This piece marks the second in a four-part series exploring a Biblical approach to justice. Over the course of the series, we will ask how we define justice, how we pursue justice, what role the government is to play in this, and how we navigate the so-called 'culture wars' raging around these issues. It is our prayer that these resources help you to better understand the Bible's teaching and the culture around us so that we might live and speak for Jesus as we seek justice.
When thinking about politics, sooner or later, one must address the matter of government. What is the role of government in the public square? How much power should it have? What are we to expect it to do? Discussions about its purpose, responsibilities, and scope must quickly be addressed if one is to figure out their political colours and ambitions.
Likewise, in discussions of justice one must consider where government fits. On the one hand, the government can be regarded as a positive force for good – an enactor of justice. On the other, the government is a necessary evil that ought to impinge on the freedom of the individual in the most minimal way possible.
The left typically takes an interventionist stance arguing for more government power by which to help wider society, and the right tends to oppose ‘big government’. That being said, the large spending patterns of Boris Johnson’s government show how this distinction is clearly not black and white. Instead, different traditions, on both the left and right, take different positions on the role the government ought to play in public life.
What is certain though, is that the government has a role in achieving justice. On this left and right can both agree, even if they conceive of justice differently or believe in different strategies by which to pursue it. This is assumed – part of the air we breathe. The government, whether by law, by finance, or by convention, is deemed the arbiter of justice through the law courts, through its spending patterns, and through its decrees and policies.
How do justice and government fit together?
Biblically, we want to wrestle with this, that we might rightly pursue justice as is our duty and that we might understand the place of politics broadly, and government particularly, in this calling. With this in mind, we must first start with the Biblical recognition that government is a gift from God.
Romans 13:1-7 reveals much in the way of Christian political engagement but crucially for this purpose we see that ‘the authorities that exist have been established by God… the one in authority is God’s servant for your good.’
Authority is established by God. Authority has God-given value and meaning. Government authority is not a social construct generated from abstract theorising, but a gift of God with tangible, practical manifestations. For this reason, the government can never be wholly opposed for it carries intrinsic worth imbued by its creator.
The consequences of this are severe: ‘Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted and those who do so will bring judgement on themselves.’ To pursue disorder and subversion of governmental authority is to go against God’s design and gifting to creation, and does not constitute right behaviour in ‘view of God’s mercy’ but a rebellion. Government has a legitimate place in God’s world and therefore, a legitimate claim on our lives.
1 Timothy says we are to pray that we might live peaceful and quiet lives. Anathema to disorder and anarchy is the Christian calling for holiness and godliness, characterised by peaceful and quiet lives in the public square.
We see a similar calling in 1 Peter 2 as the apostle calls on believers to ‘submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right.’
God has instituted authority and government and it is therefore right we respond to them as appropriate, submitting to their rule, honouring their authority, and giving them their due, be that taxes or some other requirement.
Authority is God’s servant for your good
Authority not only has value and meaning, but has a task, and a good one at that; Peter points to this when recognising its role to ‘punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right.’
As does Paul, ‘for rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.’
This good that is the calling of government, is to do justice. To punish evil and commend good. Governments are a gift to the world to restrain sin and promote what is right. Such is the severity of this task that they have been instituted with the power of the sword by which to achieve this good purpose. Government is a good thing created by God for the purpose of justice. A Christian doctrine of government must recognise its intrinsic link to justice.
Note too, the connection between justice and God’s nature, and His intended purpose for government. They are ‘God’s servants’. Just as noted in ‘Understanding Justice’, one cannot separate the concept of justice from the character of God. Government achieves justice in so far as it pursues God’s will, and governments serve God as they pursue justice.
Government is a gift from God and an instrument of justice
This is not to be found only in the New Testament either. No, this is a part of God’s covenant with Noah way back in Genesis. Following the flood, God recommits to His creation and to humanity in a series of promises to Noah, of which we are most familiar with the rainbow.
Yet, God also states that He will ‘demand an accounting for the life of another human being. “Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made mankind.”’
Leeman thus argues ‘these two verses, first of all, obligate all human beings, as matter of obedience to God, to ensure that a reckoning for crimes against humans occurs… By token of the obligate, these verses also authorize a human to stand in God’s stead… It seems that all humanity is imposed to find a solution to injustice.’
The Noahic Covenant, therefore, seems to install a measure of human authority/government as a means of pursuing justice in this life under the sun. This authority is granted by God and given to all of humanity. Humanity is given the authority to carry out proportional punishment for crimes committed against fellow humans. This authority is granted by God, and clearly serves the same purpose of restraining evil (and therefore promoting, at least implicitly, that which is good). Even in this primitive notion of government, we see justice baked into its foundation.
It is with this in mind that we turn from recognising the gift that government is to the responsibility entrusted to governments and those in authority. Whilst they are a good thing created to enact justice, governments that reject God’s ways reject the foundational task and become the source of much evil.
Governors are responsible to God
Psalm 2 presents this very picture with nations conspiring and kings rising up in rebellion against God despite their ultimate pitiful destiny. What is striking, however, is the warning given to governments that choose to take such a path…
‘Therefore, you kings, be wise; be warned, you rulers of the earth. Serve the LORD with fear and celebrate his rule with trembling. Kiss his son, or he will be angry and your way will lead to your destruction, for his wrath can flare up in a moment. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.’
Those that stand in opposition to God, and their divine task as arbiters of justice, are destined for destruction. Those that forget the one who gave them power and authority and act with pride and arrogance write their own obituary. This is not unique to the Psalms. Early in Solomon’s reign we again see this responsibility placed on government, which is affirmed when the Lord visits the King upon the dedication of the temple.
‘As for you, if you walk before me faithfully with integrity of heart and uprightness, as David your father did, and do all I command and observe my decrees and laws. I will establish your royal throne over Israel for ever, as I promised David your father when I said, “You shall never fail to have a successor on the throne of Israel.”
But if you or your descendants turn away from me and do not observe the commands and decrees I have given you and go off to serve other gods and worship them, then I will cut off Israel from the land I have given them and will reject this temple I have consecrated for my Name. Israel will then become a byword and an object of ridicule among all peoples.’
Now there are many promises and warnings here that are unique to the leaders of Israel. Unlike the Noahic Covenant this is not directed towards all humanity, and so we cannot draw direct parallels with our own government. And yet, similar themes are apparent, the truths of which we can be confident are timeless. Governments and leaders fulfil their purpose when they walk in the way of the Lord. It is a responsibility to govern and it is a duty to do so as intended by the Creator – to pursue justice.
This responsibility given to government is confirmed in the New Testament in passages such as Romans 13 which affirms both their ordination and their duty. Paul’s other epistles also remind us of the place of earthly government in relation to the King.
Colossians reminds us that ‘in him [Jesus] all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.’
Nothing is outside of His authority or power – all belong to Him and exist for Him. Likewise, in Philippians Paul celebrates Jesus’ authority: ‘God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.’
Justice cannot be separated from the one who is just. Nor can governments. They are created with a specific purpose and a superior to whom they will be called accountable. To govern is to pursue justice (as defined by the Creator) and this is a great responsibility.
Nevertheless, as some of the past few passages have hinted at, governments do not fulfil their purpose. They do not pursue justice and they do not serve their Lord. You end up with verses such as these: ‘The LORD became angry with Solomon because his heart had turned away from the LORD, the God of Israel’ and ‘Ahab son of Omri did more evil in the eyes of the LORD than any of those before him.’
Even rulers who aren’t given distinctly covenant roles as rulers of Israel are condemned. For example, Jeremiah devotes several chapters to the judgement God will inflict on those who oppose Him including Babylon; ‘I set a trap for you Babylon, and you were caught before you knew it; you were found and captured because you opposed the LORD.’
Before Israel had a king, God promised this would be the case. He tells the prophet, Samuel, to warn the Israelites that the king will not lead them as they should. Instead, he will take their sons as soldiers and daughters, the best of their fields and produce, their servants and animals, and they will become his slaves and so they will cry out for relief.
Governments and leaders are flawed. They rebel against God and against his designs for justice. They oppress those they are meant to serve and bring ruin to those under their care. Whilst fully affirming the good purpose of government, to serve God by doing justice, the Bible simultaneously recognises they fail in this task and therefore face God’s judgement.
It is with this in mind that the Bible lays out many limitations and reminders for governments as to their true nature and status within creation.
Governments have limited power
In Deuteronomy, God sets in place guardrails to prevent kingly abuse. The king is to be an Israelite (one who is pleasing to God), he must not acquire large numbers of horses, or establish alliances with Egypt, he must not have many wives nor accumulate large amounts of wealth. Moreover, the king is to devote himself to the LORD and all his laws and decrees and is not to rule over Israel in arrogance but humility.
In a completely different context in the New Testament, Jesus reaffirms the principle of limited government power. The Gospel of Mark gives us the infamous ‘give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.’ Jesus, therefore, upholds both the authority of Caesar as right and true (despite his paganism) whilst also proclaiming that total authority belongs to God.
Dever puts it like this: ‘Jesus by His statement was clearly distinguishing between Caesar and God. He was clearly saying that Caesar is not God. Jesus’ followers would obey the state but they wouldn’t worship the state.’
Government can never demand all from its citizens for it is not a totality. It has been given a specific purpose to render justice and a specific field within which to do that. On the contrary, Jesus reigns over all things, as we have seen, and so all must be given to Him.
Pilate fails to recognise who he is dealing with at Jesus’ crucifixion. In John, he asks Jesus ‘”don’t you realise I have power either to free you or to crucify you?” Jesus answered, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above.”’
Even at the point of His trial, Jesus remained in control, governing over the very men working to bring about His death. All authority is granted by God to some for specific purposes. To recognise that kings and governments serve God is to implicitly limit their power beyond even specific rules and decrees.
The simple acknowledgement that there is One to whom leaders must give an account changes the very nature of government. High office is no longer a place for self-service and decadence. The task of governing is a divine duty for limited ends within a limited framework.
As Christian theology took root in the West, it is surely no surprise that governments have evolved from opulent monarchies and oligarchies to democracies with more-often-than-not, a strong tradition of socialist thought.
Christ is the fulfilment of government
Previously, it was mentioned that we cannot draw straight lines from some of these passages to our own societies. It would be wrong, for instance, to see Deuteronomy 17 and assume our governments must never negotiate with Egypt or buy horses. The arrival on the scene of the coming Kingdom of God in Mark profoundly changes how we are to read scripture.
We do not look to David, Moses, or any of the rulers of Israel for our example of good government and good governors. No, we look to Christ, the fulfilment of the Old Testament kings, the promised Messiah, the Lord of Lords.
In Psalm 110, David speaks of a greater king, one who God will be exalted over all others. Likewise, in 2 Samuel, God promises David that He will establish his throne forever and raise up one of his own descendants to succeed him. A promise not fulfilled by Solomon, his son, nor by any of his immediate descendants as the Jewish monarchy descends into rebellion and subsequent exile.
It is not till the birth of Jesus that this promise is fulfilled. When the angel, Gabriel visits Mary to speak of Jesus’ birth he proclaims, ‘He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.’
Indeed, this is a reality acknowledged by the early church and their opponents, who used Christians’ proclamation of Jesus’ kingship as an excuse to stir up trouble. For example, in Acts 17 Jason and other believers are hauled before the city officials accused of ‘defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus.’ Likewise, John in the book of Revelation refers to Jesus as the ‘ruler of the kings of the earth’.
Even in the account of Jesus’ crucifixion, His kingship is widely recognised. First, by Jesus Himself who speaks of His kingdom in John 18. Second, by Pilate and the Roman executioners who attached a notice to Jesus’ cross calling Him the ‘King of the Jews’ much to the annoyance of the Jewish leaders. Likewise, as Jesus hangs there, the criminal on the cross next to Him calls out ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’
Just as Christ is the fulfilment of the law, Christ is also the fulfilment of the kings, the one through whom God’s promise to David is fulfilled. It is in His reign that the tasks of the king are achieved – ruling His people with perfect justice, bringing prosperity and blessing to the land, and bringing all nations together under His lordship.
Thus, to think about the calling of government is to think about the true King. It is to recognise the flawed roles of earthly kings and look to the hope of a better king found in Jesus.
And it is in light of Christ that we can understand the Old Testament commands concerning government. We must ask ‘how does Christ fulfil this kingly duty?’ For example, His death is the ultimate sacrifice that ‘has made perfect for ever those who are being made holy.’
Similarly, the people of God are no longer set apart by food laws or restrictions on items of clothing but by Christ: ‘Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.’ However, Christ upheld the moral integrity of the law, therefore ensuring continuity in the duties and responsibilities required of those that fear God.
Israel is not the epitome of perfect government but rather a mere glimpse of the true kingdom of Christ.
But His is a Kingdom for which we must wait
Since Christ’s ascension, we await His return. For the time at which all will recognise His Lordship and bow their knee has not yet come. In the meantime, we are tasked, not with reproducing Israel’s system of government without the King it depicts, but with the call to ‘go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.’
Jesus made clear that His kingdom was unlike those we see around us: ‘My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.’
His Kingdom is not one that reigns, in the here and the now, by the power of the sword. That task has been given to earthly governments whereas Jesus’ Kingdom, embodied by His church is instead given a different task…
In Matthew, Jesus promises to build His church on Peter and he goes on to ordain him with a specific task; ‘I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.’
Leeman argues the task of the church, as instituted here, is to ‘affirm confessions and confessors on behalf of heaven… Churches exercises the keys with the what of the gospel by their preaching and their statements of faith. Churches exercise the keys with the who of the gospel through the ordinances – baptism and communion. Either they receive someone into the ordinances, or they exclude a person from them.’
This means it is no longer nation-states that are the people of God but the church. Therefore, God’s covenantal promises are no longer manifest in Israel but in everyday Christians participating in the family of God and longing for the return and full realisation of Christ’s heavenly rule.
And yet, the placing of Biblical teaching on government continues to affirm their goodness as an instrument of justice, their flawed opposition to God due to sinful human rebellion, and their limitations simply by virtue of the far-surpassing rule of Christ the true king.
So, government should rightly be celebrated as a means of securing justice and believers ought to recognise and pursue appropriate governmental channels to celebrate where justice is done by our secular rulers and challenge where it falls short of the task God has given them.
However, we are to simultaneously recognise the inherent flaws of this sinful world and therefore the inevitable opposition to true justice and true service of the one true king. With this in mind, we are to encourage and hold firm to the need for limitations to be placed on governmental power. Limits that they do not seek to take the place of God in our lives, limits that will limit the damage of any injustice they may perpetrate, and limits that prevent them from becoming outright greedy or abusive.
Whilst we reflect on these things, we must seek Biblical wisdom and counsel on what such principles may look like within our culture and hold fast to the hope of the One King who will rule with perfect justice.
 Colin Hansen and Thaddeus Williams on Gospelbound ‘Social Justice: Heresy or Necessary?’, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/podcasts/gospelbound/social-justice-heresy-or-necessary/.
 Romans 13:1b and 4a (NIV 2011).
 Romans 13:2 (NIV 2011).
 Romans 12:1 (NIV 2011).
 1 Timothy 2:2 (NIV 2011).
 1 Peter 2:13-14 (NIV 2011).
 Romans 13:1-7 (NIV 2011). Whilst this article does not address in depth the call to submit to government you can find further analysis of this calling in our other article: Jo Evans, ‘When to Start a Rebellion: Submitting to Government’.
 1 Peter 2:14 (NIV 2011).
 Romans 13:3-4 (NIV 2011).
 Romans 13:4 (NIV 2011).
 Genesis 9:5b-6 (NIV 2011).
 Jonathan Leeman, ‘Political Church: The Local Assembly as Embassy of Christ’s Rule’ (2016), p.187.
 Psalm 2:1-4 (NIV 2011).
 Psalm 2: 10-12 (NIV 2011).
 1 Kings 9:4-7 (NIV 2011).
 Colossians 1:16 (NIV 2011).
 Philippians 2:9-11 (NIV 2011).
 1 Kings 11:9a and 1 Kings 16:30 (NIV 2011).
 Jeremiah 50:24 (NIV 2011).
 1 Samuel 8:10-18 (NIV 2011).
 Deuteronomy 17:14-17 (NIV 2011).
 Deuteronomy 17:18-20 (NIV 2011).
 Mark 12:17a (NIV 2011).
 Mark Dever, ‘ God and Politics: Jesus’ vision for society, state and government’ (2016), p.37.
 John 19:10b-11a (NIV 2011).
 Mark 1:15 (NIV 2011).
 Psalm 110 (NIV 2011).
 2 Samuel 7:12-16 (NIV 2011).
 Luke 1: 32-33 (NIV 2011).
 Acts 17:7 (NIV 2011).
 Revelation 1:5 (NIV 2011).
 John 18:36-37 (NIV 2011).
 John 19:19-22 (NIV 2011).
 Luke 23:42 (NIV 2011).
 See Psalm 72 for a fuller picture of the tasks of the king.
 Hebrews 10:14 (NIV 2011).
 Colossians 3:1-3 (NIV 2011).
 1 Thessalonians 1:10 (NIV 2011).
 Matthew 28:19-20a (NIV 2011).
 John 18:36 (NIV 2011).
 Matthew 16:18-19 (NIV 2011). See also Matthew 18:18-20.
 Jonathan Leeman, ‘How the nations rage: Rethinking faith and politics in a divided age’ (2018), pp.140-141.