purpose of government

May 8, 2019

The Purpose of Government

(This is part three of a multi-part series that IRD will publish throughout the week of May 6-12. Read part one by clicking here or part two by clicking here.)

The fundamental task of government is to judge between the right and the wrong in a public or international context and then enact judgment. God does this providentially, in part, through governments. God judges, this is the image we see time and again from the Old Testament. God judges Israel and he judges the nations. The early leaders of Israel are judges who enact God’s law through judging. The kings of Israel fulfill their judicial vocation through the faithful obedience and adherence to God’s law. The same could be said of foreign kings as well.

Modern Americans tend to see the form of government as most important, but what we learn from the bible is that God cares little whether a government is a monarchy or democracy or aristocracy. What God cares about is whether a particular ruler fulfills his purpose for which he was given rule by God. We tend to think that the legitimacy of a particular form of government can be measured by its approximation to liberal democratic forms of governance but the bible is completely silent at that point.  Christopher Bryant perceptively summarizes the pattern of God’s dealings with rulers in the bible, whether Israelite or some other ruler:

[t]he biblical tradition challenges human power structures not by attempting to dismantle them or replace them with other human power structures but by consistently confronting them with the truth about their origin and purpose.  Their origin is that God permits them.  Their purpose is to serve God’s glory by promoting God’s peace and God’s justice.  For so long as they attempt those things, they may do quite well.  As soon as they forget them, they stand condemned, and their days are numbered, not because human wisdom or courage will put an end to them but because God will do so.[1]

The Reformers had a supremely high view of political authorities. Whereas the medieval debates over the papal monarchy placed some restraints on the pretensions of kings and princes, Luther and Calvin, seeking to do away with ecclesial entanglements in politics, emphatically assert the direct divine origins and mandate of political rulers. Commenting on Romans 13, Calvin asserts, “For [Paul] teaches that all power exists by divine ordinance and that there is none which is not established by God. [He goes on to say] that princes are ministers of God to honor those who act rightly and to execute the vengeance of his wrath upon evil-doers.”[2]  It is important for Calvin that those engaging in the act of judging and punishing those who violate the laws, that they act primarily in the name of God and not their own name. We might think this would tempt one to see themselves as semi-divine and, thereby, invite tyranny and abuse. But Calvin stresses that those who take up the public vocation of governing see their punishing “in God’s name” as necessary reminder that they are acting only under God’s authority and, secondly, that those who enact such punishments also stand under God’s judgment and should fear lest they abuse their power.[3]

Eventually we have to ask the most basic question: What is politics? We tend to assume politics has to do with all the things that our contemporary Western democracies do, but the expansion of the government to the modern welfare state that we know today is barely a century old. Prior to the 20th century most Americans lived in rural areas and had little direct interaction with the federal or state government. The questions around healthcare, the social safety net, or the regulation of markets, even if we believe they are necessary, would have flabbergasted even the relatively expansive administration in the Roman Empire. The idea that governments are entrusted with the “public good” did not extend to cradle to grave social welfare policies but to a few basic tasks such as defending their subjects from external threats, judging and punishing law breakers, and collecting taxes.  Social welfare happened primarily within communities, among families, and the church.[4]

Our modern assumptions, aided by the ever-expanding list of rights that we are entitled to, has obscured the primary activity of government as judging. When the scripture talks about defending the poor from oppression and upholding the cause of justice it is referring to the activity of the king upholding the law of God by using the authority and power of his office to punish the wrong doer and right the wrong that has been done.

The picture that emerges from both scripture and history on the purpose of government in the Latin West is that of making and enforcing law as the means to ensure a just and peaceful society. The laws and not the government itself are what mediates and bears witness to God’s commands. God’s justice is mediated to Israel through the Mosaic Law and the adherence to that law. Thomas Aquinas’s magisterial treatise on law in the Summa provided a comprehensive synthetic account of law that has had immense impact on the Western jurisprudence and government.[5]  Eternal law, which is the government of the whole of creation by God, provides the architectonic framework from which other forms of law are derived. Natural law is the participation of the human person in the eternal law that manifests itself in our inclinations to our “proper actions and ends.”[6]  Human law, or positive law, is derived from natural law.

The Reformed tradition, and the Lutheran to an extent, recognize three uses of the law in scripture: the pedagogical, the civil, the didactic.[7]  The second use is of particular importance.  Luther, citing 1 Tim 1:9, writes, “It is because the just man of his own accord does all and more than any law demands.  But the unjust do nothing that is right, and therefore they need the law to teach, compel and urge them to act rightly.”[8]

The use of power is essential to the activity of government and not ancillary to it. We must use power, in its various forms, in politics, as an instrument towards the ends that government seeks to bring about.  Paul Ramsey’s succinct and eloquent statement bears repeating: “The use of power, and possibly the use of force, is of the esse of politics. By this I mean it belongs to politics very act of being politics. You never have politics without the use of power, possibly armed force.  At the same time the use of power, and possibly the use of force, is inseparable from the bene esse of politics…you never have good politics without the use of power, possibly armed force.”[9] Power has an instrumental value of maintaining the ends of order, law, and justice.  These ends are not eternal ends, just as politics is not an end in itself but serves higher and lasting goods. Order, law, and justice are secular in orientation, they provide for a context of peace and order where temporal goods that are necessary for life can be preserved and enjoyed. The goods of this age, housing and shelter, clothes, food, safety, and other such things are real and vital goods but serve the greater purposes beyond our enjoyment.

Punishment is the most basic expression of governments function and purpose. St. Paul’s description of “governing authorities” in Romans 13:4 is “the servant of God” who mediates God’s justice as “an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.”[10] The visiting of God’s wrath is not merely for the sake of Divine justice but also the means whereby God’s providence sustains and preserves an orderly and peaceful society.

When we consider war we need to extend the basic idea of governments role as the avenger of wrongdoing to the sphere beyond the political community. War is a form of punishment for wrongdoing of a people or state that lay outside the political community. It is a secular activity that is aimed at punishing a wrong and restoring peace and order. It cannot be a means of advancing the kingdom of God in a constructive way. The loss of life and destruction that are the hallmarks of war are tragic. And yet, while tragic, the use of arms, rightly understood, witness to God’s justice and will for peaceful human life to be preserved. War cannot be used as a means of promoting the faith or advancing the mission of the church, as is the case in the Islamic tradition.

[1] Render to Caesar: Jesus, the Early Church, and the Roman Superpower (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2005), 9.

[2] Institutes of the Christian Religion IV.20.4, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1960).

[3] We could point to the long biblical tradition whereby God both uses rulers to justly punish other nations even as those rulers themselves fall under God’s judgment.

[4] Theologians and philosophers will disagree on the scope of government, but we can at least recognize the welfare role that our modern government assumes is distinct from the older model of governments duties.

[5] See Summa Theologiae I-II.90-97.

[6] Summa I-II.91.2.

[7] See Institutes II.7.1-17 for Calvin’s discussion.

[8] “On Secular Authority,” in Luther and Calvin on Secular Authority, ed. Harro Hopfl (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 9.

[9] The Just War: Force and Political Responsibility (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1968), 5.

[10] Importantly Paul describes the “governing authorities” as “servants” using the Greek word διάκονός which is the same word the Paul uses for the church office of deacon in 1 Tim 3.


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