Government: A Practical Definition

"You can't fight something with nothing," as someone has said. Similarly, we can't fight "archist" conceptions of government without spelling out an anarchist conception of government. This is a bigger task than offering a new interpretation of Romans 13. It will take some time to create a new vision of society in the mind of the reader. The following pages should be consulted:

What we need is not "the State," but an end to a secular society. We need a pervasively-religious society, where the Law of God is honored at every turn. By "religious" we mean not a "liturgical" society where there are lots of priests and churches, but a truly religious society where everyone is a priest. James says true religion is taking care of widows and orphans (James 1:27). Paul says to "love your neighbor" means to obey God's Law with respect to your neighbor (Romans 13:8-10). This creates a "well-governed" society. Taxation and vengeance are unnecessary.

Admittedly, no Christian anarchist can claim that abolishing the State will lead to a perfectly-governed society continuously. We believe that "Anarcho-Theocracy" leads to the most order more of the time. But government occasionally breaks down. It is at this point that some call out for "the government." When injustice is done, they want "the government" to bring "justice." What is "justice?"

Suppose Jones steals $1,000 from Smith. What is "justice" in this case? Two solutions have been proposed:

  1. Jones is locked in prison and sodomized by violent felons. Smith, the victim, pays for the prison, the guards, and cable TV and weightlifting equipment for the felons. Approximate cost: $30,000 per felon per year.
  2. Jones makes restitution to Smith, according to Biblical standards. Smith is made whole. Jones takes personal responsibility and grows more like Christ.

Neither option requires "the State." Prisons can be private; restitution can be arranged by private arbitration or insurance agencies. Most Christians would agree that restitution is justice and prisons are not. 

Our contention is that the Bible does not command "punishment," but restitution: restoration, undoing the damage, making the victim whole. A well-governed society has many ways of securing justice, not just "the government." In Matthew 18 Jesus says:

15 Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If your brother listens to you, you have regained your brother.
16 But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses.
17 If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.

"Trespass" in this passage does not mean a vague "spiritual" offense that causes someone to whine: "that offended me." This is the realm of civil and criminal law. The Greek word for "trespass" is found in the Greek Old Testament (LXX) in Leviticus 6:

4 when you have sinned and realize your guilt, and would restore what you took by robbery or by fraud or the deposit that was committed to you, or the lost thing that you found,
5 or anything else about which you have sworn falsely, you shall repay the principal amount and shall add one-fifth to it. You shall pay it to its owner when you realize your guilt.

In Matthew 18 Jesus clearly establishes the principle that our goal is not "punishment," but gaining a brother, that is, of persuading the offender to right his wrongs; it is a good thing when a thief repents and voluntarily decides to return the stolen goods and restore all damage done. Simply sticking the offender in a prison is a violation of Jesus' commandment, we believe.

Most people have never received a practical education in how to follow Jesus' steps. This is why a good Bible-based education is so important to a well-governed society. Jesus never mentions Caesar ("the State") in these steps. "The government" is not necessary. But it would be perfectly legitimate for someone to establish a corporation which teaches people how to effectively follow Jesus' steps and regain a brother. Other businesses could be formed to compile databases of those who would not be restored, so that people could decide whether they wanted to do business with these thieves or whether they wanted to obey Jesus and treat the offender like a tax-collector. (Isn't it interesting that in our state-worshiping day, people go to "the government" to restore offenders when Jesus says that unrepentant offenders are (or are like) "the government"). In an Anarcho-Theocracy there could be many such Matthew 18 agencies, all working to bring restoration of offenders, each using a different approach, with different styles, different costs, specializing in different crimes, serving the different consumer groups that make up the church universal.

Where does the Bible prohibit this? Where does the Bible require only one institution to deal with crime and prohibit competitive agencies? Where does the Bible require that this monopoly be funded by violence? Take away the monopoly, and substitute voluntary funding, and you have abolished "the State" and established "anarcho-capitalism." It's that simple

Problem area: what about murder? How does a murderer "make it right?" 

It is clear that under our present system of "government," the murderer does not make it right in any way. He is not even forced to be a lifetime indentured servant for the benefit of the estate of the victim. Instead, the victim's estate is forced to pay for the lifelong incarceration of the murderer. 

Some favor capital punishment. But this "solution" does not require "the State." In the Old Testament the power to shed the blood of the offender was given first to the family, and is never removed from the family and transferred exclusively to "the State," thereafter prohibited to the family or to Free Market agents of the family. We question the need to shed the blood of murderers after Christ's work on Calvary. But capital punishment, if appropriate, does not require a strong centralized monopolistic state. Competing capital punishment agencies, voluntarily funded, would be less likely to execute the innocent than "the government."

The analysis that follows will be most valuable to those who are open to anarcho-capitalism. They will see that there is no Biblical barrier to such a society. Those who are dedicated at all costs to following Calvin and North, however, will not be persuaded by our remarks.

The reader may wish at this point to explore our "anarchist" interpretation of Romans 13. We believe that when God says He "ordains" the State He is saying nothing more than when He says He is going to send a tornado to judge a city. James Benjamin Greene, in his Harmony of the Westminster Standards, says of Romans 13, "It is not meant that God directly ordained the state by saying to man, Thou shalt set up a government or organize a commonwealth." Adam didn't. Abraham didn't. Even Moses didn't set up "the State." Not until 1 Samuel 8 did Israel move from patriarchy to politics, and God said it was a rejection of His government. God never commanded the formation of "the State."

Vine & Fig Tree's Romans 13 Home Page

Survey of the Bible: God Never Commands the Formation of "The State." 

Calvin, in his exposition of Romans 13, directly denies our thesis. North joins him. But Calvin is clearly mistaken. He emphatically declares that the State is not like a tornado:

Understand further, that powers are from God, not as pestilence, and famine, and wars, and other visitations for sin, are said to be from Him; but because He has appointed them for the legitimate and just government of the world. (comm. at v.1)

We have disputed this assertion here:

God Sends EVIL!

That essay consists of dozens of Scripture passages which refute Calvin's assertion. That page is must-reading in this debate. This is the central issue in the debate. "The State" is "ordained" by God in the same way pestilence, famine, war, the destruction of Job's Household by Satan, and organized crime are all "ordained" by God. God is in control. But these events are evil. Human beings who self-consciously participate in these "negative physical sanctions" commit evil acts which are contrary to God's Law. The State is evil. God Ordains Evil. 

The parallels between pestilence, famine, wars, and the State are striking and continuously asserted by Scripture. Indeed, "wars" are simply the instrument of the State. (How could Calvin miss this obvious point?) "War" is "the sword."

Further, throughout Scripture, the demonic powers that animate pestilence and famine are said to be the same "powers" that animate the State. This point is inescapable. Calvin needs to muster a great deal more evidence to refute our exposition.

More definitions of "government"