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What is government for?

Author: Bible Society, 22 May 2017

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In the second part of our series, Paul Woolley asks what we should actually be expecting of our government. 

If the election matters because it's about who exercises stewardship on our behalf, the next question is what is the purpose of government? How would the leaders of our political parties answer? We can only really speculate on that (I doubt it's a question any of them will be asked in debates or interviews), but we can explore what the Bible says.

Government is limited

First, we should note that government is limited. It's limited in what it should do morally and what it can do practically. In God's governance of the universe, both before and after human sin, he acknowledges the importance of freedom within a moral order: freedom coupled with responsibility. 

Government should, therefore, not overly restrict human freedom. Deciding the limits of government intervention can be difficult. Government is also limited practically. The Apostle Paul notes that 'the law was powerless ... in that it was weakened by the sinful nature' (Romans 8.3). Government cannot change people; it can only control outward conduct.

In his letter to the Romans, Paul writes that government is a 'good thing' and that God has established the political authorities that exist (Romans 13). In Paul's view, government has essentially three key roles: restraining wrongdoing, judging and punishing evil, and promoting human wellbeing, the common good.

Restraining wrongdoing

Paul sees 'disorder' or lawlessness as a 'bad thing'. Unless public order is secured, the very existence of society is endangered. The apostle urges prayers 'for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness' (1 Timothy 2.3).

Judging and punishing wrongdoing

Government not only has a 'negative' role to play in 'restraining evil' but also a 'positive' role in judging evil, in declaring it 'evil' and in punishing it. Paul writes that 'rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong' (Romans 13.3). In Paul's thinking, government 'is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer' (Romans 13.4). 

Our laws clearly and un-controversially outlaw, judge and punish particular evils. Consider, for example, laws against murder, assault and theft. Governments that act unjustly and declare wrongdoing 'good' are subject to God's judgement. In a democracy, the electorate enjoys the privilege of electing their rulers and shares the responsibility when unrighteous and unjust laws are passed.

Promoting wellbeing, the common good

Paul states that people in authority are God's servants 'to do you good' (Romans 13.4). Government, therefore, has a useful role in promoting wellbeing or 'the good'. In a general terms, wellbeing in the Bible refers to living rightly or justly and experiencing shalom (wholeness), both as individuals and a society. We flourish together or not at all.

The government, says Paul, can (and should) create the necessary conditions whereby human wellbeing is possible. Government should act in ways that promote the common good of all, not the interests of a single group. One of the ways it can do this is by providing the necessary conditions whereby the church can flourish.

The above sketches out a biblical perspective on the purpose of government. If this is right, the question is which of the political parties is most likely to recognise its own limitations, judge and punish wrongdoing, and promote wellbeing, the common good? What do you think?


Get a summary of the party manifestos and evaluate their policies through the lens of the framework above

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