What’s the Purpose of Government? A Biblical Perspective

by Derrick G. Jeter

When Samuel Sherwood stood in the pulpit of a Fairfield, Connecticut church on August 31, 1774, to preach his sermon, “Scriptural Instructions to Civil Rulers, and all Free-born Subjects,” he chose as his text 2 Samuel 23:3.
“The God of Israel said, / The Rock of Israel spoke to me, / He who rules over men righteously, / Who rules in the fear of God.”
He then opened with these words: “God the sovereign Lord and supreme Ruler of all things, has made men in such a manner, and placed them in such circumstances, as plainly to discover his will, that they should unite and combine into societies for their mutual benefit and advantage.” [1]
In that one sentence Sherwood captured the essence of what a government is for—to provide “mutual benefit and advantage” for its citizens. It accomplishes this purpose by fulfilling at least five roles.
First, governments should provide social order.
God established an orderly society when He created humanity and He expects governments to provide social order for their citizens.
Anarchy is contrary to God’s design and destructive to human society. Where there is no government, or where the government is so weak that it cannot enforce its laws, there is anarchy. Scripture recounts two times in which civilization crumbled into anarchy, leading to judgment. In the days of Noah, just before the flood, wickedness ruled the earth and the Lord was sorry He made mankind. So, the Lord flooded the earth, destroying all humanity—except for the righteous family of Noah (Genesis 6:5–7:24). The second record of anarchy occurred during the time of the Judges, when “there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 17:6). Society, during those dreadful days, was caught in a vortex of oppression, murder, moral vice, and civil war. With each successive sin the Lord punished His people by sending pagan nations to war against and enslave them.
The principle is simple: where there is no government, sinful people make up their own morality; and when those moralities come into conflict, as they inevitable will, then the majority or the most powerful will oppress the minority and weak, eventually leading to the destruction of civilization. If there is no governmental authority to provide order, then disorder will reign.
Second, governments should preserve human dignity.
God created mankind with dignity because he was created in God’s image (Genesis 1:27; 2:7; 5:1). When God “formed” Adam from the dust of the earth (2:7), as an artist designs a sculpture, He “breathed” the very breath of divinity into Adam (2:7), animating his physical body, infusing him with spiritual understanding (Job 32:8), and providing him with a conscience (Proverbs 20:27). And Scripture says, Adam became “a living being” (Genesis 2:7), meaning he became fully human—body and soul.
Because humanity bears the image of God, the Lord established the fundamental principle that we are—all of us, government included—our brother’s keeper, and that harm done to another person is a violation of human dignity—both to the doer and the done, as illustrated by the story of Cain and Able (Genesis 4:9–15).
Victimless crimes do not exist. While it’s easy to discern the diminishment of human dignity done to a victim, the victimizer also diminishes his dignity because as an image bearer he was created for good works, not evil. This is why government is not merely concerned with the tangible or earthly, but spiritual as well. Civil order is ordained by God, practiced by God, and involves the image bearers of God. The primary role of the government is earthly, but its motivation is spiritual—its charged to preserve the dignity of humanity.
Third, governments should punish evil and praise goodness.
This of course assumes the state knows the difference between the two. Moses provided a key characteristic of good government in Genesis 9:5–6, which, by the way, is the first record of civil government in human history. It takes place soon after Noah and his family leave the ark. God stipulated that the murder of another human being be punishable by death.
“Whoever sheds man’s blood [murders him], / By man [civil authority] his blood shall be shed [capital punishment], / For in the image of God [human dignity] / He made man” (Genesis 9:6).
In this command God is upholding human dignity—the imago Dei—and demanding that civil authorities do likewise. What’s implied is the truth that government is granted the authority and obligation to carry out the most severe form of punishment in retribution for the most severe crime, then government also has the authority to administer lesser punishments for lesser crimes.
But it’s not just the Old Testament calling for the punishment of evil and the praising of goodness. The New Testament also provides instruction to civil authorities to punish evil and praise goodness. Peter, presents a summary view of the proper role of government in 1 Peter 2:13–14. Peter said that the “human institution” of monarchs or governors have the authority to punish evildoers and to praise those who do good. But it’s Romans 13:3–7 that provides the most through treatment of a government’s purpose regarding the punishment of evil and the praise of goodness. Paul highlights five characteristics of good government.
  1. Civil authorities instill fear for evil doing (Romans 13:3)—restraining evil by punishing evil. The state will never be the remedy of sin, but it must be a restrainer of sin.
  2. Civil authorities praise those who do good (13:3–4)—encouraging order by upholding the rule of law. The state must encourage law and order, never disorder or lawlessness.
  3. Civil authorities serve God’s purposes (13:4, 6)—fulfilling God’s sovereign design. The state may do evil, but the institute of the state is a necessary good for civil society in which God will administer justice.
  4. Civil authorities serve and seek the good of the people, not the good of the rulers (13:4)—promoting the common welfare. The state must promote the peace and prosperity of the society, never preventing the society to progress towards peace and prosperity.
  5. Civil authorities are instruments of God’s wrath on wrongdoers (13:4)—carrying out the responsibility of the principle of retribution. The state, for the good of the society, must seek retribution for evil, never should it burn a blind-eye to evil.
Fourth, governments should promote justice.
Without justice there can be no legitimate state. Cicero in his great work, The Republic, defined “a people”—a state—as “’an assemblage associated by a common acknowledgement of law, and by a community of interests.’” [2] The key to Cicero’s definition is the word “law.” If we remove the rule of law then we are merely left with “a community of interests” which we could just as well call a mob, a gang, or a gaggle of pirates. But it will cease to be a state or a commonwealth. Here’ show Augustine put it: “When the monarch is unjust, or as the Greeks say, a tyrant; or the aristocrats are unjust, and form a faction; or the people themselves are unjust, and become . . . themselves the tyrant, then the republic is not only blemished . . . but by legitimate deduction . . . it altogether ceases to be.” [3]
Obviously, justice entails passing and upholding just laws for the good of the community. A great biblical example of injustice and its corrective is found in Psalm 82:2–4: “How long will you judge unjustly / And show partiality to the wicked? / Vindicate the weak and fatherless; / Do justice to the afflicted and destitute. / Rescue the weak and needy; / Deliver them out of the hand of the wicked.”
Rulers must judge or legislate with fairness and righteousness, judging only according to law and not by showing favoritism. They must judge or legislate in such a way that the weak and defenseless—those who have no power or wealth to benefit the ruler—are not harmed. They must judge or legislate with an eye to restrain evil.
Finally, governments should protect peace.
Peace is one of the great desires of humanity. Jeremiah instructed the exiles in Babylon to “seek the welfare of the city” (Jeremiah 29:7)—to seek the peace and prosperity of the country—because as the country goes so goes the citizens of the country. And Paul commanded Timothy and all believers to pray for rulers so we might live “tranquil and quiet lives” (1 Timothy 2:2). “Whoever gives even moderate attention to human affairs and to our common nature, will recognise that if there is no man who does not wish to be joyful, neither is there any one who does not wish to have peace.” [4]
Because peace is one of the great desires of humanity, good governments will protect the peace of its citizens. Isn’t this what the preamble to our constitution beautifully affirms? “We the People of the United States in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
In 1828, Noah Webster published his An American Dictionary of the English Language. Here is his definition of “politics”:
The science of government; that part of ethics which consists in the regulation and government of a nation or state, for the preservation of its safety, peace and prosperity; comprehending the defense of its existence and rights against foreign control or conquest, the augmentation of its strength and resources, and the protection of its citizens in their rights, with the preservation and improvement of their morals. [5]
Look up “politics” in a modern dictionary and gone are the descriptive phrases “that part of ethics” and “the preservation and improvement of their morals.”
Government is a necessary good, not merely to administer temporal order for the mutual benefit of its citizens, but also to preserve the dignity of its citizens as bearers of God’s image.
[1] Samuel Sherwood, “Scriptural Instructions to Civil Rulers, and all Free-born Subjects,” August 31, 1774, in Political Sermons of the American Founding Era, 1730–1805, vol. 1, ed. Ellis Sandoz (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1998), 382.
[2] Marcus Tullius Cicero, as quoted in Augustine, The City of God, 2.21, trans. Marcus Dods (New York: The Modern Library, 1993), 62.
[3] Augustine, The City of God, 2.21, 61–62.
[4] Augustine, The City of God, 19.12, 687.
[5] Noah Webster, An American Dictionary of the English Language (New York: S. Converse, 1828; reprint, San Francisco: The Foundation of Christian Education, 1980), “politics.”