For the Common Good

People today disagree radically on the proper role of government. What help can the Bible and Christian history provide in this ongoing debate? In the history of Israel, we see the slow emergence of different societal institutions. In Abraham, a leader of an extended family, we detect hardly any distinction between the roles of parent, priest, and king. Eventually, however, the institutions of the priesthood and the prophets emerge as distinct from both family and government. In Christian history, as Christianity becomes a universal faith embracing people of every tribe and nation, the church becomes a powerful institution clearly distinct from—and often in sharp conflict with—the state.

Is the purpose of government only to restrain evil or also to do good? Throughout the scriptures we see government (the king, the courts, etc.) called to restrain evil and punish evil-doers. Paul summarizes a vast amount of biblical teaching with his simple statement that governmental authority "is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer" (Romans 13:4).

However, in Romans 13 Paul specifies a positive role for government before he refers to its negative function. Government is "God's servant for your good" (13:4). Government's positive purpose—promoting the common good—flows directly from the fact that we are created in the image of the triune God, who exists in mutual, loving fellowship. We are made for mutual interdependence, not individualistic isolation. Furthermore, as Paul Marshall writes in Thine is the Kingdom, "the fact that the book of Revelation says that kings will bring their glory and the honor of the nations into the New Jerusalem suggests that the political enterprise has its own intrinsic merit apart from the effects of sin" (Revelation 21:24-26).

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Sojourners Magazine April 2007
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