President Ronald Reagan once observed, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’” Those who promote “big government” with all its welfare programs and social engineering believe government agencies and money can and should solve all problems of life.
At the same time, many of us who yearn for a return to “small government” that sticks to its limited roles and powers are tempted to agree with founding-era patriot Thomas Paine who said that “government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil.”
Paine was half right: Government is necessary, but as a gift of God to man it cannot be evil. As the details of our Constitution were being hammered out in the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin reminded his fellow delegates on June 28, 1787, that they ought to appeal to the “Father of Lights” to illuminate their understanding of government. James 1:17 states, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with Whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.” Just as God ordained the jurisdictions of the family and the church, he also ordained civil government for our good. According to Romans 13:1-4,
Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. … 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.
By this passage, we see that our leaders are ordained as “ministers of God to thee for good” and as a punisher of those who do evil. Civil government, therefore, is a necessary good, not a necessary evil.
But why is it necessary? Because man is a fallen creature in need of a personal savior and external forces to deal with “him that doeth evil.” “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” If men were inherently good, then God would have no need to ordain “ministers for good.” As James Madison explained in Federalist 51:
But what is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels no government would be necessary.
Madison rejected Paine’s overstatement that government was itself evil, but recognized that it was needed precisely because of the existence of evil. In his “Advice to My Country” in 1835, Madison wrote:
It has been said that all Government is an evil. It would be more proper to say that the necessity of any Government is a misfortune. This necessity however exists; and the problem to be solved is, not what form of Government is perfect, but which of the forms is least imperfect.
Thus, a proper form of government must take into account not only the sovereignty of God over it, but also the “misfortune” that was the fall of man in the Garden of Eden.
After the War for Independence, the Founders weighed many forms of government as options for the United States and found most of them wanting. A monarchy, they knew, placed too much power in the hand of one man and was susceptible to totalitarianism. Yet a pure democracy placed too much power in the hands of the majority of the people – a “mobocracy,” as some called it – and was susceptible to anarchy and oppression of the minority.
The Father of Lights did lead the Founding Fathers to decide on a constitutional republic as the form of government for the fledgling United States. The Constitution would form the “supreme law of the land,” the rule of law by which all leaders would be held accountable and limited in power. A republican government would allow indirect, representative government officials elected by the people and leading with the consent of the governed.
In the weeks before the Declaration of Independence was issued, the town of Malden, Mass., issued an official call for independence that captured well the desire of the American people:
[W]e are confirmed in the opinion, that the present age would be deficient in their duty to GOD, their posterity and themselves, if they do not establish an AMERICAN REPUBLIC. This is the only form of government we wish to see established; for we can never be willingly subject to any other King than He who, being possessed of infinite wisdom, goodness and rectitude, is alone fit to possess unlimited power.
Only under such a framework did the Founders believe the government would sufficiently rule the governed and, just as importantly, be controlled itself.
Keeping in mind that men are “not angels,” the Founders made the government accountable to the people and limited in its authority. They separated the powers of government into three branches – legislative, executive and judicial – with overlapping checks and balances one against the others. No one person, body, or branch of government would be superior, and all would be subject to the Constitution as ratified (and amended) by the people themselves.
To adequately be a gift of justice and peace to the people, civil government must recognize that it is ordained by, and a servant of, the Most High God. When government does not recognize that it is “under God,” then (as in Communist China) it becomes a tool of oppression and tyranny over the people. As Reagan so eloquently stated on Aug. 23, 1984, “If we ever forget that we’re one nation under God, then we will be a nation gone under.”
In the best form of government the world has ever seen, it is essential that “we the people” give honor to whom honor is due, keep our leaders accountable and obey lawful dictates but reject those that contradict the law of God. Those are the responsibilities of citizenship that accompany God’s good gift of civil government to mankind.