Saturday, March 27, 2010

What Civil Government Is For (Part 4)

Now we get to the controversial part.

How do we apply our understanding of the purpose of civil government? Let's take some examples, even though we can only give a cursory answer.

First, an easy one - crime. It is the purpose of civil government to provide justice by punishing criminals. I think we could all agree on that, at least in principle. If someone steals something from you, you are right to appeal to your civil government to provide justice for you. The civil magistrates ought to compel the thief to pay you reparations. This is clearly part of the purpose of civil government. Let's move on.

Second, let's try the issue of licenses. If civil government is for the purpose of providing justice, does that included licensing certain activities? I would argue that licenses can be a proper expression of civil authority, provided that they are used in the proper way. That is to say, if licenses are used to enable to civil authorities to provide justice, then they are proper. If they are used to claim civil authority beyond their jurisdiction, then they are improper. Let's take the example of marriage licenses. The civil magistrates do not have the God-given authority to marry anyone or to unmarry anyone. If a marriage license is taken to mean that the state holds the power of marriage, it is wrong. However, the civil authorities do have the responsibility to provide public justice, and marriage is a public issue (not merely a personal and private one, as many erroneously believe today). Any illegitimate and unjust union claiming to be a marriage is punishable by the civil authorities. If a marriage license is a tool for the civil magistrate to recognize just marriage covenants, then it is a good and legitimate thing.

Next, let's try a little more complicated but basic issue - food and clothing. Is it the civil government's role and responsibility to feed and clothe the people within its domain? I answer, No. It was not designed for that task, and, as history repeatedly demonstrates, it must become overbearing if it tries. From the Roman dole to the New Deal, governments which try to take on the role of providing basic life necessities for people never do so in a just manner. Since the government itself does not produce anything by its very nature (it is a judging institution, not a producing one), it must take from what others have produced in order to even begin trying to provide food and clothing. Now, if other communities break down, it can at times become necessary for the state government to step in in order to ensure proper order. However, it is a contradiction of justice if the state government intrudes upon the authority of other proper human communities. Robert P. George has rightly written, "The usurpation of the just authority of families, religious communities, and other institutions is unjust in principle, often seriously so."

Instead, the state government's role is to provide the rightly ordered peace in which other communities can produce the necessities of life. These other communities are the family, first of all, and then other institutions. For example, the civil magistrate ought to protect the private property of families. Private property is a powerful hedge against tyranny, for it gives people the means to live without dependence upon the state, and it gives people a motive to protect what is their own from outside control.

What if we tried another hot topic - education. Once again, I believe it is the civil government's role to provide the rightly ordered peace in which education can flourish and men can develop their God-given capacities. It does this through providing judgment. It may not usurp the doing of discipleship by the parents. The purpose of education is not to provide well-trained technicians for the state's benefit.

Now for the topic of the hour - healthcare. I think you can probably guess what I believe. Of course, any given community may decide to delegate all of its healthcare responsibilities to its civil government, but that community is extremely foolish if it does so. Why would you give healthcare responsibilities to an institution which is designed to provide judgment and is equipped with force to back it up? This is like entrusting the vegetable garden to the guard dog. He may chase away a few rabbits, but the only thing likely to grow is what dogs leave behind.

We are living in days in which it is imperative that God's people understand and live according to the scriptural revelation about human government. God has given it to us for our good, and we must honor and respect it. But, as Jotham knew well, we must never put our trust in it. In this world of sin, it will always be a struggle to have civil government in it's place. But I want to close by pointing us to a time when a man - a real human being - will rule this world in righteousness. "For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore" (Isa 9:6-7). That, my friends, is what human government is for.

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