Focus on Young Believers
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By Norman Edwards
Civil governments have a tremendous influence on our lives. They control much of our schools, jobs and even interpersonal relations. The land and water from which we gain food, and the money we use to buy and sell are managed or mismanaged by government. Throughout history, civil governments have helped a fortunate few, but far more often have imprisoned, impoverished, enslaved and entombed millions—both their “enemies” and their own citizens.
Why do some nations find themselves at the
mercy of kings, dictators and warlords for many generations? How can other
nations, such as
Today, we find many nations, including our
own, on the verge of the same kind of economic disaster that faced
Before we get started, let us define civil government. For this article, civil government includes all organizations whereby either all or some (the ruling class) of the people living in a particular territory produce and enforce laws and statutes for the people in that territory.
Civil government is in contrast to the Church established in the New Testament, which was instructed to practice and teach the truth in any society, but not to enforce its practices on others. After all, individual salvation is a matter of the heart, not something that can be forced upon an individual. The Bible instruction is for Christians to pray for a civil government that will allow them to seek godliness in peace:
Therefore I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men, for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior (1Tim 2:1-3).
Sometimes civil governments do exactly that. But there are also times when civil governments greatly persecute Christians. Then on the other hand, there are certain times when various church denominations have greatly influenced civil governments or even become the civil government. And strange as it may seem, there are times when one Christian denomination has used a civil government to persecute and kill other Christian denominations.
In all of this mess, we need to know what the Bible says about civil governments. The Old Testament gives a lot of information about how to operate a civil government, and the New Testament tells us how to deal with things of the Spirit. So how should Christians deal with civil governments today? When do we fight them, when do we join them, and when do we just try to leave them alone?
In the Beginning…
The first time the word for “govern” appears in the Bible is here:
God made two great lights—the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night. He also made the stars (Gen , NIV).
This gives us a clear idea of what God had in mind for government: providing a stable, useful service. The sun and the moon give us their light in an orderly manner. They do not take anything from us to fulfill their own agenda.
In the Beginning, God did not give mankind any instructions for a civil Government. He gave mankind authority over the creation, but not over other men:
Then God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Gen ).
When Cain killed Abel, there was no indication Adam, Cain or anybody else had any concept that he had violated a law or that he was to be punished for it. Cain appears concerned that someone else would take it upon themselves to simply kill him in vengeance. God Himself gave Cain a punishment.
“So now you are cursed from the earth, which has opened its
mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. 12 “When you till the ground, it shall no longer
yield its strength to you. A fugitive and a vagabond you shall be on the
earth.” 13 And Cain said
to the LORD, “My punishment is greater than I can bear! 14 “Surely You have driven me out this day from
the face of the ground; I shall be hidden from Your face; I shall be a fugitive
and a vagabond on the earth, and it will happen that anyone who finds me will kill me.” 15 And the LORD said to him, “Therefore, whoever
kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.” And the LORD set a mark
on Cain, lest anyone finding him should kill him 16 Then Cain went out from the presence of the
LORD and dwelt in the
This is the first time that a city is
mentioned in Scripture. The Hebrew word for city used here refers to a physical
place. While most cities have some kind of government, the Bible says nothing
about how the “City of
Later on in the same chapter, Lamech killed someone who attacked him and he declared that if anyone killed him he should be avenged seventy-seven fold (Gen -24). There appears to be no law that anyone recognizes, but more of a make-it-up-as you go approach. When God finally condemned the pre-flood world, He did not do it because they rejected His laws, but because He could see the intent of their hearts—which was evil:
Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually Gen 6:5).
There is no evidence that God ever punished their sins individually according to a set of laws. He may have hoped that they would have seen suffering brought about by their own evil deeds. But as nearly all Bible readers know, God then destroyed all of mankind by a flood, except for eight people who were on the ark (Gen 6-8, 1Pet 3:20). After Noah and his sons left the ark, God added some law regarding murder that differed from His previous methods used with Cain:
“But you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. Surely for your lifeblood I will demand a reckoning; from the hand of every beast I will require it, and from the hand of man. From the hand of every man’s brother I will require the life of man. “Whoever sheds man’s blood, By man his blood shall be shed; For in the image of God He made man (Gen 9:4-6)
The Eternal says that He will require a reckoning from animals, men and “men’s brothers” that kill other men, but also states “by man his blood shall be shed.” The means whereby man was to seek out and punish the murderers is not spelled out. There is no provision for courts or standards of evidence, such as how many witnesses, to determine that someone is or is not guilty of murder. Whether God gave them more detail on this matter, expected them to develop a court system themselves, or intended to remain involved in each case is unclear.
Just a few verses later in the chapter Ham
Civil Government Starts
Not too long after the flood, Ham’s son, Cush, and grandson, Nimrod, begin the first civil government mentioned in the Bible. This is the first place that the word “kingdom” is used in the Bible. The Hebrew word (Strong’s #4467) definitely means a place where there is a king, human rulership. It is not just a territory.
Nimrod attempted to make this a single unified kingdom that would unify the people of the earth:
Now the whole world had one language and a common speech.… Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth” (Gen 11:1,4, NIV)
God did not want a world-ruling kingdom at
that time and His response was to confuse the languages of the people and to
That is why it was called
The name “
Even with the initial dispersion of people
Did God give Abraham any rules or laws whereby he should rule? Did he give him an advance version of the law of Moses?
God frequently commended Abraham for obeying His voice and for righteousness in Genesis chapters 12 through 25. He never cites any particular laws or rules that he obeyed. Abraham is even praised for being willing to sacrifice his own son as a burnt offering, something later condemned in the “law of Moses” (Deut 18:10, 12:31). It is not until after Abraham is dead that the scripture records that he obeyed God’s statutes and laws:
“And I will make your descendants multiply as the stars of heaven; I will give to your descendants all these lands; and in your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed; because Abraham obeyed My voice and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My laws” (Gen 26:5).
The book of Job also provides insight. We can tell it was written several generations after Abraham, because Job’s friends and some of the people who attacked Job’s children are in Abraham’s genealogy. Job is referred to as a man who is “blameless and upright, and one who feared God and shunned evil” (Job 1:1,8; 2:3). Even after disaster fell upon him, it says “In all this Job did not sin nor charge God with wrong” (Job ). Yet the book of Job never refers to any written law that Job obeys. Job 22:21-22 states:
Now acquaint yourself with Him, and be at peace; Thereby good will come to you. Receive, please, instruction from His mouth, And lay up His words in your heart.
The word for “instruction” here is “torah”, the word translated “law” many other places in the scriptures. However, this is instruction or law direction from the “mouth of God”, and may well be in a figurative sense. There is nothing here, nor anywhere else in the book of Job that refers to a written law that he obeyed. Job gave offerings to God himself (Job 1:5), which certainly would not fit the Levitical law.
In summary, prior to the time of Moses, the Bible gives very little information about civil governments and virtually no law or instruction about how to operate one.
Old Testament Civil Government
In the Old Testament, we can read a massive amount of information about how to operate a civil government. There is way too much to expound in this short article. While this government can be classified a theocracy, because it did enforce the worship of the True God (Lev 20:2,27; 24:16; Num 25:5; Deut 13; 18:20), the vast majority of its laws and punishments are simply the wisest way for any government to deal with people. God says that if the nation carried out His laws, that other nations would see them and recognize the wisdom in them:
“Surely I have taught you statutes and judgments, just as the LORD my God commanded me, that you should act according to them in the land which you go to possess. 6 Therefore be careful to observe them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples who will hear all these statutes, and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ 7 For what great nation is there that has God so near to it, as the LORD our God is to us, for whatever reason we may call upon Him? 8 And what great nation is there that has such statutes and righteous judgments as are in all this law which I set before you this day? 9 Only take heed to yourself, and diligently keep yourself, lest you forget the things your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life. And teach them to your children and your grandchildren (Deut 4:5-9).
As one example, in man’s law, governments see the plight of the poor and pass laws to tax the labor that working people have already accomplished and give some of it to the poor. Other people see the poor getting money for doing nothing and they find out what they need to do to qualify to get free money the same way. The number of “poor” goes up. God teaches that the poor should be fed by eating from other’s fields without taking anything home, or by going into other’s fields and gleaning after the harvesters, which they can take home (Lev 19:9-10; 23:22; Deut 23:24-25; 24:19-21). This provides food for the poor, but it is more work to obtain than if they were harvesting from their own land. The working people do not lose their work, only the least profitable part of their harvest. This teaches the disadvantage of being poor and encourages poor people to use their resources wisely. The people who are supporting themselves, but who are too poor to own a field do not get taxed at all. These laws are obviously wise laws, whether people believe in the God of the Bible or not.
While God promises to be the leader of the nation that follows him, the Bible teaches a separation of functions between civil government and the priesthood (Gen 49:10; Deut 18:1), with the exception that the priesthood was involved in the highest levels of the judicial system. In general, the Bible teaches local leaders appointed by the people, as opposed to a top-down ecclesiastical hierarchy. Both of these principles can be used by secular governments.
“You shall appoint judges and officers in all your gates, which the LORD your God gives you, according to your tribes, and they shall judge the people with just judgment. You shall not pervert justice; you shall not show partiality, nor take a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and twists the words of the righteous. You shall follow what is altogether just, that you may live and inherit the land which the LORD your God is giving you” (Deut -20).
In case there is any uncertainty as to who the “you” is that was to appoint the judges and the officers, only two verses prior we find “you” being people who were to bring offerings to the Lord, in proportion to how they have been blessed. Everyone knows it is the working people who are to bring offerings—and they are the ones who are to appoint judges—the judicial system, and officers—the executive branch.
It is interesting that the judges and officers were to be “in your gates”, which refers to the gates of a city—local government, and “according to your tribes”, which we could compare to state or regional government. This should be the basis of government. Finally, there was a small place for national government:
“If a matter arises which is too hard for you to judge, between degrees of guilt for bloodshed, between one judgment or another, or between one punishment or another, matters of controversy within your gates, then you shall arise and go up to the place which the LORD your God chooses. And you shall come to the priests, the Levites, and to the judge there in those days, and inquire of them; they shall pronounce upon you the sentence of judgment (Deut 17:8-9).
It is most interesting that the
Old Testament Laws Not Being Enforced Today
However, it is very important to realize that the civil laws of the Bible are not in force today—neither for Jews nor Christians. Now and then, some zealous Christian will try to carry out the Biblical death penalty on someone for homosexuality (Lev ) or witchcraft (Lev ). Orthodox Jews have been known to stone people who drive cars in their neighborhoods on the Sabbath (Ex 31:14). (For some reason, the same people seem to be a bit slower to want to put someone to death for adultery (Lev ) or cursing their parents (Lev 20:9).) But the reality is that our modern day nations have not adopted these laws as their own lawshave not promised to obey them as ancient Israel did saying, “Everything the Lord has said we will do” (Ex 19:8; 24:3,7; Deut 26:17-19; Josh 1:16; Neh 10:29). It is not just or godly to carry out the punishments of these Biblical laws upon people who have not agreed to these laws.
If the people of a nation would agree to make these Bible laws the laws of their nation, if they would execute justice speedily, people would largely do good (Eccl ). Carrying out the death penalty would be a rare thing, because people would be diligent to avoid anything worthy of death. The nation would enjoy the blessings of living by the best civil government laws—given by the Creator himself.
It is important to realize that God gave these laws to us for our civil governments to carry out. God never promised to enforce these laws and indeed reality shows that He does not! He allows adulterers and murderers to live to a ripe old age; He does not immediately put them to death. Government and business leaders, as well as common thieves steal millions from people; God does not force them to restore double or four-fold according to the scriptures (Ex 22:1-4). Does God simply ignore this sin? No! God sees the sin but promises to deal with it in a longer-term way. Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28 explain how God will greatly bless those who obey Him, but how he will send disease, famine, infertility, military defeat and eventually captivity upon those who do not obey Him. The process can take generations. We can look through history and see that God has indeed done this—He has eventually brought destruction upon nations for their sin.
In today’s world of nearly endless complexity, it is easy to think that the rather simple system of primarily local government in the Old Testament could not work. But we have a good example of how it did work in the book of Ruth. Boaz and another relative were deciding who was going to marry Ruth, and thereby receive the land that she had inherited. Today, this kind of thing would be handled by probate courts and family courts—and might take weeks or months and might involve lawyers and thousands of dollars.
Now Boaz went up to the gate and sat down
there; and behold, the close relative of whom Boaz had spoken came by. So Boaz
said, “Come aside, friend, sit down here.” So he came aside and sat down. 2 And he took ten men of the elders of the city,
and said, “Sit down here.” So they sat down. 3 Then he said to the close relative, “Naomi, who
has come back from the country of
We can see a number of advantages to what happened here. The transaction was done before the elders that were available in the gate. If some one person were away somewhere, the process could still go on. The purpose was to provide a group of reliable witnesses that could testify to what happened if there was a disagreement in the future. Apparently, they did not generate any paperwork. By taking off one shoe and giving it to the other man, they both had a permanent record of the transaction that they could keep—they would each have half of a matching pair of shoes. Is it possible for something to go wrong with this system if someone were to try to cheat? Yes. They could claim that the deal was other than it was, or burn the shoe and claim the transaction never happened. But complex systems, such as we have today, do not stop attempts to cheat either. One simply ends up with complex cheating: forged documents, bribed officials, altered surveys, etc.
Please think about this very important principle of government: When we find someone cheating or misusing government, we have a tendency to want to pass a law that would have prevented this particular instance of cheating. This is often done without any thought to what the next criminal will do to cheat with the new law. In most instances, more laws simply create a greater burden of compliance on law-abiding citizens, but simply alter the means whereby cheaters will cheat. The secret to good government is to punish those caught doing evil, not to try to pass laws that prevent anyone from doing evil (Eccl , again). If government is given too much power to “regulate” citizens, criminals simply join the government and do their dirty work there.
People Want a King
The government that God gave ancient
Israel served the LORD all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua, who had known all the works of the LORD which He had done for Israel (Josh 24:31).
After this, during the time of the book of
Judges, the people would go into sin, God would send famine or their enemies
against them, they would repent, and God would send someone to deliver them. Rather
than learn the lesson and remain individually diligent to follow God and retain
His protection continually, the people thought that they needed an army to
defend themselves—just like most people today think we need armed forces and/or
“Homeland Security”. (Sadly, many Christians, today, may not have much more
faith than ancient
Five of you shall chase a hundred, and a hundred of you shall put ten thousand to flight; your enemies shall fall by the sword before you (Lev 26:8).
Nevertheless, God knew that people would eventually want a king and the military methods that they saw other nations use. He gave them these laws showing them the best way to choose a king:
“When you come to the land which the LORD your
God is giving you, and possess it and dwell in it, and say, ‘I will set a king
over me like all the nations that are around me,’ 15 you shall surely set a king over you whom the
LORD your God chooses; one from among your brethren you shall set as king
over you; you may not set a foreigner over you, who is not your brother. 16 But he shall not multiply horses [military power] for himself, nor cause the
people to return to
Sadly, only a few kings of ancient
Then all the elders of
Those who trust God should not desire a king—a powerful human central government—to be over them. These verses show that those who want a King will not be heard by God when that King later oppresses the people. Servants of God should always know and realize that God never taught men to form strong central governments—even though that is what most people want.
Even so, there is a more important Bible principle we must understand: God is not developing systems of government now; he is developing people! God does not refuse to work with a people simply because they reject the form of government that He taught. Indeed, God worked through King David and several of the other Kings of Judah who served Him. God is simply able to work and teach vital eternal lessons even when man has chosen what is not the best:
“Now therefore, here is the king whom you have chosen and whom you have desired. And take note, the LORD has set a king over you. 14 If you fear the LORD and serve Him and obey His voice, and do not rebel against the commandment of the LORD, then both you and the king who reigns over you will continue following the LORD your God. 15 However, if you do not obey the voice of the LORD, but rebel against the commandment of the LORD, then the hand of the LORD will be against you, as it was against your fathers. 16 Now therefore, stand and see this great thing which the LORD will do before your eyes: 17 Is today not the wheat harvest? I will call to the LORD, and He will send thunder and rain, that you may perceive and see that your wickedness is great, which you have done in the sight of the LORD, in asking a king for yourselves.” 18 So Samuel called to the LORD, and the LORD sent thunder and rain that day; and all the people greatly feared the LORD and Samuel. 19 And all the people said to Samuel, “Pray for your servants to the LORD your God, that we may not die; for we have added to all our sins the evil of asking a king for ourselves.” 20 Then Samuel said to the people, “Do not fear. You have done all this wickedness; yet do not turn aside from following the LORD, but serve the LORD with all your heart. 21 And do not turn aside; for then you would go after empty things which cannot profit or deliver, for they are nothing. 22For the LORD will not forsake His people, for His great name’s sake, because it has pleased the LORD to make you His people. 23 Moreover, as for me, far be it from me that I should sin against the LORD in ceasing to pray for you; but I will teach you the good and the right way. 24 Only fear the LORD, and serve Him in truth with all your heart; for consider what great things He has done for you. 25 But if you still do wickedly, you shall be swept away, both you and your king” (1Sam -25).
God agreed to continue working with the nation even when they committed “the evil of asking a king for ourselves”. Nevertheless, Samuel, a prophet with the Holy Spirit, said that he would continue to teach them the right way. This is a vital principle of how God apparently deals with most civil governments: He works with them in their error, but he and His people continue to declare “the good and the right way”. Bible students today can teach the limited, primarily local, government of the Scriptures, even though they still work with the corrupt, non-biblical governments that rule our lands.
Conclusion of Part 1
The major Bible teaching about civil
government before Moses is that God did not want the human world-government of
Part 2 will survey the important biblical
examples where ancient
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