An unscientific survey of theologians over the past decade has shown that the dominant views are:
- Jesus only cared about the Kingdom of God and nothing about government or
- Jesus was a socialist.
Both are wrong. The more reasonable idea that Jesus came to establish the kingdom of God, but also cared about government, is as neglected as a teenager in foster care.
The New Testament has little to say about government. In Mark 12, the Pharisees and Herodians asked Jesus if they should pay taxes to Rome. Rabbis typically destroyed each other’s reputations by asking questions the victims couldn’t answer. They hoped to discredit Jesus as a teacher, as they had many other rabbis. But Jesus embarrassed his opponents:
“And Jesus said to them, ‘Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ And they were amazed at Him.” (Mark 12:17)
In other words, Jesus said pay your taxes to Caesar, but devote yourselves to God. Paul echoed Jesus’ admonition to pay taxes in Romans 13. Similarly, I Peter 2 tells Christians to submit to the government.
If those passages are all the metal we have to forge a theology of government from, then non-Christian philosophy is a better guide; Jesus really didn’t care about government. But Paul gives us a clue to better political theology:
“…for it [government] is a servant of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a servant of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil." (Romans 13:4)
In that passage, Paul hints at the role of government: to punish evil people. Only Oliver O’Donovan, the Professor Emeritus of Christian Ethics and Practical Theology at the University of Edinburgh, has recognized this point. In his Desire of Nations, he wrote “There remains simply the rump of political authority which cannot be dispensed with yet, the exercise of judgment.”
That’s why we pay taxes. Paul doesn’t say the government should strive to make us happy, end poverty, build roads and schools, promote homosexuality, spread democracy, control the climate, or any of the other hobby horses people like to ride today. That doesn’t mean the state can’t do those things, it only means that no one can find support for such government activity in the Bible.
Where did Paul get his idea about the role of government? Mostly likely, he learned it from the Hebrew Bible–what Christians call the Old Testament–as he did much of his theology. It was the only Bible in Paul’s day, and the Apostles knew it well.
Today, most theologians trace the origins of human government to the covenant with Noah after the flood: “Whoever sheds human blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God He made mankind.” (Genesis 9:6-7) As far as we know, this is the first time God gave humans the authority to punish others who committed murder.
David VanDrunen, Professor of Systematic Theology and Christian Ethics at Westminster Seminar, milks the covenant with Noah for every drop of political theology in his book, Politics after Christendom: Political Theology in a Fractured World. Sometimes, the book has the feeling gives you the feeling that the author is creating a universe out of an excavated tooth, but he makes some excellent points. His biggest weakness is his total rejection of the government God gave Israel as a model.
Most theologians agree with VanDrunen on this point, ignoring Israel's Torah government, claiming it was a theocracy only for Israelis at a particular time. But Israel wasn’t a theocracy. A simple definition of a theocracy is “government of a state by immediate divine guidance or by officials who are regarded as divinely guided.” The second part doesn’t apply because priests didn’t rule Israel. Until the monarchy, Israel had no human executive except during wars.
The first part applies because God gave Israel its structure and laws. But what nation, before or after, did not have laws like “Thou shalt not steal” or “Thou shalt not murder”? Or laws prohibiting false weights and measures, or adultery? The civil laws God gave Israel were not unique, then or now. And God did not run the day-to-day business of the nation as kings did. The book of Judges covers about 450 years, yet God intervened in the affairs of the nation only a dozen times, to punish (and then rescue) the tribes.
God’s treatment of Israel under the judges was not different from his ruling over the monarchy. Isaiah and the other prophets show us that God punished and rewarded the nations that surrounded Israel, including Syria, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, and Greece. In other words, God rules every nation as he did Israel under the judges. He is king of the universe, whether people acknowledge that reality or not.
The Catholic Church had downplayed the Hebrew Bible so much that at the time of the Reformation, those who advocated for Scripture as the only guide to faith and practice were shocked to realize they knew nothing about the Old Testament. So, they hired Jewish scholars to teach them the Hebrew language, according to Eric Nelson in his book, The Hebrew Republic.
Those theologians read I Samuel 8 and decided that God wanted a republican form of government for His people. In that passage, God allowed Israel to have a monarchy as punishment for its rebellion against Him and the government He had established. Until theologians studied I Samuel 8, they had assumed that God preferred monarchies.
But the most important aspect of the Torah government of Israel was not its specific civil laws, but its structure. It was a republic, as Nelson showed, because the people chose the judges (Deuteronomy 16). God gave Israel no human executive, legislature, or taxes. He gave them judges for governmental institutions, chosen by the people, to adjudicate only the civil laws, leaving the moral and religious laws for God to enforce.
The people of Israel were no better or worse than people are today. If that government worked for them for 480 years (from the time of Moses), it should work now. God created only one government. He created it to give His people the best chance of flourishing, spiritually and materially. He was angry with Israel for demanding a king and He listed the evil things kings would do to the people. We should pay attention.
What does all of this have to do with Jesus? Christians know that Jesus isn’t just human; He is God. As God, he wrote the Torah that became the constitution for the nation of Israel. While Jesus had little to say about government in the Gospels, He said a lot in the Torah about what kind of government He prefers for His people.
Jesus, as the second person of the Trinity, created a government in the nation of Israel. It must have been important to Him. Torah laws demand that the courts implement justice, the application of God’s civil laws. Jesus as God condemned the princes of Israel (the government) in the prophetic books for stealing the lands of the poor by bribing judges and perverting justice.
Yes, Jesus took human form to save humanity from sin, but that doesn’t mean He lost all the concern for government and justice that He had in the Old Testament.
Roger McKinney is the author of Financial Bull Riding and God is a Capitalist: Markets from Moses to Marx.