ORIGIN OF CIVIL GOVERNMENT
(A Biblical Examination of Its Origin and Jurisdiction)
by Kerry Lee Morgan*
CIVIL GOVERNMENT: A Biblical Examination of Its True Human Origin and Limited Jurisdiction
“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.” Romans 13:1.
“They made kings, but not through Me. They set up princes, but I knew it not.” Hosea 8:4
“[Y]ou shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.” 1 Samuel 8:17-18
The Place To Start
Where do we begin to think about the origin of civil government? Where do we look for guidance on what civil government is supposed to do and what it should never do? Where does it come from and what is its lawful jurisdiction? Is it established by God or is it merely the creation of the People or will of despots? Does God’s law limit its jurisdiction or can civil government regulate everything it controls based on its reason, lust or raw power?
To set the stage, we have selected three quotations stated above. Many believe the first quote from the Book of Romans means God institutes governing authorities such as kings and by implication presidents. The second quote from Hosea hardly ever referenced, seems to mean the opposite, that God did not put civil authorities or kings in power. The third quote from 1 Samuel 8 suggests not only that kings are not chosen by God, but are chosen by the people, but also that such kings will make the people their slaves. How do you read them? You never even thought about it. Why is that?
While trying to figure that out, let us mention what we are not talking about. When we speak of civil government we do not mean individual self-government. Self-government is the authority of every person to govern themselves. It exists because God made every person in His Image and has charged mankind with certain duties and responsibilities. Nor are we referring to family government with its distinct authority given to the husband and wife, and the father and mother regarding their children, as defined by God from the beginning of human history. Genesis 1:27-31. God also established the nations of the earth after the time of Noah. The worldwide Church of Jesus Christ established by God four thousand years after creation, was also instituted by God, without the permission of any nation or civil government.
When we speak of civil government we mean none of these governmental structures or of nations. We mean that civil structure of organized government using force and coercion through its various branches to accomplish control and regulation, all undertaken in the name of securing public safety and public morals. These structures are generally called the “State” or the “government.” John Locke described the purpose of civil government and its exercise of political power declaring that “[p]olitical power, then, I take to be a right of making laws with penalties of death, and consequently all less penalties, for the regulating and preserving of property, and of employing the force of the community, in the execution of such laws, and in the defence of the common-wealth from foreign injury; and all this only for the public good” John Locke, Second Treatise of Civil Government, Ch.1, sec. 3 (1690).
None of these are perfect definitions. The point is simply to show that civil government is not individual, family, or ecclesiastical government. Nor is civil government the same thing as a nation. The nation is a people group defined by geographical boundaries. God, however, is very practical in describing the civil governments of the nations of the earth. He told His Prophet Samuel to tell all the words of the Lord to the people asking for a king. He said, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen and to run before his chariots. And he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants. He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants. He will take your male servants and female servants and the best of your young men and your donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.” 1 Samuel 8:10-18 (emphasis added).
While God created mankind, male and female, the family, nations and the universal worldwide church, are we also to conclude that God created the kingdoms of the earth, i.e., its civil governments? Did He “establish” the civil governments of the nations of the earth? If so, when, how, and by what human agency if any, and for what purpose did He create civil government? Or is civil government merely the creation of humans? If so, is it destined to make just laws “for the regulating and preserving of property?” Or is it destined to “take” the fit among us and send them down to war while confiscating “the best of your fields and vineyards” and flocks for itself and its war machine?
To answer these questions we will examine what God has actually written. We will examine what He has written about the Creation of the world using the chronological method of inquiry and try to make sense of it. This makes sense since the Bible is written mostly chronologically. We will also avoid as best we can examining what others have written about what God has written. We can read the Bible directly and consider what He has said ourselves.
The Place Not To Start
Considering what God says about the origin of civil government and its jurisdiction is not an easy or natural starting point. Our minds do not normally jump to it. Job once observed: “He takes away understanding from the chiefs of the people of the earth and makes them wander in a trackless waste.” Will he also deny us understanding? He might if we insist on trying to fit His understanding within the confines of our own.
Unfortunately, most people have absorbed a way of thinking about civil government that is a diversion from the truth. One such starting point is to think about civil government from the view point of a political party. Thus, the first question you are likely asked in America is: “Are you a Republican or a Democrat?” In other countries the question is similar: “What party do you support?” Once this choice is made the way we think about government is somewhat predictable. It is chosen for us and defined by our specific party affiliation. But is this how God would think about civil government, deciding first if He was a Republican or a Democrat, a supporter of this party or the other party? Yet, if you listen to Christian talk radio around election time that is what you will be told. Perhaps God would be a Libertarian since He created mankind with free will. Or perhaps He would be a member of the Green party since He created the earth. Do we want to “wander in a trackless waste” as this?
Another popular choice about thinking about civil government is to determine first off whether you are a liberal or a conservative. Alas, these descriptions likewise lead to certain rote conclusions about how civil government is formed and what it ought to do and avoid doing. Does God think about civil government using this framework? Is God a liberal? Is He a conservative? Is this how He defines Himself using these politically pliable terms?
If being a Republican or Democrat, or a conservative or liberal is not the place to begin thinking about civil government are there other more suitable approaches? Perhaps a more broad approach are you politically left or politically right? This approach views civil government and policy through political eyes. It is driven by issues and the politics of this issue versus that issue. Or perhaps you are politically neutral or simply apolitical? Civil government? Who cares.
In this left-right approach, our thinking about civil government is shaped on how and to what degree the civil government promotes “our issues” or how the civil government stays away from “our issues.” Thus, a civil government or political candidate who is a “good choice”, is one that agrees with our views on a specific issue. The point is that we begin to think about government based on how it squares with our individual view on specific issues.
Perhaps our views are driven by our understanding of the Bible, while the more likely scenario is that they are defined for us politically and someone told us this or that view was also “Biblical.” Don’t get the cart before the horse. Our views on most issues are driven by whether we see ourselves as politically left, neutral or politically right.
Religious conservatives and evangelicals are primarily issue driven in their thinking about civil government these days. This explains why they are unmotivated to think about civil government itself, from God’s viewpoint. They are generally satisfied with declaring themselves to be Republicans. If they translate Biblical admonitions about voluntary compassion into governmental programs of mandatory forced welfare, they declare themselves to be Democrats or socialist. There is often little thought given to acceptance of the parties underlying intellectual frameworks and assumptions. Often political affiliation is something you inherit from your parents like grandma’s rocking chair. Beyond this, scant thought is usually given to God’s view of civil government and no thought is given to how we should think about civil government from God’s viewpoint, let alone its American governmental and federal version. That is the lay of the land.
Even now you are probably hoping this book will eventually affirm your preexisting ideas about God and government. You have read Romans 13. What more is there? Did you also read I Samuel 8 or Hosea 8 referenced in the beginning of this chapter? Do they seem to conflict? Do you have it all figured out? Don’t be naïve. If you want to look afresh, it means you must temporarily suspend your conscientious desire to judge each chapter on how it shall square with your own left-right thinking. You can always go back to those warm thoughts when you stop reading. Can you set aside your party views and read this book to actually see what it has to say?
There are also those who simply declare that thinking about political things like civil government is not worthy of their time or energy. They assume that God would not concern Himself with “secular” or “worldly” matters as politics and government. They pursue matters they believe to be more spiritual and thinking about civil government is not one of these things. But our concern is with inquiring what God has to say, if anything, about the origin and jurisdiction of civil government and in particular about American Civil Government. To understand His views, we look not to religious treatises, Church teaching or religious advocacy. We look rather to the Bible and what it has to say about these purportedly secular and worldly matters. Let us hope we are not so spiritual, that consideration of the whole word of God is beneath us.