It's fairly common among American Christians to see the role of government as doing good for the citizens of a nation. We not only live in a time when much is provided by government at tax-payer expense, including housing, food stamps, welfare, ball parks, playgrounds, and tennis courts, to name a few, but we often impose the American experience onto the Scriptures rather than let the Scriptures guide our steps.
In Rom. 13:4 Paul tells us that the government is “God’s servant for our good.”
Does that mean then, as many would conclude, that government has a role in promoting the common good of society? If we consider the fact that Paul was writing to Roman Christians who were being persecuted by Nero, a man so evil he set Christians on fire to light his dinner parties, that conclusion would seem unlikely. The Roman government certainly wasn’t promoting the common good. Paul was not saying that government should promote the common good as far as Christians were concerned. Nor was Paul telling Nero what he should do. Further, he was not telling Christians what government should do. He was actually telling Christians what they should do; submit to this evil government. Paul says the ruler is “God’s servant for our good.” He's simply saying that God uses even evil government for our spiritual good. He had made that point earlier when he noted that God causes all things (including suffering) “to work together for our good” (Rom. 8:28).
Sometimes we're inconsistent in what we think government should be or do. Even solid Christian theologians have a hard time being consistent. Some are opposed to government health-care reform but support government (tax-supported) parks for family picnics or ball fields for little league. Would we be willing to say that providing children a place to play is more important than providing children with health care? Not if we thought about it. Would we say that one is good and not the other? Not really. Who defines common good? Should government provide free hotels for travelers; theme parks; helicopter rides; corporate bail-outs; or home-mortgage bail-outs? What about private business bail-outs then? These things might be good in some sense for those who receive them but certainly not for all of us. The truth is that others are negatively affected by higher taxes or a weaker economy. Welfare might be good for those who receive it but not for those who have to pay for it through taxation. Neither is welfare always good for those who receive it as it robs some of their incentive to work. Add to that the growing number of unwanted children due to welfare increases for having them and one can see that welfare may not be good for a lot of people.
When we believe the role of government is to promote the common good, we fail to realize that people define good in different ways. The government has already decided that legalized abortion, embryonic stem-cell research, the distribution of condoms in school, values education that says homosexuality is not sin and so much more we would object to is all for the common good.
Many of the intelligentsia are saying that parents forcing Christian ideas on their children are evil and some of our courts are in agreement. The state could actually decide that Christianity should be outlawed for the common good. That brings us back to Nero.
The cardinal rule in biblical interpretation is that a text can never mean what it never meant. Roman Christians under Nero would have never understood Paul to be saying that government is to act as God’s servant to do good for the citizens of a nation.
According to the Scriptures, what then is the role of government? Rather than promoting the common good as defined by arbitrary opinion, government's role should be much more limited. If we apply New Testament principles, we would work for a limited government of non-coercion that protects the people and secures their freedom. Think about this: the gospel is non-coercive; we need protection from people who do harmful things toward others; and God’s prohibition of things like murder, theft, and slavery, means that people have God-given rights to life, private property, and liberty. Government should serve a protective role then more than anything else.
When the state protects us from those who would hurt us, we are free then to pursue what we like. We as citizens can also come together to provide things we think are good for our communities (like parks, pools, playgrounds, or health care). The people should do that, not government. When we think biblically about these things we'll not give government more responsibility than God does.
Dr. Paul Dean invites you to discover more about the role of Government, the role of the church, and the role of the market . . . and develop a Christian worldview. Dr. Dean is a pastor, cultural commentator, and author. Please visit http://www.governmentcurrentevents.com
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