The Purpose of Government

What is the purpose of government—why does it exist, and why should it be permitted to have power over the people?

Americans tend to point to either the preamble to the Constitution

… in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity …

or to the Declaration of Independence

we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed

as their answer. But, as a Christian and a student of history, I don’t find either of these quite satisfying: the intended purpose for which the then-leaders of these particular states established this particular government, and the Declaration ties its (plausible, even compelling) conception of the purpose of government to a premise that I know to be false—namely, that the legitimacy of government depends solely or even primarily on the assent of the people over which it exerts authority (which would render a significant fraction of all the governments that have ever existed, including those that God specifically claimed to have established, as illegitimate). And as justification for independence, its effect pales in comparison to the traditional Reformed cry that “resistance to tyrants is obedience to God.”

For a better answer, we turn to Scripture. Besides the Law’s instructions for leaders, and the historical account of the placement of primary justice in human hands, we find nearly every command to submit to governing authorities explicitly supported by an explanation of the authority’s purpose. Peter, for example, says that “the governors … are sent … to punish those who do wrong and commend those who do right.” Paul tells the church at Rome that “there is no authority except that which God has established … He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.”

So, rather than from “the consent of the governed” alone, the authority of every legitimate government stems from God, and is given for the purpose of maintaining society by “punish[ing] those who do wrong and commend[ing] those who do right.” Much like the centurion’s statement to Jesus that “I myself am … under authority,” a leader, ruler, or government has legitimacy because of its place within God’s government of the whole world.

Based on that understanding, I find the Reformers’ assertion, that obedience to tyrants—those rulers who refuse to submit to the authority on whom their own authority depends, and who punish those who do good and commend those who do wrong—is rebellion with them against God, quite compelling.

Do you have any thoughts?

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5 thoughts on “The Purpose of Government

  1. I heartily agree, Jonathan! My only question is your last paragraph. I couldn’t make sense of it. Do you have a word missing?

    • Thanks for stopping by, Lady Katharina. No, I don’t think I have a word missing—but the syntax is perhaps unnecessarily complex, and a couple of additional commas, which I’ll add momentarily, would help clarify it even though it’s technically correct.

      • You’re welcome! Maybe I was just too tired when I read it or not thinking clearly enough to grasp your thought. It makes more sense now for whatever reason. Thanks.

        • I have to admit that, between the ordinary subordinate clause and the extended dash-delimited parenthesis in the middle of it, that sentence was unnecessarily complicated and convoluted—so while adding the commas (which might have caused it to make more sense now) changed the meaning slightly, I consider it an improvement. Thanks for pointing me to that point of confusion.

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