Government Jurisdictions

The concepts ofgovernment and jurisdiction are inseparably related to one another. Governmentspeaks of the authority to govern, while jurisdiction speaks of the definedsphere in which the legitimate authority of a government is exercised. A greattragedy of our day is that the biblical concept of government has largely beenlost, even among Christians.[1] This being thecase, it is not hard to imagine that the notion of jurisdiction has ceased tobe a viable force for limiting the individual governments to their proper andlegal spheres. The result of the demise of biblically defined government andjurisdiction is confusion, conflict, and the concentration of power in thestate. Liberty, order, justice, and prosperity are dependent on a trueknowledge of government and jurisdiction, and that true knowledge is attainedby considering these matters from a biblical, covenantalperspective.  

The Bible teachesthat God is the source of all authority and legitimate government among men(Rom. 13:1-2). Government is the exercise of authority in an appointed sphere,and all authority resides, ultimately, in God. God’s government, or kingdom,rules over all. God has, however, created man in His image and charged him withthe task of taking dominion in the world. Central to the task of dominion isthe exercise of God-given authority in the domains of government established byGod for the directing of life on earth and for the administration of God’s lawamong men. For the government of the world and mankind, God has establishedthree covenantal institutions: family, church, and state. That is, the family,church, and state are individual governments that are established by covenantand possess God-ordained powers and jurisdictions.

Because the issues ofgovernment and jurisdiction are so central in the life of man, so necessary forthe proper administration of God’s law, and so foundational to liberty andjustice, we must give close attention to these matters. We will pay a heavyprice if we do not! To assist us in asking the right questions in regard togovernment and jurisdiction, and to motivate us to see how important the issueof jurisdiction is, we will consider two foundational texts from Scripture:Luke 20:2 and Deuteronomy 21:1-3.

I.Luke 20:2

And it came to pass,that on one of those days, as he taught the people in the temple, and preachedthe gospel, the chief priests and the scribes came upon him with the elders,And spake unto him, saying, Tell us, by what authority doest thou these things?or who is he that gave thee this authority? (Luke 20:1-2)

The chief priests,scribes, and elders represent the Sanhedrin, the ruling body in Israel in bothcivil and religious matters. They come to Jesus in the Temple and demand thatHe answer for His actions, i.e., His exercise of authority in casting themerchants out of the Temple and teaching the people within its precincts. Theyhave the right to question Jesus for they have jurisdiction over the Temple,and Jesus does not reject the legitimacy of their questions, though Heunderstands the unbelief and hostility that lie behind them. His counter question(Luke 20:3-4), about the authority of John the Baptist, is not a rejection ofthe  validity of their questions nor of their right to ask them; it isonly intended to expose their utter inability to rightfully judge the properanswer to their questions.

That Jesus acceptedthe legitimacy of their questions alerts us to the importance of them. In fact,this text lays before us the questions all of us need to be asking wheneversomeone exercises authority among us. As individuals, husbands and fathers, churchmembers, citizens, or magistrates, we need to get these questions down and beasking them constantly. What are these questions? There are two of them.

1.By whose authority do you do these things?

They ask Jesus, “Bywhat authority doest thou these thing?” This means: What sort (or kind) ofauthority stands behind your actions? Simply your own? Do you have anyone elseto whom you can appeal to justify your exercise of power? Is your claim to haveauthority to do these things backed by proper authority? They also ask, “Who ishe that gave thee this authority?” This is essentially the same question as thefirst. They challenge Jesus to specifically name the source of His authority.They want Jesus to name the one who empowered and commissioned Him to act as Hehas.

Their challenge toJesus builds on the idea that no man has authority in himself; all authority isdelegated to a man by a higher authority, going back ultimately to God. No manhas original authority residing in himself, and if his authority is legitimatehe must be able to properly answer this question. This is the fundamentalquestion of government. All authority is exercised within the sphere of a dulyconstituted government. To answer the above question a man must be able to showwhich government has empowered him and the specific means whereby it didempower him.

2.Does your authority empower you to do these things?

They ask Jesus, “bywhat authority doest thou these things?” Do not miss the significance of “doestthou these things.” They are saying to Jesus, “Even if you can demonstrate thatyou have been commissioned by legitimate authority, does your commission extendto these things?” It is one thing to name the source of your authority, thegovernment you represent, it is another thing entirely to prove that your grantof authority includes the power to do this or that. This is the fundamentalissue of jurisdiction. All authority is limited to a specified sphere of actionand domain. The men questioning Jesus may grant that He has some authority, butdoes He have authority to do what He has done in the Temple? Jurisdictiondefines the boundaries of a person’s authority in two senses: it defines overwhat or over whom a person has authority; and what that authority empowers aperson to do — to apply what laws, and to carry out what duties.

These two questionsare the fundamental questions of government and jurisdiction. Learn to ask themof yourself as you exercise authority, and to ask them of others who exerciseauthority over you.

II.Deuteronomy 21:1-3

If one be found slainin the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee to possess it, lying in thefield, and it be not known who hath slain him: Then thy elders and thy judgesshall come forth, and they shall measure unto the cities which are round abouthim that is slain: And it shall be, that the city which is next unto the slainman, even the elders of that city shall take an heifer, which hath not beenwrought with, and which hath not drawn in the yoke. . . . (Deut. 21:1-3).

Deuteronomy 21:1-2depicts a very serious problem that urgently calls for a solution: the body ofa dead man has been found in the field and it is not known who has killed him.Innocent blood has been shed in Israel, and the land has been defiled, thusinviting the judgment of God on the people. The solution to this difficultsituation is provided in the case law of Deuteronomy 21:1-9. Here, the actionrequired to cleanse the land of the guilt of innocent blood and to restore itto favor with God is revealed. But notice that the text not only makes knownthe action required to purge the land, but it also identifies who isresponsible to carry out the work that will free the people from guilt; bothaspects are important and essential in resolving the case.

Deuteronomy 21:2-3indicates that the elders and judges of the city closest to where the body isfound are charged with the duty of carrying out the law of God. Hence, thesolution to the problem begins by assigning responsibility. In legal terms, ingovernmental terms, it begins by determining who has jurisdiction in this case.

The word“jurisdiction” comes from two Latin terms, juris, meaning “of right” or“of law,” and dictio, meaning “to speak” or “to declare.” Hence, theword “jurisdiction” refers to the right to declare and administer the law. Itestablishes the legal right by which rulers exercise their authority, and italso defines the sphere and extent of that authority. In Deuteronomy 21:2, theright and responsibility to administer the law of 21:3-9 is determined bycarefully measuring the distance from the dead body to the nearest town orcity.

Although this lawspeaks to a specific circumstance, it also illustrates a very importantprinciple: before God’s law can be applied, it is essential that jurisdictionis established. We must be diligent to “measure” out which government hasjurisdiction over the issue or problem facing us before we can properly carryout the law of God and solve the problem. If jurisdiction is not firstestablished, not only will the problem not be solved, it will, at least in thelong run, be intensified. This principle applies to all the governments thatGod has established — family, church, and state — and to the jurisdictionassigned to each of these individual governments.


If God’s authority isto be properly administered by men, we need to carefully consider the questionsand issues raised by Luke 20:2 and Deuteronomy 21:1-3. In all circumstanceswhere authority is exercised, these two fundamental questions of government andjurisdiction must be asked. Ask them of yourself as you exercise authority, andask them of those who exercise authority over you: 1). Who gave you thisauthority? — the question of government; and, 2). Does your authorityempower you to do these things? — the question of jurisdiction

1. ^For an introduction to the subject of government from a biblical perspective,see William O. Einwechter, “Government,”The Christian Statesman, vol.145, no. 2 (March-April 2002), pp. 3-7.

This article wasoriginally published in The Christian Statesman, vol. 149, no. 6, November -December, 2006.

William O. Einwechter