People today disagree radically on the proper role of government. What help can the Bible and Christian history provide in this ongoing debate? In the history of Israel, we see the slow emergence of different societal institutions. In Abraham, a leader of an extended family, we detect hardly any distinction between the roles of parent, priest, and king. Eventually, however, the institutions of the priesthood and the prophets emerge as distinct from both family and government. In Christian history, as Christianity becomes a universal faith embracing people of every tribe and nation, the church becomes a powerful institution clearly distinct from—and often in sharp conflict with—the state.
Is the purpose of government only to restrain evil or also to do good? Throughout the scriptures we see government (the king, the courts, etc.) called to restrain evil and punish evil-doers. Paul summarizes a vast amount of biblical teaching with his simple statement that governmental authority "is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer" (Romans 13:4).
However, in Romans 13 Paul specifies a positive role for government before he refers to its negative function. Government is "God's servant for your good" (13:4). Government's positive purpose—promoting the common good—flows directly from the fact that we are created in the image of the triune God, who exists in mutual, loving fellowship. We are made for mutual interdependence, not individualistic isolation. Furthermore, as Paul Marshall writes in Thine is the Kingdom, "the fact that the book of Revelation says that kings will bring their glory and the honor of the nations into the New Jerusalem suggests that the political enterprise has its own intrinsic merit apart from the effects of sin" (Revelation 21:24-26).
Still, there are many reasons why government should have major limitations put on its reach and power. The scriptures are full of stories about oppressive kings and over-powerful, evil governments (for example, 1 Kings 2; Revelation 13) and warnings about what powerful rulers will do (1 Samuel 8:11-17). God's ultimate sovereignty challenges all earthly governmental power. At his trial, Jesus bluntly reminded Pilate that his (and Caesar's) authority and power come from God. At a time when Roman emperors were beginning to claim to be divine, Paul says they are God's servants! Throughout Christian history, Christians have challenged and limited governmental power by giving their ultimate allegiance to God alone.
Fortunately, democratic societies implement the vision of limited government in numerous ways. These include the constitutional separation of powers (legislative, judicial, and administrative); the several, substantially independent spheres of national, regional, and local government; regular, free democratic elections; autonomous nongovernmental institutions; holding government officials accountable to the law; and freedom of speech, assembly, and dissent.
Government is not the first solution to every social problem. Other institutions—family, church, schools, business, unions—all have obligations to address societal issues. In each case, we need to ask what institution in society and what level of that institution can best solve a particular problem.
We can see this principle at work in different biblical texts that show that the family has the first obligation to help needy members. In the great text on the Jubilee, when a person is forced by poverty to sell land, the next of kin in the extended family has the first responsibility to help that person (Leviticus 25:25, 35). If there are no family members to help, the poor person has the legal right to get his land back at the next Jubilee (25:28). Similarly, 1 Timothy 5:16 insists that a Christian widow's relatives should be her first means of support. Only when the family cannot help should the church step in.
But government has a role. Frequently the state contributes to the common good by encouraging and enabling other institutions in the community—whether family, church, nongovernmental social agencies, or unions—to carry out their responsibilities to care for the economically dependent. The objective of the state, however, is not merely to maintain equilibrium of power in society. Its purpose is not merely to enable other groups in the society to carry out their tasks. The state has a positive responsibility to foster justice.
Justice and Righteousness
Again and again, the biblical texts say: "The Lord has made you king to execute justice and righteousness" (1 Kings 10:9; Jeremiah 22:15-16). And these two key words, justice (mishpat) and righteousness (tsedaqah), refer not only to fair legal systems but also to just economic structures. The words very often appear together in Hebrew parallelism, as in Amos 5:24: "Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream."
The noun mishpat appears 422 times in the Hebrew Bible, and it comes from the verb shapat, which means to govern and judge. Since Israelite society did not separate legislative, judicial, and administrative aspects of governing, the noun mishpat can mean the act of deciding a case in court (Deuteronomy 25:1), the actual judicial decision (1 Kings 20:40), or a legal ordinance and case law. Probably the best English translation is "justice."
Tsedaqah (feminine) appears 157 times and tsedeq (masculine) appears 119 times in the Bible. Tsedaqah often means norm or standard—i.e. the way things ought to be. There can be a bad law (mishpat) but not bad tsedaqah. Tsedaqah provides the standard for measuring specific laws because it defines the way things should be. The English word "righteousness" is a possible translation if one does not limit the word to personal relations and inner attitudes.
The righteous, just God who commands the people to imitate God's justice is the source and foundation of human justice. God is a "righteous judge" (Psalm 7:11) who gives divine justice to human rulers: "Give the king your justice (mishpat), O God, and your righteousness (tsedaqah) to a king's son" (Psalm 72:1). Human justice must imitate God's justice (Deuteronomy 10:17-19; also 1:17). It is clear in many texts that procedural justice (for example, fair courts) is central to the meaning of these key biblical words. These two words, however, refer to more than procedural justice in the courts.
The prophets also use these words to call for economic justice. Immediately after denouncing Israel and Judah as an unfaithful vineyard where God sought in vain for mishpat and tsedaqah (Isaiah 5:7), Isaiah goes on to denounce his society's economic injustice: "Ah you who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is room for no one but you, and you are left to live alone in the midst of the land! The Lord of hosts has sworn in my hearing: Surely many houses shall be desolate, large and beautiful houses without inhabitant" (Isaiah 5:8-9; see also Amos 5:11-12). Micah similarly condemned the rich and powerful who "covet fields and seize them; houses and take them away; they oppress householder and house, people and their inheritance" (Micah 2:2) instead of providing the justice (mishpat) God longs for (Micah 6:8).
These eighth-century B.C.E. prophets lived when the monarchies of Israel and Judah had, over the preceding two centuries, centralized land ownership in the hands of a small, powerful elite. Many people had lost their land and become poor because of the oppression of the powerful.
Sometimes the oppression happened through raw royal power—witness Jezebel's seizure of Naboth's ancestral land (1 Kings 21). Sometimes it happened through unjust laws: "Ah you who make iniquitous decrees, who write oppressive statutes to turn aside the needy from justice (mishpat) and to rob the poor of my people of their right" (Isaiah 10:1-2). Sometimes it happened through disobedience to laws designed to protect the poor—Exodus 22:26-27 explicitly prohibited keeping a poor person's garment overnight as collateral, but the powerful of Amos' day did precisely that and then spread these garments out to kneel on when they went to worship (Amos 2:8a). And sometimes it happened as the powerful abused the judicial system (Amos 5:10).
According to the prophets, God became so angry at Israel's and Judah's corrupt courts and unfair economic practices (as well as their idolatry) that God destroyed first Israel and then Judah, allowing foreign invaders to devastate both nations. But the prophets' final word was not destruction and despair. They looked beyond the foreign captivity to a new day, when mishpat and tsedaqah would be restored. In that day, Micah declares, "They shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and none shall make them afraid" (4:4). In Ezekiel's vision of restoration, God proclaims, "Enough, O princes of Israel! Put away violence and oppression, and do what is just and right. Cease your evictions of my people, says the Lord God" (Ezekiel 45:9). When the rulers (i.e. the government) do justice, the people who had lost their property through violence and oppression again enjoy their own land.
The Ideal Ruler
The positive role of government in advancing economic justice is also seen elsewhere in the biblical materials—especially in texts that present the ideal monarch, such as the royal psalms and the Messianic prophecies.
Psalm 72 (a royal psalm) gives the following purpose for the ruler: "May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor" (v. 4). This task is identified as the work of justice (1-3, 7). Whether it is the monarch or the village elders (Amos 5:12, 15), governmental power should deliver the economically weak and guarantee the "rights of the poor" (Jeremiah 22:15-16; also Jeremiah 21:12).
Prophecies about the coming Messianic ruler also develop the picture of the ideal ruler. "With righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked" (Isaiah 11:4). This ideal ruler will act like a good shepherd, taking responsibility for the needs of the people: "He shall feed them and be their shepherd" (Ezekiel 34:23). Ezekiel 34:4 denounces the failure of the shepherds (i.e. the rulers) of Israel to "feed" the people. Then in verses 15-16, the same phrases are repeated to describe God's promise of justice:
"And I will make them lie down," says the Lord God. "I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice."
This promise will be fulfilled by the coming Davidic ruler (Ezekiel 34:23-24). Similarly in Isaiah 32:1-8, the promised just and wise monarch is contrasted to the fool who leaves the hungry unsatisfied (v. 6).
This teaching on the role of government applies not just to Israel but to government everywhere. The ideal monarch was to be a channel of God's justice (Psalm 72:1), which extends to the whole world (for example, Psalm 9:7-9). In Daniel 4:27, God summons the Babylonian monarch no less than the Israelite king to bring "justice and ... mercy to the oppressed." Similarly in Proverbs 31:9, King Lemuel (generally considered to be a northern Arabian monarch) is to "defend the rights of the poor and needy." The general obligation of the Israelite king to guarantee that the weak enjoy fair courts and the daily necessities of life is, in the biblical perspective, a duty of all rulers.
The teaching on the ideal, just monarch of Israel, whether in royal psalms or Messianic prophecies, cannot be restricted to some future Messianic reign. God demanded that the kings of Israel provide in their own time what the Messianic ruler would eventually bring more completely: namely, that justice which delivers the needy from oppression. God's concern in the present and in the future, within Israel and outside of Israel, is that government promote the common good, especially for the weak.
No general principles about the proper role of government in solving problems can replace the necessity of prudential wisdom at every specific moment. We can agree with the Catholic principle of subsidiarity that social problems should be dealt with at as local a level as is effective; that government action should strengthen, not undermine the vitality of nongovernmental institutions; that sometimes social problems are so sweeping that government must play a significant role; that some things by their very nature are done better by government, even a higher level of government (for example, minimum-wage laws and laws requiring companies to prevent or pay for the costs of pollution are necessary because, without them, companies that freely choose to pay fair wages or not pollute will find themselves at a comparative disadvantage with companies that do not).
But there is no calculus for determining how such a mix of principles applies to any given governmental proposal. We must make finite human judgments about how things are currently unbalanced and what correction, of what magnitude, is needed. Since our best judgments may be wrong, we must maintain a fundamental humility and tentativeness about all our concrete political conclusions.
We must recognize that society is much larger than the state and contains many crucial nongovernmental institutions that have their own independence and worth. At the same time, government must act to promote economic justice, especially in order to empower the poor and weak. Christians should respect and treasure government as a good gift ordained by God to promote the good and restrain evil.
Ronald J. Sider was president of Evangelicals for Social Action, professor of theology, holistic ministry, and public policy at Palmer Theological Seminary, and director of the seminary's Sider Center on Ministry and Public Policy when this article appeared. This article is adapted from his book The Scandal of Evangelical Politics: Why Are Christians Missing the Chance to Really Change the World? (Baker, 2008).