God’s Laws of Authority:
The Social Order God Has Made
by Gerald R. Thompson
Now that we have laid out the basic principles of God’s laws of authority, let’s explore them further. Specifically, exactly what authority has been given to people by God?
Institutions vs. Associations
The first great distinction to be made in understanding the social order is between the things which God has created, and the things which people create. The things God has made I refer to as institutions – and when I say things, what I really mean is social relationships. The things (i.e., social relationships) which people make are voluntary associations.
Obviously, people are intrinsically involved in the formation of all social relationships, whether of institutions or associations. I am not suggesting that God forces people to make any specific relationships, nor that He predetermines who will become a Christian, etc. Nothing I’m saying here has any bearing on the matter of individual free will.
The distinction I’m drawing relates to origins and definitions, namely, that there are certain types of social relationships (institutions) which are formed the moment we are born. These relationships are fundamentally different from those which are formed later on in life, precisely because the relationships themselves pre-date our own existence. In point of fact, the institutions were never invented or originally defined by people at all.
Institutions are those social relationships which: 1) are created by God; 2) are a condition into which a person is born (or born subject to); 3) are governed by a pre-existing covenant; and 4) have a pre-defined legal relationship. The biblical record indicates that only four such institutions exist, and no others.
Associations are those social relationships which are: 1) created by people; 2) governed by common assent; 3) have a self-defined legal relationship; and 4) a relationship which a person voluntarily joins. Associations include all social relationships other than the legal institutions, such as schools, clubs, employment, businesses, charities, unions, political parties, etc.
Associations may assist the legal institutions in carrying out their purposes, but associations may not usurp, or exercise authority over, the jurisdiction of any institution. The reason is simple. Since all human authority is derived from God (and not the reverse), the legal authority of human creations is always subservient to the authority of God’s creations. Institutions always (without exception) have a superior authority compared to associations.
I will not dwell on associations in this essay except to draw a contrast between them and the social institutions God has made. Keep in mind the core question to be considered in this section: Exactly what authority has been given to people by God? And the answer is, with respect to all human associations, none. God only gives authority to the social relationships He has made. All man-made relationships derive their authority solely from people. (Spoiler Alert: this includes both civil governments and churches, as explained below.)
So in discussing the extent of authority God has delegated to people, the first thing we need to do is make a carve-out for all voluntary associations. Schools, businesses, nonprofit groups, clubs, business leagues, political parties and every other type of association other than the four institutions created by God have no direct authority from Him. Consequently, in this essay, we will largely ignore them. They do not fit into God’s legal framework except by the principle of consent of the governed, and the laws of property and contract, etc. Our concern here is to focus on the God-made institutions, as they form the core of the social order for humanity that God has instituted.
It is fashionable in popular culture to denigrate the social institutions as the legacy of a dead hand. Either they are portrayed as the arbitrary, artificial and outmoded hand-me-downs of generations long past, or they are seen as a series of constraints imposed by a God we no longer want – to be thrown off and left in the ash heap of history. To be sure, the social institutions do impose a form of constraint, but it is a constraint that was (and is) designed to provide a beneficial context and framework for society. Ultimately, the goal of each of the social institutions is to promote the greatest amount of liberty and happiness for both individuals and society as a whole.
The institutions do not weigh us down with burdens, so much as they free us up to be true to our natures. True liberty is the freedom to perform our duties to God as He directs us, that is, the freedom to be all that God created us to be. A knowledge of the institutions gives us God’s perspective on how to maximize the fruit of liberty, namely, freedom, prosperity and happiness. God’s constraints are beneficial, not harmful. Rebelling against these constraints is ultimately counter-productive – it will only produce misery. It is no accident that one of the purposes of the Gospel (or Good News) is to proclaim liberty. See, Lk 4:18.
I noted above that there are only four social institutions, and they are: 1) individuals; 2) families; 3) nations; and 4) the body of Christ (the universal Church). Each of these has a corresponding type of governmental structure associated with it, namely, self-government, family government, civil government, and church government.
However, I can’t assume that all of us are necessarily on the same page. Let me now walk you through the institutions so you can see how each of them meets the criteria I laid out earlier, and no other relationships do. I also want to briefly survey the governmental nature of each institution.
• Creation – Every individual person is a creation of God. People can procreate, but no one except God can create life.
• Birth – Every person since Adam and Eve has entered this world the same way – by being born.
• Covenant – The Adamic and Noahic covenants apply to every individual born since the flood, because everyone born since then is a descendant of both Adam and Noah.
• Relationship – With respect to God, every person is not only individually morally responsible, but is also born into sin, that is, separated from God and with a nature pre-disposed to rebel.
It is fairly common for people to talk about the basic units of society as consisting of the family, the Church, and civil government. There are two fundamental errors in that belief: the first is the mistaken identification of civil government as an institution created by God (a matter which I will address below). The second is the omission of the individual as an institution. Usually, the family is identified as being the most fundamental unit of society. This is both unfortunate and short-sighted. Without the institution of the individual, none of the others would exist.
You may think I’m speaking in merely physical terms, but actually I’m talking governmentally. Without the underlying foundation of individual self-government, then family government, national (or civil) government, and church government would not be possible.
As families bear children and exercise dominion, who is making sure the members of the family love, respect and honor each other, and function together as a unit for the benefit of everyone? Ultimately, if the members of the family do not govern themselves rightly, no outside force in heaven or on earth can force them to act for the mutual benefit of the family unit. If self-government is absent among the family members, then family government will fail. The main reason families are faltering today is because husbands are unwilling to act as husbands, wives are unwilling to act as wives, and parents and children are unwilling to behave as parents and children should. All of which are failures of individual self-government.
The same argument obviously applies to church government and civil government as well. Why do churches have member discipline issues and staff behavioral issues? Because the individuals in churches aren’t governing themselves properly. Why do nations and states have crime problems and criminal populations that only seem to get worse? Because individual members of society aren’t governing themselves properly. Everything starts with the individual – and ends with the individual, too. Leave a consideration of self-government out of the picture, and you’ve missed the whole thing.
Admittedly, families, the Church and nations all have multiple members, so in that sense the individual is unlike the rest. However, individual self-government concerns the most fundamental of all interpersonal relationships – that between every person and God. Yes, God is a person, not an impersonal force.
If you think I am here referring to the matter of redemption, or personal salvation, you would be wrong. I am still speaking governmentally, i.e., how each person relates to God’s laws. How does each individual regulate himself or herself in the light of the laws of nature and nature’s God? That is the question. Answer that question correctly, and everything else falls into place. Answer it wrongly, and nothing else much matters. Yes, my friend – the individual is a social institution.
• Creation – The family is not an invention of people to serve a useful or convenient purpose, but a relation imposed by God as part of His design for human society in the beginning.
• Birth – Every person is born into a parent-child relationship which is peculiar to the family institution. No one gets to choose their parents or other relatives.
• Covenant – Both the Adamic and Noahic covenants command people to be fruitful and multiply, that is, to reproduce through the bearing of children. This is to be lawfully done exclusively within the context of the family.
• Relationship – God has determined the parameters of authority each person may exercise in the family, not leaving these to individual determination (i.e., husband-wife, parent-child, etc.).
To some extent, all of the basic institutions have been under definitional attack in recent years. In the individual context, we are seeing this played out with respect to gender identity and trans-gender issues. What it means to be an individual is also being tested in the fields of artificial intelligence and the attempts to create life via cloning, etc.
Similarly, our nation is being barraged by voices attempting to remake the Constitution and redefine what it means to be a nation of the people, by the people and for the people. As for the Church, it was once viewed as being exclusionary (Jesus is the only way, etc.). Now it is being thrown open to all comers, so much so that conduct which was once universally prohibited is now openly practiced by church leaders. The Narrow Gate has been replaced by the Big Tent.
Yet, perhaps none of the basic institutions has been under attack more than the family. The early attacks started by assaulting marriage with the imposition of no-fault divorce, followed by the recognition of domestic contracts. Both of these diminished marriage as a relationship governed by a pre-existing (divinely constructed) covenant. Then followed a wide acceptance of cohabitation, domestic partnerships and civil unions as valid substitutes for marriage – all the while discarding the pre-defined relationships between family members specified by God. It was only a matter of time until same-sex marriages would appear on the scene, which they did, cementing themselves into the social fabric with the sanction of positive law. Too bad the laws of nature and nature’s God were disregarded in the process.
The parent-child relationship has not escaped these same kinds of attacks. It started out with the best of intentions (paving the road to hell) in allowing for child emancipation. It then moved to preferring mothers over fathers in granting child custody after divorce. This effectively made all such children orphans according to the law of nature (which defines an orphan as a fatherless child). Gradually, corporal punishment (spanking) was frowned upon, and then effectively banned under the guise of child cruelty. Inevitably, single women demanded (and received) the right to be impregnated via a sperm bank rather than a husband. And both single adults and homosexual couples were allowed to adopt children (which previously had been restricted to heterosexual married couples).
Then there’s the whole revolution in so-called reproductive rights, a/k/a abortion. By definition, no woman can physically, all on her own, make herself pregnant. So how is it that when a woman becomes pregnant – by whatever means (that is, husband, lover or sperm bank) – she alone, and no one else, has the right to decide whether to prematurely terminate that pregnancy by death? If it takes two to get pregnant, why does it only take one to end that pregnancy? From where did such a right arise? Do you really think God is just going to let these things slide?
It is easy to think of individuals and families as being instituted by God because they have been with the human race from the beginning. There has never been a time when people existed without individuals or families. But what about nations? There were no nations in the beginning. In fact, the biblical record indicates a minimum of 1,750 years of human history before the first nations appeared. Surely nations were invented by people at that point? Not really.
• Creation – Following the Tower of Babel, God scattered the people of the earth by confusing their languages, forming the first nations. This separation was not founded on the directives of any human leader, the consent of any committee, or the result of a natural evolutionary process. It was entirely God’s idea – imposed on people without their consent as a divine judgment.
• Birth – Ever since Babel, every person has been born into a nationality (i.e., an ethnic group), and is born subject to the capital punishment requirement of the Noahic covenant (Gen. 9:6).
• Covenant – If one is also born into a political nation, he or she is also born subject to whatever national covenant (i.e., constitution) governs that nation.
• Relationship – In this way, the rights of each citizen with respect to civil government are pre-defined. When you are born into a nation, no one asks you to consent to its laws – you are automatically subject to them.
When describing the difference between institutions and associations, and applying that to the national context, we must be careful to note that a nation and its civil government are not the same thing. One is an institution, the other is an association. Simply put, God creates nations, people make civil governments. This is what is meant by the phrase in the Declaration of Independence that “governments are instituted among men.” Don’t let the word instituted throw you – in that context it means formed by human consent (as an association), not imposed by divine will.
Think of it as a division of labor between God and people. God grants and defines the nature of civil power, and the laws which constrain all civil governments. He also forms the nations, as noted above. [Note: In this essay, when I refer to nations that God made, I am referring to nations in an ethnic sense. I regard political nations as civil governments.]
People, not God, determine the form of civil government, what documents will establish that government, what powers may be exercised in what ways, and the manner of succession. God never interferes with man’s discretion in such matters. God does His part, and He leaves government formation to the people. Whether they choose wisely or poorly is on their own heads.
Even the theocracy of ancient Israel was formed by the people. God proposed to make Israel a holy nation, but before He could do that, the people first had to consent. Exo. 19:5-8. Then, after the Ten Commandments had been delivered, the people had to give their consent again, to make it effective. Exo. 24:7-8. In spite of ancient Israel being a theocracy, it was very decentralized and self directed by the people. Even the system of judges utilized by Israel came about at the suggestion of Moses’ father-in-law, not from God. Exo. 18:21-22.
Changes in the form of government are also left to people. When Israel changed from a judgeship to a monarchy, it was the will of the people, not God’s idea. 1 Sam. 8. God told Samuel (the last judge) to listen to the people. God neither forced a monarchy upon them, nor did He veto a change in the form of government the people wanted. He merely warned them what it would look like, and let them decide. True, God did anoint the kings over Israel. But this made none of them actually king. Saul did not become king until the people consented. Similarly, David did not become king until the people consented, and this was in two separate steps. If merely anointing David had actually made him king (while Saul was still alive), then Israel would have had two kings at once.
When Israel’s form of government changed, it had no impact on the nature of the nation, i.e., either God’s purposes for Israel, or the nature of the theocracy. Since the change in the form of Israel’s government did not change the nature of the nation, it proves that a nation and its form of government are not the same. This pattern was repeated in the United States which, like Israel, changed its form of government. That is, the U.S. went from the Articles of Confederation to a constitutional system. However, this change in the form of national government had no impact on the nature or identity of the nation formed by Declaration of Independence.
Therefore, abolishing the form of government does not destroy a nation per se. One might even say, the people have a right to abolish their form of government. We have no right to destroy the creations of God (nations), but man’s creations are, in a real sense, disposable. That’s why the Declaration could say, “But when a long Train of Abuses and Usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object, evinces a Design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their Right, it is their Duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.” Gosh, it almost sounds like the signers of the Declaration knew what they were talking about.
• Creation – The universal Church, or body of Christ, was not invented by any man. It was ordained by God to serve the purposes of its head, Jesus Christ, to advance His mission in the world.
• Birth – People often think of the Church as something you join, but scripture clearly speaks of becoming a Christian as a birth experience. Unlike the physical birth which characterizes the other legal institutions, birth into the universal Church is spiritual in nature, and is often referred to as being “born again.”
• Covenant – By His death and resurrection, Christ Jesus inaugurated a new covenant for all those who believe in Him. Becoming a member of the body of Christ and becoming subject to the Church covenant are the same thing – you cannot do one without the other.
• Relationship – Previously alienated from God and born separated from Him, each Christian becomes legally adopted as a son of God and is recognized as a fellow heir with Christ.
Here I have to make the same basic caveat for the Church as I did for nations. Namely, that all visible churches are associations created by people, not institutions created by God. When I say that the Church was created by God, I mean only the invisible Church (i.e., the body of Christ), purely as a spiritual entity. Whether a person is a member of the spiritual Church only goes to the question of whether that person is a Christian or not – and it is a question that God alone can answer. Whether a person is Catholic, Protestant or Orthodox, or a Baptist, Presbyterian or Methodist, etc. is entirely a separate issue. There are no denominations in the spiritual (or heavenly) Church. All such identifications are entirely man-made, not God instituted.
The invisible Church is governed exclusively by Christ as its head. Eph. 4:15; 5:23. This is evident from the lack of any priestly class in the Church, in the equality all believers share with respect to access to God, and the lack of any authority structure described in scripture. Which is to say, God simply has not delegated any discernable authority to anyone to rule over others with respect to things which are merely spiritual. Thus, the invisible Church has no governmental structure, as far as people are concerned. Spiritual things fall under God’s exclusive jurisdiction. As a spiritual entity, the universal Church has no jurisdiction except to carry out the terms of the Great Commission, and to extend love or charity to others. And none of these constitute ruling over others. To the extent men have any authority to rule, it is confined to the visible church.
That the visible church is a mere association should be obvious, though admittedly many churches go to great lengths to hide this fact. Every visible church organization in the world was formed not by God, but by specific people, at some specific time and place, under the auspices of some civil authority. There is no visible church yet that sprang up from the ground by divine action. Also, if you are a member of a local church, I can guarantee that didn’t happen because you were born into it – at some point you joined it. Even if you were confirmed as a child, or baptized as an infant, that action was taken as a result of the choice of your parents, not as an inherent attribute of your physical birth.
So, every local church is created by people, not God, and is something you join, not born into. Do the members of your church ever vote? If so, there’s consent of the body. If not, were you ever accepted into membership? Again – consent of the body. And your church’s governing documents – bylaws, Book of Order, Constitution, whatever – where did they come from? Divine decree? Nope – somewhere, sometime, there was a committee of people who wrote those documents. In other words, everything about your local church screams that it is an association (man-made), not an institution (God-made).
So what is the obvious lesson here? That all visible churches are ruled by the consent of the governed. Not top-down, by the edicts or decrees of leaders who impose their will on the people. But bottom-up, by the consent of the people, who are the ones with ultimate governing authority. In the visible church, the people are in charge, and the leaders serve them. In the language of agency, the members of the Church are the principals, and church leaders are their agents or servants.
Logically then, all ecclesiastical authority is derivative and delegated, not original or inherent. All such authority is derived from and through the consent of church members in voluntary association with each other, not directly from any divine source. In other words, no church leader rules by divine authority. God didn’t put anyone in a leadership role or a position of authority in your local church. Which is exactly what you’re being told from the pulpit, right? Right?
So much for describing the four institutions created by God. Now let’s move to the next logical step – What things has God authorized each of the basic institutions to do?
Crucial to understanding the authority delegated to each of the social institutions are the scriptures I refer to as the Four Great Commands – one set of commands for each of the institutions. These are the bedrock scriptures which either establish or summarize the fundamental authority of each institution. These delegations were made, in each case, in one of two ways: either by divine covenant, or by the law of nature (being the will of God impressed in the creation). Further, each delegation contains a pair of fixed fundamental purposes.
The Greatest Commandments
You may already be familiar with Jesus’ response to the question, “Which is the great commandment in the law?”
And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Mat. 22:37-40).
Jesus was speaking about people as individuals. The duties to love God and our neighbor are individual duties. And those duties apply to every person if they arose either by the law of nature, or a universal divine law. To be sure, Jesus simply quoted Dt. 6:5 and Lev. 19:8. But are those verses part of the eternal moral law, the law of nature? They are if they are rooted in, or trace back to, the creation. And I contend that they do.
The duty to love God logically flows from the fact that people are created in God’s image, and each of us is made a morally responsible person. These concepts clearly trace back to the creation account of Gen. 1&2. The duty to love our neighbor as ourselves is, at root, based on the inherent equality between individuals. If every person is made in God’s image, then every person is worthy of equal respect and dignity. No one is to be looked down upon as less worthy, or as having any less authority than we claim for ourselves. Thus, I trace this duty to the creation account, as well.
Practically, the duty to love God gives to each person the freedom of religion and the freedom of conscience. Freedom of religion, because as moral beings, each person is accountable to God (and to no one else) for knowing God’s will, obeying His laws, and being in a right relationship with Him. Freedom of conscience, since every person must be convinced of these things in their own mind, as no one is subject to (or ruled by) the conscience of another. In sum, the duty to love God compels each of us to stand in a right relation with respect to our Creator.
The duty to love our neighbor includes a whole range of topics on human interactions and the ways in which we treat each other. Not only are we to show others forbearance, love, and charity, but we are to refrain from doing them harm, or doing wrong by them. Here, I am speaking of all manner of wrongs and disputes, including torts and crimes. Thus, the duty to love our neighbor includes not bringing harm to their person, family, reputation, business, or property. In sum, the duty to love our neighbor is to recognize the equal dignity and standing each person has before God.
In the end, the Greatest Commandments answer the question of what God expects each individual to do while on earth. That answer is this: God made each of us, ultimately, to conduct ourselves with a due regard for the Creator, and a due regard for others who are our equals. Each of us has been given individual authority to enable us to serve this purpose. In other words, God gave every person the authority to exercise self-government under the rule of God, or self-government in conformity with God’s laws. This is the very essence of our authority as individuals.
The Dominion Mandate
The jurisdiction of families (family government) is encapsulated in the Dominion Mandate, which is the core of the Adamic covenant, the first divine covenant between God and men:
And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food.” (Gen. 1:28-29).
Although not a part of the law of nature (which is non-verbal only), the Dominion Mandate does trace all the way back to the creation account of Gen. 1&2. It was given to people beginning with the very first family. And since all people alive today are descendants of that first family, it is just as universal as the law of nature.
We speak of the Dominion Mandate as given primarily to families because of the clear guidelines given later in scripture that being fruitful and multiplying requires the formation of a lawful family unit. However, that doesn’t mean individuals, as such, lack the authority from God to carry out regular dominion activities. The scripture text never limits dominion to family units, per se. You might think of childbearing as the right of individuals, so long as they gather into lawful family units first. From a natural rights perspective, ultimately all God-given rights are individual rights.
I prefer to think of the Dominion Mandate as the province of the private sector, meaning individuals, families and the voluntary associations they form. That’s because no nations or civil governments existed when the Dominion Mandate was given. Therefore, there is no biblical basis for inferring that earthly dominion was ever given to public officials or civil rulers in that capacity. Dominion is the right of all people before God, regardless of what their civil rulers may say.
Take, for example, the right to reproduce and propagate. You probably think of the right to reproduce as a natural right, but technically, it springs from the words of the Adamic covenant. Therefore, it is the words which create the right, not the mere creation. If God had not spoken these words, the right would not exist. God created us differently from the animals (we bear His image, they do not), so He authorizes us differently.
This fact alone destroys the ability of evolution (as a merely natural process) to authorize humanity to take dominion. Which explains why evolutionists believe that whatever species likely inhabited the earth earlier than man, has a prior and superior claim to dominate the earth. If you take away not only God, but the authorizing words He spoke, you destroy mankind’s dominion over the animal kingdom. Which makes God’s words all that much more important to preserve.
Apart from childbearing, the Dominion Mandate commands us to subdue the earth, and to rule over the entire animal kingdom (fish, birds and land creatures). This comprehends almost everything we normally think of as belonging to the private sector – property, commerce, industry, occupation, labor, education, etc. From a legal perspective, dominion necessarily includes all the legal rights needed to accomplish these things, such as economic rights and liberties, private property, freedom of contract and association, etc.
I daresay the Dominion Mandate is the most comprehensive grant of authority ever given to humanity. It contains every conceivable authority the human race needs to sustain itself and prosper indefinitely. The most important aspect of which is the preservation of the family unit. In other words, the purpose of the Dominion Mandate is to maintain the integrity of God’s design for the family unit as the best possible means of ensuring the continuation, prosperity and happiness of the human race. If people had never fallen morally, and the ground had never been cursed, the Dominion Mandate is all people ever would have needed to survive and thrive on the earth forever.
National (or Civil) Authority
Prior to the Noahic covenant, there was no civil power, or the authority to punish crimes, given to anyone. I mentioned earlier that when Cain killed Abel, God specifically said no one had the authority to punish Cain as a murderer. We can thus infer that civil power was not granted as part of the law of nature. First, because no one had it early on. Second, because God would not need to expressly delegate it after the great flood if He had already done so earlier.
The great flood of Noah’s time demonstrated the need for the existence of nations. I won’t call it an experiment, because God already knew the outcome, but the centuries before the flood showed what would happen when people were left on their own to govern themselves. They should have been able to govern themselves, and they had all the tools and authority they needed to get the job done. But their fallen natures prevented them from succeeding. The result? People were corrupt and the earth was filled with violence. (Gen. 6:11). Something had to be done as a means of restraining (but not eliminating) evil. God’s answer was the formation of nations.
However, there were no nations, or civil governments, when civil power was first granted. Nations first arose after the Tower of Babel, more than a century after the Noahic covenant. The first civil governments (small municipal monarchies) arose some time later as people began to spread out over the earth. Therefore, at its root, civil power was granted by God to people as individuals, or at most, to family groups, as the original beneficiaries of the grant were Noah and his immediate family.
When nations were formed, people presumably delegated civil power to their respective forms of civil government. I say presumably for two reasons, the first being that most nations today exercise civil power under either an express or implied grant from the people. Second, I know of no other way for that power to end up in the hands of civil governments, because God never gave it to them directly. So nations (or their governments) either received civil authority from a delegation by the people, or else it was forcibly (and illegally) conscripted from them without their consent. Those are the only choices.
Although we typically employ the legal fiction that all nations acquired their power properly, that is both impossible to prove, and too incredible to believe. However, no matter how any particular nation’s civil government was derived, the nature and limitations of national authority is plainly spelled out in scripture.
Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. (1 Pet. 2:13-14). See also, Rom. 13:3-4. Civil government is “an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.”
The mission of civil government is therefore two-fold: a) to punish wrongdoers; and b) to commend what is right (in the American tradition, to secure individual rights). As to punishing wrongdoers, this includes not only punishing criminals, but also providing a means of redress for private litigants who have disputes over breaches of contract, property claims, injuries to persons, or other damages, etc. These are essentially the same means used for protecting individual rights. To “commend what is right” does not mean to do good things, to dole out special favors, or to enforce any alleged rights of the government against the people.
In sum, civil power was not granted to accomplish anything new, better, or grander. It was granted to protect people from malefactors so the purposes of individual and family authority could be carried on without interference. That is, to restrain evil for the benefit of the private sector. Thus, nations were created, and civil power was granted, to provide a stable society for the safety, prosperity and happiness of the people in their private capacities. God did not create nations because individuals inherently need to be ruled, nor to superintend families, nor to exercise a superior dominion over the earth. Nations and civil government are, in the larger picture, merely facilitators for the private sector, not its replacement.
The Great Commission
The fourth basic social institution created by God is the universal (or spiritual) Church. It has its own unique delegation of divine authority known as the Great Commission.
And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Mat. 28:18-20).
The authority granted here is not to be confused with religious liberty. Religious liberty is the right of every individual, regardless of their religious beliefs. As mentioned earlier, religious liberty flows from being made in the image of God, and that is not what is in view in the Great Commission.
As part of the new covenant in Christ, the Commission applies to people not on the basis of physical ancestry, but solely on the basis of individual faith. Therefore, it is not a universal law for all people. It only applies to individuals who voluntarily believe. For that reason, the authority it grants is primarily a spiritual authority. First, it grants to believers the right to preach the Gospel of Christ and to make converts to Christianity. Since the Gospel is a message of faith, only those who profess the faith of the Gospel are tasked with spreading it. It would make no sense whatever to authorize people who are not believers to spread the message of that belief.
The other half of the authority granted is to teach the commands of Christ. As I explain in my essay The Great Commission And God’s Law, this means teaching the universal laws of God. Since the Commission is expressly directed to all nations, logically only those laws of God which apply to all people are comprehended within the meaning of the Commission. I do not say that only believers are capable or authorized to teach God’s laws, but they are certainly better positioned than anyone else to carry out that task. Therefore, we can assume God will require a certain accountability from the Church to teach His laws which goes beyond His expectation for unbelievers.
I have already observed that the universal Church is a spiritual entity created by God, whereas visible church groups and associations are formed by people. Visible churches are certainly authorized to carry out the Great Commission. However, it is not any church organizations, or any religious persons, as such, that have this authority. Rather, it is the individual members of any visible church who, as believers, have the right to carry out the Commission in a voluntary group effort. The visible church merely piggybacks on the authority of its individual members. All church authority is bottom-up, not top-down.
Why did God create the Church, in the context of all of human history? Part of the answer is that nations and civil governments have only the power to restrain evil, not to provide for anyone’s redemption. So the mission of the Church is to preach, and provide a spiritual means of, personal redemption. In other words, to do that which individuals, families and nations cannot do on their own. But that is still only part of its mission.
By teaching people God’s universal laws, the Church makes people aware of the need for personal redemption, yes. But more than that, it can, and should, help individuals be better at self-government, enable families to preserve the family unit and carry out dominion, and instruct civil rulers as to what wrongs need remedying, and what rights need protecting. In other words, properly understood, the Great Commission puts the Church in the position of teaching people everything they need to know to function vertically (with respect to God) and horizontally in the rest of society according to God’s design.