Government principles

posted Jun 3, 2012, 7:11 PM by Hector Falcon

The Bible clearly addresses the role Christians are to play in government. Unfortunately, many church leaders are either too biblically ignorant or too fearful about teaching how the Bible addresses the cultural issues dealing with government. Following are just a few references.

Christians and Civil Government

Civil government is a means ordained by for ruling andmaintaining order in communities. It is one of the number of such means,including ministers in the church and parents in the home. Each such means hasits own sphere of authority under Christ, who now rules and sustains creation,and the limits of each sphere are set by reference to the others. In our fallenworld these authorities are institutions of God's "common grace"(kindly providence), standing as a bulwark against anarchy and the dissolutionof ordered society.

With reference to Romans 13: 1 - 7 and 1 Peter 2: 13 - 17,the Westminster Confession explains the sphere of government as follows:

God, the supreme Lord and King of all the world, hathordained civil magistrates, to be, under Him, over the people, for his ownglory, and the public good; to this end hath armed them with the power of thesword, for the defense of and encouragement of them that are good, and for thepunishment of evil doers...Civil magistrates many not assume to themselves theadministration of the Word and sacraments; or the power of the keys of thekingdom of heaven (23: 1, 3).

Because civil government exists for the welfare of the wholesociety, God gives it the "power of the sword" the lawful use offorce to administer just laws (Romans 13: 4). Christians must acknowledge thisas part of God's order (Romans 13: 1, 2). A government may collect taxes forthe services it renders (Mathew 22: 15 - 21; Romans 13: 6, 7). But if itforbids what God requires or requires what God forbids, Christians cannotsubmit, and some form of civil disobedience becomes inescapable (Acts 4: 18 -31; 5: 17 - 29).

The church's sphere of authority relates to the civilgovernment at the level of morality. The church has the responsibility tocomment on the morality of governments and their policies on the basis of God'sword, but should not appropriate to itself the power to set such policies.Whereas these assessments may foster political action among Christians, theyshould act in their capacity as citizens rather than as representatives of thechurch. In this way the Gospel works through moral persuasion and the workingof God's grace among citizens.

Christians should urge the governments to fulfill theirproper role. They are to pray for, obey, and yet watch over civil governments (1 Timothy 2: 1 - 4; 1 Peter 2: 13 14), reminding them that God ordained them torule, protect, and keep order.


1. New Geneva Study Bible, Editor R.C. Sproul, Thomas NelsonPublishers, April 1995, Nashville.  

Limited Government

The key that makes American government work so well is the existence of many separate jurisdictions of governments.The Founders believed that by having many levels of governmental jurisdiction, political power could be dispersed. However, to keep the system running they also knew that they needed to keep alive the principle of limited government. The natural inclination is for fallen human beings to seek a government that will take care of them. In contrast to that idea the Founders wanted a government that was built in self-governing people. The more people were self-governing, the less dependent the people would be on a big government. The ultimate objective was to maintain a form of limited government that would allow for individuals to flourish under limited government.

 Summary of Principles

 The limitations in jurisdiction and authority placed upongovernmental institutions by God’s Laws, and made necessary by depravity andhuman nature, are recognized in Biblically-grounded constitutional checks andbalances such as separation of powers horizontally(1),separation of powers vertically(2) and checks to power by way of interposition (3).

1. Legislative, Executive, Judicial - Isaiah 33: 22

2. Federal, State, Local - Exodus 18: 21-26, Duet. 1: 15

3. Joshua 2: 1-16, 2nd Sam. 24: 3, !st Kings 12: 16-24, 18: 3-4, 2nd Chron. 21: 10, 26: 20


The Limits of Government

A Praise and a Terror

by Eric Rauch

A recurring question in the history of the church is the properrelationship between church and state. This important question must be resolvedif Christians in the 21st century desire to continue the legacy of theReformation of which we are all benefactors. The men and women of the 16thcentury had determined a course of action, founded upon the Scriptures, thatforever changed Europe and England and led to the exploration, colonization,and formation of the New World. Although we are grateful for that heritage, weshould also be looking toward the future. The decisions that we make today willdetermine—100, 200, even 500 years from now—whether our own descendants will begrateful for or ashamed of the legacy that we leave behind.

Providentially, we are not left without guides to help us alongthis difficult path of the church’s response—and duty—to the society and thecivil government surrounding it. We tend to think that our modern civilizationhas unique problems that cannot be informed by history, that we must find ourown answers, and this is a primary factor as to why the modern church has beenmostly ineffectual in its calling to be an agent of change. The settings andthe technology may change, but the heart of man is still the same. Man is thesame sinner today that he was 500—and 5000—years ago. Our modern problems donot require modern solutions, they require ancient ones—the ones taught in theBible.


Originally published in 1853, James Willson’s The Establishmentand Limits of Civil Government is a remarkably timelybook. Writing in a day not dissimilar to our own—one where citizens werelooking for answers to civil and societal problems—Willson’s clear and powerfulexposition of Romans 13:1-7 is as relevant today as it was 150 years ago.Sounding somewhat prophetic, Willson writes this in the first chapter of hisbook:

Thepulpit has been compelled to enter this field—long almost abandoned. An age of,at least, attempted social reformation, has driven every party in turn to seekthe powerful aid of the Christian ministry, and while we cannot in manyinstances find much to commend in the manner in which the subject has beenpresented, it is still so far well, that portions of the word of God whichexhibit the character, functions, and claims of civil power, are no longerregarded as forbidden ground. (p. 16)

Willson’sdescription of the 1850’s could well serve as a modern survey of the politicallandscape of 2010. It is true that the Bible is referred to rather often as asource of wisdom and authority, unfortunately it is being used to justify thewelfare and social enslavement programs of the political left. Making appealsto Scripture to help the poor and the weak is certainly a right and noblething, but using it as a means to weave the state even more in the fabric ofsociety is certainly not. Willson rightly points out, by appealing to Romans 13and other supporting passages from the Old and New Testaments, thatgovernment’s role is not one of provision, but of protection.

Itis not affirmed that the execution of law consists entirely in acts of punitivecharacter… Such a notion is most derogatory to the magistrate and thegovernment. The civil ruler would then be no more than a policeman, andgovernment a system of police. Government has higher functions. It is a“praise” to them that do well. And, hence, it takes an interest in all thatpromotes a quiet, industrious and moral behavior—it provides for the educationof the people—it ought to interest itself in the maintenance of pure religiousobservations. (pp. 69-70)

Quite unlike modern conceptions of “law,” Willson further states:“By inflicting penalties, [the magistrate] exhibits the desert of transgression,and shows that law is, indeed, law—that it is no mere nerveless utterance ofthe supreme power, but a thing of life and of energy” (p. 71). In otherwords, law in society is not only punitive, but a positive force as well; itreinforces the good while at the same time condemning the evil. Or, as Paulputs it: “For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thouthen not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt havepraise of the same: For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thoudo that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for heis the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil”(Romans 13:3-4).

As the title of the book aptly demonstrates, God has created thecivil government and given it certain authority. Likewise, God has given thechurch a role and authority to carry out its mission. Just as God created thesea and the land and gave them boundaries that they may not cross (Job38:8-11), God has given jurisdictions to both church and state and a societywill only operate properly when those limitations and boundaries are carefullyobserved. The question is not one of church OR state, but of church AND state.Both have been ordained by God.

Examples could be multiplied and this review could be as long, ifnot longer, than the book itself. Willson has done his task by correctlyexpositing the text of Romans 13:1-7, but he also did not try to write thedefinitive answer on the topic. His book is brief, but it effectively answersthe most pressing questions and concerns about the Christian’s place in civilsociety. The final chapter of the book, which is its longest, anticipates andanswers most of the objections that will be raised. Amazingly, the objectionsthat Willson answers are the very same ones that modern Christians have beenvoicing in the church/state debate for the last 50 years; some things neverchange. Willson rightly diagnoses the issue as one of obedience and he cuts tothe heart of matter with these remarks:

Romans13:1-7] embrace the discharge of all civil duties, the whole subject ofobedience to the law; and the motives by which these are enforced are,throughout, religious. That is not true religion whose practical influence extendsno farther than acts of devotion, or to relations merely domestic andecclesiastical… The sincere Christian will be a Christian in the mart ofbusiness, in the hall of legislation, in the seat of science, in the executivechair, and in the walks of social intercourse. (p. 88)

Due in no small part to the republication of this important andpractical book, may God be pleased to raise up generations of obedient andsincere Christians. The church and the country are in desperate need of them.

The Necessary Limits of Government

Jurisdictionalseparation deals with the legitimate and limited boundaries of authority. Aperson who owns a piece of property has jurisdiction over his own property, buthe does not have jurisdiction over someone else’s property. A property ownercan only “speak the law” (juris = law + diction = speak) within the confines ofthe boundaries of his own property. In this way, a property owner’s jurisdictionis limited. Property lines are legal entities that limit authority.

What’strue of property is also true of civil governments. State governments havelimited jurisdictional authority. A state government and its courts can only“speak the law,” have jurisdiction over, those who reside within the boundariesof the state or those passing through. That’s why each state has its ownconstitution, courts, and elected officials. An elected official in one statehas no jurisdictional authority in or over another state.

In thesame way, the Federal government’s jurisdiction is designed to be limited bythe Constitution, although such limitations are not often acknowledged by thecourts, the President, or Congress. These delegated agencies are alwaysattempting to test the limits of their specified boundary markers.Nevertheless, the Constitution is a jurisdictionally limited document in thatits enumerated powers are the only ones it possesses. Powers not specified inthe Constitution are retained by the individual states as set forth in theirconstitutions. These Federal jurisdictional limitations are set forth in theNinth and Tenth Amendments to the Constitution:

Ninth: “The enumeration in theConstitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparageothers retained by the people.”

Tenth: “The powers not delegated to theUnited States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, arereserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

Jurisdictionallimitation at all levels of civil government is one of the governmentalprinciples that makes America a stable and free nation.

Whenthe Constitution was signed on September 17, 1787, it did not contain a Bill ofRights. The constitution as originally drafted was sent to the states forratification. The Federalists supported it while the Anti-Federalists opposedit. The Anti-Federalists wanted a Bill of Rights, a bill of furtherrestrictions. The Federalists argued that a Bill of Rights was unnecessarysince the Constitution created a national government of enumerated powers. Withthis form of government, unless a power was actually spelled out in thedocument, it did not exist. Since the Constitution did not give the nationalgovernment legislative power over religion, Federalists considered a Bill ofRights unnecessary and even dangerous. To mention a subject was thought to givethe Federal government control over it. John Jay stated it this way:

Silence and blankpaper neither grant nor take away anything. Complaints are also made that theproposed Constitution is not accompanied by a bill of rights; and yet they whomake the complaints know, and are content, that no bill of rights accompaniedthe constitution of this State [New York].[1]

Jayfailed to note George Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights (1776), theEnglish Bill of Rights (1689), and earlier English political documents such asMagna Charta (1215). The specification of rights was part of English historythat served as an example to those who had a public mistrust of government.

TheAnti-Federalists disagreed with the claim that silence made rights undeniable.They had an innate and historical suspicion of centralized civil government.Without further restraints on basic individual rights, they feared that theFederal government could exercise powers not granted to it because they werenot prohibited by the Constitution. They argued that a formal declaration of rightswas essential to secure certain liberties. Virginia, New York, Rhode Island,and North Carolina requested amendments concerning freedom of religion, press,assembly, and speech. The Virginia Convention stated the following regardingreligion in Article 16 of the Virginia Declaration of Rights:

Thatreligion, or the duty which we owe to our Creator and the manner of dischargingit, can be directed by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; andtherefore, all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion,according to the dictates of conscience; and that it is the mutual duty of allto practice Christian forbearance, love, and charity towards each other.[2]

Borrowinglanguage from the Declaration of Independence, the Federalists made it clearthat this and other rights are not granted by civil governments but are“natural and unalienable.”

TheAnti-Federalists won the argument. Their mistrust of government was broadenough that the states insisted on adding amendments over the objections of theFederalists. Twelve amendments were put forth by James Madison, but only tenwere adopted and voted on.

Fear ofjurisdictional usurpation was as real 220 years ago as it is today.Unfortunately, there aren’t enough people who see it as a problem. If we areever to win back our nation, understanding jurisdictional limitations is anecessary first step.


  1. Henry P. Johnston, ed., The Correspondence and Public Papers of John Jay: 1782–1793, 4 Vols. (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1891), 3:305–306. []
  2. Adopted unanimously June 12, 1776 by the Virginia Convention of Delegates. []

Read more: The Necessary Limits of Government | Godfather Politics


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