The Council of Scripture

The overarching council of scripture concerning civil authority can be summarized in two principles:


1)      Civil authority should remain in its proper role and not usurp the roles of other biblical governing systems.


2)      Civil authority should be decentralized as broadly as is wisely possible.


Let’s briefly examine each of these principles.


The Proper Role of Government

Romans 13:4 says of civil government, “…it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil.” Similarly, 1 Peter 2:14, says rulers are sent “for the punishment of evildoers”. Finally, Ecclesiastes 8:11 warns what happens if civil authority does not fulfill its charge, saying “Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed quickly, therefore the hearts of the sons of men among them are given fully to do evil.”


These passages sound straightforward until we probe deeper. For example, refusing to worship God is evil. Should civil government punish someone for that? A child being disrespectful to his parents is evil. Should his parents call the police? What about a church member slandering an elder or an employee not performing the quality of work he agreed to?


In the whole of scripture, we discover several governing/authority structures God has commissioned, each with its own role and responsibilities. They are:


1)      Self-Government – A grown adult is free to choose whether to make moral or immoral choices as long as they do not violate any other person’s life, liberty, or property. (ex. Galatians 5:23, Revelation 22:11)

2)      Family Government – The Bible defines a hierarchy of the husband as the servant-leader and protector of his wife and the parents together as the authorities, protectors, and nurturers of their children. (ex. Ephesians 5:22-6:4)

3)      Church Government – The Bible defines various positions of spiritual authority to model, teach, and discipline in a church context. (ex. Ephesians 4:11-12, Hebrews 13:17)

4)      Private Institutional Government – Private stewardship principles and examples found throughout scripture empower the owner of a private enterprise to run it however he wishes, as long as he does not violate any other person’s life, liberty, or property. (ex. Colossians 3:22, 1 Peter 2:13, 18)

5)      Civil Government – Justly punish any form of evil that violates another person’s inherent right to life, liberty, and property. (ex. Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:14, Ecclesiastes 8:11)


There is some overlap, as you might expect. For example, parents also function as pastors and teachers to their children. Similarly, churches are also private institutions that can be structured and run in any number of ways. 


As stated, the biblical mandate given to civil government is to punish forms of evil that violate a person’s life, liberty, or property. When civil government legislates against evils that do not fall under this mandate (refusing to worship God, for example), it typically advances Satan’s kingdom, not God’s. Likewise, when it tries to force righteousness outside of this mandate, it usually advances Satan’s kingdom, not God’s. Both of these actions open the door for civil government to usurp a function it has no biblical authority to perform, which Satan can easily turn to his advantage over time.


Finally, it logically follows that each of these entities only has authority over its rightful jurisdiction. A parent only has authority over her own children, not someone else’s. A pastor only has authority over his own church, not someone else’s. A government only has authority within its own borders, not another’s.


Before moving on to the next section, I want to emphasize again that I believe these are biblical principles, not laws. Laws do not have exceptions; principles do have exceptions. I believe there is considerable room for discussion, debate, and disagreement amongst Christians about whether and to what extent civil government entities should engage in activities outside the mandate of punishing evil acts that violate life, liberty, or property. Common areas of discussion/debate/disagreement might include infrastructure, regulation of industry, stewardship of natural resources, charity/welfare, medical care, education, warfare, and the issuance and regulation of money. In the coming chapters, I will share my views on many of these topics as I attempt to apply scripture to them. I invite readers to consider my views, challenge them, and develop their own.


Decentralization of Power

God’s kingdom is built upon the principle of decentralizing power as broadly as is wisely possible. Throughout the Bible, we see God’s desire to distribute authority to others. Here are some of the different spheres of authority God has established. This list is similar to the one we saw previously, but is also slightly expanded: 


·         Human beings over their own choices (ex. Deuteronomy 30:19)

·         Parents over children (Ephesians 6:1)

·         Husbands over wives (Ephesians 5:22)

·         Civil authorities over civilians (Romans 13:1)

·         Church leaders over believers (ex. 2 Corinthians 13:10, 1 Peter 5:2)

·         Employers over employees (ex. Colossians 3:22)

·         Owners/managers over private organizations (ex. 1 Peter 2:13)

·         Mankind over the earth and the animal kingdom (Genesis 1:28)

·         Higher-ranking angels over other angels (ex. Daniel 10:13)

·         Angels over their own choices (ex. Ezekiel 28:14-15)


Learning to steward authority is one of the primary ways free-will beings mature in godly character. If God wanted everything to go perfectly smoothly, with no mistakes and no potential for sin, He would exercise all authority by Himself. He would control everything and everyone. However, this would stunt our growth and deprive us of the opportunity to become more like Him. Instead, God helps people form godly character by choice, not by compulsion. He waits to be invited, not forcing Himself on us. He is the ultimate respecter of free will because free will is at the heart of what it means to be created in His image. Yes, free will is messy. There would be no sin without it. But there could also be no genuine love or worship. By contrast, Satan’s kingdom is built on concentrating power as narrowly as possible. This enables him to dominate and control people so they serve his own self-aggrandizing agenda.


When God founded Israel, He set up an extremely decentralized system of self-governing tribes with no king, completely unlike any of the surrounding nations. In addition, He told Moses in Exodus 18:21, “…you shall select out of all the people able men who fear God, men of truth, those who hate dishonest gain; and you shall place these over them as leaders of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties and of tens.” However, Israel eventually decided they wanted to be “like all the nations” around them instead (Deuteronomy 17:14, 1 Samuel 8:5). They wanted a king to “judge us and go out before us and fight our battles” (1 Samuel 8:20).


There is a security of the flesh that comes from putting our trust in a strong human leader to protect us and fight for us rather than remaining decentralized, self-governing, and looking to God by faith as our ultimate king. Therefore, God responded to Israel’s request by saying, “…they have rejected Me from being king over them”. They chose this even after God explicitly warned them in 1 Samuel 8:11-18 that centralizing political power onto a human king would result in monstrous government growth and oppression.


1 Samuel 8:11-18 is possibly the most important passage in all of scripture for understanding how governments typically usurp and centralize power in society. I encourage you to take a moment to read this passage and notice that every abuse God lists is built upon two pillars – warfare and economics. These are the same pillars governments use today. The passage states:


“This will be the procedure of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and place them for himself in his chariots and among his horsemen and they will run before his chariots. He will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and of fifties, and some to do his plowing and to reap his harvest and to make his weapons of war and equipment for his chariots.”


“He will also take your daughters for perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and your vineyards and your olive groves and give them to his servants. He will take a tenth of your seed and of your vineyards and give to his officers and to his servants. He will also take your male servants and your female servants and your best young men and your donkeys and use them for his work. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his servants.”


“Then you will cry out in that day because of your king whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”


Knowing Israel would make this foolish choice, God tried to preemptively forbid future kings from amassing too much monetary and military power in Deuteronomy 17:14-17, but to little avail. He said, “When …you say, ‘I will set a king over me like all the nations who are around me,’ …[the king] shall not multiply horses [a contemporary instrument of war] for himself …nor shall he greatly increase silver and gold for himself.” 


Additionally, when men attempted to centralize authority into a single entity represented by the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11, God was opposed to it. He responded by dividing them into countless nations, each with its own language and culture. According to Acts 17:26-27, God did this so that each nation “would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him…” In other words, God’s intervention at Babel restrained mankind’s potential for evil and increased the possibility that some of them would be saved. Because human beings are so corruptible, especially when power is involved, bringing all of humanity under a single fallen authority structure is a surefire way to accomplish pervasive wickedness. This is why Satan will do this very thing in the last days, according to Revelation 13, which says of the “beast” political/economic system:


“And the whole earth… followed after the beast…”


“…the dragon [Satan]… gave his authority to the beast…”


“…authority over every tribe and people and tongue and nation was given to him…”


“And he causes all, the small and the great, and the rich and the poor, and the free men and the slaves, to be given a mark on their right hand or on their forehead, and he provides that no one will be able to buy or to sell, except the one who has the mark, either the name of the beast or the number of his name.”


Life, Liberty, and Private Property

Does the Bible teach the protection of life, liberty, and private property? Yes, there are dozens of passages throughout the Old and New Testaments which teach that violating a person’s life, liberty, or property is evil. Here are some examples:


Life: Exodus 20:13, Matthew 15:19

Liberty: Deut. 24: 14, 17, Eccl. 4:1, Isaiah 10:1, James 2:6

Property: Exodus 20:15, Matthew 15:19, Ephesians 4:28


However, in this chapter, I would like to draw special attention to a handful of statements made by Jesus just before He was unjustly arrested, condemned, and executed by the civil authorities. First, in Luke 22:36-38, the following exchange took place between Him and His disciples:


“And He said to them, ‘But now, whoever has a money belt is to take it along, likewise also a bag, and whoever has no sword is to sell his coat and buy one. For I tell you that this which is written must be fulfilled in Me, ‘And He was numbered with transgressors’; for that which refers to Me has its fulfillment.’ They said, ‘Lord, look, here are two swords.’ And He said to them, ‘It is enough.’”


Here Jesus warned His disciples that the government would attempt to violate the very rights it was meant to protect. Therefore, He emboldened them to resist its wrongful use of authority and take steps to protect themselves. Can you see that Jesus covered all three rights in this statement? He addressed life (protection against wrongful death), liberty (protection against wrongful conviction/imprisonment), and private property (protection against theft).


Jesus’ statement here can also be correctly understood to establish a person’s right to keep his or her whereabouts, possessions, and dealings private from government surveillance when no crime has been committed. 


Later, Jesus told the authorities in John 18:20, “I have spoken openly to the world; I always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together; and I spoke nothing in secret.” Here Jesus defended Himself by pointing out that He had a right to openly share His teachings, thoughts, and ideas with others. This statement goes along with the right to liberty. It can rightly be interpreted to cover liberties such as freedom of religion, freedom of speech, peaceful assembly, media, and dissemination of ideas.

At the time of His arrest, in Luke 22:52, Jesus said to His captors, “Have you come out with swords and clubs as you would against a robber?” This statement showed that a legitimate use of force (“swords and clubs”) would have been arresting someone who stole another person’s property (“a robber”).


During Jesus’ trial, in John 18:21, Jesus said, “Question those who have heard what I spoke to them; they know what I said.” This statement acknowledged the legitimate function of government to hear evidence for an accusation of wrongdoing and render a just decision.


Finally, in Luke 22:53, Jesus told the authorities, “While I was with you daily in the temple, you did not lay hands on Me; but this hour and the power of darkness are yours.” Here, Jesus pointed out that the rulers never arrested Him when he ministered in broad daylight, but instead sought to condemn Him during a secret trial in the middle of the night. This statement implied that civil authority has a responsibility to act with transparency and shun secrecy.



Romans 13:1 says, “Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities.” 1 Peter 2:13 says, “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him…”


What does it mean to “submit” or “be subject” to civil authorities? Does it mean unconditional obedience? Consider two facts. First, the same Greek word used for “submit” or “be subject” in these passages is also used in scripture concerning submission to other believers (Ephesians 5:21), church leaders (1 Peter 5:5), husbands (Ephesians 5:21), masters/employers (Titus 2:9), and private institutions (1 Peter 2:13). Second, there are many examples in scripture of godly men righteously disobeying civil authorities, such as Peter and John’s disobedience in Acts 4. 


In light of these facts, I propose that biblical submission could be defined like this:


Submission is a heart-attitude that honors authority, obeys its legitimate commands, forgives its misuses, and respectfully declines commands that are outside of its jurisdiction to give.


The first part – the part about giving honor and obeying legitimate commands protects the heart against the sin of rebellion. The second part – the part about forgiving misuses and respectfully disobeying illegitimate commands – protects the heart against the sin of unforgiveness. Put them together and you have an impenetrable force-field around the one thing in life that matters most – our relationship with God. No matter how unjust or oppressive of an authority a person finds himself under, submission will render that authority powerless to harden a person’s heart toward God.


God’s commands for submission are meant for our protection. It is not oppressive, but freeing. Submission is not weakness. In fact, it is the most powerful action a person can take in response to oppressive leadership because it invites the power of God into the situation.


Resist Taxation?

In Romans 13:6, after explaining the government’s responsibility to punish evildoers, Paul wrote, “for because of this you also pay taxes”. The implication of this statement, of course, is that governments have no moral or biblical authority to use tax money to perform the endless list of other functions they typically monopolize. I am not necessarily saying Christians should withhold tax money since that would promptly land them in prison. But the church should certainly teach biblical truth concerning civil government’s role and be involved in legal activities to confine it within proper boundaries.


My tax dollars help fund abortions, teach evolution to minors, indoctrinate college students with anti-Christian philosophies, and support foreign regimes that criminalize conversion to Christianity. Similar objections could likely be raised by taxpayers from other religions/worldviews.


So what are my options? I can either emigrate to another country, withhold my tax dollars and be imprisoned, or go along with the system I live under and try to be a light in it. I don’t believe there is just one right answer; there is room for different convictions. What if 50% of my tax money is used for unbiblical functions and 10% for overtly anti-Christian or immoral functions? Should I leave refuse to pay or flee the country? Perhaps some would say yes and others would say no. What about 75% and 25%? What about 99% and 50%? Where does one draw the line?


In any event, it’s worth noting that the Roman government in Jesus’ day also used taxes in immoral ways such as constructing temples devoted to occult worship, staging brutal gladiator games, and conquering peaceful foreign peoples. Yet when Jesus was asked whether people should still pay taxes, He replied, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar.” (Mark 12:17) By this statement, I believe Jesus implied that while governments often extort money for evil purposes, yielding to them does not necessarily make one complicit in accomplishing those purposes.


A Christian Government?

Is America, as it was conceived by the founders, a Christian nation? It is true that some of the founders were Christians and that America was founded, in part, on biblical principles. But some might say that made it a free nation, not a Christian nation. A free nation does not use the power of government to promote any religion. 


I have traveled to a handful of Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and secular humanist nations and observed that every one of them misuses the power of government to promote its worldview. For example, when I spent several weeks in Sri Lanka as a missionary, to preserve the Buddhist majority, the government had recently passed the “Freedom of Religion Act”, which required citizens to register their religion with the state and made it illegal to convert or proselytize. Similar restrictions existed in favor of Islam when I traveled to Egypt.


If Christians similarly attempt to use civil government to promote their worldview, how are we any different? False religions are energized by the enemy so we can expect them to use civil government in unbiblical ways. However, God is much less threatened by competing ideas and much more respectful of freedom of choice than the enemy. He only instructs a civil government to perform its limited role and leaves it up to the church to promulgate the gospel message. 


What is better – an atheist politician who believes in role-restraint and decentralization or a Christian politician who believes in usurping power to perform functions outside of his biblical mandate? Personally, I would take the atheist – and pray for him every day.


When government steps into the role of worldview promotion or enforcement, every group tries to use government to force its worldview on everyone else. This may feel like a positive thing when Christians are “winning”. However (as stated previously), when government usurps a function it has no biblical authority to perform, Satan can easily turn it to his advantage over time.


I believe a biblical government/economic system for Gentile/New Testament nations is the freest, safest, most peaceful, most prosperous, most productive, and most just system possible.

It is the polar opposite of a legalistic theocracy that some imagine. Israel under the Old Covenant was unique in world history as God’s chosen nation so there were some theocratic elements that do not apply to other nations. However, even in Israel, there were separations between church and state. For example, kings were forbidden from performing activities reserved for the priesthood. Also, it is instructive when reading Old Testament laws to notice who is identified as the enforcing party. It is not always civil authority – sometimes it is the priesthood, the family, the community, or the individual. 


A Wise Rule of Thumb

I believe a wise rule of thumb is to avoid giving power to a politician or legislature you like and trust that you wouldn’t give to one you don’t like and don’t trust.


Let me say that again: Don’t give power to a politician or legislature you like and trust that you wouldn’t give to one you don’t like and don’t trust. Eventually, the winds of culture always change. This might mean eliminating legal or economic preferential treatment of one group over another. For example, it might mean eliminating legal/economic benefits on the basis of:


·         Class or income level

·         Age

·         Sex

·         Ethnicity

·         Race

·         Religion

·         Medical needs

·         Education expenses

·         Employment status

·         Marital status

·         Number of dependents

·         Company

·         Industry

·         Occupation



Such elimination would align with the idea that there is no such thing as “group rights.” There are only individual rights and they are the same for everyone – impartial protection of life, liberty, and property. This rule of thumb has sweeping ramifications that we will discuss in greater detail in the coming chapters.