Government gets authority from the people

Government gets authority from the people


“And the government will be on His shoulders.”
Isaiah 9:6


“This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing.”
Romans 13:6


For more than a generation many, if not most, Christians have thought of the domain of government as the bastion of cigar-smoking egomaniacs. I have heard prominent men of God say that they see no way a Christian could be involved in politics without compromising their faith in Christ. This thinking is so extreme in parts of the body of Christ that some churches teach their members not to vote because it is a “secular” activity. This is a profound example of the split thinking of secular vs. sacred.


When the blacks in Namibia were first given the vote they elected a communist government, a heavy blow in a country where more than eighty-five percent of the population are professing Christians.1 But there was a ray of hope when the newly seated government sent word to church leaders in the nation that they wished representatives of the church to come and teach them the biblical basis of government. What a privilege! However, no one responded! In South Africa the ruling party today (with sixty-five percent of the vote, reported to be around seventy percent Christian) struggles to stay in power, in part, they say, because the theology of some churches has produced a non-participatory culture among Christians when it comes to social, political and economic issues. I am told by American government officials that far less than fifty percent of American citizens vote. But more shocking, they say that less than twenty-five percent of American Christians vote.


All of this is a far cry from the respect Paul accorded those who sought to serve in the government arena.Jesus understood that government had a role in His Father’s Kingdom. He was discipled by the Old Testament, and He discipled with the Old Testament. Jesus understood that He was the King of Kings and that His message was a message of salvation and a message of political justice.


The King Of Kings
When we study the domain of government in the Bible, we are looking at areas like the legislative, executive, judicial, and military functions of government. We are looking at law, national and local authority, relationships between nations, rules of war, and areas of community development related to government. We are looking at the roles and actions of judges and kings and those who worked for them in official capacities. Books like Joshua, Judges, I & II Samuel, I & II Kings, and I & II Chronicles unfold events happening in and to Israel in the political arena. They document what the political leaders of Israel were doing, how they affected Israel, and what God thought about these events. Nehemiah, Esther, and Daniel tell us the stories of people who sought to serve God faithfully in the political arena. Interestingly, Nehemiah, Esther, and Daniel each served pagan and idolatrous nations and kingdoms. Today, some Christians believe we can serve only the righteous in government. But scripture does not bear this out. Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon were written primarily, and possibly in their entirety, by two kings, David and Solomon. Each of these books teaches us much besides the principles of government, but the position from which they were written was the realm of government, unlike Isaiah, or Jeremiah, and other books written from the perspective of prophets.


In my study of Deuteronomy, about twenty-five percent of the book is given to instructions and episodes revolving around government issues. The passage we will use for our sample study of the domain of government is Deuteronomy 1:9-18. Moses had been attempting to sit as judge by himself over the disputes of the entire Israelite population. His father-in-law had suggested to him that this was not going to work and that he needed to initiate the levels of government to carry the load of arbitrating the judicial needs of the nation. In Deuteronomy, Moses forms Israel’ first system of government. Here is the account:


Deuteronomy 1:9-18
9 At that time I said to you, “You are too heavy a burden for me to carry alone.
10 The LORD your God has increased your numbers so that today you are as many as the stars in the sky.
11 May the LORD, the God of your fathers, increase you a thousand times and bless you as he has promised!
12 But how can I bear your problems and your burdens and your disputes all by myself?
13 Choose some wise, understanding and respected men from each of your tribes, and I will set them over you.”
14 You answered me, “What you propose to do is good.”
15 So I took the leading men of your tribes, wise and respected men, appointed them to have authority over you – as commanders of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties and of tens and as tribal officials.
16 And I charged your judges at that time: Hear the disputes between your brothers and judge fairly, whether the case is between brother Israelites or between one of them and an alien.
17 Do not show partiality in judging; hear both small and great alike. Do not be afraid of any man, for judgment belongs to God. Bring me any case too hard for you, and I will hear it.
18 And at that time I told you everything you were to do.

For our purpose here of learning to read and study the Bible in order to see God’s principles in each domain, we will take only the highlights of the passage. Remember that the truths of the Bible are told primarily in story form. We study the history and context, but we will never be in the same circumstances as Moses and Israel, so their application will not necessarily work for us. The principles, however, are God’s truth and are applicable in new and dynamic ways in any age, any set of circumstances in any nation. Let’s work with this passage as an example of extracting principles from the historical situation.


The Purpose Of Government


Deuteronomy 1:9-12
9 At that time I said to you, “You are too heavy a burden for me to carry alone.
10 The LORD your God has increased your numbers so that today you are as many as the stars in the sky.
11 May the LORD, the God of your fathers, increase you a thousand times and bless you as he has promised!
12 But how can I bear your problems and your burdens and your disputes all by myself?

As Moses prepared to form Israel’s first formal government, he explained to the people the purpose of government and why Israel needed to move away from him as their sole leader. Moses had been carrying the load by himself until now. But this system no longer fulfilled the objective of government. What was that objective? Moses saw it as his responsibility to hear the burdens and disputes of the people in order to provide just resolution. Moses did not argue that the disputes were not important or that they ought not to be disputing in the first place. He did not see disputes as insignificant matters or a waste of his time. He established that they must be heard and dealt with, but Israel had grown so large in Egypt that the former
tribal system of governing themselves no longer worked. They needed a more effective system. Why? To meet the judicial needs of the people!


One of the foundational principles in this passage is that the primary purpose of government is to serve the population of a nation by providing an objective, trustworthy source of arbitration and justice. The system of government was organized in such a way that it could serve the needs of people both “small and great” alike . (vs.17 ) God looked at the judicial needs of the people and the fact that the current system was not meeting those needs. He inspired Moses in his role of creating a structure of government that would respond to the judicial needs of the nation at large and set out to put it in place.

The Authority Of Government

1:13 “Choose some wise, understanding and respected men from each of your tribes, and I will set them over you.”


From the perspective of government in the Bible, I think this is one of the most thrilling verses. Think about it. This nation of people had lived in exile for 430 years. For 400 of those years they had been slaves under the total authority of the Egyptian government. Their experience of leadership prior to their years in Egypt was more that of a large family, some seventy people, rather than that of ruling a nation. We can assume that many of the Jews, if not most, were uneducated people. They had lived in poverty and there was certainly no reason for the Egyptians to expend their national budget for educating their slaves. At this time they were still in the wilderness, exiles in a “no man’s land,” with no tangible assets except what they carried on their backs.


Moses was God’s man, a man who spoke with God face to face. God had been giving Moses detailed instructions for leading Israel to freedom. He had given Moses incredible authority by bringing to pass everything Moses had said would happen. If anyone ever had a direct line to God, it was Moses. When he formed government in Israel, how did God tell him to do it?


“Choose some wise, understanding and respected men…” Who chose the leadership? Moses? Aaron and Miriam? No, the people of Israel! The very first thing that God did through Moses when establishing government was to give the people the right and authority to choose.


What an amazing God! In all of His infinite knowledge and wisdom God did not impose His will. He could have said to Moses, “You choose some wise and understanding men and put them over Israel.” That would have been more like the model they had seen in Egypt. That would have been more like what was being modeled by the tribal nations surrounding them. But God did something so radical, so dangerous, so not of this world, that we are still trying to grapple with the principle in our modern age. He gave the people of Israel the right to choose their political leaders.


We could say, then, that a second principle of government is that God gives the authority of governance to the people. God delegated by law and decree to the people the right and responsibility of choosing who would rule over them. He made it a bottom up authority as opposed to the top down authority of the Egyptian pharaohs. He gave the people power. Many people today, in and out of Christian circles, believe the important thing is to tell the public what to do. We often assume that people do not have the experience, the education, the grasp of issues to make proper choices. Surely it would be better to start them off gradually and nurture them into the process of responsibility. But God began the process of discipling Israel in their new freedom by giving them the responsibility to choose who would lead them.


This principle is profoundly supported throughout the biblical history of Israel, a nation ruled by judges for some 470 years. The people observed and interacted with the nations surrounding them, and saw that these nations had kings. Israel liked this idea! Israel had some good judges, but they had some real losers topped off by the notorious Samson. They decided they needed a king, and told Samuel, the prophet to the nation.3 Samuel sought God and God responded very clearly. He did not want them to have a king, and He gave them a very sizable list of reasons why. But the people persisted. They wanted a king! God relented and told Samuel they could choose what they wanted. Think about this! God gave them the king that He did not want because that is what they chose. A king was not the best choice, but this is what they, as a nation, chose. God had given the people the authority to choose their political leaders, and, having made His preference known, He stuck to that principle. Israel decided to have a king, and God sought to help them choose a king. God went beyond sticking to His principles, He sought to bless the kings that Israel chose. Saul, David, and Solomon were all mightily used by God, but they were still the system of governance He did not want.


Perhaps you are thinking, “But didn’t the prophets actually choose the kings?” This is fascinating to track in scripture. God did use the prophets to point to the leader He thought would serve their best interests. At God’s direction they anointed these leaders with oil, prayed and prophesied over them.4 But we do not see a king in Israel actually crowned king until we hear words something like, “All Israel gathered and took so and so as their king.”5 After the people made their choice, the king realized his authority.


This principle of the authority of the people to choose their political leaders is tested in the life of David. When Saul died, the Kingdom of Israel was divided over who would lead them. The House of Judah had chosen Saul’s rival, David, who had already been anointed to be king over Israel by Samuel. But Saul had a son, Ish-Bosheth, and Israel chose him to be their king. Two leaders of Ish-Bosheth’s raiding bands decided David should be King of Israel as well as Judah. They murdered Ish-Bosheth and took his head to David. Rather than accept their offer to be king, David executed them for the murder.6 He remained in Hebron until all the tribes of Israel came to David and asked him to be King.7


David understood, having studied the books of Moses, that God had given the authority of choosing political leaders to the people.


We have to wonder why God would design government to have its authority in the people. Wouldn’t it be better for people to be told by a loving, benevolent God what is best for them? Evidently not. This subject is too broad to cover in this introductory volume. But it appears that the discipleship of a nation, as well as individuals, is tied to the cause-and-effect learning process of experiencing the blessing or cursing that comes automatically from making choices. In other words, it was more important for Israel to make their choice, even if it was not a perfect choice, and to learn from the consequences. Weighty implications, but they will have to wait for future study.

Character Does Matter

1:13 Choose some wise, understanding, and respected men….


God did not leave Israel floundering in a vacuum with their choices of political leaders. He gave them guidelines. Some of those guidelines focused on character, knowledge, and the leader’s reputation. A Nigerian friend once said to me that one of the big differences between a Westerner and an African is the standard we use to judge the importance of an individual. A Westerner, he felt, was more prone to assess a person by what he owned, what he did, or his position. An African, on the other hand, drew his assessment of an individual from what other people thought about that person. In other words, you had status in the tribe if the community gave you status, not because of some external, such as possessions or your work. The African approach is more relational and is tied to the character and observable actions of the individual within a community setting. When it comes to political leaders, God, it would appear, leans toward the African perspective. The people were made responsible to assess the character of the leaders they would grant political power over them, and then live with the consequences of their choices.


Moses gave Israel three things to look for in their leaders – wisdom, understanding, and respectability. Money and power, though not disquali- fied, are not mentioned as criteria. In order for these character attributes to be evaluated, the leaders had to be known by the people and the people had to determine what wise and understanding meant. What made an individual respectable? How was wisdom demonstrated? What did it mean to have understanding? As a community they not only had to search for an individual who embodied these qualities, they had to search for understanding about the nature of those qualities. They would enter a national debate on character, if you will. God was developing them as citizens, not just giving them government.


1:13 …from each of your tribes…


From the time Israel left Egypt, God began to emphasize the importance of inclusion in the political and legal process. He reminded Israel that they must remember what it was like to be slaves who had no rights. He reminded them repeatedly that they were not to have one standard of justice for the Israelite and another for the alien. They were not to leave any tribe without representation in their new land and government. Political representation is a biblical principle. If the purpose of government is to truly represent the people by arbitrating their disputes and issues of justice, if the authority of government truly comes from the people, then the people have to be truly represented.


The great error of the South African government of the 20th Century was that one white tribe declared the right to rule over all other tribes. The right to vote was extended only to the white tribes. The black tribes were left without representation. If we understand these scriptures and that God could not bless a system that left a people disenfranchised from the powers that ruled over them, then it would come as no surprise that the South African government of this era could achieve no lasting stability. In principle it was doomed to fail. But understanding here will also lead to great admiration for the leadership of Nelson Mandela and his commitment not to form a government unless every black tribe and every white tribe was represented. The upholding of this principle safeguarded the nation and held civil war at bay. When we think of the Aboriginal in Australia, the Laplander in Finland, and the Native American Indian, we are seeing situations fraught with potential conflict because the principle of representation has been diluted or ignored altogether.


1:14 You answered me, “What you propose to do is good.”


The authority of the people is reinforced again. In this very short sentence Moses established that his plan had the backing of the nation. Israel agreed to be governed in this way.


Israel had not always agreed with Moses. In his first attempt to take them into the promised land, they said, in fear and unbelief, that they would not go. They staged what we would call today a military coup, and the men of fighting age refused to take on the challenge of the promised land in spite of Moses’, Joshua’s, and Caleb’s exhortations.8 God was ready for them to move into the promised land. Moses was ready for them to move. The people were not in agreement. The government lacked consensus and could not move ahead. Israel suffered the consequences of their choices by spending forty years in the wilderness. In the account of David’s appointment as king over Israel, the house of Judah and the house of Saul did not have consensus; David waited rather than contest the will of the people.9


This principle of consensus is so important that Jesus refers to it as a principle of God’s kingdom in the New Testament. “Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined…”10 The principle is this: a nation with consensus has a more stable government. A nation without consensus is a weakened nation. Therefore a government that tries to impose its will on the people will be less stable in the long term than a government that rules with consensus. Certainly the specific issues are also important, but that is not our subject here. However, consensus itself is clearly an important principle of government in scripture and is one of the foundations of strong government. This gives us understanding when we look at nations in crisis or certain national issues. Ireland and South Africa have been on the front pages of world news for a very long time, with both nations being in great turmoil. In How The Irish Saved Civilization, Thomas Cahill reveals that the Irish have never been able to agree on who governed them. For the 8,000 plus years of Irish history, their kings and tribes have been at war. Failure of a few attempts to rule themselves with an Irish king led them to seek French, Scottish, and, finally, English monarchs to rule over them. The failure to find any semblance of consensus has led to millennia of Irish turmoil. Conversely, it makes the importance of the Irish accord signed in the 1990’s even more resounding. For perhaps the first time in their very long history, the Irish are beginning to see that agreement and consensus are essential if a nation is to rule itself. God is discipling Ireland.


When we look at situations today such as East Timor, former Yugoslavia, and the former Soviet Union we are seeing, in part, the fruit of rule forced on a people with little or no involvement, let alone any level of consensus.


The Judicial Branch

Deuteronomy 1:16-18
16 And I charged your judges at that time: Hear the disputes between your brothers and judge fairly, whether the case is between brother Israelites or between one of them and an alien.
17 Do not show partiality in judging; hear both small and great alike. Do not be afraid of any man, for judgment belongs to God. Bring me any case too hard for you, and I will hear it.
18 And at that time I told you everything you were to do.


Now Moses turned his attention to the judicial purpose of government and began to give instructions to those who would hear the disputes of the people. These verses lay down such powerful principles of justice that every just court in the world uses them, and every court on earth today would be more just if the principles were thoroughly implemented. First, verse 16 exhorts Israel’s judges to judge fairly. Moses goes on to define fairly very specifically. Fairly means extending the same quality of justice to every individual whether they were Israelite or alien, national or foreigner. This is a major theme in God’s discipleship of Israel. Over and over again in their biblical history God reminds them of what it was like to be slaves under the authority of Egypt, what it was like to be a foreigner and unjustly treated, and what it was like to be disenfranchised from the justice system of the nation they were in. He used this tragic part of their history to call them to a higher level of justice in their own nation. Justice in Israel was to be blind to nationality, color, gender, creed, or politics. Justice was to have a level playing field and to treat all people equally.


In verse 17, Israel’s judicial system was exhorted to judge without partiality and a second class distinction is given: their court system was not to draw a distinction between “small and great.” Justice in Israel was not to be tilted toward the powerful and influential or the rich. All people were to be heard. The slave in Egypt had no voice and God told Israel that they were to demonstrate a higher level of justice in their nation.


Moses reminded them that justice belongs to God. As judges, they were not to be afraid of other people, powers, or influences. They were to remember that, as governmental agents of justice, they stood first and foremost before God. God understood that the human race was fallen and prone to sin and that the Jews, being human, would be just as prone to corruption as any other group of people or any nation. He was challenging them to rise above this in their system of government. Moses laid down the last principle of the judicial system in this passage.There is to be a process of appeal. For cases too hard for a finding, or when findings and evidence were inconclusive, the system allowed another hearing – this time before Moses.


Some years ago I was privileged to speak at a conference where a head of state sat directly before me in the front row. This man was a Christian political leader in a pagan nation. His desire was to use his office to influence his nation for righteousness. When I inquired about the judicial system in his country, I found that the president hires and fires at will all judges in this nation. It is good that the president is concerned for the souls of his people, and I mean that with all sincerity. But the president could move his nation toward God by changing the justice system as well. In this country, a judge faced with a less than obvious finding, knowing he could lose his livelihood, might favor the preference of the president who holds his job in his hand. This is human nature. And God never forgets that man is fallen. He lays down every principle and system with our fallen state in mind. One judge can be corrupted some of the time, but it is harder to corrupt two judges in an appeal, and so forth. God understands that without checks and balances in the system, fallen people will abuse power and corrupt justice.


We looked at five basic principles of government from nine verses in Deuteronomy.


  1. Government is ordained by God and essential to the life of a nation.
  2. Government gets its authority from the people.
  3. The character of a political leader is important and to be weighed by the people in their choices.
  4. Government is to be representative of all people.
  5. One of government’s primary purposes is to provide a source of just resolution to disputes and conflicts of the people.


The primary purpose of this introductory volume is not to teach a complete biblical approach to government or any other domain. Our purpose is to reveal how our split Christian thinking has alienated us from God’s great wisdom and teaching in each domain and to demonstrate how God’s Word teaches us principles for all of life, as we have seen in these verses on government. In order to get the mind of Christ on government, we are going to have to study the subject from Genesis to Revelation and get the whole counsel of God on the subject. This will take time and patience. It took Moses forty years to lay down God’s teaching in the wilderness. We need a generation of faithful Bible students to help us re-inherit the truth. Are you one of them? Start now!


One great reformer said that peace is not just the absence of conflict: it is the presence of justice. When we pray for peace, let us remember God requires that we be involved in working for justice.


Themes to look for in studying and coloring government in the scriptures are: law; government; the military; legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government; national and local authority; and community development from the legislative or executive perspective.
The domain of government reveals: The King of Kings
The primary attribute of God revealed in government: Justice
God governs this domain through: Delegation of authority to the people
The color I used: Purple


To provide and ensure justice and equity for all citizens including executive, judicial, military, law enforcement and central community services. Great issues include: justice for the weak and voiceless in society including children, women, and immigrants.


God is calling you to be a good citizen as part of the witness of your faith. Political action and interest are not “secular” in the sense that they are not important for the believer. God instituted government, and He gave you and me responsibility for it. God is just and wants all His people to work for justice. First of all, it is our responsibility under God to be informed and to be involved. Do you vote? If you live in a country where participation is allowed, it is your moral obligation as a Christian to be involved. If you live in a country where you are denied that right, you must pray and work to see your nation’s legal system changed. As believers we should be volunteering at the polls, helping people get registered, and making it possible to have a place to vote. We should explain to our children that God gave us this great right and responsibility to be involved in our political life, and we must cherish and safeguard this right. As believers we are to believe that our involvement makes a difference because it makes a difference to God. We are to teach our children that serving in government is a high calling, and if God has gifted our children in this area then He may call them and favor them as He did David, Daniel, Joseph, Nehemiah, and others. If this is the case, they will have a much higher purpose in their occupations than “just making money.” They must know that they serve God and must have the mind of Christ, the power of the Holy Spirit, and strategic prayer support if their work is to accomplish something of lasting value for the Kingdom.


You are God’s strategy for discipling your community and nation. Will you respond to the call?


If you are a lawyer, judge, police officer, civil servant, soldier, elected official, social worker, or serve your nation’s government in any capacity, you have a high calling from God. The pillars of God’s kingdom are justice and righteousness, and your calling is to support the pillar of justice. You are challenged by scripture to be God’s extension of His justice to the people whom you serve. It does not matter if you work in a system that is fair as Solomon did, or in one that is somewhat or thoroughly unjust as Joseph and Daniel did; you have a calling from God to give and work for the highest level of justice possible in the system. First, you must be just in your own dealings with people; then you must work to make the institutions, systems, and laws just. What would your nation look like if every Christian professional made this their passion and pursued it with a sense of call? God will start with one. Are you that one? Will you study to take on the mind of Christ in the political arena and apply what you are learning first to your own life and work, and then, where possible, to the institutions themselves? You are God’s strategy for discipling your nation.


1. Patrick Johnstone, “Operation World”, 1986


2. Romans 13:6


3. 1 Samuel 8


4. 1 Samuel 10:1, 1 Samuel 16:13, I Kings 1:34


5. 1 Samuel 10:24, 2 Samuel 2:4, 2 Samuel 5:1-3, 1 Kings 1:39-40


6. 2 Samuel 4


7. 2 Samuel 5:1-5


8. Numbers 14:6-9


9. 2 Samuel 5:1


10. Matthew 12:25