Wednesday, November 12, 2008

A Place For Government?

Andrew Errington, commenting on Romans 13.1-7 argues that the role of government is to to maintain order and justice within society through judgment. He says:
"A number of things must be noticed. First, Paul is very clear that “there is no authority except that which God has established.” Governments are given by God. Whatever process this happens through – election, monarchical succession, revolution – God is the one who raises up authority. Second, government is given by God for our good. Government is God’s “servant”, or “minister” (diakonos). Governing authorities are God’s ministers “for our good”! Third, government has a particular job. They are to punish wrongdoing and to praise those who do good; the task of government is to maintain justice by giving judgments. For this purpose the authority “bears the sword” – it can enforce its judgments. In this way political authority defends our good. Therefore, our basic attitude to government should be one of submission, rather than resistance. This involves paying taxes and giving what is due. But this submission is not slavery; it doesn’t just come from fear of possible punishment, but also from conscience – the conviction that this is the right thing to do – from a recognition that authority really is given to us by God for our good. As the passage in 1 Peter makes clear, we submit to authority freely.

The most important thing to note here is that the role given to government is very limited. Many have argued against the supposed “quietism” of these passages; but these passages actually do something radical: they limit the role of government to the practice of judgment. Typically, rulers want to do a lot more than simply maintain justice in society. Governments, paradigmatically the Roman Emperor of Paul’s day, can want to be seen as saviours, the solution to all our problems, the focus of our hopes, and can get big ideas about bringing civilisation and life – just think of Hitler or Stalin, or Pol Pot or Mao Tse Tung. To tell these rulers that they’ve actually just got this little role of giving judgment to play is very powerful. Paul’s political theory is based on his recognition that there is only one Saviour, only one who can bring life and hope: Jesus Christ; and so governments in this age have only a small role left to play." - Andrew Errington, Jesus and Government.

The world is now under the Lordship of Jesus, and all rulers will hand their power over to him. There is however, still a place for government currently under Jesus' lordship. Government under Christ’s Lordship is pushed back, called to humbly perform the task of judgment until Jesus returns and human society finds its perfection.

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