Government and the Bible
Chapter 2: Biblical Thoughts On Government
The most widely read book of pre-Constitution America was the Bible. What does this book have to say about the constitution, organization, or form of government? What was its influence on American government? What is its vision of the ideal government of the future?
Government traditionally has assumed three forms:
(1) monarchy, or government by an individual;
(2) aristocracy, or government by the few;
(3) democracy, or government by the people.
Democracy can be either direct or indirect. In a direct democracy, all the citizens individually participate in the various functions of government. This is practical only when the citizenry is small, such as the city-states of ancient Greece.
In an indirect or representative democracy, the people elect individuals to represent them. A representative democracy is also called a republic. A republic is a form of government in which the supreme power of the state rests with the people, the citizens, those people who have a right to vote.
An example of a republic is the U.S. government. The Constitution, in Article 4, Section 4, states that "the United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government."
The Bible mentions many human governments, but few of them receive Divine approval. Three are referred to as a "kingdom" of God. The first was the pristine dominion of Adam; the second, ancient Israel; the third, the Christian Church, is explicitly designated as the kingdom of God (Luke 17:21; 22:29).
ADAM'S DOMINION OVER THE EARTH
In the first chapter of Genesis, God declares His purpose concerning His earthly creation and its government: "And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness, and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish [fill, NASB] the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth" (Gen. 1:26-28).
Thus, it appears that the dominion of the earth was placed in the hands of the human race as represented in the first man Adam, who was perfect, and therefore fully qualified to be the lord, ruler or king of the earth. This commission to multiply, and fill, and subdue, and have dominion over the earth was not to Adam alone, but to all mankind: "Let them have dominion." Had the human race remained perfect and sinless, this dominion would never have passed out of its hands.
REPUBLIC—A "NATURAL" GOVERNMENT?
It will be noticed that in this commission man was not given dominion or authority over fellowmen, but the whole race was given dominion over the earth. Had the race remained perfect, and as it grew in numbers, it probably would have been necessary for men to consult together, to coordinate their efforts, and to devise ways and means for the just and wise distribution of the common blessings. And as in the course of time, it would have been impossible, because of their vast numbers, to meet and consult together, it would have been necessary for various classes of men to elect certain of their number to represent them, to voice their common sentiments, and to act for them. If all men were perfect, mentally, physically and morally, and if every man loved God and His regulations supremely, and his neighbor as himself, there would be no friction in such an arrangement.
Thus it would appear that the original design of the Creator for earth's government was republic in form, a government in which each individual would share; in which every man would be a sovereign, amply qualified in every particular to exercise the duties of his office for both his own and the general good.
This dominion given to mankind in the person of Adam was the first establishment of the Kingdom of God on the earth. But man's disobedience to the Supreme Ruler forfeited not only his life, but also his rights and privileges as God's representative ruler of earth. Then speedily the kingdom of God on earth ceased. Since then, God has permitted man to exercise the dominion of the earth according to his own ideas and ability.
CONDITIONS BEFORE THE FLOOD
From the fact that the earth was not divided up into private property until in the day of Peleg [divider] after the flood (Gen. 10:25); from the fact that the first human government was organized by Nimrod (Gen. 10:8-10); and from the fact that the first business transaction on record is that of Abraham's purchase of the field and cave of Machpelah (Gen. 23:3-20), we infer that before the flood there was no private ownership in property, no governments among the people, and no competition in business. In other words, society seemed to be organized on a more or less communistic basis somewhat after the manner of the social organization of the North American Indians.
It was this peculiar social arrangement combined with man's increasing selfishness and sinfulness and the greater selfishness and sinfulness of the giant offspring of the angels (Gen. 6:4) that made the earth—society—"corrupt" (Gen. 6:5, 6, 11-13). Thus, the order of affairs before the flood—the angels in charge of the race and the race organized on a sort of communistic basis—proved to be a failure, as far as concerns the reformation of man from sin and his restoration to his Edenic perfection.
THE REPUBLIC OF ANCIENT ISRAEL
The kingdom of Israel is the only one which God ever recognized as in any way representing His government and laws. There had been many nations before theirs, but no other could rightfully claim God as its Founder. In the main, Israel's form of government was a Divine autocracy, a theocracy; for the laws given by God, through Moses, permitted of no amendments—Israel could neither add to nor take away from the Mosaic statutes.
But in many ways Israel's form of government encouraged democracy. While Israel as a whole constituted one nation, yet the tribal division was recognized after Jacob's death. Each family, or tribe, by common consent, elected or recognized certain members as its representatives, or chiefs. This custom was continued even throughout their long slavery in Egypt. To these chiefs (also called elders and judges) Moses delivered the honor and power of civil government. They stood as interpreters and administrators of a government for the people and by the people.
At God's command Moses charged the people to select their elders and judges and to make them leaders of tens, fifties, hundreds and thousands, so that they might act as the civil rulers, as representatives of the people, to try cases and to render Divinely pleasing decisions (Ex. 18:13-26; Deut. 1:9, 12-18).
These leaders numbered in the thousands. Moses was to act as a court of appeals in the cases that these judges considered too hard for them; but they, not Moses, were to decide which cases were to be referred to him. Additional to these rulers, and from among them, Moses selected a group of 70 to assist him in teaching and leading the people (Num. 11:16, 17, 24-30). These received a special spirit or power from God, were already recognized leaders and served on a higher level in a more general way by prophesying, etc. (v. 25). After Moses' death many cases were brought to the high priest for a direct decision by God through the Urim and Thummim, which we believe were a part of the High Priest's breastplate.
These democratic elements persisted in Israel for almost 500 years, until at the insistence of the people and the elders, against God's expressed preference, they were set aside for a monarchy. Often the authority was derived from the community or the people (2 Sam. 2:4; 1 Kings 12:1-20). Thus under the theocratic-democratic government, Israel had several departments under God:
1. Moses, as chief magistrate was responsible for general administration;
2. Aaron and the under-priests, the chief spiritual leaders;
3. The 70, who were especially spiritual leaders;
4. The rulers of tens, fifties, hundreds and thousands;
5. The Levites, who assisted Aaron, and also acted as Scribes of the law, and as somewhat of a court system in administering the cities of refuge (Num. 35);
6. Later, the Prophets, independent of Israel's administrators, had an extremely important role in defending the rights of the people and restraining the ambition and disregard of God and His arrangements by the rulers.
FROM DEMOCRACY TO MONARCHY
Israel's national organization in the times of the Judges was merely a voluntary one. In reality each tribe managed its own affairs within its own border, and the heads of the tribes constituted its judges in ordinary affairs. The only thing which cemented the union between these tribes was the oneness of their speech and blood; but above all, the oneness of their hope toward God. However, from time to time Israel desired a king rather than judges. For example, after the miraculous victory over the Midianites, Israel desired Gideon to rule over them, but he refused (Judges 8:22, 23).
Under Samuel's wise judgment the Israelites were greatly blessed; but with their returning prosperity came the ambition to be like the nations round about them—to be a united kingdom under the dominion of a king who would lead them in war and rule over them as an entire nation and centralize their power and energy.
From every worldly standpoint the people decided wisely, but from the Divine standpoint unwisely. They appealed to Samuel as God's representative, to anoint over them a king, and thus establish in their midst a central authority. "Distance lends enchantment to the view," is a common adage, which was true in Israel's case. As they looked at the nations round about them they beheld the glories of the king, his armies, his officers, his chariots. Such kings were warlords to their people, and more or less the dignity, authority and power of these kings represented these qualities in the nations under them. The Israelites saw not the grievous burdens under which many of the people labored as a result of such kingly dignity and glory.
As we look into the matter from the Divine standpoint, we recognize that the people made a poor choice when they preferred to have a kingdom rather than a republic under a Divine King. The Lord had forewarned them through Moses of the results if they should at any time choose a monarchial government rather than the one He had arranged for them (Deut. 17:14-20). From this standpoint we can see that the republic under Divinely appointed judges tended to develop the Israelites individually, while the kingdom, no doubt, would tend to develop them along national lines. However, the individual development, through exercising liberty and individuality, would no doubt have prepared the people the better for the coming of Messiah and a proper acceptance of Him. In the Lord's promise of future blessings He declares, "I will restore your judges as at the first, and your counselors as at the beginning," (Isa. 1:26) thus clearly intimating that the republican form of government under Divine supervision was superior to the subsequent kingly regime.
At God's insistence Samuel explained to the people how their rights and liberties would be disregarded, and how they would become servants by such a change; yet they had become infatuated with the popular idea, illustrated all around them in other nations. (1 Sam. 8:6-22).
In Samuel's recounting to Israel the manner of a king (1 Sam. 8:11) we are not to understand that the Lord or Samuel His mouthpiece meant that the description given would be the proper one for a proper king; but rather that it would be the general course of a king, of any man raised to such a place of imperial power as the kings of olden times enjoyed. The wrong course of kings is traceable to three conditions:
1. All men are imperfect and fallen, hence any king chosen would be so, and it would be merely a question of the measure of imperfection and tendency to pride and selfishness and the abuse of power.
2. The imperfection of those over whom they reign is a factor, for the recognized imperfection makes possible and to some extent makes reasonable the usurpation of great power.
3. Satan's derangement of all earthly affairs, putting light for darkness and darkness for light, often makes it seem to rulers and to the ruled that an abuse of power is necessary and really to the advantage of the ruled.
Thus, with the establishment of a kingdom, the republic of the nation of Israel came to an end. Nevertheless, Israel's monarchy was never absolute—ruler and ruled alike were subject to the Law, and the people retained certain rights.
Historians, in beginning the history of democracies with ancient Greece, overlook the republic of ancient Israel. But according to the Encyclopedia Americana (1937), the first known republic in world history is the Israelitish Commonwealth, beginning under Moses and ending with the anointing of King Saul. The Encyclopedia states that "all the people, young and old, rich and poor, male and female, had a voice in public affairs and the privilege of political preferment. This is the earliest record of choosing rulers by elective franchise." Thus the republic of ancient Israel antedated the democracies of ancient Greece and Rome by possibly as much as a thousand years.
DEMOCRATIC CHURCH GOVERNMENT
Jesus Christ proclaimed the arrival of the kingdom of God. But Christ's kingdom was not of this world. Hence, the New Testament has little to say about the form of civil governments. Rather the church that Jesus established was the kingdom of God.
It is relevant to examine the form of government of the early church. 1 Cor. 12:28 refers to "governments" in the early church, which apparently were organized along congregational lines. These governments consisted of certain arrangements, chairmen and committees which assisted the churches in conducting their business, which fell into several categories.
The churches formed by the Apostles managed their own affairs and that at the direction of Jesus and the Apostles. The Apostles advised and sanctioned the churches electing their own officers and appointing them to their service.
These officers consisted of two groups: (1) the deacons — e.g., the seven deacons (Acts 6:1-6) and deacons of the churches, to collect and carry their contributions to the poor saints at Jerusalem (2 Cor. 8:19, 23; cheirotoneo, here translated "chosen," means elected by stretching forth the hand); and, (2) elders (Acts 14:23; here cheirotoneo is mistranslated "ordained" in the KJV; also translated "appointed" in some revised versions; "show of hands"—Weymouth).
Under Paul's advice the churches decided other matters of business; for example, to contribute to the poor saints and to appoint the agents to administer the collection and delivery of the gift. (2 Cor. 8:1-24).
Again, at Christ's charge (Matt. 18:15-17) the administration of discipline was in the hands of the church, and Paul's accepted exhortation to the Corinthians unanimously to apply discipline to the incestuous brother (1 Cor. 5:1-13) proves that the church exercised its own discipline. Its later receiving by vote this brother when repentant (2 Cor. 2:5-10) proves that the church decided whether it should fellowship people or not.
Additionally, the churches made arrangements for their meetings (Matt. 18:19, 20; Heb. 10:25). They also sent out missionaries (Acts 13:1-3). These facts prove that under the Lord each church was manager of its own affairs. This doctrine is also proven by the doctrine of the priesthood of consecrated believers (1 Pet. 2:5, 9), which implies the equal priestly rights of the individual members of the Church of Christ, the Little Flock, and the consequent right of their settling their common interests by unanimity or majority consent; in other words, congregational rule.
Thus each church is by Divine institution a democracy in its government, yielding equal rights to all its members before the bar of church law, which facts are thoroughly compatible with the diversity in talent, attainments, and functions held by the various members in the church.
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