“When a nation sins, it will have one ruler after another. But with a man of wisdom and understanding, its stability will long continue.” (Prov 28:2)
With its startling contemporary relevance, a verse like this reminds me of a truth I discovered some years ago.
It is this: scripture contains the first principles of everything we need to know for life in this world.
It’s even there for Prime Ministers.
Our new Prime Minister makes no secret of his Christian faith. Faced with questions about it, he once said, “The Bible is not a policy handbook, and I get very worried when people try to treat it like one.”
But the Bible contains a great many foundational truths which direct and indeed limit a wise policy maker.
Take this principle, for example: governing authority is given by God.
It tells us that the one who occupies a governmental office is endowed with a particular kind of authority which God has not only created, but which He has ordained as part of life in this world, and which He permits certain individuals to steward.
Jesus said to Pilate, “You would have no authority at all unless it were given to you from above.”
The Apostle Paul writes that governing authority has been instituted by God, and to resist it is to resist what God has appointed.
A Prime Minister’s governing authority is God-given. In one sense, it means the authority is not really his own. It is from someone else. It is owned by someone else.
Paul picks up on this implication in Romans 13, describing the one who exercises governing authority as a “servant” and “minister of God.” Those are extraordinary words. The latter has given rise to our Westminster nomenclature, whereby government “ministers” collectively form the “ministry.”
A servant serves under the authority of another. A minister attends to and represents the interests of another. That means that the way governing authority is used ought to be in the service of God, accurately representing His interests in this world.
So, this governing authority is not only owned by someone else, but it is to be applied for someone else.
That gives us another principle: governing authority is held on trust for God, to be applied for His purposes.
Now we just need to know what God’s purposes are for governing authority.
The Apostle Paul says that the ministry and service of government is to punish evil and approve good. The Apostle Peter says that governments are “sent by God” for this very purpose.
If you think about it, that is the very nature of governing authority, whether we like it or not. Sir William Blackstone, the great English common lawyer, describes a law as a “rule of right conduct.” Because laws declare what is right, and what is wrong. They are backed by sanctions for those who break them, and the reward of keeping them is normally a life of peace, freedom and civic rights.
By its very nature, governing authority approves or condemns. Therefore, the obligation it carries under God, is to approve that which is good, and condemn that which is evil.
This is so deceptively simple that it’s profound.
I once knew a wise man who told me that the best way to really understand something is never to merely learn as much as you can about it. Rather, it is to grasp the organising principle which lies behind it.
Here we have an organising principle for government.
In a nutshell, the ministry of approving good and condemning evil is a ministry of upholding righteousness. It was Solomon – a wise man in the business of government – who wrote, “righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people.”
As a child I memorised the names and biographies of every Old Testament king, especially the kings of Israel and Judah, from Saul to Zedekiah. It struck me then that no matter the detail or complexity of each man’s reign, it was invariably summed up with a single statement upon his death. Either he did what was “righteous” or what was “evil” in the sight of God.
Deceptively simple indeed.
When I consider the teaming thousands of public servants employed in my hometown of Canberra, the various parliaments throughout the land, the courts and tribunals and administrative bodies, the taxes and levies and rates collected, the unending progression of reviews and inquiries and consultations and committees… When I consider the monstrous beast that travels under the umbrella of “governing authority” – to think that beneath it all the guiding mandate could be so clear.
First principle: governing authority is instituted by God Himself.
Second principle: governing authority is held on trust for God, to be used for His purposes.
Third principle: God’s purpose for governing authority is to exalt righteousness and restrain evil.
We may be tempted to reflect on how far short of this standard our governing authorities fall. One barely has to think to recall a host of laws which do the opposite – they approve evil, or even punish good.
But I don’t believe we should simply dwell on the shortcomings of government in a fallen world.
We should also be pointed to the bright hope of the perfect government of the “King of Kings and Lord of Lords” concerning whom we are told, “a sceptre of righteousness is the sceptre of His kingdom.” It is remarkable – well beyond our puny frame of reference – to imagine such a thing, and yet it is true.
We who know Him are called, as citizens, to serve the king of righteousness here and now.
Prime Ministers are called to the same as stewards of governing authority.
The magnitude of that responsibility in a nation like ours is enough to bring any good man to His knees.
Let’s also go to our knees on his behalf and pray for a fellow Christian with a massive responsibility.