In our day, when someone hears the word “government” he almost invariably thinks of civil government and its officers, laws, courts, bureaucracies, etc. That such is the case indicates a loss of a Christian view of government, and the success of those who advocate the centrality of the state in the life of man — those who look to the state to govern every area of life. This article seeks to counteract this prevailing and dangerous view by sketching a Christian concept of government.
DEFINITIONS OF GOVERNMENT
The noun “government” is based on the verb “govern,” which comes from a Latin term that meant to steer or pilot (a ship); and then to denote the general actions of direction, control, or guidance. In English, “to govern” means to exercise authority, to direct, control, rule, or manage. Modern English dictionaries invariably follow Webster’s New World Dictionary by stating that the word “govern implies the exercise of authority in controlling the actions of the members of a body politic and directing the affairs of state, and generally connotes as its purpose the maintenance of public order and the promotion of the common welfare.” Note carefully that the chief sense of “govern” is defined as the actions of the state in directing and controlling the members of a body politic.
Hence, it is not surprising that Webster’s New World Dictionary defines “government” primarily in terms of the state. This dictionary says that “government” is the “exercise of authority over an organization, institution, state . . . an established political administration by which a state, district, etc. is governed . . . all the people who administer or control the affairs of state a governed territory.” Of the five senses of the word “government” given, Webster’s New World Dictionary defines each sense chiefly in terms of the state.
In sharp contrast to this understanding of “govern” and “government” is the one stated in the original Webster’s dictionary: the American Dictionary of the English Language that was published by Noah Webster in 1828. Webster focuses the meaning of “govern” and “government” on the aspects of control, direction, exercise of authority, and regulation of conduct, but does not center on the state as the primary force or institution of government. He does apply the concept of government to the sphere of the state, but his focus is on self-government and family government.
For example, for the verb “govern” Noah Webster illustrates its use by saying, “Every man should govern well his own family.” He states that “govern” means “to control; to restrain; to keep in subjection; as, to govern passions or temper.” For the word “government” Webster begins by defining it as direction, or regulation, and then illustrates it by saying, “These precepts will serve for the government of our conduct.” Next, he asserts that it means control or restraint, as in this sense: “Men are apt to neglect the government of their temper and passions.” The third meaning of “government” that Webster notes is that of the exercise of authority by the actions of men in communities, societies, private associations, and states. The fourth connotation of “government” is given as “the exercise of authority by a parent or householder.” Webster quotes Kollock to illustrate: “Let family government be like that of our heavenly Father, mild, gentle, and affectionate.” It is not until he comes to the fifth usage of “government” that Webster specifically applies it to the state.
The dramatic change in how “govern” and “government” were understood in Noah Webster’s day and how these same words are understood today is easily explained. Webster and his fellow Americans were operating from the basis of a Christian worldview, and their language clearly reflected this. Today Americans increasingly are operating on the basis of a pagan and humanistic worldview, and their language reflects this shift.
A CHRISTIAN UNDERSTANDING OF GOVERNMENT
Building on the fundamental connotations of control, direction, exercise of authority, and regulation of conduct for the words “govern” and “government,” we proceed to sketch a Christian view of government.
1. God’s Government.
Christians believe that there is one fundamental government that rules over all. This government is the government that God sovereignly exercises over His creation. As God, He exercises His authority to control and direct all aspects of creation, both animate and inanimate. In terms of His moral creatures, God governs them, i.e., regulates their conduct, by means of His revealed moral law. All other creatures (brute beasts), materials, objects, etc., are governed by their “instincts,” and “natural laws” that God has been pleased to establish.
But saying that God’s government reigns over all does not imply that His is the only government there is. God created man in His own image and gave him dominion over the earth. It is God’s purpose that man serve as His representative in the earth and, in that capacity, that man rule the earth and develop its full potential for the glory of God. Thus, God delegates authority to man to govern the earth. To man is committed the task of government, i.e., he is to exercise the authority granted to him by God to direct all aspects of life on earth. However, as a representative of God and of His supreme government, man does not have the authority to determine the laws and precepts that will direct his rule. Rather, man is bound to the law of God as the standard by which he will govern.
The primary and most essential government that God has called man to exercise is that of self-government. As a rational being and self-conscious person who is able to exercise his will in moral choices, man is called first to govern himself according to the laws of God. Each man and woman is responsible directly to God for their own conduct and will give account individually before God at the great day of judgment. This means that each has the dignity of personal freedom to direct and regulate their lives so that everything they do conforms to God’s law. Each has a conscience that either approves or disapproves of what they think and do. Thus, every person is required to see that their conscience is rightly informed by Scripture, and then to act in accord with it. “Liberty of conscience” means that no man or institution has the authority to command a person to act contrary to a conscience that is directed by the Word of God.
Thus, in self-government, man is called to control his passions and to direct his energies by God’s precepts so that he fulfills his calling to take dominion in the earth for God’s glory and the good of his fellow man (the two great precepts of the law of God).
3. Family, Church, and State Government.
Along with self-government, God has established three governing institutions that are to mediate His rule and authority on earth. These institutions are the family, the church, and the state. Each forms a separate government in the earth, and each is called to carry out particular functions for the orderly conduct of man’s dominion task.
To fulfill their respective commissions, God invests each institution with authority and gives each explicit directions in His Word. He also establishes offices in each, and appoints men to fill these offices and to exercise leadership: husbands and parents in the family; elders and deacons in the church; and magistrates in the state. There is a clear separation of powers between the governments of the family, the church, and the state. Each is appointed to govern in their own sphere and are not to encroach on the prerogatives and duties of the others. Thus, there is no monopoly of power in any one institution, and they serve as checks and balances to any pretensions to exercise authority contrary to the will of God.
Furthermore, God uses each institution to promote obedience to His law and to punish transgressions of it. In other words, God gives appropriate sanctions to each — the power to dispense blessings and cursings. The family trains children in submission to God-ordained authority and obedience to God’s law. The family is given the rod and reproof to enforce obedience. The family dispenses the blessings of love, provision, and inheritance (both spiritual and material), and the cursing of disinheritance.
The church, as the pillar and ground of truth and the community to which the oracles of God are entrusted, teaches the whole counsel of God to equip men and women for every good work in every sphere of life. The church is given the power of the keys of the kingdom to enforce truth and purity among its members. The church ministers the blessings of the sacraments and Christian community (fellowship and ministry) and the cursing of excommunication.
The state maintains public order and protects the lives and liberties of its citizens. The state is given the power of the sword to restrain evildoers. The state ensures the blessings of justice, civil liberty, and peace so that men can carry out their lawful callings without fear and the cursings of death, corporal punishment, and multifold restitution.
These institutions do not cancel out the necessity of self-government under God. The family, church, and state are dependent on godly, self-governing individuals to enable them to function as God intended. Self-government is needed if the leaders are going to exercise the authority of their offices in accord with the will of God and for the good of those under them, lest there be tyranny. Self-government is needed by those who are called by God to submit to those in authority over them, lest there be confusion and anarchy. Each institution should consist of a community of self-governing persons who together seek to do the will of God.
4. Liberty and Government.
When these principles of government are understood and followed liberty will flourish—both individual liberty and institutional liberty. Those who govern themselves under God discover true freedom. They are the slaves of no man or institution. They experience the freedom of serving God (which is the only kind of freedom that there is in God’s world; and there is no other kind of world!).
When men govern themselves according to God’s law they rise to freedom and dominion. Joseph is a prime example. Through self-government under God, Joseph went from being a slave to the steward of Potipher’s house; then he went from being a prisoner to become the prime minister of all Egypt. Self-governed men become free men: economically, politically, and socially. Those who are under the rule of their passions, and not the rule of God’s law, become slaves: economically, politically, and socially.
A Christian understanding of government leads to the liberty of the family, the church, and the state from the tyranny of one institution over the others. Each is guarded from unlawful interference in its affairs and appointed sphere.
5. Interdependence of the Governments.
There is an important interdependence between the four governments (self-government, family government, church government, and civil government). Self-government is essential to all of life and to the success of the government of each institution established by God. And although the family, the church, and the state are separate institutions, they are all under the same God and should be serving Him with the same goal: the glory of God and the good of men. Hence, they ought to compliment one another, and draw support and encouragement from one another, while always being careful not to confuse their callings and duties.
Of the three governing institutions, the family is the most fundamental government. It is the first government that men encounter in the world. It provides basic needs, and the training received here is preparatory for all of life. The church, as the ground and pillar of truth in the world, is the most necessary in this fallen world. Without its ministry of preserving the Word of God and preaching the whole counsel of God, the family and state would flounder in the darkness of lies and idolatry. The state, though in some respects the least important government, is still vital as the avenger of God’s wrath on evil-doers. Without the terror of having the state’s sword raised against them, evil men would destroy the life, liberty, and property of individuals, families, and churches. In short, each institution is important for the government of man.
The Christian understanding of government has been lost in our day. Rushdoony summarizes the sad state of things:
But, tragically, today when we say government we mean the state, the federal government, or some other form of civil government. And, more tragically, civil government today claims to be the government over man, not one among many, but the one over-all government. Civil government claims jurisdiction over our private associations, our work or businesses, our schools and churches, our families, and over ourselves. The word government no longer means self-government primarily and essentially; it means the state.
An essential part of the work of reformation before us is to restore to our nation a Christian understanding of government. But even more so, that each of us will, by the grace of God, practice self-government under Christ and His Word. Then, on that basis, do our part to see that each government established by God governs in its appointed sphere and according to God’s law.
We need to remember that one reason why civil government has come to dominate our lives is because we have failed to govern ourselves, our families, and our churches. We have either failed to fulfill the duties prescribed for these governments by the Word of God or have willingly surrendered them to the state because we did not want the responsibility.
1. ^ Rousas John Rushdoony, Law and Liberty (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1984), p. 59.
This article was originally published in The Christian Statesman, vol. 145, no. 2, March - April 2002.
This article can be read at Darash Press. Used with permission.