Gospel & Culture blog
By Ken Nehrbass
This is a series of blogs on the theology of culture, which really can be seen as a "theology of everything" if culture is everything we think, have and do as members of a society. In this post, I introduce ideas that are central to a theology of government. This field is also called "public theology" or a "theology of the public square." As with other aspects of the "theology of culture," I am looking at God's intended purpose, structure and authority for government.
God's intended purpose for government
Some pacifists argue that government was not present in Eden- only after the Fall. They see government as a necessary evil for this present time, rather than as something innate to God's nature. Others, such as Skillen, argue that government, like other aspects of culture (family, language, communication) is rooted in the image of God: God is orderly, authoritative, even coercive, and that even in a perfect kingdom on earth, as people "filled the earth and subdued it" they would have necessarily developed complex societies with creative and diverse forms of government-- all which led to flourishing.
"Citizenship in earthly political communities is thus as much a part of the revelation of God and of our identity as God’s image bearer as are marriage family, friendship, discipleship and shepherding.” (Skillen, p. 37)
The Fall, of course, has resulted in our continual corruption of all forms of government, as we turn power and freedom -even justice - into idols, and we use "order" as an ends that justifies the means.
The purpose of government is to do things that individuals cannot do on their own-- to organize, regulate, and distribute tremendous - even unthinkable - amounts of resources (like the 640 million acres of public land in the USA, equalling about 28% of the nation's surface area). In a fallen world, government also exists to carry out punishment and to ensure security against threats. For example, government - at an ideal size - when it is functioning properly - can help guarantee that a menace to society will be caught, tried fairly, and punished justly, so that he does not return to my home and kill my children. If he does, I may personally choose to forgive-- and I should. It is not my right or responsibility to hunt down menaces to society, to determine their guilt, and to punish them. Imagine what the world would be like if we all took on the government's role of such "coercive authority!" Yet even as I forgive the murderer or thief, the criminal has not only committed a crime against me personally, he has stolen something from the people-- from the state. He has stolen their sense of order and security. Therefore, the government must bring about justice and guarantee their safety. Some of the purposes we see for government in scripture:
What is God's intended structure for government?
In the Old Testament, God was heavily involved in government. God went ahead of Israel's armies to extend the nation into Canaan. God interrupted the unjust slavery in Egypt to establish Israel as nation-state. He insisted that Israel resist the temptation to create a monarchy. When Israel turned toward Monarchy, God told prophets which men should be anointed king.
But the scripture is not clear about which structure for government is "biblical." That is, as Filipino theologian Melba Maggay pointed out, the Bible answers the "why" for government, but not the "how." God knows that the appropriate government for a developing nation in the 20th century, for example, is different than the best governance for Western Europe in the 16th century, or Israel in the first century, and so on. There are so many economic, environmental, technological and other factors that impact what a flourishing government would look like at any given time and place, that scripture does not seem to have a clear blueprint.
What is the authority for government?
The penchant toward dualism in evangelicalism has caused us to believe, mistakenly, that Jesus' agenda was not political. For centuries, the church accepted a "two sword" mentality: God is the king of the church, and political rulers have their "earthly sword." After all, Jesus said "my kingdom is not of this world" (John 18:36). But most theologians recognize that Jesus didn't mean that his kingdom has nothing to do with this world-- if that were the case, He wouldn't have made so many enemies, and early Christians would not have been fed to the lions. Jesus meant that His kingdom does not derive power from this world. If his authority came "from this world" then his followers would have to defend him. Instead, his authority comes from Heaven (John 19:11).
Early on Christians had to balance their understanding of obedience to authorities (Romans 13) and Jesus' claim to "render unto Caesar what is Caesar's" (Mark 12:13-17) with the claim that "we must obey God rather than men" (Acts 4:19). In fact, as DA Carson pointed out (p 200), all religions rely on a "higher" authority, and are therefore somewhat subversive to governments. Php 3:20-21 describes us as citizens of heaven-- this has caused many evangelicals to think of their Christianity as non-political.
Most evangelical theologians today argue that government must be pluralistic. It cannot function properly when it endorses one religion or denomination. In fact, it can reflect biblical principles without endorsing a specific religion.
© 2015 Kenneth Nehrbass. All Rights Reserved.
Kenneth Nehrbass, Ph.D.
Associate Professor at Biola University, Author, Pastor