“God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”- Genesis 1:28
Prophets such as Jeremiah and Elijah often stood before the kings of Israel and Judah to rebuke them for their failure to uphold God’s covenant with His people and in order to warn them of the consequences of impenitence (1 Kings 18; Jer. 27). Thus, their ministries are key to understanding what the Bible has to say about the role of the state For the next week, we will pause our study of the prophets to focus on the biblical doctrine of the state, using Dr. R.C. Sproul’s teaching series Church and State as our guide.
As even a cursory reading of history would indicate, the current political debates over the relationship between the church and the state are not new but have existed in the West for centuries. In fact, the issue was addressed even before the rise of Western culture, as God’s people under the old covenant also were concerned with church-state relations. During the old covenant period, the people knew nothing about the separation of church and state. Instead, Israel was a theocracy governed by a king who was appointed by the Lord Himself (Deut. 17:14–20). That has changed under the new covenant, however, because the church now exists as a separate people who live within societies governed by civil magistrates who are not necessarily believers (Rom. 13:1–7).
Of course, defining the church as a separate people does not in itself explain how it is to relate to the governing authorities. We must also understand something of the nature of civil government. Simply put, government is legal force. It has the authority to set laws that govern our behavior, punishing its citizens when they break the law. Such is the design of our Creator, for government is His invention and not something people came up with on their own. The Lord Himself is a governing authority with the right and power to rule over what He has made. Everything belongs to Him and is subject to His sovereignty (Ps. 24:1). In His wisdom, God has delegated some authority to human beings. He instituted the first human government, which consisted of Adam and Eve, when He tasked our first parents with taking dominion over the earth (Gen. 1:28).
In his City of God, Augustine says that after the fall, government took on the new responsibility of keeping evil in check. Ideally, the civil magistrate serves to help prevent wicked people from defrauding others of life, liberty, and property (Rom. 13:1–7). In a fallen world, government is ordained by the Lord to punish evil.
There is much to be discouraged about when we look at the unjust laws that our ruling authorities have put on the books. However, we must also understand that even the most corrupt governments are signs of God’s grace. Anarchy is much worse because the lack of civil order makes it absolutely impossible for human beings to live and thrive. We should be aware of the faults of our rulers, but we should also thank the Lord that He uses them to restrain evil.
Passages for Further Study
1 Peter 2:13–17