Chuck Colson writes a guest column at the Christian Post, in which he argues in favor of limited government from the Bible.
In it, he tells the story of a friend of his who bought some property to create a children’s camp for inner city children, surely a most desirable goal. Over the next two years, his friend was harassed by various regulators and bureaucrats with overlapping and incomprehensible regulations. The delay, he says, cost millions of dollars and considerable delay.
Now assuming all the facts of this story are correct, I’m certainly in sympathy here. One of the major problems of modern government is the complexity of regulations as we solve problems with one set of standards by creating another, and create new federal jurisdiction, for example, where we see failure at the local government level.
I would like to see the government forced to simplify things and to move out of numerous areas of regulation. In other words, I like limited government.
But Colson finds a way to make his view the Christian view by claiming to take it from scripture. I wanted to say that he is prooftexting, because that is the best I can do imagining just how he might derive such a thing from scripture. In actuality, he doesn’t even prooftext–he just asserts conclusions about what is scriptural. While I can imagine where he might get these conclusions, I cannot be certain of the texts.
There is a profound Christian question at stake here. Scripture says government has just two objectives: to preserve order and do justice. How did we get from that simple function to a government that requires 18 different permits before you can build a new bathroomor expand a campground for needy kids?
I can imagine a hermeneutic that would derive part of that from Romans 13:1-4, but it wouldn’t do too well. There are numerous passages about justice in the prophets, but I don’t see the part about limiting the function of government.
In fact, in Israel, where the prophets worked, there were regulations about what to eat (Leviticus 11), how to worship, even how to handle the blood of an animal you kill while hunting (Leviticus 17:13-14). Israel was, in addition, a monarchy, with only relatively informal constraints on the power of the king from prophets and sometimes people (the details are debatable). People’s sex lives were also intensely regulated (Leviticus 18), something that surely goes beyond the bounds of limited government. Oh, but I forgot. Modern conservatives think it’s a disaster if the government interferes with our economic freedom, but it’s open season on personal moral issues like sexuality.
So in the context of such a government, just how much could the prophets be calling for “limited” government? It simply isn’t there. There are certainly discussions that condemn rulers for immoral acts, but still there is no limitation that says, for example, that the king can’t take in taxes and assign them to whatever he wants within the limits of moral behavior.
But what about the New Testament? In Romans 13, for example, which I cited (and I confess I don’t know which scriptures in particular Colson is bending to his will on this matter), Paul is urging subjection to the Roman government, which was certainly not terribly limited as to its activities in the provinces, and only slightly so in Rome proper. Paul is calling for Christians to be subject to a government that was quite susceptible to not just overstepping it’s bounds a bit, but to rampant evil and destruction.
So while I’d like to support the idea of limited government, and indeed might do so even more consistently than does Colson by including limitations on the government invasion of private sexual activity, I don’t see that the Bible explicitly espouses it, and in the only government directly commissioned by God the government was not terribly limited.
Let me give one more example for those who doubt this. Compare the need to get permission to deal with wetlands, however small. That’s an issue that comes up regularly here in the Florida panhandle, and I think regulators are sometimes over the top and lack common sense on the issue. Landowners, however, also frequently lack good sense. But compare that to the sabbatical year and the year of Jubilee, when one would be ordered not to plant and harvest for an entire year. How does that relate to absolute control of one’s property?
I absolutely do not want to argue that the Bible supports me rather than Chuck Colson. In fact, I don’t think the Bible provides us with any blueprint for a secular or religiously diverse state at all. To the extent that one can support limited government and civil liberties from scripture, it would be via the route of supporting the dignity of each person and their importance before God, and not by means of explicitly stating how government should function.
I truly object to one major thing in this entire article, and that is contained in this next paragraph:
When we go to the polls in November, we should beware of any candidate promising that government will solve all our problems. We need to work to keep government doing its right roles and no more, because if we do not, it will eventually cease to function at all.
This paragraph follows immediately the paragraph stating that the Bible states the limited function of government which I quoted previously. Now we have it. If we vote for “that other guy,” you know, the one who wants to use government programs to solve problems, we are not behaving properly as Christians.
Which is, bluntly, hogwash. As Christians we know how we should be motivated. I can argue with Chuck Colson or any other conservative about the means by which they would accomplish Christian goals, but unless I want to become a judge in the sense intended in Matthew 7:1, I should stick with criticizing the means and not try to pretend that my particular views on means or my particular candidate is the right one for all Christians to support, nor should I question the motives they claim.