Government is not a necessary evil, nor is it a human invention designed to rebel against God. Government was God’s idea. He created it and we need it.
God told Adam and Eve to “fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion” (Genesis 1:26). This is political language, a call to royalty. It’s about using God-given power for the purpose of the ordering and flourishing of society. God is king and reigns over all, but he delegates his authority to humans (and to human institutions) to govern his world.
We Need Government
From the opening pages of the Bible it’s clear that governance is part of God’s good design for creation. But we don’t live in Eden. Adam and Eve, along with all of humanity, committed treason against God. All of us were born into a fallen world where sin has infected every facet of life, including politics. The strong often take advantage of the weak and the powerful oppress those without power. The purpose of government, therefore, is to provide order for flourishing and to restrain evil and punish injustice.
Of course, no government today perfectly fulfills its purpose. And yet, we still need government. Imagine dialing 911 and having nobody answer. Imagine Los Angeles with no stop lights. Imagine if there were no means to uphold justice or to root out corruption. Anarchy is not a good option.
While the Bible endorses the concept of government, it does not prescribe a certain form of government. It’s important that we don’t associate Christianity with one form of government because the movement of Jesus is a multi-national, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual people. When it comes to government, the only essential unity we have is that we submit to Christ the king. But that does not mean some forms of government aren’t better or worse than others. Winston Churchill put it well: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”
Being in a democracy puts us in a rather different place than first century Christians. Then, and for many Christians in the world today, applying their faith to politics simply means being faithful to Jesus no matter what the government does, because they don’t have a say in the matter. For Christians in a democracy, we have to be faithful to Christ under whatever government we’re in, but we also have the opportunity to influence and hold the government accountable. But that leaves us with the difficult and important question of how the church should relate to the state.
Jesus said, “render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God” (Matthew 22:21), describing a clear separation between church and state. But if there’s a separation between the two, then how do church and state relate to one another? The short answer is that church and state are distinct but overlapping.
Church and State are Distinct
Abraham Kuyper, a Dutch theologian and the prime minister of the Netherlands, taught a helpful principle called, “sphere sovereignty.” The basic idea is that Jesus reigns over all but reigns over different spheres of life in different ways. For example, he’s given parents authority in the home, elders authority in the church, and political rulers authority in the state.
Each area of life has a different purpose and role. The state brings order for flourishing and the restraint of evil. The church proclaims the gospel and makes disciples of Jesus. Church and state, therefore, need to recognize and encourage each other’s distinct God-given responsibilities. Each must rule in its own jurisdiction. It is not the state’s job to preach the word. It is not the church’s responsibility to write laws and policies. A murderer who comes to faith in Jesus can be forgiven of all his sins in the church, but that doesn’t mean he will not be held accountable by the state for his actions.
It is critical that the state remains neutral outside of its jurisdiction. For example, the state should not force one religion, nor should it allow persecution based on religion. As Christians, we believe the gospel must be freely proclaimed and freely received. If Christians want the freedom to express our faith, Christians must stand up for religious freedom for Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and all other religions.
Church and State are Overlapping
The separation of church and state is not as easy as saying, “You stay in your lane, I’ll stay in my lane, and everything will be fine.” We are all on the same freeway together and the lanes inevitably cross. There is a separation of the institutions of church and state, but in daily life they operate in the same contested space and there is no place of neutrality.
The state is not the church and it should not seek to replace or supplant the church. And yet, the state cannot exist in a purely neutral religious place. For example, laws against murder are based on religious beliefs about the value of human life.
The church is not the state, but the church is inescapably political. We are an embassy of the kingdom of God on earth and the goal of our communal life is to witness to Christ the king. Our faith is personal but it is not private. Our public faith shapes all of life and is based on the declaration that the turning point of human history was not the enlightenment or the founding of America but the death and resurrection of a Nazarene carpenter outside of Jerusalem.
As an institution, the church must maintain a clear separation from the state. A pastor should not tell the congregation who to vote for, nor should he bring candidates before the church for the sake of endorsement. But as an organism, the people of the church are trained and sent out to speak truth to the state and to be salt and light in the political realm. Separation of church and state does not mean there should be a separation between one’s faith and politics.
The Government Shall Rest on His Shoulders
In Isaiah 9, Israel is in a difficult political situation, being attacked by the surrounding nations. And in that context, the Lord makes a promise:
For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder
Jesus brings a kingdom that is like no other kingdom of this world. Earthly governments are temporary. The kingdom of Christ is eternal. Earthly governments are flawed. The kingdom of Christ is perfect. Earthly governments are corrupted by injustice. The kingdom of Christ is founded on perfect justice. Earthly governments can at best restrain evil. The kingdom of Christ will abolish evil and establish peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end.