The Nature and Purpose of Government

Romans 13 doesn’t tell us everything we need to know about the nature and purpose of government, but it puts in place some of the most foundational building blocks.

Here again is Paul’s famous teaching on God and government:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore, whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed. And those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore, one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscious. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed. (Rom. 13:1-7)

What do we see in this passage about the nature and purpose of government? Let me make four observations.

1. The government’s authority is a derived authority. We see this right from the beginning: “there is no authority except from God” (v. 1). Any lawful governing authority has that authority on account of God—the only absolute, supreme authority.

There are three great societies on the earth—the home, the church, and the state—each of which have its authority from God. Within the home, children obey their parents, and the husband is the head of his wife. Within the church, the elders exercise loving authority over the sheep. Within the state, there are civil magistrates to exercise governing authority over people. These magistrates may be called kings or queens or governors or presidents or the police, but regardless of the political arrangement the idea is the same. Government’s authority comes from God.

2. The government’s authority is a divine authority. This point not only follows from the first; it is made explicit in the text. The authorities that exist “have been instituted by God” (v. 1). Further, “whoever resists the authorities, resists what God has appointed” (v. 2). The language is even more striking in verse 4 where Paul calls the magistrate “God’s servant.” The Greek word is diákonos, from which we get our word deacon. Likewise, verse 6 calls these same authorities “ministers of God.” The Greek word is leitourgos, from which we get our word liturgist. The civil magistrate is not an officer in the church (not de facto anyway), but his office in the world is a type of ministry. As John Stott puts is, quite provocatively, “Those who serve the state as legislators, civil servants, magistrates, police officers, social workers, even tax collectors, are just as much ministers of God as those who serve the church as pastors, teachers, evangelists, or administrators.” Of course, we don’t want to confuse “ministers of God” with pastors in the church, but strictly speaking Stott’s statement is manifestly biblical. The governing authorities serve society by ministering on God’s behalf.

Before leaving this second point, let me make two related points.

One, it’s always good to hold Romans 13 in tension with Revelation 13. If Romans 13 describes the ways things are supposed to be, then Revelation 13 describes the sad reality of the ways things often are. In Revelation 13 we are introduced to the beast—the idolatrous, blaspheming, persecuting corruption of governmental power. The authorities meant to do the work of God sometimes do the work of the Devil.

Two, I think it is fair to assume that Romans 13 is talking about lawful authority. By “lawful” I don’t mean “authority we always appreciate” or “authority that is always exercised with absolute integrity.” Surely we must obey the governing authorities even when we struggle to respect those in positions over us. And yet, Paul is not suggesting that any old person can call himself king and demand your obedience, or that any 10 people can form a militia and exercise their own vigilante justice under the claim of God-given authority. Some authority is appropriate, and some is not. Paul was willing to submit to the high priest in a way he would not submit to the false apostles in the church.

This is an important point if we are to make sense of the American experiment. The Declaration of Independence says this: “Governments are instituted among men deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” If you were raised in America, you probably love that sentence. But have you ever stopped to think if it is true? After all, Romans 13 tells us that the government’s authority comes from God, not from the people. Is the Declaration of Independence unbiblical?

That depends on how you read it. If you put the emphasis on powers, then Jefferson’s sentence is at odds with Romans 13. Government derives its power from God, not from the consent of the governed. But you could also put the emphasis on just powers. On this reading, the Declaration is not denying that government may derive its authority from God; it is arguing that what establishes government as a lawful authority is the consent of the governed. This reading echoes the position of John Locke, who argued in his notes on Romans 13 that the supreme civil power “is in every commonwealth derived from God,” but “how men come to a rightful title to this power or who has that title, Paul is wholly silent and says nothing of it.” In other words, government’s authority is a divine authority, but determining who or what has a right to that divine authority in a given context is a matter that must draw from prudential wisdom and other philosophical considerations. Locke would say the government’s power comes from God, but the lawfulness of government comes from the consent of the people. I don’t think the Bible requires Locke’s understanding of social contract theory, but I think his interpretation of Romans 13 rightly separates the question of derived authority from the question of lawful power.

3. The primary responsibility of government is to restrain and punish evil. Look at the language in Romans 13. Verse two speaks of incurring judgment. Verse three asserts that the governing authorities are a terror to bad conduct. Later, we are told that evildoers should fear the one who is in authority (v. 3) and fear the one who bears the sword (v. 4). Those who exercise judgment on behalf of the governing authorities are the original avengers (v. 4). They are God’s servants, carrying out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer (v. 4).

Remember, the argument of Romans 13 is, in part, an answer to the exhortation of Romans 12. In Romans 12:19 we are told “never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God.” Even if we are persecuted, even if we are wronged, even if we are oppressed, we must not take vengeance into our own hands. We look to God to execute justice through the ministers and servants to whom he has given the power of the sword. We do not put to death the murderer, but the government can (Gen. 9:6).

In short, the first and most primary responsibility of government is to uphold the law and to punish the lawbreaker. To put it positively, government’s God-given task is to protect the life and the possessions of its citizens.

4. The secondary responsibility of government is to approve what is good. We see this in verse 3: “Rulers are not a terror to good conduct but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good and you will receive his approval.” This means that government ought to enact policies that encourage and normalize good behavior. The wise magistrate, with good laws and the fair execution of justice, will nurture the cultivation of personal responsibility, the pursuit of healthy family life, and the establishment of economic conditions that reward hard work and productivity.

Put these two responsibilities together (points 3 and 4), and you could say government is at its best when the people can be confident of two things:

(1) No matter who I am, what I look like, where I am from, how much I possess, or how many connections I have, if I am violent toward my neighbor or toward his property, I will be punished.

And (2) no matter who I am, what I look like, where I am from, how much I possess, or how many connections I have, if I follow the rules and do what is good, the government will stay out of my business and provide the conditions for me to get ahead in life.

That’s what government should be about: protecting life and promoting good behavior. As Paul says elsewhere, let us pray “for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (1 Tim. 2:2).