“Jesus came to them and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth. 19 Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all things that I commanded you. Behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Amen.”Matthew 28:18-20
These are some of the last words Jesus gave to us before he left to Heaven. They are very helpful when we consider the limits of civil government. Notice that Jesus made it clear that He currently holds “all authority… on earth.“
Although the commission was written to Christians, Christians are commanded to delver a message to “all nations.” The people that form the government are included in this. In fact, the Bible records the fact that civil magistrates were converted to Christianity.
It’s important for everyone to understand that neither the government nor the citizens are allowed to do whatever they want. All of us are governed by the commands of Jesus. Even the authority of civil government is limited to Jesus’ commands.
This idea didn’t just start when Jesus gave us the Great Commission. All authority was already God’s before He put it in Jesus’ hands. Jesus brought this up when He talked to Pilate.
‘Pilate therefore said to him, “Aren’t you speaking to me? Don’t you know that I have power to release you and have power to crucify you?”
11 Jesus answered, “You would have no power at all against me, unless it were given to you from above. Therefore he who delivered me to you has greater sin.”’John 19:10-11
The Default Authority
An important thing that the Great Commission tells us is that all authority not granted by Jesus to the civil government already belongs to Jesus. If “all authority has been given to” Jesus, it doesn’t leave anything laying around for the government to take. When the Bible is silent about who is in charge, it is correct to assume that Jesus is. This limits government’s authority to what God has specifically delegated to them.
An Overview of God’s Commands to Government
In order for us to understand God’s limits on human government, we have to know everything that Jesus has commanded government to do. Thankfully, we have all of that in the Bible. We may not fully comprehend everything God tells the government to do in the Bible yet, but we all know where to look when we have a question about it. There are several places where the government’s authority is mentioned. Here’s one place:
“Let every soul be in subjection to the higher authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those who exist are ordained by God. 2 Therefore he who resists the authority withstands the ordinance of God; and those who withstand will receive to themselves judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to the good work, but to the evil. Do you desire to have no fear of the authority? Do that which is good, and you will have praise from the authority, 4 for he is a servant of God to you for good. But if you do that which is evil, be afraid, for he doesn’t bear the sword in vain; for he is a servant of God, an avenger for wrath to him who does evil. 5 Therefore you need to be in subjection, not only because of the wrath, but also for conscience’ sake. 6 For this reason you also pay taxes, for they are servants of God’s service, continually doing this very thing. 7 Therefore give everyone what you owe: if you owe taxes, pay taxes; if customs, then customs; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.”Romans 13:1-7
The main focus of this passage is a Christian’s relationship to the government, but it also holds some truth about the role of government. It tells us some important things:
- The government is to be respected
- The government is not to be resisted
- The government is authorized to judge between good and evil
- The government is authorized to punish evil
- The government is authorized to issue the death penalty
- The government is authorized to tax
This overview actually limits government to a very narrow area. They are only authorized to judge and punish evil, and to require taxes for that purpose. It’s pretty simple and strait forward. I think that what has made this issue difficult to discern today, is that the definition of “good and evil” has been corrupted by those who wish to obtain god-like power.
Good and Evil
It’s very important to notice that Romans 13 only gives the government permission to judge between good and evil. It does not give it permission to define what good and evil is. This is a critical thing for Christians to consider. God never gave man the authority to create new commandments. God placed all authority on Jesus, and Jesus told us to make His commands known. The government doesn’t even have the job of making Jesus’ commands known. That’s our job as Christians. The government’s only job is to enforce civil commands. God’s civil commands are more specifically described in the Old Testament and that’s where a government should go in order to know what is good and what is evil. It is wrong for them to simply make it up commands themselves:
“You shall not add to the word which I command you, neither shall you take away from it, that you may keep the commandments of Yahweh your God which I command you.“Deuteronomy 4:2
“Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil;Isaiah 5:20-21
who put darkness for light,
and light for darkness;
who put bitter for sweet,
and sweet for bitter!
21 Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes,
and prudent in their own sight!”
Civil Sins are the Punishable Ones
If God has given civil government the authority to punish evil but has limited it to the evils found in the Bible, then the only sins that the government is to punish are those that are specified by God as having a punishment attached to them. If a government punishes a sin that God doesn’t have a specified punishment for in the Bible, they are modifying Jesus’ commandments. They are limited to punishing only the evil that the Bible says is to be punished.
This is very important. For example, the Bible doesn’t allow a government to punish “thought crime.” Jesus does hold a man accountable for thought crime, but human government does not have the authority to punish it. In fact, human government doesn’t have the proper tools to assess the thoughts of a man. We are seeing the results of man’s attempts to know the thoughts of people today and it clearly leads to abuse and oppression.
Man’s Justice is Limited
Another very important thing for us to keep in mind, is that only God has the ability to bring perfect justice. One long-awaited promise of the Kingdom of Jesus is that He will bring perfect judgement to man for the first time in history, but this judgment is reserved for Jesus alone.
Man’s justice is always incomplete and temporary. We cannot see or punish many of the sins that God can. God is actually offended if we try to do so. Here’s what God tells us:
‘Don’t seek revenge yourselves, beloved, but give place to God’s wrath. For it is written, “Vengeance belongs to me; I will repay, says the Lord.”’Romans 12:19
If a man attempts to punish “sins” that only God can see, we put ourselves in God’s place. It is a violation of the third commandment to attempt to vainly act in God’s name. That’s what government officials do when they create punishments for crimes that only God can properly assess.
Which sins are punishable?
To learn which sins are punishable, read God’s law, much of which is found in Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Most of these sins are quite obvious even though the punishments have been diminished in many cultures today. That’s because God has given each one of us a built in legal system called a conscience, but we tend to minimize our failures. The “basic rule” for civil government is found way back in Genesis after Noah got off of the ark:
“I will surely require accounting for your life’s blood. At the hand of every animal I will require it. At the hand of man, even at the hand of every man’s brother, I will require the life of man. 6 Whoever sheds man’s blood, his blood will be shed by man, for God made man in his own image.”Genesis 9:5-6
Later in the Leviticus, God gave Moses more detail:
““‘He who strikes any man mortally shall surely be put to death. 18 He who strikes an animal mortally shall make it good, life for life. 19 If anyone injures his neighbor, it shall be done to him as he has done: 20 fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. It shall be done to him as he has injured someone. 21 He who kills an animal shall make it good; and he who kills a man shall be put to death. 22 You shall have one kind of law for the foreigner as well as the native-born; for I am Yahweh your God.’”Leviticus 24:17-21
When a man or an animal kills a man, it is the government’s job to kill that man or animal. Laws that God allows the civil government to punish, are often related to the value of human life or private property in some way or another. This includes death for those adults in rebellion to parents (Deuteronomy 21:18-21) and those in direct rebellion against the Creator of the law (Leviticus 24:16). It also includes those who commit sexual sins of fornication and adultery (Deuteronomy 22:22-30).
The Distribution of Authority
It’s important for us to understand that Jesus didn’t simply pass authority down government officials. Individuals, families and churches have been given authority too. Most of the law is written to us as individuals. The law of God not only tells us our individual responsibility, it also informs us of our liberty (Psalm 119:45). By giving man direct responsibility under God, we are free from the control of man. The Bible teaches that God intends for us to be free (1 Corinthians 7:23, Galatians 5:13).
A good way that we observe God’s distribution of authority is by looking at what the Bible says about obedience and submission. Liberty has been given to each of us because each individual is commanded to control himself. Children are to submit to their parents (Ephesians 6:1-3) and a wife is told to submit to her husband (Ephesians 5:22). Men and women are also told to submit to their bosses (Ephesians 6:5-8).
An important teaching in the New Testament is that the church reports directly to Jesus Himself (Ephesians 5:23-24). This is also reflected in God’s instructions to church members. They were not to not bring lawsuits between themselves to civil courts (1 Corinthians 6:1-11). God also calls on younger people to take the advice of the older ones (1 Peter 5:5).
Government overreach is a very serious sin. When a government takes authority that it was not given, it must take it from someone else. If God has already given the responsibility to an individual, parents, bosses or the church, the government doesn’t have the right to remove that responsibility. When a government takes authority away by force, it isn’t just taking that authority away from man. It’s taking the authority away from Jesus who distributed it.
God’s design for human government is for it to focus on judgment and the punishment of civil wrong doing. There is no mention of the economy, communications, food distribution, education, welfare, healthcare, resource management, workforce management, etc. The government may find civil disorder in any of these areas when life or property is at stake, but God doesn’t call for governmental management of these areas.
It definitely doesn’t give government the right to manage personal issues like what a person should wear or eat or what medicines a person should be taking. It doesn’t have the right to tell churches what to teach or how to meet together. It doesn’t have the right to tell families how many children to have or to tell individuals what to think.
Dealing with Oppression
Jesus had to deal with the overstep of the “Jewish local government.” They made so many rules that no one could follow them, and they excluded themselves from having to do them.
“All things therefore whatever they tell you to observe, observe and do, but don’t do their works; for they say, and don’t do. 4 For they bind heavy burdens that are grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not lift a finger to help them.”Matthew 23:3-4
Often in this life, we are forced to do things by our governments that God does not require. As a result, we have to obey or suffer. Sometimes, the only alternative is to suffer because to obey would be a sin. It’s important for us to remember that Governments are being watched by Jesus and they will be held accountable for what they have done.
“Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they watch on behalf of your souls, as those who will give account, that they may do this with joy, and not with groaning, for that would be unprofitable for you.”Hebrews 13:17
Here are some good places to read more about authority and the government’s limits. These have helped me as I have considered the topic.
God vs. Government
by Dr. Jason Lisle
In this document, Jason Lisle focuses on the role of government and its interference with the church. He has an excellent focus on God’s law which he also discusses in other places.
An Examination of Romans 13
by Pastor Matthew Trewhella
This document provides three proofs as to why Romans 13 does not teach unlimited obedience to civil government. This is an important thing to understand as many argue that Romans 13 means that God wants us to obey all authority without question.
The Christian foundations of the rule of law in the West: a legacy of liberty and resistance against tyranny
by Augusto Zimmermann
This is an in-depth document that connects Christianity to the rule of law. This concept is an important one and one that I didn’t discuss in my writing here. This document is also very special in that it was formally written by an Australian Christian in a peer-reviewed creationist journal.