Rev. Cammenga is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Loveland, Colorado.
The citizen has a duty toward the state. The Scriptures are clear that we have this duty and what the nature of this duty is. Equally clear is the teaching of Scripture that the state (Caesar, if you will) has a duty toward the citizenry.
The church has a calling here. As much as the church must preach the will of God with respect to the obedience owed the state by the citizens, the church must make plain the will of God for government. What tasks does God give to government? What calling does the government have towards those who are its subjects? When does government overstep its calling?
The Scriptures have some things to say about these questions, some basic things to say about the calling of civil government. The teaching of Scripture on this score comes out especially in the two classic passages in the New Testament that deal with the relationship between the Christian and the state (Romans 13:1-7 and I Peter 2:13-16).
The Basis For Caesar’s Calling
Of fundamental importance in understanding the calling of civil government is the proper view of government itself. What government is, has everything to do with what duties government is called to perform.
The Scriptures are not uncertain on this point. Government is an institution of God. Government has been established by God. In Romans 13:1 the apostle says that “. . . the powers that be are ordained of God.” In I Peter 2:14 we are told that government officials are sent by God.
Because government has been established by God, twice the Apostle in Romans 13 refers to the officials of government as “ministers of God.” The word “ministers” is just the word “servants.” Government officials (like all who hold office from God) are servants of God. Since God has instituted government, government officials are responsible to God. Since government has the basis of its existence in God, government is called to exist for God. This applies whether the officials of government are elected by a majority vote of the people or receive their position by heredity.
It ought to be obvious how important a proper understanding of the basis of government is to a proper understanding of government’s calling. If, for example, the view that one has of the basis of government is that government is derived, not from God, but from the consent of the governed, that view is going to have a rather drastic effect on what one conceives the calling of government to be. Then, quite obviously, the calling of government is to uphold not first of all the law of God in the public life of the nation, but the will of the majority of the people. Then the controlling question is not what does the Word of God say on a certain issue, but what are the results of the latest poll.
Nor is the particular form of government of any significant consequence. Nowhere does the Bible prescribe one legitimate form of civil government, for example democracy, so that only those who are officials in a democratic government need be regarded by the Christian as servants of God, In the Old Testament, God ruled His people through a monarchy. At the time of the New Testament, the world was being ruled by a dictator, the Caesar in Rome. It makes no essential difference, whether monarchy, or oligarchy, or democracy, the officials of government are sent by God, and as such function as the servants of God. “The powers that be (whatever they may be) are ordained by God’ (Rom. 13:1).
A Limited Calling
Since government is derived from God, God and God’s Word prescribe the proper role of government. That role is defined in Romans 13:3, 4: “For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? Do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same. For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.” The Apostle Peter expresses basically the same thing in I Peter 2:14where he teaches that the officials of government are sent by God “. . . for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well.”
The church must proclaim today, amidst all the confusion about what the government must do, what the proper calling of government is. For the most part, churches are not doing that. Instead of calling government to its God-assigned task, the synods and assemblies pass silly resolutions concerning nuclear warfare, concerning civil rights, and concerning our nation’s foreign policy. Rather than to call government to its duty, the churches become involved in the work of the government. Church leaders dabble in politics and stick their ecclesiastical noses where they do not belong. The church makes a serious mistake here. The government does not benefit, and the church and the work of the church suffer.
The calling that God assigns to government is the punishment of evildoers and the praise of them that do well. The calling of government is to uphold the law of God in the sphere of the public life of the nation. The government must concern itself with the DOING of the law of God, that is, outward obedience to the law of God on the part of the citizens. It must protect and praise (reward) the well-doer. And it must punish the evildoer. It must protect the well-doer BY punishing the evildoer.
From this it is plain that government has a LIMITED calling. God does not give government authority over everything. Government has a limited sphere of authority. It has a calling as regards the well-doing and evil-doing of its citizens—no more, no less.
That is why totalitarian governments are evil. Communist governments are evil because they usurp authority over everything. They set the government itself up as God, as the absolute authority for every area of life. And then, quite naturally, they refuse the citizens the right to worship God.
Our government, too, is moving in this direction. It is a matter of serious concern that, more and more, our government refuses to recognize the limited area over which God gives it the right to rule. This is the wrong in such a thing as our government’s involvement in social welfare programs. God does not give the government the duty to support me. Nowhere in Scripture does He give the government that duty. I am called to support myself. And then if there is a legitimate reason why I am unable to do this, if there is mercy that needs to be shown, that is the duty of the church through the office of the deaconate.
That is also the wrong in the government’s present involvement in education. Now I believe that the government has a legitimate interest in education. The government has the right to insist on it that children receive an education, an academically sound education. The welfare of the state itself is involved here. But the government does not have the right actually to do the educating of children, nor the right to dictate what is and what is not to be the content of our children’s education. Government is disobedient to God when it involves itself in areas where God has not given it authority. The calling of government is a limited calling.
A Calling to Bear the Sword
An important aspect of the calling of civil government is its calling to punish evildoers. This is often referred to as the sword power. In Romans 13:4 the Apostle says that the government “beareth not the sword in vain.” He goes on to refer to the government as “a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.” The Apostle Paul says that government officials are sent “for the punishment of evildoers” (I Peter 2:14).
Especially has God given the government the calling to punish serious offenders of His law by taking away their life. A sword, after all, is an instrument of death. God, in other words, has given the government the duty to exercise capital punishment. To put it in today’s language, God has given the government the electric chair, the gas chamber, the hangman’s noose, or the firing squad, in order to punish evildoers, and by that very fact protect well-doers.
How our government is disobedient to this plain word of God!
How our government refuses to carry out its God-given calling when it neglects to punish the evildoer. That is obvious in the whole attempt of the government to reform and rehabilitate criminals today. Our government spends millions of tax dollars on this endeavor annually. Nowhere does God give government the calling to reform or rehabilitate evildoers. The calling God gives to the government is to PUNISH evildoers. the government’s refusal to do this today is judged by God in the lawlessness that prevails in our country.
Not only is our government remiss in its duty to punish the evildoer, it fails also in its calling to praise and reward the well-doer. In many cases, in fact, it is the well-doer who is being punished. Think once of the millions of abortions performed in our country, a thing sanctioned by the government and, in some instances, even paid for by government tax dollars. In this matter the government is responsible for taking up the sword against those who are not evildoers. Or think of the government’s ominous encroachment in recent years on the Christian school movement, and its mistreatment of and penalties against certain well-doers in this area. Admittedly, the future looks dark.
In order that government may carry out its God-given task, God has given government the right of taxation. Now a government must not abuse its right of taxation in order to fund all sorts of activities that the government ought not be involved in, as our government certainly does. But government does have the right from God to tax its citizens. Part of the submission of the Christian to the government is that he is faithful in paying his levied taxes. The Apostle exhorts us in. Romans 13:6, 7: “For for this cause pay ye tribute also . . . . Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom . . . .” The Christian takes seriously the admonition of the Lord, “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s . . .” (Matthew 22:21).
This is the task of government, the calling of Caesar. For the carrying out of this calling he will be held accountable before God, now and in the day of the judgment, Woe to that servant of God, that government official, who is not able to give good account of the charge that was entrusted to him!