What (I Think) The Bible Says About Government

CULTURE | Caleb Mathis | 28 mins

This article is the first in a series called “What (I Think) The Bible Says About ___.” These exist for people who follow Jesus and want to know what the Bible says about topics that impact election choices. If you don’t follow Jesus, it probably won’t be helpful.

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The closer we get to the election, the more society’s general anxiety level grows. If you’re a follower of Jesus, you might be wondering if the Bible has anything to say about government. That was me. I did a deep dive, and this is what I found.

Before we begin, a quick overview might be helpful. The 66 books that make up the Bible actually tell one story. It’s told in a non-traditional way, of course, but they all point in the same direction. The story is much larger than individual characters, soundbites, or out-of-context verses. It’s the story of God and man. As such, the Bible’s primary purpose isn’t to instruct us in the best way to set up a government. Its primary purpose isn’t to teach us how to vote. Its primary purpose isn’t to give scriptural wrenches to throw at people sitting across the political aisle. The Bible was written before the White House, before America, before democracy.

I’ve been on a never-ending Bible binger for dang near 20 years. I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve read the entire book cover-to-cover. But I do know when it comes to any subject—government, social justice, relationships, how many enemy foreskins it takes to win the hand of the princess—looking at the entirety of the Bible is much more helpful than cherry-picking one verse (unless it’s the foreskin question).

This is designed to be a 30,000-foot flyover of the Bible’s major themes on government. Can you see every detail at 30,000 feet? No. But you’ll get the highlights. If you want to dig deeper (and I hope you do), there will be loads of resources at the end.

Without further ado, here is the Bible and government, in six acts.

Act 1: God is Government
The Bible begins with God making everything, including a guy and gal we know as Adam and Eve. At this early stage in human history, the only idea of government—an outside authority who gives guidelines to live by, provides protection, and meets needs—is God. And in the rules department, He kept it really simple. There was one prohibition (don’t eat from the tree in the middle of the garden) and three affirmative commands: have sex, raise kids, and take care of the garden.

It sounds like it should have been a pretty easy gig to follow. Of course, the humans failed. They did the one thing God prohibited. They were kicked out of the garden, and perhaps more importantly, epically muddied the waters between God and mankind.

But God wasn’t done. He chose a guy named Abe and started building a nation of people who would live their lives differently. Instead of marching to their own drums, they would willingly slot themselves under the governance of God. They would do what He said—from worship, all the way down to the food they ate and the clothes they wore. Much of the first five books of the Bible provide the fine details of that governance, the ancient laws that God’s people sought to follow.

For people outside God’s family, the choice to submit to an unseen God over a human king was remarkably weird. Insert mind-blown emoji. Every other nation and people group on earth relied on human leadership. Not so for the Israelites. They relied on a force they couldn’t see to lead them, protect them, and provide for them.

Four times, in the early books of the Bible, God uses an interesting word to describe his people—he calls them peculiar. There’s plenty of reasons why the Israelites would look weird to the rest of the world, but this choice to recognize God as king would be top of the list.

God, as the ultimate government, and his people looking weird when compared to the rest of society, will be constant through lines for the rest of the book.

“If [you] will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then [you] shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people.” - Exodus 19:5

Act 2: Lack of Government Isn’t Freedom
I don’t know many people who actually like government. At best, most people view it as a necessary evil. Why? Because humans hate being told what to do. We’re always sure our ideas, our plans, our perspectives are better than that guy or gal who sits in the seat of power—no matter if that person is an elected official, a monarch, or God Himself.

The first family didn’t do well with the rules in the garden. As God’s family grew, the opportunity for confusion on what it meant to willingly place yourself under God’s government grew just as fast. God’s ideal was to be the ultimate form of government over his people, but they needed human leaders as well. So God appointed them. Moses is the first great example—a national leader who led God’s people out of slavery and further fleshed out the law, the rules that God’s people were to abide by to hold their “peculiar” status.

The people did fairly well under Moses. Next came Joshua, Moses’s protege, who led God’s people into the Promised Land. But after Joshua, things get bumpy.

After they settled in their new homeland, God’s people decentralized. The twelve tribes of Israel spread out over something like 56,000 square miles of Promised Land (an area equal to the states of New York and Vermont). Each tribe focused on their plot of land— building homes, planting crops, and creating a nation. But this decentralization led to slippage. The people slacked on their religious duties. They slacked on the way they treated each other. They forgot the call to be peculiar. No matter what the Sex Pistols might say, anarchy didn’t work well for God’s people. A lack of government isn’t freedom—it’s bondage.

This is best illustrated by the Biblical book of Judges, which is basically just a cautionary tale of God’s people continually going off the rails from lack of leadership. Across the 21 chapters of the book, a clear pattern emerges. God’s people forget Him; they come under the rule of an aggressive foreign power; God sends a leader to deliver them; they stay faithful for a while; God’s people forget Him, and it goes on and on and on, year after year.

It gets so bad that, by the end of the book, you get a story (prepare yourself, it’s a doozy) about a traveling priest and his female companion, who seek shelter among fellow Israelites in a town they’ve never visited before. In the course of the night, a mob gang rapes the woman until she dies. Seeking retribution, the priest cuts her body into pieces and mails them to the other tribes of Israel, who come out to slaughter the inhabitants of this city. Honestly, it even gets weirder from there. To put it mildly, things have gotten out of hand.

Anarchy doesn’t work. When there is no standard, decency and humanity are put on a sliding scale. Humans are in the gifted and talented class when it comes to justifying their own actions. Without a true north, slippage takes us all down on her sinking ship. A lack of government, from God or even other humans, isn’t freedom—it’s a destructive slavery to self.

The final sentence of Judges sums up this period of their history perfectly:

“In those days, there was no king in Israel; everyone did whatever he wanted.” - Judges 21:25

Act 3: Government Comes With a Cost
By the grace of God, His people made it out of their rape and pillage days. As they settled into their new homeland, they noticed that the nations around them had human kings to lead their soldiers into battle, to meet their needs, to be a figurehead for their national progress. Although God’s original intent was to be this for his people, they wanted something with flesh on it. They’d had national leaders in the past (like Moses), but what they really wanted was a king.

Finally, like a parent who understands the value of learning something the hard way, God gives in to their demands. Through the prophet Samuel, God appoints the first human king over Israel, a man named Saul. The Bible says Saul had all the appearances of a king—he was tall, handsome, manly. Saul started off leading the people toward God. But the longer he stayed in power, the more he desired that power for himself, and the less devoted to his unseen God he became. After a cowardly death in battle, Saul is replaced by David, hands-down the most effective and God-honoring monarch in the history of Israel. This is what a king was supposed to look and act and be like. David wasn’t perfect. In fact, many of his failings were downright horrific (stealing a loyal general’s wife while he’s out to war comes to mind). But anybody described as a “man after God’s own heart” has to be doing something right. For a human king, David became the standard for God’s people.

But from there, things took a turn. The kings of Israel fall all over the map. Most of them were bad, abusing their power, ruling by ego, and even leading God’s people into worshipping the false gods of the neighboring nations. Two generations after David, the nation split into a northern and southern kingdom, each with their own king. As you can imagine, double the kingdoms meant double the shit-show. Every now and then, a righteous king would rise up and course correct, but his death would start the slippage train again, and the cycle would repeat.

Eventually, things got so bad that God had had enough. He allowed foreign governments—Babylon and Assyria—to attack his people. The temple was destroyed. Thousands upon thousands of people were slaughtered. Those that survived were taken into exile, forced to leave their homelands and become slaves. The Israelites taken to Assyria, for the most part, never returned. Those taken to Babylon were enslaved for a generation—70 years—before the first bands started returning. They rebuilt the temple. They rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem. They tried to reestablish themselves as God’s peculiar people, living under his government. And they prayed for a Messiah to come and complete the task.

Knowing the full history, God’s words to his people upon finally giving in to their demands for a human king take on a chilling and weighty significance.

*The Lord told Samuel, “…They have not rejected you; they have rejected Me as their king.”

Samuel told all the Lord’s words to the people who were asking him for a king. He said, “These are the rights of the king who will rule over you: He will take your sons and put them to his use in his chariots, on his horses, or running in front of his chariots…. He can take your daughters to become perfumers, cooks, and bakers. He can take your best fields, vineyards, and olive orchards and give them to his servants. He can take a tenth of your grain and your vineyards and give them to his officials and servants… He can take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves can become his servants. When that day comes, you will cry out because of the king you’ve chosen for yourselves, but the Lord won’t answer you.” - 1 Samuel 8:6-18 (abridged)*

Act 4: Only One Has Shoulders Big Enough
While His people suffered in exile, God was still working. He sent prophets to direct the attention of His people back to their true king. And an amazing thing happened. God’s people began to rebound. They recommitted themselves to their peculiar ways and devoted themselves to their unseen leader.

One especially peculiar message—the prophet Jeremiah directed God’s people to work toward the prosperity of the foreign cities in which they were residing, even going so far as commanding the people to pray for their oppressors. This command established an important precedent: us vs. them thinking wasn’t going to free God’s people. Freedom would only come through God’s hand.

The prophets also spoke of a Messiah. Echoing the beginning of the story, way back in the garden, they foretold a coming day when God would dwell among his people again. Isaiah said something particularly important.

“A child will be born for us, a son will be given to us, and the government will be on His shoulders. He will be named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of peace. The dominion will be vast, and its prosperity will never end. He will reign on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish and sustain it with righteousness and justice for now and forever.” - Isaiah 9:6-7

While languishing under the rule of a foreign despot, these words must have sung in the ears of God’s people. The coming Messiah would have shoulders big enough for true, God-honoring government. His dominion would be vast; his prosperity unending, and it would be hemmed in by righteousness and justice.

Misrah, the Hebrew root word translated as government in Isaiah’s prophecy, means “rule” or “dominion.” After the failures of the kings of Israel, God’s people were waiting for someone who could carry the weight of rule in a God-honoring way. Of course, they were looking for a king, a political leader that would reestablish God’s holy nation. But what they got was something very unexpected.

By the time of Jesus’ birth, the Jewish exiles from Babylon had returned to their homeland and reestablished the nation of Israel, but they weren’t free. The new world superpower, Rome, had come to town and annexed the holy land as their territory. Local governments were puppets for the real power in Rome.

Jesus was born under Roman occupation. And as He became a public figure, establishing himself as the promised Messiah, there was confusion among the crowds. Was this really the man to overthrow Rome? He talked very little about politics, instead focusing His attention on something he referred to as the “Kingdom of God.”

Jesus cared more about how God’s people interacted with the rest of the world, how they regained their “peculiar” status through love, forgiveness, grace, and service than he did with who was sitting on a human throne. This was because Jesus understood the first truth from the beginning of time: God is government. The power of Rome utterly pales in comparison to the power of God.

Because He lived fully under the government of God, Jesus could do things that flew in the face of his society—things no figure of national importance would ever do. Jesus touched lepers, a class of people the rest of society forced to live outside of town in their own colonies. When approached, Jesus healed the beloved servant of a Roman centurion, an occupying military leader, and then proclaimed the centurion’s faith greater than any he’d found among Israel. Jesus’ inner circle contained blue-collar fishermen, a hated tax collector (viewed by society as traitorous allies of Rome), and even a Zealot, a sect of Jews bent on violently overthrowing foreign rule. Jesus elevated women in a society that treated them as worthless, offered a chance for an indulgently rich man to join his group of disciples, and even spent time in Samaria, a region and people group hated by the Jews.

Jesus could do these things because he didn’t need to overthrow Rome in order to establish the kingdom of God—he only needed to seed it in the hearts of men. He did that with lepers and a Roman centurion; with fishermen and a Samaritan woman. Because of God’s might, His kingdom grew right under the nose of the world’s superpower, outliving and outshining anything else that would dare come against it.

That’s why Jesus when asked if Jews should pay taxes to Caesar, can speak plainly.

Jesus said, “Show me the coin for the tax… whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” - Matthew 22:20-21

Because Jesus gave to God the things that are God’s—namely, himself—not even a brutal Roman cross could kill the movement of the kingdom.

Act 5: Submit Yourselves To The Authorities
In the years immediately following Christ’s resurrection, the growing band of followers faced a difficult question: what did it mean to live as a Christian? It was complicated. Roman government was based upon the deification of the Caesars. “Caesar is Lord” would have been a common phrase heard in the marketplace, but this growing Jesus movement insisted the true Lord was their crucified king.

Following Jesus’ command to spread his message around the world, a man named Paul was caught in its web. Forsaking his old life, he became a pillar of the early church movement, giving the rest of his days to becoming a traveling missionary and church planter. When he moved on to the next city, he’d continue to correspond with the fledgling churches through letters.

Paul’s letter to the Romans is a masterful example. Addressed to the church growing in the same city as the world’s political superpower, it was written about 25 years after the resurrection of Jesus (meaning the generation of people who watched Him die and come back to life were still around). The vast majority of the letter is unconcerned with political matters, for, as Jesus demonstrated, that was not to be the avenue for the growth of God’s kingdom. But in the 13th chapter, Paul takes a short detour into the political realm.

He begins by saying, “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.” He continues by encouraging the believers to be obedient citizens, not to plot evil against their government, and even to pay their taxes.

For centuries, those in positions of political power have marched out Romans 13 as proof of their ordained status and as reason for their citizens (or subordinates) to fall in line. This passage was used to justify political evils like slavery and apartheid. It was preached from sympathetic nationalist pulpits during the rise of Nazism. Most recently, it was cited by a government official to support the current administration’s border detainment facilities. But I cannot state clearly enough—Paul did not write these words from a position of political power. In fact, quite the opposite. If anything, Paul was on the bottom rung of society. To the Orthodox Jews, he was a traitor, having forsaken his faith to join the ranks of Jesus’ followers. To many of the Christians he remained a source of fear, due to his past life as a murderous religious terrorist who hunted down the church. To the Romans, he taught a dangerous “atheism” that denied the deity of Caesar, defying the law of the land to proclaim that God was actually an itinerant Jewish rabbi named Jesus. Honestly, Paul didn’t fit in anywhere.

As part of his religious training, Paul would have acquired a deep and personal knowledge of the Hebrew scriptures (what Christians now call the Old Testament). In writing Romans 13, he certainly would have thought back on the long and storied Biblical history of men and women who bravely stood up to corrupt governments in the name of obeying their God first.

  • In the days of enslavement in Egypt, the Hebrew midwives Shiphrah and Puah disobeyed the orders of Pharaoh, choosing not to kill Hebrew babies upon their birth. Their conviction to obey God first saved a generation.
  • During the days of the exile, there was brave Queen Esther, who risked her life to stand up to a bloodthirsty politician seeking to eradicate her people. Her conviction to obey God first stopped a genocide.
  • There were the Hebrew slaves, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who refused to worship a golden idol, defying the orders of Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar. Their conviction to obey God first led to a miracle and a foreign king experiencing the power of God.
  • When the exiles returned, there was Nehemiah, who stood up to bullying from outside governments in order to rebuild the protective wall around Jerusalem that had been previously destroyed. His conviction to obey God first kept innocent people safe.
  • More recently, there was Peter, a contemporary of Paul, who, when asked by a group of religious leaders to stop preaching about Jesus, boldly stated: “We must obey God rather than men.” His conviction to obey God first happens only two chapters before Paul himself meets Jesus.

God’s story is full of holy rebels. Their rebellion isn’t birthed from privilege or a need to kick against something; they didn’t rebel to prove their worth or create havoc for havoc’s sake. Their rebellion was always based on a hierarchy of power—God’s rules came first. When any other power—government, family, employer, or otherwise—contradicted God’s rule, there wasn’t a question who they would obey.

When viewed through this lens, it’s clear the message of Romans 13 is one of authority and responsibility. Governments have authority, from God, to do their job—to govern. Having authority does not mean that what they choose to do is right, just, or God-honoring. Followers of Christ have the responsibility to discern what God wants and to act on it. Sometimes, the authority of government and the responsibility of believers come together nicely. Other times, that can be an incredibly difficult place to be. Paul expects the Roman church to follow the rules of the land, even be a blessing to their governors, but not at the cost of losing sight of what their God would approve of. Early Christians were to be as respectful as possible, submit to their governments as much as they were able, but their first priority was always to be the Kingdom of God.

Paul didn’t just write these words as a practice in spiritual theory. He actually lived them. He found a way to occupy a peculiar space in the middle—both a holy rebel and submissive to the government. Like Jesus before him, Paul knew that his kingdom-based value system would put him in conflict with the ruling authorities. Turns out, Rome and the Kingdom of God aren’t working toward the same end. Who knew? (Answer: pretty much everyone). Paul’s life had been radically changed by encountering Christ. So despite the fact that he was defying the law, he wouldn’t stop spreading the good news of Jesus. But he honored the government by accepting the punishments his preaching earned him. Paul was beaten multiple times, jailed at least twice, spent two years under house arrest, and was eventually killed by the Roman government. As a good citizen, he submitted to the government’s processes, trials, and punishments. But as a holy rebel, he refused to stop preaching. It wasn’t an either/or, but a both/and. Paul was willing to accept suffering because his first allegiance was not to a Caesar, but to a King and a kingdom.

Paul finishes his short tangent into the political arena with advice that summarizes his stance, clearly echo Christ’s brilliant teaching on government—give what is owed, remembering your biggest debt isn’t political, but spiritual. Give your taxes to the government, but give your life (your resources, your passion, your advocacy, your privilege, your vote) to your King.

“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.” - Romans 13:7

Act 6: True Government Is Coming
As a boy, I was enamored with the Bible’s apocalyptic epilogue. The Book of Revelation has dragons and huge battles; beasts coming out of the sea and prophets killed in the streets. It’s compelling and crazy stuff. Someone should really make a 16-part book series based on a literal interpretation, then a couple of movies with Kirk Cameron, and then reboot that 14 years later when Nic Cage has to take every movie role offered him. Or maybe not.

I grew up with a traditional and literal understanding of Revelation. Viewed through that lens, it’s a wonder I was able to actually read the book—it’s utterly terrifying. As I aged, I was introduced to other interpretations, and the book took on a new and deeper meaning. The most compelling interpretation to me (and, honestly, I could be wrong—people have been arguing about this for millennia) is to understand the book as an image-filled vision meant to encourage and steel the early church as it faced intensifying persecutions from Rome. In this view, the beasts, dragon, and anti-Christ are stand-ins for Rome and its leaders, hell-bent on annihilating Christianity. Rather than a play-by-play of coming events, this view of Revelation is about communicating to the jailed and soon-to-be-martyred believer in ancient Rome that their death is not in vain.

No matter how you choose to view Revelation, the message is clear: though it’s dark now, and it appears as if the dragon is winning the war, the King will return, and all will be set right.

In many ways, the final two chapters of the Bible are mirrors of the first two. Creation is restored. Death and evil are defeated. God once more dwells alongside his people. The King has come home and taken his spot on the throne. At the end of all things, his long-awaited governance will continue, days without end.

“Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb… on either side of the river, the tree of life… the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in [the city]… and night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.” - Revelation 22:1-5 (abridged)

In Summation:
If you’ve made it this far, God bless you. I’m pretty sure my own mom stopped reading after Act 2.

The Bible has a lot to say about government. It’s not going to tell you how to engage with it, which party to support, or how (or if you even should) vote. But as we move into election season, keeping these major themes in the forefront of your mind just may determine if you’re able to keep your cool or if you give in to the panic.

No matter if you vote or not, if your candidate wins or not, don’t forget. (1) God is our ultimate source of governance. (2) A lack of governance, from God or human leaders, isn’t freedom. (3 & 4) There’s a high cost to government, but only Jesus can truly meet our needs for justice and God-honoring leadership. (5) We can respect the human leadership above us while also correctly placing God at the top of our life’s hierarchy. (6) As broken as the political system is, it’s not our ultimate source of hope. The King will come back. And all will be made well again.

This election season, what if God’s people once again made it our goal to be peculiar? What if we were known for the hope we found in our King, not our president? What if we were able to demonstrate a palpable peace to a world in a panic, a peace that comes from knowing, no matter who wins at the ballot box, the King will be returning? What if we honored our governmental leaders AND still chose obedience to God as our first priority?

Such peculiar behavior just might turn the world on its head. But don’t take it from—it’s God’s idea.

End Credits
Don’t just take my word for it—open up your Bible and check out the following passages for yourself.

Act 1: God is Government

  • Creation, Adam and Eve - Genesis 1-3
  • God chooses Abram - Genesis 12
  • The peculiar passages - Exodus 19:5, Deuteronomy 7:6, 14:2, 26:18

Act 2: Lack of Government Isn’t Freedom

  • What falling off the rails looks likes - Judges
  • The butcher priest - Judges 19-21

Act 3: Government Comes With a Cost

  • God’s people ask for a king - 1 Samuel 8
  • The first king of Israel - 1 Samuel 9-10
  • Saul’s slippage and rejection as king - 1 Samuel 13-15
  • David chosen to replace him - 1 Samuel 16
  • Saul’s death - 1 Samuel 31
  • David’s life and reign - 1 Samuel 16 - 2 Samuel 24
  • The other kings - 1 Kings - 2 Kings
  • Israel splits in two - 1 Kings 12
  • Israel taken in Assyrian exile - 2 Kings 17
  • Judah taken in Babylonian exile - 2 Kings 24-25

Act 4: Only One Has Shoulders Big Enough

  • Work for the good of the city you’re in - Jeremiah 29:7
  • Government upon the Messiah’s shoulders - Isaiah 9
  • Jesus touches lepers - Matthew 8:1-4
  • Jesus and the Centurion’s faith - Matthew 8:5-13
  • Jesus calls fishermen (Matthew 4:18-22), a tax collector (Matthew 9:9-13), and a zealot (Luke 6:15)
  • Jesus honors women (Luke 10:38-42), offers a spot to the rich man (Mark 10:17-27) and talks with a Samaritan (John 4)

Act 5: Submit Yourselves To The Authorities

  • Paul’s teaching on government - Romans 13:1-7
  • The Holy Rebels:
    • Shiphrah and Puah defy Pharaoh - Exodus 1:15-21
    • Queen Esther - Esther 1-10
    • Nehemiah rebuilds the wall despite opposition - Nehemiah 4
    • Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego refuse to worship the idol - Daniel 3
    • Peter arrested but keeps preaching - Acts 5:17-42

Act 6: True Government Is Coming

  • The return of the King - Revelation 19-22

Written by

Caleb Mathis

Dad of three, husband of one, pastor at Crossroads, and at the moment would rather be reading Tolkien, watching British TV, or in a pub with a pint of Guinness.

Published on Feb 19, 2020
Process, journal or discuss the themes of this article - here's a few questions to get the ball rolling...
  1. What strikes you most about Caleb’s article? Why?

  2. Which one is harder for you: respectfully submitting to earthly authorities or following God when it requires speaking up against something that’s out of line with Him? Why?

  3. Bible info is only useful if we believe it and apply it. What is one way you can apply something from this article to your life? Tell a friend so they can encourage you to follow through on it.

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