Vern Poythress:

Many Western humanists expect the state to cure all ills. When they see a problem, such as suicide, drug addiction, oppression, war, poverty, sexual exploitation, racial hatred, or mere ignorance, they are greatly distressed. Their feelings of distress and indignation are in a sense proper, but because they do not admit that the root of these ills is found in human sin, they look for immediately engineered human solutions. After all, if human nature is basically good, the difficulty must not really be that intractable. It must be solvable, and solvable now. Any delay is reprehensible. The state has the maximum concentration of power and resources for the job. Hence the state must institute a program to solve the problem. If the problem cannot be solved merely by throwing money at it, then a state-run educational program can do the job.

Hence in the twentieth century we have seen the growth of huge state bureaucracies. Moreover, in many political arguments it is simply assumed that the state is the proper agent for the job. The debates tend to be confined to the question of expediency and quantity: whether the citizens are willing to foot the bill for still another program, and whether one program rather than another will be effective.

We must break out of this foolishness. The state is not god, nor is it the savior of humanity. It cannot remedy all ills. Moreover, contrary to humanist thinking, the state’s legitimate authority is limited by God. The state does not have the right simply to meddle in any affair that it chooses. Only God has universal, unbounded authority. The authority of the state consists only in what has been delegated to it by God. The state must confine itself to doing those things for which it has a God-given responsibility.

Hence, when we see some difficulty in the world, we must not immediately clamor for state action to eliminate the difficulty. It is not enough merely to demonstrate that there is a difficulty, and that the difficulty is serious. We must always ask what are the just means for dealing with the difficulty. We must not blindly assume that state action is appropriate or approved by God. Prayer, individual action, action by churches, action by voluntary organizations, and other forms of action are all alternatives. State action needs to be justified as part of the legitimate sphere of authority given to the state. Such action is appropriate not merely if we can show that it might “help” in some pragmatic sense, but only if we can show in addition that it is just when measured by the limited authority that God has given to the state.

—Vern S. Poythress, “False Worship in the Modern State,” The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1991), 291-2. For his positive take on what should be the case, see “Principles of Justice for the Modern State.”

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7 thoughts on “The State Does Not Have the Authority or Power to Cure All Ills”

  1. James Rednour says:

    “The state must confine itself to doing those things for which it has a God-given responsibility.”

    No state confines itself to anything. It expands ever outward grabbing more power and authority for itself. That is why Christians who seek to use the state to further their agenda are fooling themselves. The state will eventually turn on you and swallow you whole as well.

    States only lose power when they are overthrown, either by internal (coups, revolutions) or external (wars) means.

  2. Jonathan says:

    I agree with everything in this article. Loved it

  3. This is a terrible piece of unbiblical thinking.

    For Poythress to be correct in his assertion here, the Bible should be explicitly against certain actions of the state. Yet the Bible nowhere gives limits to the state in terms of what it is allowed to spend its money on. Jesus, Paul and the other Apostles did not complain about how their taxes were being spent, nor about the roads and aqueducts and buildings that the Roman Empire built.

    Romans 13 is often used by Christians as teaching the natural limits of the state. This is not the case. Romans 13 is not about the limits of the state but about the repsonsibilities of the Christian in paying tax. Moreover, no reputable textual commentator (evangelical or otherwise) sees this argument in the text of Romans 13. These commentators include Leon Morris, Martin Lloyd-Jones, CEB Cranfield and Charles Hodge.

    The idea that the state should be limited only to law enforcement, the judicial system and the military is called Minarchism. Minarchism is a 20th century idea and is promulgated by those who adhere to the philosophies of Ayn Rand. Such people see taxation as theft – an idea that is completely alien to Scripture.

    I live in a country that spends tax money on public education, welfare and a universal health care system. This is hardly a utopia. It is not heaven on earth. Nevertheless I thank God for providing these things as expressions of common grace, namely that God has gracefully provided a political, economic and social system in my country that helps to alleviate poverty and help the needy.

    The idea that the state can and should tax individuals and use that money to benefit all is described in Deuteronomy 24.18-22. In these passages, Israelite farmers were required by law to allow the poor, the fatherless and the widow to come onto their lands and take what was left behind after the fields or orchards were harvested. This was not charity. This was law. There was no choice in the matter.

    If God did not want the state to use its power to help those in need then the Bible would explicitly say so. It doesn’t. Instead, passages like Deuteronomy 24.18-22 remain.

  4. david carlson says:

    +1 for OSO. Anyone who holds to Minarchism is denying the sufficiency of the bible by adding to what it teaches.

    The state has always demanded to be treated as God – from Rome to modern times (read the Barmen Declaration)through Bush and to Obama. It is not if the state shall it is how shall we respond? Like Daniel? Like Jesus and Paul? Or like Southern Reconstructionists?

  5. Actually I have no problems with Christians who believe that Minarchism is the best solution.

    What I have a problem with is Christians who believe that Minarchism is Biblically mandated.

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Justin Taylor


Justin Taylor is senior vice president and publisher for books at Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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