The Bible and Government
Biblical Principles: Basis for America’s Laws
Jesus did not usher in a political kingdom. But Christianity has been the single largest influence on western society. America’s Founding Fathers had the benefit of thousands of years of history to draw on when establishing their government. They could see what had failed in the past. There had been times when the state had absolute authority and persecuted the church. At other times the church had effective control of the state. The founders saw that neither of these extremes were ideal. They developed a system that stood the test of time. Observers everywhere generally agree that American’s Founding Fathers achieved a solid balance between church and state, one consistent with biblical concepts.
In a ten-year study undertaken at the Univesity of Houston, researchers examined 15,000 documents from America’s founders and determined that 34% of the quotations came from the Bible, the highest by far of any source.
But many people today reject the notion that the Bible should be used as a basis for law. “Narrow minded and outdated!” they say. Ideas have consequences. Let’s examine the implications if the Bible is or is not the standard for society and its legal system.
Without an objective standard of truth upon which to base society, the result is that whoever gains the most political power will dominate. Christians believe that the Bible offers ultimate, objective, and absolute truth—as opposed to relative “truth” (i.e., arbitrary “absolutes”). There was a general consensus on this point in America from the earliest settlers until only very recently.
Founding Father and educator Noah Webster (1758-1843) had this to say: “The moral principles and precepts contained in the scriptures ought to form the basis of all our civil constitutions and laws. All the miseries and evils which men suffer from vice, crime, ambition, injustice, oppression, slavery, and war, proceed from their despising or neglecting the precepts contained in the Bible.”
So it was natural for the early Americans to turn to the Bible for guidance as to how to make civil law. This was the standard for law beginning with the Mayflower Compact all the way through the constitutions of all 50 states. By the way, what was the stated purpose of the Pilgrims as expressed in the Mayflower Compact? Contrary to revisionist history, their purpose was not to find reigious freedom—they already had found religious freedom in Holland. Their purpose is clearly stated as being for the “Glory of God and advancement of the Christian Faith.” The Pilgrims were missionaries.
The first state constitution was the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut (1639). You may read this document at http://www.law.ou.edu/hist/orders.html. The framers of this document desired that every aspect of it be based on the Bible (See DeMar’s book listed below, America’s Christian History, pgs. 57-58). This document was a model for other constitutions including the U.S. Consitution which followed. The above table outlines the wide spread influence of biblical thought on America’s legal system. See also the link at the bottom entitled Puritans and the Bible.
Biblical absolutes enshrined into law offered a consensus that meant freedom without chaos. One aspect of this is that, as stated in the Declaration of Independence, there exists “unalienable rights” of men. Rights were unalienable because they were given by God. This is very significant because in most societies up until that time (and indeed even today), rights are only conferred by whoever is in power at the time.
Because the American consensus was that the Bible was TRUTH, the tyranny of a few or even the tyranny of the majority could be overcome by one person standing up and appealing to the Bible. The freedom of expression in general in America is a result of our biblical system. Those people who feel free today to condemn the Bible are, ironically, among those who benefit most by the freedoms inherant in our biblical system!
An important aspect of our system of government is that it is based on the Rule of Law. This concept is a direct descendant of Hebrew law and the Ten Commandments. Together with the concept of unalienable rights from God, these concepts helped ensure a way of life that respected the dignity of every individual.
It is helpful to contrast the American Revolution of 1776 with the French Revolution of 1789. While the American revolution began with an appeal to the sovereinty of God, the French Revolution was founded on the sovereignty of man. The French movement was a product of Voltaire’s philosophy which specifically attempted to replace biblical Christianity with man’s reason as the ultimate standard.
But the French revolution was a disaster. Anarchy and tyranny reigned with 40,000 people being murdered, the favorite method being the guillotine. Their new constitution only lasted 2 years. Indeed, France has had 7 constitutions during the time that America has only had one.
Another important aspect to America’s constitution is that it has as its basis the distinctly Christian idea that man is basically sinful. Every one of our founding fathers understood this truth. It has been said that the 16th century Protestant reformer John Calvin, who is the theologian most associated with the biblical doctrine of man’s “depravity,” was the single most influential person to our Constitution. The result was that the founders built into the Constitution an elaborate system of checks and balances. This is evident in the horizontal plane of executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. It is also evident in the vertical plane of federalism—states’ powers versus federal powers.
Again, let’s look at the evidence by contrasting the American system with other systems. Other systems are based on the idea that man is basically good, or at least perfectable by law and education. This is the basis for communism as well as the religious states of Islam. But states based on these utopian ideas are always failures and particularly repressive to their citizens. These governments end up as a police state and take away rights of the citizens.
It has been said that America has never been a Christian nation, or that our founders were a bunch of atheists, agnostics, and deists. But consider the facts. At least 50 of the 55 framers of the U. S. Constitution were Christians (see M. E. Bradford’s book listed below). Every single American president has taken his oath on the Bible and has referenced God in his inaugural address. Every one of the 50 state constitutions call on God for support. The Supreme Court, in 1892 after a an exhaustive 10-year study of the matter, said: “This is a relgious people. This is a Christian nation.” See Holy Trinity Decision. Even today, the Supreme Court opens each session with the verbal declaration, “God save the United States of America.”
Perhaps the most famous statement in America’s Declaration of Independence is, “All men are created equal.” The concept of universal human rights and equality comes exclusively from the biblical ideas that all people are created in the image of God and from Jesus’ sacrificial death for all. This concept was unkown in history outside of biblically based cultures.
There are, however, two areas in which the American system failed— (1) racial slavery and (2) compassionateless wealth. But both of these flaws are failures to implement biblical Christianity, rather than being caused by it.
A few comments about slavery are important because so many people throw it in the face of Christians. Racial slavery is not a biblical ethic. Yes, a form of slavery—indentured servitude— is condoned in the Bible. But this was a method in which people could pay off debts and was not what we think of as racial slavery (Bible and Slavery). In fact, the Bible specifically condemns the slave trade (Exodus 21:16; 1 Timothy 1:10). The Bible offers a unique framework for people as being equals: We were all are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27) and we are all equal in God’s sight (1 Corinthians 12:13, Galatians 3:28). Race, interestingly, is never even mentioned in the Bible.
Historian Glenn Sunshine in his book Why You Think the Way You Do explains that, “Christians were the first people in history to oppose slavery systematically. Early Christians purchased slaves in the markets simply to set them free.”
Most people are under the false impression that America’s Founding Fathers were overwhelmingly in favor of slavery. For the truth about this see Barton on Slavery.
Professing Christians who held slaves prostituted the Bible by letting culture influence their faith (just as some unfaithful Christians today have abortions). Yet, the abolition movement was primarily a Christian movement. Slavery was stopped in England largely as a result of the tireless efforts of an evangelical Christian by the name of William Wilburforce. Through his work in Parliament, England stopped the slave trade in 1807 and abolished slavery totally in 1833. Unfortunately, there was no such early dynamic abolitionist leader in America.
The other problem in western culture has been unredistributed wealth. Neither the Bible (Mark 14:7) nor the American system seeks to have all people have equal outcomes. We are all created equal and we all have an equal opportunity to pursue our dreams, but we are not expected to all achieve equally.
Yet, the industrialization of the West brought great wealth to a few, while some were victimized. It can be argued that the working class was victimized to a degree in the early days of the industrial revolution. Fortunately, laws are now in place that protect the worker. And we have child labor laws, for example.
Christianity is an important component of capitalism because it places a moral restraint on a person’s activities. If a person feels that there is no consequence to his actions beyond civil law, he is less constrained to treat people fairly. But a Christian has a moral restraint because he believes that he his ultimately accountable to God for his actions, for his fair treatment of others.
The issue is unrestrained capitalism. Later in our history, America instituted anti-trust laws and environmental laws. These laws can be seen as consistent with biblical capitalism (“Christian capitalism”) as opposed to darwinian capitalism. Instead of capitalism based solely on the survival of the fittest, modern American capitalism uses law to make the playing field more equal and provide equal protection under the law—while still enouraging entrepeneurism.
A free society must have an objective moral constraint upon its people. This moral constraint, as John Adams insisted (above quote) will destroy not only government but business as well. Politicians without such constraint will find ways to destroy the Constitution to suit their desire for power. It is such moral constraint that monitors business people as well to charge a fair price, pay a fair wage, not cheat customers or employees, to help the needy, etc. We once asked an applicant applying for a job whether he believed in moral absolutes. Reflecting the secular attitude of his business school background, he quickly repied, “No.” We then asked him, “Then how do we know you won’t cheat our customers?” He was stunned by the question and had no realistic answer.
As a general statement, it is an inherent truth of capitalism that in the long run people succeed in business if they provide services and goods that people want. Biblical capitalism—even more so—emphasizes service over strict selfish ambition.
It should be emphasized that capitalism has its roots in Christianity. Historian Glenn Sunshine in his book Why You Think the Way You Do points out that the work ethic in Christianity is rooted in the Bible. God himself works, so Christians have seen an inherent goodness in labor and productivity. Another key component of capitalism is property rights. The Old Testament focuses on rules for property ownership. Throughout history, societies influenced by Christianity have had a stronger emphasis on property rights than other cultures. The idea that people are entitled to the fruits of their labor, together with property rights and the rule of law, laid a firm foundation for capitalism.
So again, the flaws in American society are not in biblical Christianity, rather in the failure to implement it. If the voluntary individual compassion of Christ were to dominate society, poverty—while it would never disappear (Mark 14:7)—would be lessened. The solution is not forced redistribution of wealth, which is tantamount to stealing. The solution is public emphasis on biblical ethics.
In summary, let’s refer to our nation’s creed—The Pledge of Allegiance—which sums up our way of life. It is a based on a three-legged stool of God, liberty, and justice. All three must be there. If God is not there, ethics and rights are defined by whoever has the most power. And in order to have liberty, we must have justice. The first role of government is to prevent evil (Romans 13:1-5, 1 Peter 2:13-17) so that the rest of society can live in peace. Evil is only meaningful within a biblical context.
When our culture desparately needs what Christianity offers, the courts are foolishly removing the Bible. Liberty demands ethical obligation. We must have a common understanding of moral absolutes, or as John Adams said, “We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
America is grounded in the idea of “self government.” What does this mean? To say that self-government is only the ability of citizens to vote and to elect their representatives is to have an incomplete notion of self-government. Government in biblical thought is not just civil government. In fact, civil government is the least important aspect of government. Government is first that of the individual to govern himself. This is why religion must be encouraged, as John Adams noted. The founding fathers of America clearly understood this. The second most important level of government is the family. The third is the church. Last is civil government.
And within civil government, our Founding Fathers understood that local and state government was more important than federal government. Our Constitution specifically limits the powers of the federal government, even though this precept hs been continually usurped.
The Founders referenced 2 Corinthians 3:17 in support of freedom above all else. This passage states, “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.” The Liberty Bell declares from Leviticus 25:10: “Proclaim Liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.”
Liberals and secularists have it backwards. They think that the federal government is the most important. This is consistent with totalitarianism, but not with the American concept of self-government. Big government socialism is not consistent with the Bible. Not only is the government inefficient in delivering most services, it more often than not hurts those it is intended to help. The welfare mess is classic case in point, now proven over decades of failure. (See our Biblical Capitalism blog post.)
Libertarians are also wrong about government. There is no warrant for everyone being allowed to do whatever they want without restraint. Objective moral values exist. Nobody has the right to do wrong. Taken to its logical conclusion, libertarianism is anarchy. Even in a society that does not accept the Bible as the standard of truth, America’s founders believed, as codified in the Declaration of Independence, that objective moral values can be determined at least by reason. The Bible itself (first 3 chapters of Romans) affirms that by nature and conscience all men understand the existence of objective moral values. In government, this is sometimes referred to as “natural law.”
What is the purpose of civil government, according to the Bible? The purpose of civil government is very simply to be God’s servant to restrain evil and reward good (Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14). Christians are (a) to pray for and obey governmental authority (1 Timothy 2:1-4), (b) unless it forbids what God requires or requires what God forbids, in which case Christians cannot submit, and some form of civil disobedience becomes inescapable (Acts 4:18-31, 5:17-29), (c) to influence government because all of life is under God’s authority (Psalm 24:1; Psalm 83:18; Isaiah 42:8; Matthew 28:18-20; 2 Corinthians 10:5). In a participatory democracy, Christians are under obligation to participate in civil government (Matthew 22:21).
As put by Dinesh D’Souza in his book What’s So Great about Christianity, “Christianity enhanced the notion of political and social accountability by providing a new model: that of servant leadership. In ancient Greece and Rome no one would have dreamed of considering political leaders anyone’s servants. The job of the leader was to lead. But Christ invented the notion that the way to lead is by serving the needs of others, especially those who are the most needy. Mark 10:43 quotes Christ:’Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant…for even the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve.’ And in Luke 22:27 we hear Jesus say, ‘Who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.’ In the new Christian framework, leaders are judged by how well they respond to the concerns and welfare of the people. Over time, people once known as ‘followers’ or ‘subjects’ become ‘customers’ and ‘constituents’.”
Should Christians be involved in politics and government? We argue that Christians should care about politics because, ultimately, we care about people. Government has an increasingly large influence on the lives of people, thus we cannot ignore politics. Further, almost every law reflects someone’s idea of morality. Since God’s morality is ultimate and universal, society benefits by the Christian’s participation in the public square. That is, society benefits when biblical truth is reflected in law. Indeed, Christians should be involved in all aspects of society, including law, art, music, economics, science, etc.
There are numerous Bible passages that confirm the importance of God and Government. These include:
Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. (Matthew 22:21)
We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ. ( 2 Cor 10:5)
The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof. (Psalm 24:1)
We must obey God rather than man. (Acts 5:29)
You are the salt of the earth…the light of the world. (Matthew 5:13-16)
The wicked shall be turned into hell, and all the nations that forget about God. (Psalm 9:17)
Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord. (Psalm 33:12)
On account of me, you will stand before governors and kings as witnesses to them. (Mark 13:9)
The good influence of godly citizens causes a city to prosper. (Proverbs 11:11)
I, the Lord, speak the truth; I declare what is right. (Isaiah 45:19)
We are not trying to please men, but God, who tests our hearts. (1 Thessalonians 2:4)
Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil. (Isaiah 5:20-21)
Thou shalt not kill. (Exodus 20:13-15)
Do not give the devil a foothold. (Ephesians 4:27)
A wise man attacks the city of the mighty and pulls down the stronghold in which they trust. (Proverbs 21:22)
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness. (Matthew 5:10-12)
Furthermore, you shall select out of all the people able men who fear God, men of truth, those who hate dishonest gain; and you shall place these over them, as leaders, of hundreds, of fifties and of tens. (Exodus 18:21)
When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice; but when the wicked beareth rule, the people mourn. (Proverbs 29:2)
When rulers are wicked, their people are too. (Proverbs 29:16)
For the wicked shall not rule the godly, lest the godly be forced to do wrong. (Psalm 125:3)
Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labor in vain. (Psalm 127:1)
Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves. (Proverbs 13:8-9)
To the Jews I became like a Jew…. (1 Corinthians 9:20-24)
Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me.” (Matthew 28:18)
Fill the earth and subdue it. (Genesis 1:26-28)
Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. (Matthew 6:10)