Ethics: Government and Citizenship (Part 1)

Man could live without earthly governments. It likely would be chaotic. John Locke has written, “Men living together according to reason, without a common superior on earth, with authority to judge between them is properly the State of Nature. But force, or a declared design of forces upon the person of another, where there is no common superior on earth to appeal to for relief, is the State of War” (Two Treaties of Government 2:19:5-10). Perhaps, it is  this chaotic situation which is hinted at with the words “In those days there was no king in Israel, but every man did that which was right in his own eyes” [(Judges 17:6; 18:1; 19:1; 21:25) Note: For ‘an alternative view of this wording ask For B. H. bulletin Oct. 23, 2005].

Societies form and government develops for protection and mutual benefit. Thomas Hobbs has written, “The introduction of that restraint upon themselves, in which we see them live in commonwealths, is the foresight of their own preservation, and of a more contented life” (Leviathan, p. 129). John Locke said that civil society was formed by men “for their comfortable, safe, and peaceable living one amongst another” (2:95:1-10).

God has authorized the formation of governments. Ancient Israel is unique.  God, Himself, established Israel. However, it is clear that He approves of the existence of other earthly governments (Matthew 22:16-21; Romans 13:1-7; Titus 3:1-2; 1 Peter 2:13-17).

Government Responsibilities

1. Protect and Defend.

Society collectively, and individuals, especially the weak and vulnerable need to be protected. The old covenant said of a righteous king, “He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy. From oppression and violence he redeems their life, and precious is their blood in his sight” (Psalm 72:13-14 ESV). Earthly judges were told “Give justice to the weak and fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked (Psalm 82:3-4 ESV). The proper role of government is to be “God’s minister to you for good … an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil” (Romans 13:4). Though, history is full of examples of governments abusing power, the government should not be “a terror to good works, but to evil” (Romans 13:3 cf. 1 Peter 2:13-14).

Included under this first point could be included the idea of caring for the general welfare. Remember Joseph’s roll down in Egypt (Genesis 41-ff).

2. Punish.

Laws not backed up by the teeth of law enforcement, and the punishment of violators will not be respected by most. God has given teeth to the government. God has authorized governments not only to make laws, but to enforce those laws, and to punish those who violate those laws (Romans 13:1-ff; 1 Peter 2:13-14).

Wise governments: (a) Punish unlawful actions (Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14). Montesquieu has written, “A certain Marsyas dreamed he cut the throat of Dionysius. Dionysius had him put to death, saying that Marsyas would not have dreamed it at night if he had not thought it during the day. This was a great tyranny: for, even if he had thought it, he had not attempted it. Laws are charged with punishing only external actions” (The Spirit of The Law, 12:11). (b) Have high level of proof required before convicting anyone [(Numbers 35:30; Deuteronomy 17:6-7; 19:5; Mt. 18:6; 1 Timothy 5:19, 22 cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:21) Note: Evidence can be considered a “witness” see—John 5:31-36; 1 John 5:9; 2 Peter 1:18-19]. (c) Practices Lex Talionis, that is they punish according to the crime (Exodus 21:24-25; Leviticus 24:19-20; Deuteronomy 19:21; Also—Luke 12:42-48).

Interesting observation: under the old covenant, if a city did not see that justice was done in a murder case, then guilt was upon the city leaders (watch the words “put away the guilt of innocent blood”: Deuteronomy 21:1-9 cf.  Numbers 35:31-34; Deuteronomy 17:6-7; 19:11-13; 1 Kings 2:31). The punishment of a murderer was not optional. It was duty.

Note: The issue of the death penalty will not be dealt with in this article. It will be a part of this series in a later article.

3. Make Just Laws.

Many examples could be given of oppressive, unjust legislation. Montesquieu wrote “The Carthaginians, in order to make the Sardinians and the Corsicans more dependent, prohibited them from planting, sowing, or doing anything of the like on the penalty of death; they sent them their food from Africa” (book 21).

The Bible speaks of those who misused their position in the government. Israel’s lawmakers were rebuked “woe to those who declare unrighteous decrees, who write misfortune, which they have prescribed to rob the needy of justice, and to take what is right from the poor of My people, that widows may be their prey, and that they may rob the fatherless” (Isaiah 10:1-2). They had made laws so they could “legally” rob people of their possessions. Others make laws, and pass judgments for bribes. Notice—“The king establishes the land by justice, But he who receives bribes overthrows it” (Proverbs 29:4). Numerous passages speak against taking bribes (Deuteronomy 16:18-19); 1 Samuel 8:1-3; 12:3; Isaiah 5:23; 10:1-2; 33:14-15; Amos 5:12).

Lawmakers should not make laws to receive gifts from special interest groups, or to “legally” rob someone. Such behavior violates the Golden Rule (Matthew 7:12), and their God ordained role as “ministers to you for good” (Romans 13:4).

4. Impartiality.

The law should be applied fairly to all. The judges of old were told, “You shall do no injustice in judgment. You shall not be partial to the poor, nor hand the person of the mighty. In righteousness you shall judge your neighbor” (Leviticus 19:15; Also—Exodus 23:3; Deuteronomy 16:19; 2 Chronicles 19:6-7). They were admonished, “Take heed to what you are doing, for you do not judge for man but the Lord…” (2 Chronicles 19:6). Jesus’ Golden Rule (Matthew 7:12) demands impartial judgment.

About Bryan Hodge

I am a minister and missionary to numerous countries around the world.
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