A Biblical View of the State

by Matthew Raley The question we opened last week is whether evangelicals should continue to identify with conservatives.

This is first a theological question, not a political or social one. Evangelicals should not answer it from their cultural reflexes, but from what the Bible teaches. We need to integrate our loyalties as Americans and as followers of Christ by a renewed theology of citizenship.

I think an inquiry along this line starts with what the Bible teaches about the state.

The Bible does not prescribe a particular form for the state, treating the state in whatever earthly form as a God-ordained institution with stewardship over the civic affairs. God holds officers of state accountable for conduct in justice (including the punishment of violence, theft, and economic fraud and abuse) and warfare.

In the Mosaic law, human functions of state are divided amongst tribes and cities, going back to the system Moses implemented in Exodus 18.13-27. The tribes were assigned territories and governed themselves separately (Joshua 13-21). Thus the nation of Israel from its founding was a confederation, not a centralized human kingdom. Politically, it was a literal theocracy, formalized by a suzerain-vassal treaty (the Sinai covenant, says Deuteronomy 33.1-5).

The law is particularly strong in dividing the state from the priesthood. The Levites had charge of everything related to the worship of the Lord, as well as the enforcement of the ritual laws. The strongest indication of this division is Lord's choice to take the tribe of Levi as his priestly possession, rather than all first-born sons spread through the tribes (Numbers 3.40-51). Worship was assigned to an group independent of all other loyalties.

The law prepares for but does not mandate a human king, sharply limiting his powers (Deuteronomy 17.14-20). The law and the judge Samuel are explicit that tyranny in the taking of property and in state aggrandizement is a form of evil (1 Samuel 8.10-22).

When a king is appointed by God, he is first from Benjamin (Saul), then from Judah (David), prohibiting the king from the priestly functions that belonged to Levi. Saul crossed this boundary, offering a sacrifice on his own authority, and the Lord's verdict was that Saul would have no dynasty (1 Samuel 13.8-14).

David understood this separation thoroughly, and the reasoning of statecraft behind it. If worship is strengthened and preserved outside the state's power, it becomes a source of moral and spiritual nourishment for the people. As such, the institutions of worship bring health to the culture, and serve to reform the state when it becomes tyrannical. So David devoted his reign to the reform, organization, and institutional longevity of the Levitical priesthood (1 Chronicles 22-26). As a result, the priesthood was a source of strength for the reforming kings in Judah throughout the rest of its history.

I draw two principles from these texts. First, authority over civil affairs is best divided among many institutions. This serves to check the evil of tyranny. Second, the state has the duty to preserve the separation of worship institutions. The state must not take over the sphere of worship.

Such was the design of the theocracy for Israel, which had specific purposes in redemption history. The biblical flexibility on forms of state more generally can be seen in a couple of ways.

God's people showed that they could serve in pagan states. They did this by showing administrative prowess, just decisions, and refusal to yield points of worship to the pagan kings.  Joseph in Egypt (Genesis 41) and Daniel in Babylon (Daniel 1-2) are preeminent examples.

In the New Testament, the most prized aspect of the Roman state was the freedom and peace it gave, so that Christians could bear witness and grow without persecution (1 Timothy 2.1-7). The church saw the restraint of the Roman state in matters of spirituality as an advantage.

So the role of the state in the Bible is primarily negative: to preserve order against crime (Romans 13.1-7). This is because the Bible sees the actual rule of a nation in the conduct of the people themselves. The ethics of the people set the destiny of the nation.

One thing seems clear to me. The vision of the American religious right that government can be a source of righteousness for the people is not in agreement with biblical teaching. I don't think anyone can plausibly deny that this is their vision. They have leaped too quickly and too often from the "If my people" verse to a call to elect this or that Republican. Further, the vision of the religious left that national righteousness is dependent on passage of the latest welfare scheme ("Budgets are moral documents," etc, etc) is the same exact error in the opposite political direction.

In the context of biblical teaching, the actions of local churches are far more important in promoting ethics and justice in America than the actions of the state.