A major question that a comprehensive Christian worldview must address is how civil government derives its authority. What (or more importantly, Who) gives a civil magistrate the power to determine civil policy? What areas may civil policy address and how should civil policy address them? During the development of modern nation-states, many broad theories of civil legitimacy emerged in competition with each other to determine how the state should be formed and exercise authority. These theories include but are not limited to the utilitarian views expressed by Machiavelli in his work The Prince, the absolute monarchism espoused by Sir Robert Filmer in his classic Patriarcha and by Thomas Hobbes in his work Leviathan, the theonomic and patriarchal view embraced by Samuel Rutherford in Lex Rex, and the social contract theory of John Locke expressed in his Treatises. The view that prevails throughout the modern West is the Lockean theory, that civil government derives its authority from the consent of the governed. This view has essentially been universally accepted by all thinkers, both Christian and secular, and remains unchallenged in political discourse.
My goal is to shatter the modern icon of the consent of the governed. I aim to provide a uniquely Christian perspective on legitimate civil authority, but I don’t entertain the fantasy that my view is the only Christian perspective. I understand that this can be a complicated subject about which good Christians can and have disagreed. Regardless of whatever differences might exist among Christians, there should be basic principles upon which Christians can agree. These include kin rule, limited government, and decentralization.
A Brief History of the Development of Western Political Paradigms
Pre-Christian European societies were highly decentralized and based upon the leadership of tribal chieftains. This began to change around the time that pagan theology shifted to account for the vast duration of time that had elapsed between the lives of “mere mortals” and the lives of the gods. Successful military leaders developed a god-complex and set out to conquer the world for their own glory. These successive empires began conquering the nations around the Mediterranean, and attempted to merge these nations under one ruler. This arrangement was intrinsically unstable and collapsed on a more permanent basis when Christian Germanic “barbarians” sacked Rome and ended Roman hegemony over Western Europe. What emerged in the post-Imperial West was the period commonly referred to as “the Dark Ages.” This is quite a misnomer, since the period of time from the collapse of the Roman Empire to the Renaissance in Europe was a period in which civilization was being rebuilt. The span ultimately produced a vast corpus of literature, polyphonic harmony in music derived from Gregorian chant, beautiful liturgy in the church, the guilds, and the magnificent palaces, castles, abbeys, and cathedrals that still remain to this day.
The emergence of modern nation-states was a repudiation of the medieval view of government as a series of contractual (feudal) relationships that extended from the peasant farmers all the way up to the king. During the Renaissance, monarchs steadily gained power and consolidated authority previously exercised on a more regional level by local magistrates and aristocrats. The Enlightenment brought with it the innovative idea of “the rights of man.” This theory has undergone development, culminating in the notion of universal human rights. Eventually, Enlightenment rationalism brought about resentment against the distant and autocratic authority of the monarch, which resulted in fervent discussion on how people ought to be governed.
Nicolo Machiavelli was an Italian political thinker who applied the principle that “the ends justify the means” to civil government. Machiavelli wrote The Prince, a primer on how to gain and keep power. Machiavelli was examining the traits of rulers who were successful, and was trying to outline the traits of leaders who maintained control over their subjects. In many ways Machiavelli was disenchanted with the state of Italian politics in his own time. He was grasping for answers as to why Italy had become since the collapse of the Roman Empire. The Prince is a mixed bag. Machiavelli does have some good insight into civil government, such as the use of native soldiers to defend territory, rather than foreign mercenaries, since natives will have a greater motivation for the defense of their homeland. However, some of Machiavelli’s observations are too amoral to be incorporated into a consistent Christian paradigm. As confirmation of this, some have even suggested that Machiavelli intended significant portions of The Prince to be interpreted sarcastically in mockery of some of the regimes that existed in his day.
The seventeenth century saw a defense of the Renaissance idea of absolute monarchy. Sir Robert Filmer wrote Patriarcha and defended the notion of the divine rights of kings. Filmer argued that it is unnatural for people to pick their leaders, and that government construed in such a way is bound to fail. Thomas Hobbes’ book Leviathan was principally put into practice under the British commonwealth government of Oliver Cromwell.
John Locke postulated that civil government was legitimate because people consented to its authority to bring themselves from the state of nature into a more civilized state. Classical liberalism and libertarianism are essentially rooted in the Lockean theory. The Lockean theory’s chief weakness is that it is based upon a legal and historical fiction. There was never a time when humanity lived in a state of nature as Locke conceives of it, and Locke’s notion of the consent of the governed is also tenuous at best. Hans Hermann-Hoppe identifies the underlying problem with the Lockean basis of classical liberalism.
Contrary both to the Lockean theory of the “consent of the governed,” and to the absolutism of Filmer and Hobbes, is Samuel Rutherford’s magnum opus on government, Lex Rex, which can be translated as either Law and the King or The Law is King. Rutherford’s focus wasn’t upon a specific government polity, but rather upon more basic principles of what constituted legitimacy. Rutherford proposed that government could exist as a monarchy, aristocracy, or a republic.
A Survey of Some Relevant Biblical Texts
It is important to understand that the nation of Israel is to serve as the example of how subsequent nations should be organized and governed. Too many Christians today have come to believe that Israel’s civil law has had no basis for government today. This idea is terribly wrong and has led the church to be entirely unproductive in having any positive influence in civil government. Deuteronomy 4:5-8 gives us our proper perspective when considering God’s law. God tells Israel that He is giving them the law not just for themselves, but for an example to all of the nations around them. Before Jesus ascended to Heaven, He stated unequivocally that all authority in heaven and on earth had been given to Him by the Father (Matthew 28:18). Greg Bahnsen effectively argues against the thinking that suggests that because the Law was only given to Israel, it must only have been given for Israel. He points out that if this thinking is applied consistently, then this would mean that Paul’s admonition in Ephesians 6:1 for children to obey their parents would only apply to the children of Ephesus rather than to children generally. Obviously, this is absurd. When Paul states that children should obey their parents in a letter addressed to the church in Ephesus, he isn’t simply stating that Ephesian children should obey their parents, but that all children should obey their parents. This is because law contains ethical principles, and ethical principles are timeless. Moreover, there is no such thing as neutrality when it comes to the law, just as one cannot be neutral when it comes to other ethical principles. A country cannot be neutral with respect to religion; countries claiming to do so will always be anti-Christian in their opposition to Christ’s universal claim to authority.1
Civil authority is legitimate. We are told by the Apostle Peter to respect the rulers of our people2 and to honor and obey kings, governors, and magistrates.3 The Apostle Paul echoes this sentiment when he tells us that legitimate civil magistrates will reward good and punish evil. It is important to understand that these principles don’t mean that anyone who claims the mantle of authority holds it legitimately or has the endorsement of God. There are other principles that govern legitimate civil authority by the standards of God’s law, however this does show that legitimate civil authority is God ordained.
One of the standards that God has set up in His law is the principle of kin rule. Rutherford based his ideas of kin rule on the biblical qualifications of a king. In Deuteronomy 17:15, we read “from among thy brethren shalt thou set king over thee: thou mayest not set a stranger over thee, which is not thy brother.” From this, Rutherford concluded that it was essential for the king to be hereditarily connected with the people whom he was governing. This text is one of the foundational texts of the principle of kin rule.4 This verse established that Israel should be governed by members of her own nation, which in the Bible is the word ethnos. This establishes clear hereditary qualifications for the civil magistrate. This principle is reaffirmed in other biblical passages as well. The qualifications for those who are to be judges, as set forth in Deut. 1:13-17, clearly indicate that the judges were supposed to come from the tribes. Judges 9:2, 2 Samuel 5:1, and 1 Chronicles 11:1 also affirm that kin rule is normative for the civil government of nations.
This principle has been applied in a straightforward way throughout history. Kings and other noblemen required a hereditary claim to their title which connected them in an organic rather than artificial way to the people that they governed. This practice has always (quod semper) been observed everywhere (quod ubique). Just as a father possesses his authority over his household by virtue of his relationship to his wife and children, civil magistrates of various degrees possess authority by virtue of their relationship to their subjects, among other qualifications. The idea that anyone could govern any people anywhere, regardless of their relation to them, is a post-modern concept and completely unbiblical.
The Bible also teaches decentralization. It is true that the nation of Israel did have a monarchy for much of its history, but the reality is that the monarchy was not intended to have absolute power, and most of the administration of government was performed by princes of extended families or clans. Princes are mentioned often in the Old Testament, but it is easy to see just how decentralized Israel was by observing all of the different clan princes that are enumerated in Numbers chapter 7 and 34. Israel also conserved the geographic boundaries between the races by ensuring that female inheritors kept property within the tribal limits (Num. 36). The kingdom of Israel did go through several different polity changes throughout its history, but a constant was its striving to maintain the distinctions between the tribes and clans, essential to decentralization.
Biblical government is also limited in scope. God delegates civil magistrates a limited scope of authority in order for public order to be maintained. The Apostle Paul summarizes the role of civil government in Romans 13:3-4 by stating that rulers are to reward good and punish evil. The authority to execute people for heinous crimes is given to the state as a means of maintaining the rule of law. This authority is important and must be exercised with diligence. The authority of the magistrate was held in check by the biblical principle of decentralization mentioned above. The authority of the civil magistrate was also held in check by a robust church. Israel’s prophets frequently confronted her rulers on their abuses of power and pronounced judgment against them. A well-known example of this is recorded in 2 Samuel 12, in which the prophet Nathan confronts King David after he murders Uriah and commits adultery with Bathsheba. This has also played an important history in European history as pastors, priests, and bishops have competed for authority with kings, princes, and noblemen.
There is also a principle of economic nationalism that is taught in the Bible (as opposed to “free trade” Globalism). This means that civil magistrates should regulate commerce in such a way that favors the economic well-being of his own people. This principle is commonly called protectionism. Protectionism historically worked out well for European nations and has its foundations in biblical commercial policy. Samuel warned the people of Israel5 that an absolute monarch like the nations around them would tax them at a staggering rate of 10% (think about that when you file your taxes!). Jesus Himself acknowledges that collecting custom (or tariffs) from foreigners is normative in Matthew 17:25-26. The law also acknowledges that native kinsmen are afforded economic advantages over foreigners.6 The prosperity of King Solomon can also be attributable to his nationalistic economic policies.7
It is easy to see from observing biblical passages that God does not leave us to our own devices in determining the principles that are to regulate and govern the actions of civil magistrates. Civil government is legitimate and is to be obeyed by Christian people. However, government isn’t given a blank check (carte blanche) to operate any way that it desires, or to enact any policy that it prefers. Civil magistrates themselves are governed by and answer to a higher power. Their power and authority is given strict biblical boundaries and limitations. In the next article, we’ll have an opportunity to see which forms of government lack or tend to lack scriptural warrant. Graciously, God does not leave us in the dark about policies that government should enact. We can apply these principles in order to determine what forms of government fit a scriptural paradigm of government, and which do not.
Part 2 of the Series, Part 1 of Considering Democracy.
Part 3 of the Series, Part 2 of Considering Democracy.
Part 4 of the Series, Part 3 of Considering Democracy.
Part 5 of the Series, Patriarchal Government.
- For more information see Bahnsen, Greg. “What Kind of Morality Should We Legislate?” The Biblical Worldview 4:10 (October, 1988) © Covenant Media Foundation, 800/553-3938 http://www.cmfnow.com/articles/pe076.htm ↩
- cf. Exodus 22:28 ↩
- 1 Peter 2:13-17 ↩
- For a more thorough treatment of kin rule and ethno-nationalism see, A Biblical Defense of Ethno-nationalism. http://faithandheritage.com/2011/01/a-biblical-defense-of-ethno-nationalism/ ↩
- 1 Samuel 8:15,17 ↩
- Deuteronomy 15:1-3; 23:19-20; Proverbs 20:16. ↩
- 1 Kings 10:14-15 ↩