President Biden’s grandiose Build Back Better plan seeks to expand the size and scope of the federal government to a degree not seen since Johnson’s Great Society. But mention any limits to the power of government and people on the left and right bare their fangs. If they were porcupines, they would raise their quills. Most people assume that the state must have absolute power, or we will kill and eat each other.
God disagrees. Let’s look at the most famous passage on government in the New Testament, Romans 13. Paul launches the discussion with what appears to be an absolute command:
“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.”
Verse four continues,
“For he is God’s servant for your good…”
Few theologians read past the first half of verse four and conclude that God has written a blank check to governments to do anything they desire if someone views it as good. They employ the first half of verse four to justify setting minimum wages and maximum prices, providing healthcare, welfare and education, building roads and airports and many other activities.
However, the second half of verse four reads, “…He is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer.” That sentence gives us a clue as the role God thinks government should play – to punish evil people.
The great political theologian Oliver O’Donovan wrote in his book, Desire of Nations, that Paul had pruned the role of government back to its original one of punishing evil because the Father had given Christ all authority, as he said in Matt. 28:18, “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me.”
Statists of the left and right bristle at such a suggestion and argue that Paul is merely giving us one of the many jobs of government, not all them. Specifying some activities of the state doesn’t exclude it from engaging in others. If authority is a public good, like air, so that my use of it doesn’t diminish yours and both could have as much as we wanted, then critics of O’Donovan would be right.
But authority isn’t a public good; it’s a private one. Competing authorities is a zero-sum game like poker in which the winner of a hand takes money from the losers. The one who has power over me diminishes my power. If I take back that power, I diminish his. An officer in the military has power that the enlisted men under him don’t. He has reduced their power to act. If they rebel and take back some of that authority, the officer loses what authority he had.
Paul wrote in Romans 13 that governing authorities are servants of God. The Greek word is the same as the one for deacon. Governments have no authority but that given to them by God. He assigned government the role of punishing evil people, those who violate the God-given rights to life, liberty and property of others. If the state takes on more roles, it steals the authority from God and from citizens.
And the state’s role is even more limited because the state has no money of its own. All it has comes from taking the property of others through taxation. The state diminishes the wealth of individuals to perform its God-given duty. God has given the state the authority to tax people to perform its role. Jesus said to give to Caesar what belongs to him (Luke 20:25). Paul confirms it in Romans 13:6 and Peter agrees in I Peter 2:19.
But for the state to expand its role beyond that of punishing evil, it must take more of the people’s wealth to pay for it. As with authority, it must reduce the wealth of citizens to expand its role and in doing so conflicts with citizens’ right to property. “Thou shalt not steal” applies to governments as much as citizens. At what point does taxation become theft?
Statists argue that under a democracy the government cannot steal because the people give their consent to the taxes. But God never said, “Thou shalt not steal unless the majority approves of the theft.” Individuals have rights to life, liberty and property that the state cannot infringe upon. The right to life is the positive restatement of “Thou shalt not murder.” The right to property is the positive of “Thou shalt not steal,” including the government. If the state steals from its citizens, then democracy becomes the tyranny of the majority.
Wealth is limited, so if the state wants more of it to perform roles other than its God-given one, it must take wealth from citizens who have the right to it. It must increase its authority and wealth and reduce those of individuals. But who gave the state the authority to do so?
The theologians at the University of Salamanca, Spain, during the Reformation arrived at the principles of limited government centuries before O’Donovan. They determined that the state has no authority beyond that to punish evil people. God had given individuals the rights to life, liberty and property and the people contracted with the government to protect those rights because they understood the benefits of specialization before Adam Smith. John Locke learned his contract theory of government from those scholars. If the state goes beyond its God-given duties and raises the necessary taxes, it commits theft.
This argument won’t convince statists because they love the state and most pick a verse from the Bible, plant a flag on it and camp there. They read, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities” and stop. They ignore the principles of hermeneutics that instruct us to consider all verses on a topic to distill systematic theology about it. Good systematic theology is hard work, and few people want to do it.
The theologians of Salamanca and Oliver O’Donovan have done the hard work for us. Whether we like it or not, God in the Bible has given the government a very limited role, that of punishing evil people and nothing more. The Magna Carta and the U.S. Constitution instantiate that principle.
A strong argument against Biden’s Build Back Better leviathan is that it is illegal under the Constitution and violates God’s role for government.
Roger D. McKinney lives in Broken Arrow, OK with his wife, Jeanie. He has three children and six grandchildren. He earned an M.A. in economics from the University of Oklahoma and B.A.s from the University of Tulsa and Baptist Bible College. He has written two books, Financial Bull Riding and God is a Capitalist: Markets from Moses to Marx, and articles for the Affluent Christian Investor, the Foundation for Economic Education, The Mises Institute, the American Institute for Economic Research and Townhall Finance. Previous articles can be found at facebook.com/thechristiancapitalist. He is a conservative Baptist and promoter of the Austrian school of economics.