Week #7—What Christians Should Ask of Government: To Establish Peace
Editor’s note: This is a manuscript from Jonathan Leeman’s class “Christians and Government,” which he is currently teaching through at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC. There will be 13 weeks in the class. Here is the course schedule, to be published as it’s taught.
What Christians Should Do For Government
What Christians Should Ask of Government
Week 6: To Not Play God
Week 7: To Establish Peace (manuscript below)
Week 8: To Do Justice
Week 9: To Punish Crime, Tax, and Defend the Nation
Week 10: To Treat People Equally (Justice and Identity Politics)
Week 11: To Provide Space for True and False Religion
Week 12: To Affirm and Protect the Family
Week 13: To Protect the Economy
* * * * *
We’ll seek to build a biblical view of government this morning by asking five different questions.
1. Does the authority of government come from God or man?
These are the two basic alternatives.
1. The Liberal tradition and the consent of the governed
The liberal democratic tradition starting with John Locke will sometimes give lip service to the fact that government is ultimately ground in the law of God. But the effective ground of governing authority comes from human beings and the consent of the governed.
Thomas Jefferson, nearly a century later, enshrined these sentiments in the preamble of the Declaration of Independence where he wrote, “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
2. The Bible and what God has instituted
Where does the Bible say a government’s authority comes from? From God.
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed . . . for he [the one in authority] is God’s servant. . . . He is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath. (Romans 13:1–4)
It’s pretty clear. Government represents him. Governments are his servant, his minister. No governing institution exists outside of the larger institutional realities of God’s law. Jesus said the same thing in John 19 in his conversation with Pilate: “You would have no authority if it had not been given to you from above.”
What that means is that we obey governments not as a fulfillment of our contract that we have consented to. We obey government out of obedience to God. To resist it is to resist him.
(Now a number of Christians whom I respect believe that we can affirm both the “bottom up” social contract view and the “top down” God-authorized view. Indeed both the Founders and Locke treated the two as compatible. It’s true that, as a matter of historical circumstance, a government might form in a democratic fashion, i.e. by human consent. But as a matter of moral obligation, our obedience to government depends upon God’s requirement, not on our obedience to our promise to consent. Bottom line: a man cannot obey two masters, as Jesus put it.)
2. Why has God instituted governments?
I think we need to answer this question in three ways. There is a proximate (closet in relationship) answer, a broader answer, and an ultimate answer.
Let’s go back to Genesis. The first story which occurs after the Fall is Cain murdering Abel. Humanity seems to spiral downward from their until we get to Flood, which in turn ushers in a kind of new creation, and a restatement of the original command given to Adam and Eve. Genesis 9:1: “And God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (v. 1).
But there’s a critical difference in Genesis 9: adjustments need to be made for the post-Fall context. First, verses 2 and 3 tell the new Adam that animals will fear him and that he could eat them (whereas in Genesis 1 he had only been given permission to eat plants). Second, thinking back to Cain and Abel, God makes provisions for human violence. Look at verses 5 and 6:
And for your [plural] lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man. From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man.
‘Whoever sheds the blood of man,
by man shall his blood be shed,
for God made man in his own image’.” (Genesis 9:5–6)
It appears that God authorizes humans with the right to take the life of other humans for the sake of a “reckoning.”
Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed. The right to take a life is at the very heart of government authority. It’s the teeth which gives force to every other law that government might pass—from asking you to pay your taxes to driving the speed limit. And this is what has long been called the power of the sword. Paul therefore seems to be elaborating on this fundamental authorization when he famously writes in Romans 13, “if you do wrong, be afraid, for God does not bear the sword in vain” (Rom. 13:4).
1. God has instituted governments for the rendering judgment (justice) (proximate cause)
But of course God authorizes humans to take the life of a human for a very specific purpose. Look at Genesis 9:5 again: Governments hold the sword for the purpose of a “reckoning” or an “accounting.” Things need to be made right. They need to be made equivalent once more.
And it’s this reckoning that I will call justice, and why you will hear me refer to verses 5 and 6 as the justice mechanism. Next we will consider more in depth what is meant by “justice.” For now, I’m using it synonymously with “reckoning” or “retribution.”
Why has God established governments? Proximately (closest in) for the sake of justice.
Proverbs 20:8: A king who sits on the throne of judgment winnows all evil with his eyes.
Proverbs 20:26: A wise king winnows the wicked and drives the wheel over them.
And Romans 13 again:
For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.
How does government do all this? By protecting its citizens, whether from threats from the outside or threats from the inside. It punishes Cain when he kills Abel.
Consider the government agency Child Protection Services. Insofar as CPS seeks to shelter children from violent and abusive parents, it is acting as God’s servant and fulfilling its Genesis 9:5–6 mandate. Christians should praise God that we live in a country where the government takes an interest in protecting children from abusive parents. And therefore we should be vocal and known for supporting CPS. CPS workers should find that Christians are the most cooperative, and church pastors, when they hear about cases of abuse, should recognize that this belongs to the state’s jurisdiction and report those cases.
Look at Genesis 9 again, this time verse 1: “Be fruitful and increase in number.” Verse 7: “Be fruitful and increase in number.” Verses 1 to 7 as a whole are about this dominion mandate. Verses 5 and 6 are in place for the large purpose of serving this mandate. Which brings us, I believe, to a second purpose of government.
2. God has instituted governments for the sake of facilitating the creation mandate, which it does by establishing order, promoting virtue, and facilitating the growth of prosperity.
Now here, admittedly, we’re moving into implications of Genesis 9:5–6 and where the debate over size of government begins. An implication of Genesis 9:5–6, I think we can all agree, is to keep the peace and establish order. That’s an easy implication to agree upon. But what about promoting virtue and facilitating prosperity? Well, that gets a bit trickier, but still, there’s biblical precedent here.
It seems that governments exist for the sake of justice, yes, but they also exist to serve this large creation mandate.
Proverbs 29:4: By justice a king builds up the land. . .
Notice in this verse his tool is justice, but he’s using it to build up.
Sure enough, we see commendable example of governing authorities in the Old Testament doing more than just punishing crimes.
- Joseph as prime minister of Egypt helped the nation prepare for famine.
- Israel possessed a developed agricultural policy that cared for the poor.
- King Solomon pursued an astute export/import strategy, which made Israel prosperous.
Now, the Genesis 1:28 creation mandate is not given to governments. It’s given to human beings. But the government has the power of the sword to serve this larger cause—to facilitate the peaceful and perhaps even prosperous life where people can pursue the creation mandate.
That’s why, in answer to the question, is all government a necessary evil, the answer has to be “no.” Even in a perfect and unfallen world, someone has to decide whether cars are going to drive on the right or left side of the road.
Another contemporary illustration of this, I propose, is the U. S. Federal Aviation Administration, which produces regulations on everything from the installation of rivets on the body of the aircraft to the pilot’s command of weather theory.
Is this governmental intrusion? Is this going beyond the Genesis 9 authorization? Do an internet search on commercial airline crashes due to pilot error or technical malfunction over the three decades. You will find dozens of major crashes from airlines of smaller, poorer nations. You will find one, maybe two, among U.S. airlines in that time. In other words, the regulations of the FAA, arguably save thousands of lives each year. And this is arguably tied to the government’s mandate to do justice, because apart from such regulations, it’s likely that greedy interests would, from time to time, compromise various safety standards for the sake of financial gain.
In other words, governments exist to build a platform on which human beings can pursue the creation mandate. It’s a platform of peace, order, virtue, and prosperity, albeit one that should always be tied to the more foundational call to producing justice.
In fact, there is an even more ultimate cause than this…
3. God has instituted governments for the sake of his redemptive purposes (ultimate purpose).
Why is it critical for Christians to teach people to read? So that they can read the Bible.
Why is it critical for people to have food and shelter and health? So that they can live, know God, and worship him.
The Noahic Covenant in Genesis 9 must exist in order for the Abrahamic Covenant to transpire beginning in Genesis 12 and following. Genesis 9 provides the platform on which God’s plan of redemption plays out. The work of government, in a phrase, is a prerequisite to redemption.
Why do you want a society to be peaceful and orderly? So that people can find their way to God, and gather to learn about him. Look at Acts 17:26–27:
And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him.
God has determined the allotted periods and boundaries of nations, and when those nations will rise and fall. Why? That there might be a platform for sustaining human life that people might seek him.
Why should Christians care about good government? Proximately, for the sake of justice. Ultimately, so that there’s a platform for redemption!
Listen to Paul’s request for prayer:
First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. (1 Tim. 2:1–4)
Notice the connection between praying for the king, living a quiet and peaceful life, and God’s desire that everyone be saved. Care about and pray about good government because you care that people be saved. Bad and unjust governments, from a human standpoint, really do make it difficult for people to be saved. This is true in the Muslim nations of today. This is becoming true in the secular nations of Europe, where some in government want to classify belief in God as a mental illness, or criminalize proselytizing Muslims, or ban homeshooling because it allows for indoctrinating your children with Christianity in a way public school can works against. Friends, pray and work for good government.
Government should act like a “servant” of God’s, as Paul says in Romans 13.
Samuel Hugh Moffett, in his book A History of Christianity in Asia, Vol. 1: Beginnings to 1500 (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books), observes,
nothing in Western history, with its centuries of almost unchallenged Christian command of a continent’s culture, can compare with the paralysizing effect of Islam’s complete dominance of the Middle Eastern heart and center of the Church of the East through those same centuries. The church might have better withstood violence. Sharp persecution breaks off on the tips of the branches; it produces martyrs and the tree still grows. Never-ending social and political repression, on the other hand, starves the roots; it stifles evangelism and the church declines. Such was the history of the church in Asia under Islam, until, at the beginning of the fifteenth century, Tamerlane swept the continent with the persecution to end all persecutions, the wholesale massacres that gave him the name of ‘the exterminator’ and gave Asian Christianity what appeared to be its final, fatal blow. (504).
The lesson Moffett draws from this concerns evangelism:
What finally withered the proud advance of Christianity across Asia was not the persecution of a Tamerlane, though the permanent effects of that ravaging destruction still linger. More crippling than any persecution was the church’s own long line of decisions…to compromise evangelistic and missionary priorities for the sake of survival.
In other words, the first lesson here is, we cannot stop evangelizing, no matter what. But a second lesson is, bad government will hurt the church and hinder it’s witness. So for those of you who work in government, let me embolden you with this charge. We need you to make America safe for Christianity. And I’m using the word “need” not to override divine sovereignty, but in the same way you might say a child needs his or her parents to protect and feed him. To those of you who work in politics, thank you for what you do. It might feel like an exercise in futility. But it is critical. Work and pray hard at it.
I do think recent discussions about religious freedom are critical, so much so that we’ll devote a class to it in coming weeks.
3. How should governments be formed, and is there a best form of government?
This passage simply says, “Whoever sheds the blood of man,
by man shall his blood be shed.” It doesn’t say how this is determined. From this I draw three conclusions concerning who God is specifically charging with this task.
1. Every human bears some measure of responsibility for good government.
First, in light of the context (Noahic Covenant), I believe he is imposing this responsibility on humanity collectively. We are all responsible for fulfilling this basic requirement of justice, each for our part, whether through playing a role in government or through supporting the government. “Be fruitful and multiply,” he says in verse 1. “And as you’re going about doing this, I am commanding all of you to be sure that anyone who sheds the blood of man should be dealt with? Do all of you—everyone of you—hear me?” To put it another way, Genesis 9:5-6 is written for all humanity.
Now for most humanity in most of history, there is a limited measure of what a person is actually able to do. But my point is this: insofar as you have any opportunity at all to work for good government—maybe you are the king’s slave cupholder and you can whisper in his ear; maybe your are a democratic citizen in possession of a vote—you are obligated not as a matter of consent but as a matter of obedience to God to work for good government. It’s one way you love your neighbor as yourself.
2. We are charged with finding the best (most human-respecting) form of government.
Second, Genesis 9:5–6 God requires us to find the best means for establishing this reckoning. To knowingly build a governing system that yields a less than full reckoning (for instance, because it involves an excess of retaliatory violence, or because it involves economically or ethnically prejudiced judgments) is to disobey God.
By implication, the justice mechanism requires a kind of equal treatment of nation’s citizens.
Democratic mechanisms such as a popular vote, judicial review, a written constitution, the separation of powers, insofar as they afford equal treatment and the impartial rendering of judgment, usefully fulfills this Genesis 9 mandate. These are not biblically mandated mechanisms, but prudent mechanisms, for accomplishing Genesis 9 purposes.
But to use the opposite example, one might think of the Jim Crow laws, the state and local laws enacted between 1876 and 1965, that mandated racial segregation in all public facilities in the former Confederacy states, giving African American a supposedly “separate but equal status” leading to all kinds of economic, educational, and social disadvantages. Jim Crow did not represent the impartial judgment of verses 5 and 6.
But it wasn’t just the South or Jim Crow. The Federal Housing Administration, created by Congress in 1934, created a system of maps that rated neighborhoods according to their perceived stability. Neighborhoods the lacked “a single foreigner or Negro” received the highest rating and were eligible for FHA backed loans. Neighborhoods with blacks were rated with the lowest rating and were ineligible. And this discrimination filtered through the entire mortgage industry.
Recent instances of excessive police force against African Americans raise precisely the same questions. Insofar as excessive force characterizes law enforcement, that law enforcement has becomes unjust. It has not only exceeded its mandate, it has earned judgment against itself by virtue of this principle “reckoning” established in Genesis 9:5–6. Now, I cannot personally arbitrate recent police shootings. I can say that Christians, animated by Genesis 9, should be some of the first to fight against the possibility of unequal treatment of its citizens by law enforcement agencies just as they work for the equal treatment of the unborn.
I trust that, in this room, there were different opinions about what happened with Trayvon Martin in 2012, or in Ferguson, or in St. Paul and Baton Rouge. Some Christians may take up that charge. Let me take up this charge: whatever you think of cultural flash points like those, in between those flash points, Christian journalists and lawyers and Hill staffers and policemen and voters have the daily opportunity to search out patterns of injustice and to work for a more just system. One might think of the 2001 Associated Press three-part investigation into the theft of black-owned land stretching back to the antebellum period. The series documented some 406 victims and 24,000 acres of land valued at tens of millions of dollars. That’s the kind of journalism Christians should be interested in doing for the sake of Genesis 9:5–6.
3. God does not specify the precise form of government, but allows for some flexibility to adjust to dramatically different historical conditions.
Nick talked about this a few weeks ago. God uses a variety of forms to govern his own people: family structures under the patriarchs, judges from Moses to Samuel, monarchy from Saul till exile, independent assemblies during exile.
There was no sacrosanct constitutional form—no “best government” of all the different possibilities. I think this is why Genesis 9 and the rest of the Bible is silent over the “best regime.” The best human institutions for accomplishing this mandate will change from one historical context to another.
4. Wisdom, therefore, is a critical principle for good governance.
Wisdom, therefore is a critical part of governance. Wisdom must be exercised for the very purposes of determining which decision or action would be the most just in any given situation, as the famous story of Solomon and the two prostitutes demonstrates: “they perceived that the wisdom of God was in [Solomon] to do justice” (1 Kings 3:28).
Proverbs 8:15 says the same thing: “By me [wisdom] kings reign, and rulers decree what is just.”
Again, Nick talked about this a few weeks ago. Much of what we debate in politics falls into the wisdom category. Does capitalism unjustly increase the gap between rich and poor, or does it bless a nation with prosperity as a rising tide lift all boats? Does third world-debt forgiveness appropriately redress certain institutional injustices, or does it lead to the injustices associated with moral hazard? In the Bible, capitalism is neither proscribed nor prescribed. Neither is third-world debt relief. Therefore it is over to wisdom to describe which constitutional structure, which public policy, which candidate, is most likely to yield a just outcome in a particular time and place.
You see on the chart that a Christian political philosophy needs to have a keen sense of where to keep a firm grip and where to keep a loose grip.
Further, it’s here in the category or wisdom where there is much room for Christians to debate what is best or most conducive to justice, good order, virtue, and propsperity. Does justice call for regulating markets? For public education? For redistributing wealth to the institutionally disadvantaged? Wisdom answers.
4. What are the limits of government?
There are four things I want to say here.
1. The government itself is “under” and obligated by the Genesis 9:5–6 justice mechanism.
At no time, should governments presume to be “above” the justice mechanism, but must always remain “under” it (i) because the authority ultimately derives from God and (ii) because every member of society is created in God’s image.
2. The grounds for civil disobedience are found in the justice mechanism.
Surely this is a much longer discussion, but I don’t believe the right to revolution or civil disobedience are found in governed deciding to withdraw its consent, as Jefferson’s famous preamble argued.
Instead, I would say a government simply does not have the authority to require the unjust implementation of this justice mechanism. A government that repeatedly and systematically violates Genesis 9:5–6 is an unjust government who has compromised its authority. And in such an environment, doing just might mean working against or disrupting the establishment:
[Have them read on their own] In his study of the Hebrew noun for judgment misphat, Biblical scholar Leon Morris writes,
When the righteous ‘does judgment’ he does not necessarily preserve the established order. On the contrary, if the wicked are in power he disrupts it with considerable vigour. And what in this way he does partially and imperfectly he constantly looks for Yahweh to accomplish fully and perfectly…To take an example at random, when Amos tells Israel that Yahweh says, ‘I hate, I despise your feasts…let judgement roll down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream’ (Am. v. 21-24), it is impossible to hold that he is urging the retention of the status quo. He is advocating radical reform. Far from denoting an adherence to custom, a retention of the old order, misphat is nothing less than revolutionary dynamite.
What about Romans 13? Isn’t disobeying government disobeying God? Yes, but that text refers to a government rewarding good and punishing bad. It refers to a government acting as his servant. And insofar as a government does, we should obey.
But what about when a government begins to act as an imposter by taking counsel together against the Lord and his anointed one, saying “Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us.”? What if the government wants to forbid you from disciplining your children, or gathering as Christians, or speaking God’s truth about homosexuality, or sharing the gospel, or to force you to provide insurance for your employees to have abortions?
You must defy it.
But, we hold that principle together with this one:
3. God authorizes governments to prosecute crimes against human beings, not crimes against God.
What’s interesting about Genesis 9:5-6 is that they are located within the larger context of the Noahic Covenant.
Where God promises to not judge human beings, at least in the short term, for crimes against himself. Instead, the justice mechanism in 9:5-6 draws the lines of jurisdiction around crimes against human beings. In order to prosecute, manifest harm must come upon a person—and shed blood, I take it, is symbolic of any demonstrable, significant harm that might come upon a person. Nowhere in this verse or any other verse does God give human beings the authority to prosecute crimes in which there is not evidence of harm to another human being.
That is to say, God does not authorize human beings to prosecute false religion, or idolatry, or atheism, or pride, or covetousness, even if such crimes against God eventually manifest themselves as crimes against humans. (There is one biblical exception I’m aware of: Dan. 3:29. Also, the Mosaic Covenant was unique.).
We’ll come back to this in a couple weeks.
4. But a right view of human beings and justice depend upon a right view of God.
So God does not authorize human beings to prosecute crimes against him, but here’s the kicker: the text hands authority to governments (“Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed”), and then it grounds this authority in a theological claim (“for God made man in his own image”).
Right governmental structures and policies, in other words, depend upon right theological grounds. Remove the ground and you remove the foundation of right constitutions and policies. Not only, remove the ground and it becomes more likely that governmental policy to warp from right to wrong, from just to unjust, and you can watch as the government earns its own judgment.
The government that denies God will not long remain a just government.
In short, Genesis 9:5–6 offers a striking and even tense balancing act:
- God gives governments authority to prosecute crimes against human beings, not crimes exclusively against him. Still…
- Governments who deny that their authority comes from him and who do not rule in accordance with his law earn his judgment.
Genesis 9 teaches both principles, and a proper understanding of faith in the public square depends upon embracing both, even if there can be a measure of tension between them. Injustices occur whenever a government forgets one principle or the other. In the final analysis, the state must not prosecute idolatry or false religion directly, but it must continually be on the lookout for the ill-fruit of false religion that harms human beings and hinders their flourishing, which of course means that it must have some sense of what true religion is.
What does this mean practically? On the one hand, the government cannot enforce or require church membership. The church is the sign-maker, we said last week. It declares who does and does not belong to Christ’s kingdom. The state must not pick up the keys of the kingdom for binding and loosing on earth what is bound and loosed in heaven. It cannot enact church discipline. It cannot prosecute a religious crime that it cannot see or that does not cause significant demonstrable harm to another human being. Which is to say, it cannot prosecute someone for thinking or believing in the wrong thing. And, I dare say,
For this reason, I don’t think we should write Jesus’ name into the preamble of the constitution, as groups of evangelicals have argued off and on for 200 years. That would be hanging a sign over a nation, which the government doesn’t have the authority to do.
That said, I don’t have a problem, indeed, I think it’s good, for leaders to invoke God in their speeches, the way, for instance, you’ll see in Lincoln’s speeches. People today might complain about that making them uncomfortable, and a politician might reasonably decide such references are injudicious in certain settings. My only point is that it’s legitimate, since it reminds people of the ground of all authority.
5. Who should we vote for?
Finally, who should we vote for? I threw this last question in there to give us a chance think about what all this means in practical terms.
We vote for the candidate, we support the party, we work on the legislation, with a limited but clear view of what the government has been authorized and ordered by God to do: to render the judgment necessary for creating a platform of peace, order, virtue, and prosperity; a platform on which people are free and not hindered from knowing God and being redeemed.
We don’t want a government who thinks it can offer redemption, but a government who views its work as a prerequisite for redemption for all of its citizens. It builds the streets so that you can drive to church, protects the womb so that you can live and hear the gospel, insists on fair-lending and housing practices so that you can own a home and offer hospitality to non-Christians, works for education so that can read and teach your children the Bible, protects marriage and the family so that husbands and wives can model Christ’s love for the church, polices the streets so that you are free to assemble as churches unmolested and to make an honest living so that you can give money to the work of God. Now, you might disagree with government involvement in any of these examples. But it’s the grid I want you to see and adopt: government renders judgment to establish peace, order, and prosperity so that the church might do what God calls it to do.
 Some of you perhaps are wondering, “Wait a second, I don’t see the word government in Genesis 9.” True. Rather, he grants the authority—the license—a government needs to function. As Old Testament scholar Bruce Waltke puts, this passage provides “the legislation” that “lays the foundation for government by the state” (Genesis, 145).
 Ta-Nehesi Coates, “The Case for Reparations,” The Atlantic
 In his The Biblical Doctrine of Judgment (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2006; orig. Inter-Varsity Press UK, 1960), 13.
 Further, unlike James Madison, who, in working on the Virginia Declaration of Rights in May of 1776 decidedly rejected language of “religious tolerance” and replaced it with the language of “religious liberty,” I prefer the language of religious tolerance. There is no biblical mandate to sponsor false religions. We tolerate it. Yes, I recognize that treating religions asymmetrically would be politically impossible in our present environment.