August 7, 2014

What is the role of government?

by Jesse Johnson

As more courts overturn laws that define marriage as a union between a man and a woman, I have encountered many Christians who are genuinely confused about the issue. Because our culture has almost entirely capitulated to the notion of same-sex weddings, it is becoming common for believers to defend these unions as “marriage” because, after all, the government shouldn’t legislate morality (or “separation of church and state,” or some other line like that).

But in order to articulate the case against the judicial redefinition of marriage (which I will do next week–this isn’t that post), a person first must have a firm grasp on the answer to this foundational question: What is the role of government?

It was actually God who first established government.

Before the flood in Genesis 6, there were no governments. It was every man for himself, and the result was predictable anarchy and global destruction. After the deluge, God not only gave a covenant to Noah that he would not flood the earth again, but he also established governments when he said, “Whoever sheds a person’s blood, by people shall their blood be shed” (Gen 9:6). Within a few generations Babel fell, languages formed, the continents drifted, and the world became international. Nations rose, and with them came their governments.

With that background, it is obvious that government has one direct purpose and one indirect message. The purpose: government is given by God to suppress evil. The indirect message: God will give the world common grace (common grace refers to gifts that God gives people to make the world livable; government, marriage, rain, conscience, and soccer are all examples).

Because of common grace, government’s central purpose is to suppress evil (Gen 9:5-6, Judges 17:6, Rom 13:1-7, 1 Pet 2:13-14). That is not to say that government has only that purpose. There are others as well. For example, a good government should advance national interests, protect the weak, and promote the welfare of the people (Ps 82:2-4, Dan 4:7, Rom 13:3). And it does all of these while regulating the social structure of its society.

I can hear the objection: “But you are getting that from the Bible! Surely you don’t think that a secular government is getting its marching orders from scripture!”

But this is the nature of common grace. God has designed all governments globally to essentially strive to fulfill the same function. Even the most barbaric dictator (or Hamas or ISIS) strives to suppress moral evil in their reach. They may have a messed up understanding of what evil is, but by their very nature they are not anarchists. In other words, evil governments still check evil, even when they don’t understand what evil is.

As with all forms of common grace, you don’t have to be a Christian or even a deist to enjoy them. Clearly, those who maximize them are those who recognize their source. But nevertheless, even non-Christians get government. If the government’s main purpose is to suppress evil, a Machiavellian Prince can be as effective as a born-again believer. In fact, one could argue that non-Christians often make better government leaders than believers (Luther argued this—his main point being that Christians can be too queasy when it comes to bearing the sword).

Regardless of who is leading a government, every government in the world accomplishes their goals by regulating the affairs of their people.

I am quick to grant that this is a balancing act. Especially in a democracy, there is a tension between suppressing evil and allowing individual liberty. A good government allows her people the liberty to make choices, even if those choices ultimately are wicked. To give an obvious example, outside of Old Testament Israel, idolatry should not be illegal, because that would infringe on religious liberty. The gospel is supposed to go forward in the world, and the light of the truth is supposed to transform people in the midst of a crooked and depraved world. Worshiping Jesus should be compelled by the conscience and conviction, but not by the law.

Where liberty and evil intersect is always the most difficult area for government to discern what is best to do. In the case of marriage, the government in theory could say, “for the sake of liberty, we are going to redefine marriage, and break it away from the way other cultures have historically defined it.”

But that is not what is happening today. Instead, judges are invalidating duly passed laws around the nation, declaring them unconstitutional—as if defining marriage was something the government ought not do. The most egregious of all of these court decisions was of course the first: a US Judge struck down California’s Prop 8, nullifying the proposition because he surmised that it passed based largely on the basis of votes that were religiously motivated, and thus invalid.

Other states have seen their laws fall as well, and the logic has varied case-to-case. But what is missing from many of these cases is a basic and straightforward declaration that it does fall to government to regulate marriage in society.

As you think about the cultural change we are experiencing, remember that regulating marriage is a basic part of what a government should do. It suppresses evil (by banning adultery), fosters the well being of people (by protecting children, advancing economic stability, inheritances, taxes, etc.), and defends the oppressed (protecting women from being sexually exploited and children from being abandoned).

I understand why reasonable people who don’t have a biblical world view might not see the harm in gay marriage. But I can’t understand why some Christians (and judges!) want to act as if the government should have no role in regulating the central institution of society.

It is one thing to allow evil for the sake of liberty. It is quite another for the government to promote and celebrate it.

Jesse Johnson

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Jesse is the Teaching Pastor at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, VA. He also leads The Master's Seminary Washington DC location.
  • Creighton Ring

    Thank you Jesse. Very helpful. Do you mind giving the reference for Luther’s statement about queasy Christians? Thanks!

  • e

    “Before the flood in Genesis 6, there were no governments.”


    “Even the most barbaric dictator (or Hamas or ISIS) strives to suppress
    moral evil in their reach. They may have a messed up understanding of
    what evil is, but by their very nature they are not anarchists.”

    Do you not think that some form of “government” existed in the pre-flood world? As in, I’m thinking groups of people might have banded together for a common purpose and established rules and norms to facilitate that purpose.

    • I don’t think so. Before the flood they rebelled against God directly, and God did not mediate his authority through human institutions. That is the implied change between pre-Gen 9 and post Gen 9. I’m not saying there weren’t families and even cities. But I am saying that God ruled them directly, and did not mediate out his authority to people (or if he did, that it is at best pure conjecture, as scripture doesn’t describe it). Is that helpful? Or am I too much of a dispensationalist on that point?

      • e

        “Is that helpful? Or am I too much of a dispensationalist on that point?”

        I don’t know, I’ll have to think about it for a bit. I certainly wouldn’t go in for dispensationalism, but it’s not clear to me that what you assert is dependent upon dispensationalism either.

  • D

    This perspective is the premise that was broadly accepted in the U.S. when I was a youngster (in the 1950’s)-

    The slope away from the correct answers to “foundational questions” is indeed an subtle and insidious slide…
    I found myself reading in agreement, then thinking, “Yes, but, what about…”, and being surprised that I was so quick to insert the current ‘politically correct’ argument- not the mindset to which I thought I would default.

    It was good for me to review of the biblical role of government as well as a wake-up call for me to make sure that I don’t conform to the wrong thinking so aggressively promoted today.

    Thank you- I’m looking forward to your follow-up post.

    (PS- so glad to see ‘soccer’ in the list of examples of God’s common grace!)

    • Michael Craig

      I really enjoy Cripplegate and am a regular reader of both the the Posts and comments. Posts have contributed to my own thinking and application as a maturing Christian. But this post caught me by surprise.

      Why should government be in the business of regulating marriage as one of its basic functions? I’ve come to the conclusion that recognition and regulation of “marriage” should be strictly a church function.

      So if I were king …
      Marriage, as an institution and term, would be owned by the church. Especially now, as government’s take on unions is diverging from the Christian views (and also major religion views: RCC, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, etc.) views on the design that God established. I’d halt the state’s encroachment into church and get the government back into its primary functions. That means, on this issue, that gov’t would provide only what it must for an orderly and smoothly-running society (e.g., tax law, raising kids, family decision rights, property rights, inheritance, etc.). The gov’t issuing marriage licenses means only that it recognizes the “legality” of two people coming together; it cares not about any commitments made before God or his intent, purpose or design.

      It’s time for the gov’t to let go of the use of the term “marriage” … and remove itself from the marriage-license business altogether. And the church ought continue working to keep marriage as a what we know it to be …and defend against encroachment of what we know it is not. Only those wanting God in their union ought seek to be recognized as married.

      “Civil union” — or other term that the gov’t would use to legally recognize a union — is fine for the gov’t-regulated purposes in this. Nothing more than a contract. I’d be happy to get a “civil union” license from a judge (to satisfy change in legal status) … to go with the “marriage certificate” from my church.

      Am I all messed up?

      Also …
      Not all common grace is equal, right? Marriage and rain are definitely up there on the list. Any hope for plugging lacrosse its fair ups in an upcoming sermon or Post?

      • Your arguing that the gov. should be out of the marriage business, right? But you also state the most serious objection to that:

        “that gov’t would provide only what it must for an orderly and smoothly-running society (e.g., tax law, raising kids, family decision rights, property rights, inheritance, etc.).”

        The problem is that the gov. is given by God to regulate society, check evil, and promote common good. There are a few items that are central to that mission: Taxes, currency, laws, and family. If the gov. stopped regulating marriage, inheritance, adoption, sexual exploitation, taxes, etc., would all be seriously messed up. The government simply can’t say it doesn’t care who is married to whom without abdicating its ability to tax, care for children, pass on property. Every death bed decision, every will and testament, every adoption, etc., would be filled with legal drama if marriage were removed. Gone would be any concept of children being raised by a mom and a dad, to give a basic example.

        I agree with you on this: the view of marriage advocated by the SSM crew is essentially meaningless–it makes the government’s involvement in marriage little more than validating someone’s love for another. If that is all marriage is, then I”m with you. THe gov. has no business doing it.

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  • Eh

    “Instead, judges are invalidating duly passed laws around the nation, declaring them unconstitutional”

    While I would argue that the judicial system in the U.S. has expanded its a power a bit beyond the original intent, you are conviently forgetting the fact that the judicial system is a part of our government and they have been granted the authority to provide some measure of “checks and balances” in our system of government.

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