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God Appoints Rulers For Limited Functions

While God appoints earthly, political rulers, he gives them only four rather limited functions: to preserve order, to punish evildoers, to praise those who do right and to do justice in disputes brought before them. Nowhere in scripture is it even intimated that political rulers (to say nothing of artificial government entities) should perform the other tasks performed by all modern governments, such as educating the young, supporting the poor, constructing "public works," managing the economy or waging war to defend economic or political "national interests."

The function of rulers as preservers of order is most clearly stated in I Timothy 2:1-2, where we are instructed to pray for kings and all who are in authority that we may lead peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and honesty. However, this function -- preserving order -- is not an end in itself: order, combined with an absence of interference in the work of the Church, is good and acceptable in God's sight because it creates favorable condition for many to be saved. I Timothy 2:3-4. Closely related to the maintenance of order are the ruler's functions of punishing evildoers and praising those who do right. These functions are clearly stated in both Romans 13:3-4 and I Peter 2:13-14. Neither of these functions are adequately performed by modern governments, generally. Finally, while the doing of justice between disputing adversaries is not mentioned as a function of rulers in the New Testament, it was the chief divinely appointed function of Old Testament rulers. See, e.g., Deuteronomy 16:18-19; Proverbs 8:15-16; Isaiah 59; Zephaniah 3:1-5. Moreover, a ruler or a government which consistently fails to do justice will soon find that it cannot maintain order without violent repression, since the people will cease to look to their rulers for justice and will increasingly simply take what they want and seek their own revenge for wrongs.

What, then, can be said about the other functions governments now universally attempt to perform? The education of the young belonged, in the Old Testament, to parents primarily, and also to extended families and to the Levites. In the New Testament, parents are commanded to bring their children up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. Ephesians 6:4. Moreover, there are in the Church people who possess gifts of teaching given them by God. Romans 12:7; I Corinthians 12:28; Ephesians 4:11. While it is traditional to limit "teaching" as a spiritual gift to mean only teaching on "religious" or "spiritual" topics, nothing in any of the texts mentioning this gift supports either the dualistic idea that life can be divided into "spiritual" and "secular" spheres or the insistence that teaching of "secular" subjects should be left to people whose only qualification is secular credentials to teach that subject.

Similarly, in the Old Testament the relief of the poor belonged primarily to their families, secondarily to individuals in the community giving them alms and in the last instance to the Levites, who used for the purpose a portion of the Levitical or "storehouse tithe" -- the tithe given by all of the people every third year for the support of the Levites and of the poor. A similar order is found in the New Testament: families first, then individual almsgiving, then the Church. Government, oddly, is never mentioned. No one is ever instructed to go to the Emperor or the Senate to petition for support.

While these and other functions were assumed by modern states largely because the Church had failed to perform them adequately, governments have performed them no better. Indeed, the results of the governmental approach to education, poverty and other similar social needs tends to be the degradation of the people served and the entrenchment of the problems the government sought to solve. Moreover, as Christians accept the intrusion of the state into these spheres and become comfortable with these matters being a government responsibility, the work of the Gospel tends to die.

Ian Johnson
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© 2000, 2001 Ian B. Johnson


The Radical Rejection of Politics

A warning against the idolatry of dependence on human institutions

The worship God desires includes our whole lives and involves doing for others the things government has now usurped

True faith is believing what God says is more real than what we see.

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