Monday, May 2, 2011



Does God say Government is to “Do Good” for the Citizens?

Countless American Christians see the role of government as doing good for the citizens of a nation. Why? Not only have we been raised in a time when so many things are provided by government at tax-payer expense, including welfare, food stamps, housing, parks, ball fields, playgrounds, and swimming pools, to name a few, but we often read that American context into the Scriptures rather than allow the Scriptures to speak into our world.

Paul says in Rom. 13:4 that the government is “God’s servant for our good.” People conclude then that government has a role in promoting the common good of society. Is that really what Paul is saying? That would seem strange considering the fact that Paul is writing to Roman Christians who are being persecuted by Nero, a man so evil he set Christians on fire to light his dinner parties. The Roman government wasn’t promoting the common good. Is Paul then saying that government should promote the common good? He’s not writing to the government telling it what it should do; so that doesn’t make sense. Further, he’s not telling Christians what government should do but what they should do; he’s telling them to submit to this evil government. When Paul says the ruler is “God’s servant for our good” isn’t he simply telling them that God uses even evil government for o ur spiritual good, just as he says that God causes all things (including suffering) “to work together for our good” in Rom. 8:28?

It’s interesting that evangelical theologians opposed to government health-care reform support government (tax-supported) playgrounds and parks for picnics or little league. Is providing children a place to play more important than providing children with health care? Is one good and not the other? Who defines common good? What about free hotels for travelers; amusement parks; boat rides; corporate bail-outs; or home-mortgage bail-outs? What about small business bail-outs then? These things might be good for those who receive them but not for others. In fact, others are adversely affected by higher taxes or a weaker economy. Is welfare good? It’s good for those who receive it but not for the rest of the citizenry. And, is it really good through welfare to rob people of incentive to work?

What if the government decides that legalized abortion is for the common good; or embryonic stem-cell research; the distribution of condoms in school; values education that says homosexuality is not sin? (It has). Are these things good?

There are academics in America today who say that parents forcing Christian ideas on their children are evil. What happens if the state decides that Christianity should be outlawed for the common good? Now we’re back to Nero.

No, God does not say government is to act as God’s servant to do good for the citizens of a nation. That is certainly not how the Roman Christians under Nero would have understood what Paul was saying; and the cardinal rule in biblical interpretation is that a text can never mean what it never meant.

What then is the role of government according to the Bible? Well, it’s certainly much more limited than promoting perceived common good. New Testament principles dictate a limited government of non-coercion that protects the citizenry and secures liberty. Why? Because the gospel is non-coercive; we need protection from people who do bad things; and God’s forbidding of things like murder, theft, and slavery, means that people have God-given rights to life, property, and freedom. People may seek good things for themselves and come together to provide things they deem good for their communities (like parks, playgrounds, and health care). Citizens should do that, not government. Let’s learn to think biblically about these issues and not give government more responsibility than God does.

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