The Biblical View of Civil Government: A Classical Liberal Appraisal

By AUGUSTO ZIMMERMANN – Our great struggle is to fight for justice and liberty and to maintain a government that is strictly under the law.

The Bible sees government as an institution established by God (Genesis 9:6; Romans 13). Its primary goal according to scripture is to promote justice for its citizens—protecting the innocent from the aggressor and the lawless. Without security, every other function of government (protecting life, liberty, property, reputation, etc.) becomes meaningless.

As Christians, therefore, we must recognize government as a sacred institution whose rulers are ministers of God for good (Romans 13). As the Bible says: ‘Everyone must submit to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established […] For government is God’s servant working for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid. The government does not bear the sword for no reason. It is God’s servant, an avenger to execute God’s anger on anyone who does what is wrong.’ (Romans 13:1, 4)

God ordained the state to practice godly justice. As long as government is serving the ultimate purpose for which God created it, we show our allegiance to God by submitting to human government. The Apostle Peter instructs: ‘Submit you for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men, whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right’. (1 Peter 2:13–14).

 

Limited Government Responsibilities

However, the government has only limited responsibilities. We should expect the state to accomplish only limited, God-ordained tasks. Accordingly, its two primary roles are: to protect the innocent and to punish the guilty (Romans 13:3–4).

Government should adhere to the following biblical principle: ‘Let all things be done decently and in order’ (1 Corinthians 14:40; Exodus 18:19f). This is so because order reflects God’s character. However, we know that human power tends to corrupt and, as Lord Acton stated, ‘absolutely power corrupts absolutely’. Thus a government that disperses power is better than one that gathers power into the hands of just a few.

A constitutional form of government is therefore more likely to conform to biblical principles and respond to its citizens than are less democratic forms. One significant aspect of Australia’s constitutional framework that conforms to such principles is the division of power into three branches of government—executive, legislative, and judicial—along with its system of checks and balances. Such three-branch model reflects the Trinitarian nature of God patterned after Isaiah 33:22: ‘For the Lord is our judge, the Lord is our lawgiver, the Lord is our king.’

 

Creation and Original Sin

Although we are created in God’s image and likeness, we nevertheless have a fallen, sinful nature. Since our forefathers understood the opposing aspects of human nature, they tailored a government suited to our rightful place in God’s creative order.

Human government is necessary in order to protect us from our sinful nature. Because of our evil inclinations toward sin must be kept in check, a lawful government must be capable of enforcing laws that are designed to protect those who do good and to punish evildoers.

 

But our forefathers also grappled with the problem of protecting citizens from the sinful inclinations of those in government authority. The result of their efforts is a system of checks and balances among the branches of government. Each branch wields specific powers which prevent concentration of power (which is always inimical of liberty) and authority from falling into the hands of a select few. By broadly distributing government power into different branches, a constitutional system of government minimizes the possibility of abuse of power because of our fallen nature.

 

The Source of Human Rights

A Christian worldview understands God as the primary source of our fundamental rights and freedoms. Because we Christians believe all humans are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26), we know that each single person is much valuable in God’s sight. This becomes doubly clear when we remember that Christ took upon Himself human flesh and died for humanity.

God grants all humans the same inalienable rights based on an absolute moral standard. The American Declaration of Independence reflects our Christian worldview when it proclaims: ‘All men are created equal […] [and] endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.’ The following assumptions are inherent in this declaration:

            1) we were created by a benevolent God; and

            2) this God provides the foundation for all human rights.

The knowledge that human rights are based on an unchanging, eternal Source is crucial in our understanding of politics. For us Christians, such rights do not originate with human government, but with God Himself, who ordains governments to secure their protection by the law. If our rights were not tied inextricably to God’s character, then they would be arbitrarily assigned according to the whims of voluntary will – such rights would be ‘alienable’ because they would not reflect God’s unchanging character. The American Founding Father, John Adams, in a letter to Thomas Jefferson, in 1813, acknowledged this basic truth when he stated:

The general principles, on which the Fathers achieved Independence, were the only Principles in which that beautiful Assembly of young Gentlemen could unite [..]. And what were these general Principles? I answer, the general Principles of Christianity, in which all these Sects were united [..]. Now I will avow, that I then believe, and now believe, that those general Principles of Christianity, are as eternal and immutable, as the Existence and Attributes of God.[1]

 

The Purpose of Government according to Biblical Justice

According to our biblical worldview, human government was instituted by God to protect our unalienable rights from our own selfish tendencies (Genesis 9:6; Romans 13:1–7). George Washington, in his inaugural address as first President of the United States, referred to ‘the propitious smiles of Heaven’ that fall only on that nation that does not ‘disregard the eternal rules of order and right which Heaven itself has ordained.’[2]

But human nature is much capable of both vice and virtue. We know our tendency to infringe on our neighbour’s rights in an effort to improve our own life. We know government and political systems exist to protect our rights and to keep our evil tendencies at bay.

Christians see justice as the principal reason for the state’s existence. Justice is rendering to each his/her due according to a right standard. But the right standard for justice is God’s moral law, which is based on the very character of a righteous and benevolent Creator. This eternal and fixed standards of justice established by God insists that the innocent must be protected from evil—rapists, adulterers, murderers, child molesters, thieves, liars, drug runners, sex traffickers, dishonest tax collectors, etc.

 

Sovereignty Apart from God’s Guidance is Tyrannical

The State, therefore, has limited responsibility and it should allow other God-ordained institutions (the family, church, etc.) the freedom to perform their roles as well. Trusting too much on the state or state authorities, rather than God, inevitably results in government oppression and abuse of power.  Thus William Penn (the Founder of Pennsylvania) stated: ‘If we are not governed by God, then we will be ruled by tyrants.’[3] Or, as Charles Colson put it:

‘Excise belief in God and you are left with only two principals: the individual and the State. In this situation, however, there is no mediating structure to generate moral values and, therefore, no counterbalance to the inevitable ambitions of the State’[4]

Socialism provides a prime example of our willingness to deny God and place absolute sovereignty in the hands of the government. Socialism offers no salvation except through the hope that the all-powerful state will perfect us and our environment. While Christian teaching emphasizes that each person has worth and responsibility before God, socialism argues that salvation can only be achieved collectively.

Today, some utopian socialists even advocate global government to serve as the ultimate political and economic authority to advance humanity’s evolution. If they prevail in their movement toward ‘a new world order’ (and a complete abandonment of God’s moral law), we may well experience what scripture prophetically describes as the coming of the Anti-Christ (Revelation, Ch 13).

Contrary to such dangerous socialist teachings, the orthodox Christian doctrine implies a political philosophy of limited government that advocates a subsidiary role for the civil government. Curiously, the American Declaration of Independence reflects this religious conception when it proclaims, ‘All men are created equal […] [and] endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.’

Such a Declaration reflects the contribution of the English philosopher and political theorist, John Locke (1634-1704). According to Thomas West, ‘he was a major theologian whose interpretation of Christianity was tremendously influential in Britain and America’.[5] As noted by legal philosopher Jeremy Waldron, Locke supported a view of human equality (and dignity) that was deeply grounded in Biblical theology.[6] Indeed, the veracity of biblical teaching was a ‘working premise’ in Locke’s political thought, and the influence of such teaching is observed particularly in his deeply influential comments on property, family, slavery, government, and toleration.[7]

Indeed, Locke entirely based his Second Treatise on Civil Government (1690) on Christian principles of law, politics, and justice. There he argues that our basic rights are God-given and so they are independent of, and antecedent to, the civil government. For him, such government ‘hath no other end but the preservation of these rights, and therefore can never have a right to destroy, enslave, or designedly to impoverish the subjects.’ If a government exceeds the legitimate limits of its power, the people can dismiss their government for a breach of trust. Hence, Locke elaborates on a ‘state of nature’ predating the creation of the state in which individuals are ruled not by positive laws but only by a natural law that everybody is able to recognise and uphold.[8] This ‘law of nature’, Locke explained:

[S]tands as an eternal rule to all men, legislators as well as others. The rules that they make for other men’s actions must, as well as their own and other men’s actions, be conformable to the law of nature, ie to the will of God of which that is a declaration. And the fundamental law of nature being the preservation of mankind, no sanction can be good or valid against it.[9]

According to Locke, the state puts itself into a ‘state of war’ against society every time it attempts to undermine these natural rights of the individual. Being God-given and inalienable, even if one seeks to bargain these rights away, one simply will not succeed because natural rights are not the sort of things that can be bargained. Our fundamental rights to life, liberty and property set limits on civil authority, thus providing a lawful justification for resistance against tyranny should they be violated. To the extent that the civil ruler does not recognise and protect our rights, it actually ceases to be a legitimate authority and the people can dismiss it for breach of trust. As Locke himself put it:

Whenever the legislators endeavour to take away and destroy the property of the people [that is, their rights to life, liberty and property], or to reduce them to slavery under arbitrary power, they put themselves into a state of war with the people, who are thereupon absolved from any further obedience, and are left to the common refuge which God hath provided for all men against force and violence.[10]

The work of Locke played an enormously significant role in the development of modern constitutionalism. He is known as the ‘Founder of Classical Liberalism’ since his immense contributions provided moral and political justification for the 1688 Glorious Revolution in England. In the constitutional struggle of parliamentary forces against the Stuart monarchs in 17th century England, receptive attitude towards Christianity allowed /philosophers like Locke to develop a theory whereby the primary reason for the existence of civil government rests on the preservation of inalienable rights to life, liberty and property. Of course, as noted above, his political-philosophical contributions were later reflected in the United States’ Declaration of Independence, especially in its appeal to God-given natural rights and the lawful right to resist political tyranny.

Although many have expressed admiration for Locke’s words as a major source of liberal-democratic theory, he ‘explicitly based his entire thesis on Christian doctrines concerning moral equality.’[11] It is undisputable that his defence of religious freedom was linked to the support to religious pluralism and the diversity of religious expressions. Locke’s defence of religious freedom is precisely what inspired the drafters of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to establish freedom of religion and the principle of church-state separation.

 

The Subsidiary Role of Government

Statism can offer no promise of salvation except through the hope that a powerful government will perfect both our social environment and us. While Christian philosophy emphasizes that each individual is worth of fundamental rights and responsibilities, advocates for statism appear to argue that ultimate salvation can be achieved only collectively. Such utopian belief in humanity’s perfectibility, as well as on the perfectibility of the social environment, is based on a profound misconception about human nature.

Unfortunately, however, many people today are inclined to look on government aid as a ‘right’, regarding themselves as entitled to every form of public assistance. This prevents them from properly considering their self-worth and making attempts to preserve their self-respect. After describing the serious moral implications of the ‘modern central state’, Robert Sirico concluded:

The welfare state pursues its tasks in terms of a moral code increasingly alien from traditional Christian tenets. For example, the very concept of a welfare ‘entitlement’ runs contrary to the scriptural understanding of aiding the poor: helping others is a moral duty that springs from spiritual commitment and is not essentially exercised through coercion or government mandates. The modern, central state has proven itself incapable of distinguishing between the deserving and the underserving poor, and between aid that fosters independence and moral development from that which reinforces a dependency mindset and moral nihilism. [12]

Perhaps nobody has better explained the moral consequences of excessive government intervention than Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835). In ‘Limits of State Action’, Humboldt explain that such excessive interventionism by the state goes on to inevitably undermine the spirit of authentic solidarity, compassion, self-restraint, and individual responsibility. He famously commented that:

The evil results of a too excessive solicitude on the part of the State, are still more strikingly shown in the suppression of all active energy, and the necessary deterioration of the moral character. […] The man who is often led, easily becomes disposed willingly to sacrifice what remains of his capacity for spontaneous action. He fancies himself released from an anxiety which he sees transferred to other hands, and seems to himself to do enough when he looks to their leadership and follows it. Thus, his notions of merit and guilt become unsettled. […] He now conceives himself not only completely free from any duty which the State has not expressly imposed upon him, but exonerated at the same time from every personal effort to improve his own condition; and, even fears such an effort, as if it were likely to open out new opportunities, of which the State might take advantage […] Further, […][a]s each individual abandons himself to the solicitous aid of the State, so, and still more, he abandons to it the fate of his fellow-citizens.  This weakens sympathy and renders mutual assistance inactive; or, at least, the reciprocal interchange of services and benefits[…]where the feeling is most acute that such assistance is the only thing to rely upon; and experience teaches us that oppressed classes of the community which are…overlooked by the government, are always bound together by the closest ties. But whether the citizen becomes indifferent to his fellows, so will the husband be to his wife, and the father of a family towards the members of his household.[13]

Although government aid can do some good for those who need only a temporary boost to get back on their feet (effectively a band-aid for a broken bone), government assistance cannot eliminate the more pressing moral and spiritual needs that lie at the heart of every dysfunctional behaviour. Sometimes what the recipient of assistance actually needs is a strong message of work and sobriety. To a great extent, writes Nancy R. Pearcey:

Government aid can actually make things worse. By handing out welfare checks impersonally to all who qualify, without addressing the underlying behavioural problems, the government in essence ‘rewards’ antisocial and dysfunctional patterns. And any behaviour the government rewards will generally tend to increase. As one perceptive nineteenth century critic noted, government assistance is a ‘might solvent to sunder the ties of kinship, to quench the affections of family, to suppress in the poor themselves the instinct of self-reliance and self-respect – to convert them into paupers.[14]

 

Moral Costs of Welfare State: Family Relations

The moral costs of welfare state are, perhaps, in no other field more visible than in the field of family policy. Although the family serves as a primary means of acculturation and transmission of values from generation to generation, family ties in today’s societies are so weak that fewer people think they ought to help their family members.

As a result, people in distress no longer expect to obtain much help this way. Rather than addressing these problems, public policy has further destabilised the family with disastrous consequences. For instance, the last few decades have seen the dramatic proliferation of laws allowing the unilateral dissolution of the marriage contract. By making divorce easily available and purely personal, the state transformed marriage into a legal absurdity that denies the doctrine of responsibility and holds no inducements to personal misconduct.

Since we are all sinners by nature, these inducements provide a strong temptation for selfish and unethical behaviour. Of course, whenever and wherever the family breaks down the state must step in as a substitute for the dysfunctional family – hence the gradual increase of the state’s jurisdiction over the family.

 

Additional Costs of Welfare State – Personal Charity

Consider also how excessive government intervention apparently stymies the ability of individuals to provide charitable assistance. When assets are taken from the individual and their social groups, it leaves very little for them to donate to private charity.

The regime of high taxation inseparable from government welfare diminishes the sphere of free services in which individuals engage in spontaneous relations, effectively ‘corroding the culture of civility that sustains a compassionate society. The inevitable consequence of this decrease in charitable activities is that the state acquires greater financial power to invest in the “charitable” activities that the state itself deems worthy to support. According to John Gray:

If, because of the confiscation of higher incomes, there are important social and cultural activities that can no longer be sustained privately, such as provision for high culture and the arts, then once again the state assumes responsibility for such activities through a program of subsidy. Inevitably, the state comes to exercise ever-increasing degree of control over them. The consequence of redistributionist policy, accordingly, is the curtailment of private initiative in many spheres of social life, the destruction of the man of independent means, and the weakening of civil society.[15]

Ultimately, the malfunctions and defects in the welfare state appear to be the result of an inadequate understanding of the tasks proper to government. In Centesimus Annus (1991) Pope John Paul II noted that human nature ‘is not completely fulfilled in the State, but is realised in various intermediary groups, beginning with the family, including economic, social, political and cultural groups which stem from human nature itself and have their own autonomy’.[16] The encyclical goes on to explain that the ‘malfunctions and defects’ of the welfare state are the direct result of an ‘inadequate understanding of the tasks proper to the state.’[17] Because of this, John Paul II concluded:

[T]he principle of subsidiarity must be respect[ed] [so that] a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good. … In fact, it would appear that needs are best understood and satisfied by people who are closest to them and who act as neighbours to those in need.[18]

The principle of subsidiarity is premised on empowering the individual with decision-making ‘carried out as close to the citizen as is viable’[19] or, in simpler words, at a ‘grassroots level.’[20] Subsidiarity presupposes that ‘intermediate social entities can properly perform the functions that fall to them without being required to hand them over unjustly to other social entities of a higher level, by which they would end up being absorbed and substituted, in the end seeing themselves denied their dignity and essential place.’[21] Thus a hierarchy of orders is established, consisting first of the individual as a self-governing entity endowed by God with inalienable rights to life, liberty and property. The individual is then followed by the family, the local community, then the Church and, finally, the State.

 

A Question of Obedience

Finally there is also the important question of obedience to civil authority. The biblical view of politics says that God instituted government to promote His justice. We also understand from the reading of the Bible our God-given obligation to respect, obey, and participate in governments that serve His will (Romans 13:1–2).

However, our duty to obey authority does not require that we blindly follow leaders who stray from their responsibility to God. Rather, we must hold them accountable by our participation in government—voting, petitioning if necessary, running for political office, or serving in non-elected positions where we may be able to influence those in power (Proverbs 29:2).

Indeed, the Bible clearly instructs us to obey God even when His commands conflict with the state. For example, when the apostles Peter and John were commanded by the Sanhedrin to stop teaching about Jesus, they replied, ‘Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey man rather than God’ (Acts 4:19).

We are required to obey God even when our reform efforts through political channels fail. If the system of government remains unjust, we may be required to engage in civil disobedience in order to remain obedient to God. As Francis Schaeffer said: ‘The bottom line is that at a certain point there is not only the right, but the duty, to disobey the State.’[22]

Our disobedience to the state may even result in death, but in such instance it is better to die than to live. Daniel understood this truth and chose death over worshiping a king (Daniel 6:1–10). And God always honours such commitment!

 

Final Considerations

When governmental power increases, liberty must decrease because an excess of governmental power inevitably diminishes personal choice and opportunity. It should be a primary principle of governance that the power of the state must be limited enough so that it does not take too much freedom from the individual.

Above all, there are certain aspects of human life that are naturally ordained by God, and so the State may not legitimately control these. These are matters related to the application of biblical principles which must apply to every human conduct so that the inviolable rights to be enjoyed by all individuals are suitably protected by legally-enforceable constraints on power of various kinds.

When government rules within the boundaries of its role in God’s natural order, we submit to the state’s authority willingly because we understand that God has placed it in authority over us for the protection of our God-given inalienable rights to life, liberty and property. However, when the state abuses its authority or claims to be the ultimate sovereign and final arbitrators over our life, liberty and property, then we must acknowledge God’s transcendent law rather than that of the state.

Our loyalty is primarily to God, who may call us to political involvement in an effort to create good and just government. The involvement of righteous people can significantly influence government for the better. As Christians, therefore, we should welcome opportunities to participate in government with the goal of influencing the state to conform to God’s will for it as a social institution (Proverbs 11:11). As Colson says, ‘Christians are to do their duty as best they can. But even when they feel that they are making no difference, that they are failing to bring Christian values to the public arena, success is not the criteria. Faithfulness is.’[23]

Our great struggle, my fellow believers, is to fight for justice and liberty and to maintain a government that is strictly under the law. We shall remain obedient to God in all circumstances.


Footnotes

[1] Lester J. Cappon, ed., The Adams-Jefferson Letters (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1987),339–40.

[2] George Washington, First Inaugural Address, New York City, April 30, 1789.

[3] Francis A. Schaeffer, A Christian Manifesto (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1982), 34.

[4] Charles Colson, Kingdoms in Conflict (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1987), 226.

[5] Thomas G. West, ‘The Transformation of Protestant Theology as a Condition of the American Revolution’, in Thomas S. Engeman and Michael P. Zuckert (eds.), Protestantism and the American Founding (University of Notre Dame Press, 2004), p 88.

[6] Jeremy Waldron, God, Locke and Equality: Christian Foundations of John Locke’s Political Thought (Cambridge/UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002), pp 27-28.

[7] Ibid., 151.

[8] We should not too readily dismiss Locke’s theory of ‘state of nature’ as completely unhistorical and crudely individualistic. Natural law thinkers who discuss the ‘state of nature’ are not dealing with the historical antecedents of the state. Indeed, a case can be made for the view that the state, as distinct from society, is a legal association that fundamentally rests on the assumptions of a social contract (or constitution) prescribing the basic rights and obligations of both the citizen and the state.

[9] John Locke, Second Treatise of Government (c 1681), Ch 11, sec 135.

[10] Ibid, ch 19, sec 222.

[11] Rodney Stark, Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism and Western Success (New York/NY: Random House, 2005), p 76.

[12] Robert Sirico, ‘Subsidiarity and the Reform of the Welfare of the Nation State’, in Michelle Evans and Augusto Zimmermann, Global Perspectives on Subsidiarity (Springer, 2014), p 123.

[13] Wilhelm von Humboldt, The Limits of State Action [1792]. Ch. 3, available at http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/h/humboldt/wilhelm_von/sphere/chater3.html

[14] Nancy R. Pearcey, Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from its Cultural Captivity (Wheaton/IL: Crossway, 2004) p 61.

[15] John Gray, ‘Introduction’, in Bertrand de Jouvenel, The Ethics of Redistribution [1952] (Indianapolis/IN: Liberty Fund, 1990), p xiv.

[16] John Paul II, Centesimus Annus, (1991) [13].

[17] Ibid [48].

[18] Ibid.

[19] Neville M. Hunnings (ed), Encyclopaedia of European Law (Sweet & Maxwell, 1998) s 12.0120A, cited in John Warwick Montgomery, ‘Subsidiarity as a Jurisprudential and Canonical Theory’ (2002) 148 Law and Justice: The Christian Law Review 46, p 48.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church(London/UK: Burns & Oates, 2005), p 94.

[22] Francis Schaeffer, A Christian Manifesto (Grand Rapids/MI: Crossway Books, 1982), p. 93

[23] Colson, above n.4, p. 19.


 

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Dr. Augusto Zimmermann

Dr Augusto Zimmermann LLB, LLM cum laude, PhD (Monash) is Director of Post Graduate Research and former Associate Dean (Research) at Murdoch Law School. He is also President of the Western Australian Legal Theory Association (WALTA), Editor-in-Chief of the Western Australian Jurist law journal, Professor of Law (Adjunct) at the University of Notre Dame Australia (Sydney campus), and a former member of the Law Reform Commission of Western Australia (2012-2017).

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