On God’s Government

Within modern Christianity (and admittedly, throughout historic Christianity as well), there is a strong tendency to view the governmental style of God as a monarchy. I beg to differ.

Part of this is because we confuse discussion of “God’s sovereignty” with God’s rulership. Like most philosophical discussions, we need to be clear about our definitions. When we talk about God’s “sovereignty”, what we are really talking about is God’s power and control. For me, there’s not really any doubt about God’s omnipotence, but it’s not the same as governance or rulership. Governance combines power with goodness (or evil) and forbearance in the use of that power. Put simply, perhaps, governance is not just how much power there is, but also its source and when, where, why and how that power is used.

Human governments can at best be analogies to divine government, but let’s take a look at some human ideas on the subject to glean what we can before going to the scriptures and looking at God’s way of doing things.

Perhaps we should start with the purpose of governments. I think that we can agree that there is a valid reason for human governments. At the highest level, good governments provide for those things that individuals or small groups of people cannot. This includes collective defense from internal and external threats (i.e. military and police/judiciary power), logistics (the building of major infrastructure to support life and commerce, think of the U.S. Highway system for one) and the organization of collective resources to provide benefits to citizens, whether in general or targeted to specific needs (i.e. European subsidies to pay for university educations for those who qualify or pension programs, like Social Security). All of this is predicated upon the government having coercive power over its citizens to provide for the collective good—the ability to collect taxes, to punish those who break laws, to regulate certain aspects of daily life, etc.

Coercive power is either given (à la social contract theory from Socrates to Hobbes) or taken (as in dictatorships, old-school monarchies and other governments formed by groups with the power to use force to subjugate others). That coercive force must then be legitimized in some way because such legitimacy makes the use of the coercive power more palatable by those against whom it is used. The emperors of Rome and Japan claimed a semi-divine status that entitled them to rulership. Likewise, the medieval kings of Europe claimed a divine mandate to rule such that opposition to them was opposition to God (convenient, no?). In modern democracy we ascribe to the idea that coercive power exercised by a government ultimately answerable to the people best provides for the collective good.

In gross oversimplification, we can reduce human government to this three things: purpose, coercive power, and legitimacy. And we can see that God, too has all of these things—we have faith in God’s purpose in Creation, believe in God’s ultimate power over all things, and hold that, as the uncreated source of everything, God is as legitimate as it gets. So, under a human view of things, God seems perfectly entitled to have monarchical dominion over all things. I don’t argue with that, but I would point out that it doesn’t seem that God has that in mind. Let me explain.

First, some examples of God’s disavowal of human-style government. In broad strokes, much of the story of Judges and Chronicles is the litany of consequences that arise precisely because Israel asks for a human government in place of the (perhaps more-difficult-to-comprehend divine one). Jesus famously tells the Pharisees to “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22:21; c.f. Romans 13:1, where Paul makes a claim for a divine right of kings). In fact, the entirety of the gospel juxtaposes Jesus’s heralding of a supernal kingdom (and lack of concern for temporal politics) with the messianic expectation of the Jews and the fear of the Romans of a Jesus who comes to conquer and bring a worldly government. Jesus is crucified as “King of the Jews,” but—as far as we know—never takes steps to foment rebellion or create a movement for any rival governmental authority (unlike other messianic figures before and after him).

This circumstantial evidence points to a divine purpose in government that defies our worldly expectations and understandings. But, even better, God tells us of God’s ultimate plan very plainly in Jeremiah as God proclaims the New Covenant to be found in the Christ:

       31“Behold the days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will
make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of
       32“not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the
day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My
covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,” declares
the Lord.
33“But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the Lord, “I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.
34“They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying ‘Know the Lord, ‘for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” declares the Lord, “for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.”

This passage, I think, is what John Milton refers to in Book 3 of Paradise Lost when he declares that “God shall be All in All.”

What God describes in the above passage from Jeremiah is a future state where the law—righteousness—is so ingrained within humanity that there becomes no need for external coercive force to provide for the great collective good. Remember that the whole of the law hangs on Jesus’s commandments to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind…You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

At the fullest achievement of the “Kingdom of God”, there is no need for government. God’s purpose seems not to be a king to rule over us, but to sanctify us so that we need no rulership—so that each person is so good as to be able to act freely without harm to others and collectively for the good of all. Is this not the ultimate rectification of the Fall, the marriage within mankind of both righteousness and free will?

So, in a curious way that nevertheless makes complete sense given God’s sacrificial behavior toward us and God’s desire for relationship with us, God seeks to destroy the idea of government itself, to render it obsolete.

What does this really look like? Like much of the heavenly state, our own fallenness precludes our imagination from truly grasping the idea. The closest idea in human political thought, I think, is collectivist anarchism. Most people are familiar with anarchy as that 19th– and early 20th-century specter (alongside communism and socialism) threatening the Western way of doing things. The idea of anarchy is usually portrayed as utter chaos, lawlessness and the rule of power to the greatest possible extreme. In a practical sense, given the state of mankind, that’s a fair conception if we were to attempt to apply the practice of anarchy to any given group of people. But, that conception is far from what anarchist philosophers had in mind when developing their ideas—they looked to a time where people could be free of the coercive force of government and its many abuses—an issue that has not left us today.

The theorists of collectivist anarchism (like Mikhail Bakunin) sought a form of government (or lack of government) under which people were free to self-determine but collaborated to provide for the greater needs of humanity—sharing the resources of production and allowing the use of each person’s abilities in service to the whole while eschewing a need for private property and allowing for technological and logistic growth through principles of free self-organization rather than coercive force. Compare this with the early church as described in the Book of Acts!

Now, I’m a firm believer in Churchill’s sentiment that “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” I have many complaints about the way democracy works, but these are more or less complaints about human nature itself, and I believe that democracy is the best system of government (though far from perfect) that humans have developed to date. Given the state of humanity at present, I have no belief that collectivist anarchism has any chance of ending in anything other than exploitation and misery.

But, I believe that one day, God will have led us to be sanctified such that we care for one another without the need for any form of government humans can create on this earth. What is important for me, here, is nothing about politics itself, but what it says about the nature of God and the extent of God’s love for Creation. There is an ineffable poetry to this scheme that I have no power to deny.

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