwechter,
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There have been various attempts to set up a distinctly Christian civil government throughout the New Testament era. Some more recent endeavors have been that of Calvin in Geneva, Knox in Scotland, and the Puritans in New England. These recent attempts have one thing in common: they were sincere and worthy efforts by godly but fallible men. Their work is instructive and important, and those who would seek to institute a Christian civil government in their own nation today neglect their work at their own peril. However, none of these can provide the definitive model for erecting Christian civil government today because none were without error; all were plagued by human frailty and mistakes. Examples from church history may provide help, and we ought to learn from them; but none carries divine authority or infallibility.

Therefore, in seeking a Christian reconstruction of the institution of civil government, it is imperative that we make our standard the only inspired, infallible model on godly civil government that we have: the Hebrew Republic established by God through Moses. Note that we use the term "model." This is because the Hebrew Republic had elements unique to its own time and place in redemptive history. Hence, it is an error to seek to reduplicate today, in all of its particulars, that Republic (e.g., hereditary kingship, a central tribunal presided over by Levitical priests, cities of refuge, some of the laws of inheritance and warfare, a division of the nation into 11 tribal units, or the exact jurisdictional unit of the city and its gates, etc.). The Hebrew Republic does not provide us with a detailed blueprint for all the specifics of civil government or civil law, but it does give us a sufficiently clear model for framing a government and laws that are according to the will of God. We must remember that every detail of the Hebrew Republic was based on the unchanging, righteous standard of God's moral law. Our interest is in discovering, through proper historical-grammatical exegesis, the moral law that informs each particular, and then applying that law to the nations of the New Testament dispensation.

With that as our goal, this article explores one key Old Testament text that gave instructions to Israel on setting up their civil government in the land of Palestine after the conquest. Deuteronomy 16:18-20 is foundational to understanding the Biblical model for civil government. The text reads:

Judges and officers shalt thou make thee in all thy gates, which the Lord thy God giveth thee, throughout thy tribes: and they shall judge the people with just judgment. Thou shalt not wrest judgment; thou shalt not respect persons, neither take a gift: for a gift doth blind the eyes of the wise, and pervert the words of the righteous. That which is altogether just shalt thou follow, that thou mayest live, and inherit the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.

In this article, I delineate five aspects of civil government that are revealed in this passage. These aspects help provide the fundamental model for civil government.

1. Civil government is the ordinance of God and under His authority. As the author of the institution of civil government, God gives to the people of Israel His instructions on how to set up their civil rule, and on the duties of the people and the leaders. The fact that there is divine law on these matters indicates that civil government is not an institution of man that can be dispensed with or framed as man sees fit. Deuteronomy 16:18 begins with an imperative, "Judges and officers shalt thou make" and is followed by two other commands from God. The Lord is definite on the matter-thou shalt set up civil government in the land, and here is how it will function! Man is not granted autonomy in the sphere of civil rule. All nations and societies are under the rule of the Creator and responsible for following the imperatives of His law in framing their civil governments.

2. Civil officers are chosen by the people and are answerable to them. The first command of Deuteronomy 16:18-20 is addressed to the people of Israel. First, it is their responsibility to choose the men who will govern them. They are to establish "judges" and "officers" in their "gates." The word "judges" refers to those who act as law-givers, judges, or governors, i.e., civil magistrates. The term "officers" indicates subordinate officials who assist the judges. The "gates" were the place in the city where the civil magistrates met to decide controversies and carry out the task of governing the people. Thus, the people of Israel were responsible to select and establish in office the men who would serve as civil rulers. The office of magistrate was not determined by hereditary descent, by a class of nobles, or by the appointment of a king or other civil officers; it was determined by the people through free elections. We say free, but we do not mean that the people were free to choose whomsoever they would; they were bound by the law of God only to select men who met certain stated qualifications (cf. Ex. 18:21; Dt. 1:13).

Second, the people of Israel were to hold their officers accountable to rule justly and wisely. The magistrates were to govern the people "with just judgment." If the leaders failed to govern in such a manner, the implication is that the people had the authority to remove them from office (the right of impeachment). Hence, although the ultimate authority to govern came from God, the proximate source of magisterial authority is from the people. God charges His people to set up righteous men as rulers, and to remove those who fail to meet that standard in office (cf. Am. 5:15).

3. Civil government is to be decentralized and local in orientation. When the people are charged to establish "judges and officers in all thy gates . . . throughout thy tribes," two levels of government are indicated. The "gates" refers to the government that is to be set up in each town and village in Israel. This level is the most basic and important; it is also the most local. Here both civil and criminal law was to be decided. Here important matters of community defense and well-being were discussed and determined. Only in cases where the local magistrates could not come to a decision because of the particular difficulty of the case was the matter to be transferred to another jurisdiction, i.e., the central court at the place of God's choosing (Dt. 17:8-13).

The "tribes" refers to the division of the nation into 11 tribal units by the command of God. Each tribe had a council of "elders," "princes," or "chief fathers of the tribes" as representatives from the towns and cities within its bounds. This council had responsibility to determine matters that affected the whole tribe (cf. Num. 32:28; Dt. 31:28; Jos. 22:11-34). Thus, each tribe had jurisdiction over its own territory, and had the duty to see that its cities, towns, and villages had proper civil government. The rulers of the tribes (1 Chr. 16:22-24) also met in council as the "elders of Israel" to decide matters affecting the whole nation (cf. 1 Sam. 4:3; 8:4; 2 Sam. 3:17; 5:3; 1 Kin. 8:1; 1 Chr. 11:3). Israel existed for centuries without a king (a central government), and the appointment of a king was primarily directed to the conduct of the nation's defense and foreign policy, not the enforcement of civil and criminal law, which was the province of the elders in the gates (1 Sam. 8:20).

The model of the Hebrew Republic provides for a locally oriented, decentralized civil rule, with various levels of government. In Israel, this consisted of the local magistrates in the gates, the rulers of the tribes, the council of the elders of Israel, and, eventually the king. The office of king was never intended by God to supersede the local government of the towns and the tribes (Dt. 17:14-20). Biblical law stands against a centralized government embodied in an unitary state.

4. Civil magistrates are to govern justly, that is, according to God's law. In Deuteronomy 16:19-20 the magistrates are charged with the duty of governing the people in wisdom and justice. First, they are commanded not to "wrest judgment." To "wrest" was to bend or turn aside, and is used here in the figurative sense of deviating from the path of loyalty or duty. The word "judgment," in this context, stands for the whole work of governing. Hence, this command means that the civil magistrate is not to pervert God's purpose for civil government by governing according to his own autonomous standards or by using the office to his own selfish ends. The magistrate is God's minister who is to serve the people under him by upholding God's standards and serving the interests of God's kingdom.

Second, they must not respect persons, nor receive a bribe. The effect of either of these actions would be to corrupt justice. There is to be one standard of law for all within the nation-rich and poor, citizen and foreigner, king and farmer, family, friends, or personal enemies. The rule of law must be beyond price, and held as the most valuable resource of the nation. A civil ruler who perverts justice for a bribe not only sells his own soul, but that of the nation as well.

Third, they must zealously pursue justice in every aspect of their governing. This is the heart of the magistrate's concern-that justice be done! The Lord says to civil rulers, "that which is altogether just shalt thou follow." This command contains the interesting Hebrew idiom of intensifying the attribute of a word by means of its repetition. The translation "altogether just" is literally, "justice, justice." This intensification of the attribute of justice leads to the translation of "altogether just"; other possible renderings would be, "nothing but justice," or, "pure justice." The pursuit of pure justice should be the consuming passion and concern of civil magistrates! And this justice is the justice set forth in the written law of God.

5. Civil government is under the sanctions of God's law. Both the people and the civil rulers are to carry out their duties in the fear of God, knowing that obedience to God's law brings blessing while disobedience brings cursing. Since civil government, as every other sphere of life, is under the law of God, it is also under His sanctions. The text of Deuteronomy 16:20 is clear on this matter as it ties blessing in the land to obedience to the stated commands in regard to civil government that have just been given. The Lord promises that Israel shall enjoy "life" and all that the promised inheritance of land implies if they keep His law. Liberty, justice, prosperity, and peace are blessings that descend from God upon the people who follow His law in the civil sphere. On the contrary, the wrath of God is upon that nation and rulers who spurn His law, and thus, they are visited with tyranny, injustice, poverty, and strife (cf. Ps. 2:10-12).

The Hebrew Republic, as established and defined by God's Word, provides men and nations with the only infallible model (the model is not found in history or natural law) for constructing civil governments that are in accord with the will of God. Although the whole counsel of God on the matter of civil rule must be taken into account, this article has focused on one very important text that is foundational to understanding the Biblical model for civil government. The model of the Hebrew Republic calls for a civil government that officially recognizes the authority of God over it and operates in view of His sanctions; for a government that is local and decentralized; for a people who act responsibly and choose wise and godly men for civil rulers, and then hold their rulers accountable to govern justly; and for civil magistrates who are zealous in the pursuit of pure justice (i.e., the justice revealed in God's law), and who refuse to recognize persons or take a bribe because of their commitment to the rule of law. By the grace of God and the power of our Mediatorial King, Jesus Christ, may the model of the Hebrew Republic become the model for the civil government of all nations.


  • William O. Einwechter

William O. Einwechter serves as a teaching elder at Immanuel Free Reformed Church in Ephrata, Pennsylvania. He is also the vice president of the National Reform Association and the editor of The Christian Statesman. He can be contacted at [email protected].

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