The Role of the Government as Taught by the Bible
February 29, 2016
Updated March 1, 2016
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The Role of the Government as Taught by the Bible
In a recent dialog with CRC pastors and leaders on the CRC network I was some what surprised to read several comments that I thought were foreign and possibly fallacious. One comment was to the effect that nowhere does scripture advocate care of the poor by the government and another was it is always wrong for the state to promote/command mercy on behalf of the poor. I find these comments to fall short of the full teaching of scripture on the role of the government for several reasons.
1. God gave clear instructions to the nation of Israel and its leaders (prophets, priests and kings) to care for the poor. The Pentateuch is repetitious with such teaching. Think of the teaching/command of the year of Jubilee ( Leviticus 25-27) and its parallels in Exodus and Deuteronomy. Many other Old Testament passages also teach that the king or leaders of Israel were to care for the poor. Think of Job 31:16-23, Psalm 72:1-14, the kings are listed in the beginning of the prophetical books so that a record of what they did whether good or evil is in place. Isaiah 10: 1-4, 58:1-7, Ezekiel 22:27-31, Joel 1:2,13, Amos 2: 4-7, 5:21-27, Micah 1:1-2, 3:1-7, Zechariah 7:8-14, 1Kings 10:9.
2. God continues this role for the state in the New Testament. Jesus said “ Give unto Ceasar what is Ceasar’s and unto God what is God’s (Matthew 22:21.) Romans 13: 1-7 teaches two roles for the government: “a servant of God to do you good” and a servant of God “to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. This is echoed in 1 Peter 2: 13-17. Matthew 25: 31-46 teaches that all the nations will have to give an account for how they treated the poor and their answer will determine their eternal destiny.
3. A proper reading of scripture would cause one to think that not only may the state care for the poor but that it is the duty of the state to care for the poor. Of Christians, the family, and church also have their role in caring for the poor.
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Taking your items, Larry, in numbered ordered:
#1. I'm really hesitant to draw a straight line between God's mandates to Israel and modern mandates for government. OT Israel was, as Jim Skillen would say, an "undifferentiated society" where institutions of government, church, even family to an extent, were merged (or, "undifferentiated"). Beyond that, Israel was a special nation, uniquely ruled by theocracy, even to a large extent after Saul became the first monarch. If one draws too much from OT Israel to inform modern government, one must adopt some of the OT Israel laws that, even though not pointing to Christ, did apply to the nation/church/family of Israel. Reconstructionist (theonomists) draw too much from the pattern of OT Israel government, I think, as do the social justice folks but on the "opposite side."
As to the Year of Jubilee, I don't so much regard that as a "taking care of the poor" measure as it is a "keeping macro balance" within society at large measure (somewhat like an estate tax imposed at death?). After all, Jews were allowed to sell themselves into servanthood, to lose their land and all their possessions and become what was a form of a slave. The Year of Jubilee didn't nothing for them, except every 49th year. Were the Year of Jubilee about "taking care of the poor," it would be "active" during the 48 years as well, but it's not.
#2. Jesus certainly said "give to Ceasar that which is Ceasar's" but I can't find any suggestion that government under Ceasar provided for the poor. Ceasar didn't do that. And although scripture suggests nations will have to account for how they treated the poor, that doesn't mean that government is responsible to take care of the poor. A "nation" includes the people of a nation, not merely the government, which plays one of many roles within a particular political society, which again these days is "differentiated."
#3. I would suggest your statement in #3 does little more than beg the question. What, after all, does it mean to "take care of the poor"? That could mean a thousand different things in a thousand differing degrees. Having said that, I'll come back to a suggestion that I've made before in response to one of these posts: the fact that government is clearly given the power of the sword, which clearly means the power over life and death, I think we can fairly extrapolate that government has the affirmative authority/duty to provide a modern day "safety net" (even if Ceasar didn't) since without it, people die. Does that degree of "providing for the poor" match your intention when you write "providing for the poor"? I don't know because I'm not sure what your definition is for the phrase.
Thanks for creating the discussion, Larry. These are important issues for Christians to grapple with, and not at all simple.
#1. I did not draw a straight line from the theocracy to modern governments. I only drew a line from the theocracy on the principle that the nation of Israel had to provide for the poor. The prophets understood the scriptures that way or they could not have said that Israel would go into captivity for their idolatry and neglect of the poor. This principle of accountability and responsibility is carried over into the New Testament. What part of care for the poor or provide for the poor do you not understand? We should not permit our modern differentiations of government responsibilities from excluding the governments responsibility for the poor.
I do not agree with your statement that he year of jubilee had anything to do with caring for the poor. It was a major redistribution of ownership of land to the way it was in the time prior to the 49 years. That is, in my opinion, major caring for the poor which was commanded by God and legislated through Moses. It stands not as law that needs to be replicated but as a principle to be honored. I think your understanding of Jubilee is not held by Calvin, Berkhof, or any other Reformed theologian.
Besides the year of Jubilee which took effect in the 50th year and staid in effect until the next 50th year, there is the legislation of leaving the corners of the field for the poor, still observed until the time of Ruth we know, the Sabbatical year, the third year tithe which as to go to the poor, (Deuteronomy 14:28-29), zero interest loans (Deut. 15:1-11). The principle of caring for the poor was deeply imbedded in the life of Israel.
Larry: So exactly what to you mean when you say "take care of the poor?" My response clearly indicated that government had an obligation to provide a "safety net" but I'm not sure -- and said so in my comment to your post -- that qualifies as "providing for the poor," as you understand that phrase.
So let's clarify what we might be agreeing or disagreeing about. What do you mean when you say that "government should take care of the poor?"
I work part-time for World Renew. My recollection is that the majority world lives off of $2 a day. That is what is used to define extreme poverty, my understanding of World Renew's definition.
I think people who have to live off $2 a day or less need help. Where should that help come? It should come from their family, church, non-government agencies and yes the government too. That is the point of the law, the prophets and the New Testament when it speaks on social implications of the Word of God.
The government is a divinely appointed agency to do good. Romans 13, Matthew 25, Psalm 72. The ruler is a channel of God's authority.
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