Friday, March 26, 2010

What Civil Government Is For (Part 3)

Now that we have the context set, let's explore a little more deeply the function of civil governments.

Governing requires exercising authority. Why do we need civil government authority? Consider: Mankind was created in communion with God and with one another. By communion we must understand mutual participation. These relationships require particular roles and responsibilities. In other words, they require properly directed authority, limited or circumscribed by the role that it is to perform under God's rule. It is one of the great blind spots of our age that we feel we must eliminate distinctions and hierarchy in order to have unity and equality.

We live in these relationships, first of all, in the family. As an aside, it is no accident that our society is destroying the role of the father in the home at the same time that it is putting in place a paternalistic state. Arising out of the family context, then, we have the larger but not more important units of association, each with its appropriate government. At each level of government, from the family outward, we have a three-fold overlapping communion: with God, with other governments, and with its own people. In each of these relationships, there is relationship with God and with others. These levels are layered and properly ordered.

  • In communion, the relationship of mutual participation, there is representation. Any act representing others is a political act.
  • In communion there is participation. No human authority can act as an entity unto itself. It always involves the participation of those under authority, and it is right that it should.
  • In communion there is accountability. All acts performed representing others must be carried out in keeping with God's purposes and plans. Authority in the Christian sense is always attached to responsibility. It is for the good of those under authority, with this good defined by God. All human authority is accountable to God (Rom 13:2-7).
  • In communion there is love. Love is needed for any communion to function properly and freely with unity. Augustine said that in order to understand what unites people you have to look at what they love in common. Hence, he defined a people as the association of a multitude of rational beings united by a common agreement on the objects of their love. John Wycliffe, the early English reformer, said that "legal entitlement [to civil kingship] is not enough without the additional title of charity; and so, without doubt, neither are hereditary succession and popular election enough by themselves."
To sum up, created reality says that we must have relationships with God and with other men, and this requires roles and responsibilities, from which comes the need to exercise proper authority. This authority involves representation, participation, accountability, and love.

Given this, what particular area of authority falls to civil or state governments? What is civil government for? It is to exercise judgment for the community that it represents. It is to carry out justice. It is to ensure that there is proper order and harmony within its domain. When we look at the Scriptures, we constantly see that civil government is given the responsibility of providing justice. "By justice a king builds up the land, but he who exacts gifts tears it down" (Prov 29:4, ESV).

This understanding is explicitly demonstrated in both Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2:14. Civil government is to uphold righteousness and to punish wickedness. By doing this, it enables all the other human communities to perform the functions that God has designed for them by providing public justice.

Next time, we will try to clarify our understanding through applying it to a few specific issues.

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