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What is Government Good for?

Monday, 7 March 2016  | Ben Thurley

Kings and courts. Armies and advisors. Taxes and treaties. Laws and land deals. Strangers and citizens. The Bible is full of the forms and functions of government. The governments mentioned in the Bible don’t always seem much like today’s governments – we don’t have as many emperors around these days… But the Bible is clear; government matters.

How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked? Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. (Psalm 82:2-3)

The word of the Lord that comes to the prophets doesn’t come out of the blue with vague messages of concern or hope. God’s word comes to the prophets: ‘In the days of’ particular rulers, and the prophets call those rulers to uphold God’s righteous standards. The arrival of Jesus, the world’s true king, comes ‘in the days of Herod, king of Judea.’ The true and righteous leader’s arrival threatens the power of the violent and unjust ruler. So, government matters.

But why? What is government for? What is it good for?

God has a particular vision for rulers and governments. God has a vision not just for those who aspire to lead in His church, but for all leaders. A vision not just for those who govern over a ‘Christian’ nation, but for those who govern in every nation. God’s vision for governments – leaders and lawmakers, administrators and enforcers – stems from His very own heart and character.

Since God governs the universe with justice and mercy, His vision for governments is, quite simply, that they work to ‘give justice to the weak and the orphan and to protect the rights of the lowly and the destitute’ (Psalm 82:3). Which shouldn’t come as a surprise because we know that our God is passionately concerned to see hungry people fed, homeless people sheltered and the rights of the poor protected. He is the God who ‘executes justice for the oppressed, gives food to the hungry and lifts up those who are bowed down’ (Psalm 146:7–8). 

Caring for the poor and working to overcome poverty is not an optional extra for God’s people – God’s grace injects that passion deep into our hearts. Protecting the poor and working to overcome poverty is not an optional extra for governments either. It’s the mandate God gives to all authorities. All authorities are the servants of God, established to support and promote the common good and to oppose and restrain evil (Romans 13:1–4).

Promote good and restrain evil is a decent basic job description for government but is pretty light on details. What kinds of good things should governments support and promote and how? What kinds of evil should governments strive to hold back and how?

The Bible is not a manual for government and it won’t give us answers to the kind of issues governments might face today – broadband internet policy, or copyright laws, or biotechnology, or Senate voting reform. But it does give us one unambiguous answer to the question of what government is for. God expects governments – whatever else they do – to protect the rights of the poor and the vulnerable and to defend them against oppression or exploitation. Psalm 82 presents us with a striking vision of a divine council meeting where God presides over the ‘gods’ of the nations and calls them to account. These ‘gods’ (who may be a figurative way of speaking about human leaders and judges, or a vision of divine beings to whom God has granted a subordinate authority in His good world) have been getting away, almost literally, with murder. How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked?’ God charges them to uphold His justice and concern for the poor:

Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. Rescue the week and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked. (Psalm 82:3)

It’s never going to end well for ‘gods’ or governments who ignore God’s command to give justice to the vulnerable and to protect the rights of the poor. When authorities fail to protect the poorest people, it’s not just a failure of government, it’s an affront to God’s ultimate authority. We are not foolish. We know that even the best governments can succumb to greed or the seduction of power. We know that even the best governments make bad laws, or fail to enforce good laws. Governments sometimes ride roughshod over the rights and needs of the people they govern. They can become monsters. But we know that government in all its forms – parliaments and courts, regulators and police forces – is God’s servant to promote good and restrain evil. It is God’s servant to protect our shared resources. It is God’s minister to promote the common good when the powerful and the privileged want the authorities to work only for their interests. Those authorities are God’s servants to protect the rights of the poor and give justice to the vulnerable.

Knowing that is what government is good for, Christians have a clear call as citizens and prophets in our nations. We are to hold governments accountable to their highest calling. We are to stand with the poor and vulnerable when government fails to serve them properly as God commands. We know that no human government can fully implement God’s concern for justice and every human institution will fall short of God’s vision. Each government on Earth needs to be encouraged and helped to live up to God’s mandate. They need to be held to account, challenged and even rebuked when they fall short. And who will do this if not those who know and share God’s heart?

For I am convinced that Christians must speak out prophetically with the boldness the Spirit brings and a vision of God’s justice. We must be those who ‘speak out for those who cannot speak and defend the rights of the poor and the needy’ (Proverbs 31:8–9).

Ben Thurley
is the National Coordinator at Micah Australia.

This blog was originally published at Hillsong Church's Spheres

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