Many people have the impression that the Church is God’s institution and that the government is not.  Consequently, the Church must abide by the Bible in all matters, but the government must stay away from religious matters.  After all, isn’t there a separation of Church and state?  In reality, both the Church and the state are God’s institutions and both are morally obligated to abide by biblical principles.  When a government functions in the way God has specified, it is a blessing to all the people.  But a government that will not follow biblical principles inevitably becomes a tyrannical “beast” that oppresses its own citizens.

The Biblical Purpose of Government

In Romans 13:1 the Apostle Paul states, “Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God.”  Since government is God’s idea, it is inherently good and right in principle.  Paul continues, “Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves.”  

What is God’s purpose for government?  Romans 13:4 states, “for it is a minister of God to you for good…  an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil.”  So, God’s purpose for government is to punish criminals, and this is for the good of society.  Paul explains, “for it does not bear the sword for nothing” (Romans 13:4).  In other words, God has authorized the government to use deadly force for certain capital crimes.  Therefore, the state should have a well-armed police force for the protection of its citizens.  And the state should have judges to ensure that people accused of a crime receive a fair trial (Deuteronomy 16:18).  This also keeps the police in check since they too must follow the law lest they be punished. 

There is a very good reason why God has authorized the state to punish criminals.  It restrains violence and wickedness in society for the protection of law-abiding citizens.[1]  And it does so in two ways.  First, extremely violent crimes such as murder and rape incur the death penalty.  This permanently prevents the criminal from any further acts of violence, thereby purging the evil (Deuteronomy 19:19).  Second, it acts as a deterrent.  Deuteronomy 19:20 states, “The rest will hear and be afraid, and will never again do such an evil thing among you.”    

There is another reason why God authorizes the state to punish criminals; it foreshadows justice.  It is morally right for a law-breaker to be punished.  We see this before our eyes when a criminal is rightly sentenced for his crime.  Moreover, we understand that his punishment should fit the crime (Exodus 21:23-25; Leviticus 24:20).  A person who has wronged his neighbor should pay according to the severity of the crime.  This is right and good, and we benefit from seeing the state rightly uphold this principle.

However, the state can only provide a foretaste of justice because it does not fully accomplish justice.  Sin is ultimately a crime against God (Psalm 51:4).  It is treason against the King of kings.  As such, any sin is worthy of death and eternal separation from God’s love (Romans 6:23).  But God is both patient and gracious.  He delays ultimate justice for our benefit.  The unrepentant will receive full justice only on judgment day (Revelation 20:11-15).  And for those who have repented of sin and trusted in Christ, God Himself paid the debt on the cross and justice was satisfied. 

So, the state does not accomplish full justice – God did not design it for that purpose.  Nor can the state remove all evil.  Only Christ can do that.  Rather, the state exists to reduce wickedness and mitigate sin by punishing criminals for certain specified crimes.  And it teaches us about justice.

The Limitations of the State

Note that God has not authorized the government to punish all sins.  For example, coveting is a sin (Exodus 20:17), but the state is not authorized to punish those who commit it.  Coveting is an internal sin of the heart and mind.  And the state has no authority or capacity to evaluate such sin.   In fact, if a government agent attempted to punish a person for something like coveting, the agent himself would be in sin because he is stealing vengeance from God (Romans 12:19).  God reserves the right to repay for Himself, except for those specific crimes He has delegated to the state as His authorized servant (Romans 12:19; 13:4).

Furthermore, the state must have sufficient evidence in order to punish any criminal (Deuteronomy 17:4).  For cases where the punishment is death, the evidence must include the testimony of at least two eyewitnesses to the crime (Numbers 35:30; Deuteronomy 17:6).  By questioning the two witnesses separately, and seeing if their testimonies agree, the matter can be established beyond any reasonable doubt (John 8:17, Mark 14:55-59). 

If only one witness observes a murder, the accused must not be executed (Deuteronomy 17:6).  This is no doubt frustrating to those affected by the murder who rightly want justice.  But we must have patience and recognize that God will one day judge all people with perfect justice.  The state, however, must not execute anyone on the testimony of a single witness, because there is no way to know if the person is telling the truth.  It is better to let a guilty man live (knowing that he will not escape the justice of God) than to murder an innocent man; the Bible forbids men to shed innocent blood (Deuteronomy 19:10).

Other Activities of the State

But shouldn’t the government also provide education for children?  Isn’t the government obligated to provide healthcare for its citizens?  Shouldn’t the state also provide for the poor and unemployed?  You can search the Scriptures all you like, but God has not authorized the state to do any of these things.  Of course, our government today does many things that God has not authorized it to do.  And since the state “bears the sword,” it has the power to enforce its standards, even if those standards go beyond the Bible.  Is this morally right?

God does care about education, health, the poor, and other very practical issues because He cares about people.  And He has prescribed in His Word how these matters are to be handled.  The Bible does provide some instructions on education (Deuteronomy 4:10; 6:7; 11:19; 24:8; 2 Chronicles 35:3, Nehemiah 8:9), on caring for the poor (Leviticus 25:35; Exodus 22:25; Leviticus 19:9-10; Deuteronomy 15:11, 24:12,14-15; Matthew 6:2-3), and even on healthcare (Exodus 15:26, 23:25; Deuteronomy 7:12-15).  But God has not authorized the state to handle these issues.  Indeed, many of these issues fall at least partly under the purview of the Church.[2]  And God is not pleased when the state exceeds its authority by attempting to do that which God has instructed the Church to do. 

In many societies, citizens have little or no influence over their government.  They are subject to the whims of their rulers, whether for good or evil (Proverbs 29:2).  In other cases, citizens have some say in their government either directly or by electing their own rulers.  In such a case, it is very tempting to use the mighty power of the state to enact seemingly good laws that go beyond what the Bible has authorized the state to do.  Perhaps a person doesn’t feel that the Church is doing enough to help the poor, so he encourages the state to increase taxes and use the surplus to help the poor.  What could be wrong with that?  There are two problems with giving the state power beyond what God has authorized.

First, it is immoral.  In Matthew 22:21, Jesus said, “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s.”  When we give the government power to control those things that God has not authorized, we are giving to Caesar that which belongs to God.  This shows a lack of faith.  Those who think that the government should control education and commerce or use its power for programs that God has not authorized, are implying that the government can solve society’s problems better than God.  After all, God has given instructions in His Word on how to handle such social issues.  Yet many people say, “No, we’re not going to do it God’s way.  The right government will solve all these issues.”  In effect, a large government that attempts to control all aspects of society is merely a secular attempt to replace God.

Second, when people encourage the state to control things that God has not authorized, there is nothing to prevent it from expanding indefinitely.  You might like a government that takes your neighbor’s money through excessive taxation to fund a program you like.  But there is nothing to keep that same government from taking your money to fund an anti-biblical program or agenda.  A government that will not be restrained by God’s Word will inevitably become a “beast” that oppresses its own people. 

The Bible gives an example in Revelation 13.  Although there are several conservative views on the symbolism in the book of Revelation, almost all would agree that the “beast” represents a government and also the man in charge of that government, depending on context.  Rather than acting as God’s servant, this beast demands to be worshipped as a god (Revelation 13:12).  This beast controls commerce and forbids anyone from buying or selling unless they have a mark of the beast on their forehead (representing their mind) or right hand (representing their actions).  In other words, the oppressed citizens must show unwavering allegiance to the beast in their thoughts and actions.  God uses this same symbolism in Deuteronomy 6:6-8.  It is God’s law that should be on our forehead (in our thoughts) and on our hand (in our actions), because our allegiance should be to God alone. 

If you enable the state to rule over things that God has not authorized, don’t be surprised if it uses that power to take away your God-given freedom.  Men will either choose to be ruled by God or they condemn themselves to be ruled by tyrants.[3]  When it submits to God’s authority, the state is a wonderful servant.  But it makes a terrible god.  When a government enacts laws that are contrary to God’s Word, it is the Christian’s obligation to push back, and obey God rather than man (Acts 5:29; Daniel 3:10-12).    

Christ is King

Both the Church and the state have been instituted by God as His servants.  As such, both the Church and state are morally obligated to do what God has instructed them to do, and are forbidden from exceeding their mandate.  Like all people, leaders in government will one day stand before the throne of God and answer for their actions.  Did they promote biblical laws, and enforce exactly what God has commanded them to do?  Or did they abuse their God-given authority to promote unbiblical ends?  Did the judges of the earth rule with justice in light of biblical principles?  Or did they use their power to promote that which is contrary to God’s Word? 

Jesus is King of kings and Lord of lords (1 Timothy 6:15; Revelation 17:14, 19:16).  Although some people have the impression that Christ merely will be King someday, the Bible teaches that Christ is King now.  Jesus said that all authority has been given to Him both in heaven and on earth (Matthew 28:18).  Of course, many people refuse to acknowledge this.  But does their failure to recognize Christ’s rule somehow change the facts?  Of course not.  Christ is King over all.  Therefore, rulers of nations must be careful to obey Him and abide by His principles, lest He destroy them (Psalm 2:10-12).  In light of the fact that Jesus is King, our job is to tell people.  We are to make disciples of all nations, and teach them to obey all of God’s standing commandments (Matthew 28:19-20).  Government officials are morally obligated to obey the King of kings, and will be judged accordingly.  God is good.  And when a nation obeys Him, He is delighted to pour out His blessings (Psalm 33:12; Deuteronomy 28:1-14).

[1] The state may legislate laws that are modern applications of biblical principles.  For example, the law that you must stop at a red light is a modern application of “You shall not murder.” 

[2] The Church is authorized by God to be involved in education, in providing for the poor, and in dealing with the sick.  However, it is not the only biblical resource for such issues.  God also encourages people to contribute as individuals and as families.

[3] This is paraphrased from a quote often attributed to William Penn (1644-1718).