What the Bible Says About Big Government

Mr. Patrick holds a Master of Divinity degree from Yale and has filled many lay offices as a churchman. Recently retired from chamber of commerce work, he now is an officer in a group of small-town banks in Illinois.

Evidence is mounting that many government programs fail to accomplish all that their advocates had promised. After dipping for a while crime statistics are climbing again. Confidence in the institution of government has sagged. Some people wonder whether government has bitten off more than it can chew. They suspect that Henry Hazlitt came close to the mark when he wrote, "The more things a government undertakes to do, the fewer things it can do competently."¹

What do the Hebrew and Christian scriptures have to say on the subject of government power and functions ? News reports about clergymen’s public statements and actions often reveal the men of the cloth on the side of big government — favoring more handouts, more intervention, more regulation. Does the Bible support that position? Or should the clergy take a closer look at what the scriptures disclose? Answers to these questions could be illuminating.

First, however, just what is government? Some of the thinkers who helped lift western civilization into the modern era had pondered the question deeply but it is doubtful that most people ever gave it a thought, either then or now. A look at what students of the subject have written should provide an answer.

The Essence of Big Government

In a stark cemetery at Mansfield, Missouri, stand two identical gravestones side by side, separated by about six feet of sod. Carved in large letters in the brown granite of one is the name Wilder, of the other, Lane. One marks the graves of Almanzo James and Laura Ingalls Wilder, the second the grave of their daughter, Rose Wilder Lane. Almanzo Wilder died in 1949 at the age of ninety-two. His wife lived till 1957 when she was ninety. Rose was almost eighty-two when she died in 1968.

A mile east of Mansfield on a pleasant hillside rests the modest white frame house that Almanzo Wilder built for Laura at the turn of the century, using building materials produced on the farm. Here Rose grew to womanhood and here in 1932 her mother began to write the "Little House" books that have charmed a generation of Americans with their picture of pioneer life in the second half of the nineteenth century and have now been adapted for television. Drawing on a descriptive talent developed as a girl when she served as the eyes for her scarlet fever-blinded sister, Laura wrote the series of books in longhand on tablet paper, usingboth sides of the sheet to avoid waste and writing with a pencil. Rose, too, became a writer and her best-known book, Let the Hurricane Roar, is in part a re-telling in fiction of the pioneer experiences of her mother’s family. But her most influential book is The Discovery of Freedom, published in 1943. It takes nothing from Rose Wilder Lane to point out that the book reflects viewpoints and attitudes that are evident in her mother’s writing.

The Discovery of Freedom was the inspiration for Henry Grady Weaver’s The Mainspring of Human Progress, described by Leonard Read, President of the Foundation for Economic Education, as probably the best introduction to freedom ideas available in a single volume. Mainspring has multiplied the outreach and the influence of Rose Wilder Lane’s thought.

Today and for two generations there has been abroad in the land a naive faith in government as the solution to all problems — a belief in the ability of legislation to satisfy any need. Events in the last decade, when that trust reached its zenith in the Great Society programs, have dealt several stinging blows to the faith but it had become so deeply ingrained that it yields slowly to opposing evidence.

Weaver and Mrs. Lane did not share the popular belief. Instead they took a very different view which Rose Wilder Lane expressed in these words: "What they (men in government) have is the use of force — command of the police and the army. Government, The State, is always a use of force .. ."² And "Buck" Weaver wrote, "In the last analysis, and stripped of all the furbelows, government is nothing more than a legal monopoly of the use of physical force — by persons upon persons."³

What Authorities Say

Although most Americans today seem never to have thought of it, this idea was not new. Numerous other writers, representing differing shades in the political spectrum, have expressed a similar view, both before and since Mrs. Lane and "Buck" Weaver wrote.

"The civil law . . . is the force of the commonwealth, engaged to protect the lives, liberties, and possessions of those who live according to its laws, and has power to take away life, liberty, or goods from him who disobeys." (John Locke)

"Government is not reason, it is not eloquence — it is force. Like fire it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master . . ." (George Washington)

"Law is the common force organized to act as an obstacle to injustice." (Frederic Bastiat)

". . . penal sanction . . . is the essence of law . . ." (John Stuart Mill)

"The essential characteristic of all government, whatever its form, is authority. . . . Government, in its last analysis, is organized force." (Woodrow Wilson)

"The state belongs to the sphere of coercion. It would be madness to renounce coercion, particularly in the epoch of the dictatorship of the proletariat." (Nikolai Lenin)

"A government may be freely chosen, but it is still not all of us. It is some men vested with authority over other men." And democracy ". . . is a name for a particular set of conditions under which the right to coerce others is acquired and held."&sup4; (Charles Frankel)

"The State is the party that always accompanies its proposals by coercion, and backs them by force. "&sup5; (Charles A. Reich)

It should come as no surprise to students of the Bible that the scriptures analyzed the ultimate nature of government much earlier than any of the writers cited. Christians sometimes wonder what Jesus had to say about the role of government and theologians normally reply that he said very little on the subject. The principal relevant statement recorded in the gospels is his response to a question as to whether it was proper to pay the head tax imposed by Rome. The tax amounted to about twenty-five cents a person and was regarded as a mark of servitude to Rome.

In ancient times the authority of a ruler was symbolized by the circulation of his coinage and coins bearing the ruler’s image were considered his property, in the final analysis. When Jesus requested that his questioners show him one of the coins used to pay the tax, a coin was brought and he asked, "Whose likeness and inscription is this?" They replied that it was Caesar’s. Jesus then said, "Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s." The account is told in Matthew 22 and in parallels in the gospel according to Mark and according to Luke.

While Jesus said little about the power of government and what government should or should not do, two other New Testament writers came down solidly on the side of respect for the civil authorities and obedience to law. One of these was the Apostle Paul. Of Paul a respected New Testament scholar wrote a few years ago, "It is evident from many allusions in his writings, that the thought of Rome had strongly affected his imagination. He associated the great city with all that was most august in earthly power. He believed that it had been divinely appointed to maintain order and peace among the contending races."

In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul offered the following admonition: "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."

Pay your taxes and give respect and honor to whom they are due, said Paul. Conduct yourself properly and you will have no reason to fear an official. "But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain,"’

And St. Peter wrote:

Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing right you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish men. Live as free men, yet without using your freedom as a pretext for evil; but live as servants of God. Honor all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.

The statements are brief because the writers were not primarily concerned for man’s relation with the authorities but for his relation with God and his fellow man. But the statements are definite. And they provided the scriptural foundation for what some students have considered Martin Luther’s exaggerated reverence for the State. Luther’s attitude supplied the philosophical substructure for the authoritarian character German governments have displayed more than once.

"When studied with any degree of thoroughness, the economic problem will be found to run into the political problem," wrote Irving Babbitt, "the political problem into the philosophical problem, and the philosophical problem itself to be almost indissolubly bound up at last with the religious problem." In short, what we believe or do not believe about man and about God determines what kind of society we will have and how our society will govern itself.

While there is support for paying taxes, obedience to law, and respect for civil authority in the New Testament, no detailed analysis of the nature of government or the proper functions of government is to be found there. There is, however, ample guidance for the individual conduct of government officials. They are human beings, so they will be fair, as all humans should be. They will deal justly with the people. Tax collectors will not steal because nobody should steal.

Another Biblical View

In the Old Testament, the writer of the books of I Samuel and II Samuel draws a definite contrast between limited government and the all-powerful State. The writer of the two books drew on earlier sources, some of which probably went back as far as 1000 B.C. or earlier and all of which had been completed by about 600 B.C.¹¹ For generations the Jewish people had been led by officials called Judges, of whom at least one, Deborah, was a woman. Best known of the judges to modern readers is Gideon, because his name is carried by the organization recognized for its practice of distributing Bibles in hotels and motels. The judges combined civil, military, and religious functions in their office. They led the Jewish people in battle against their enemies, settled questions of law, administered justice in disputes between individuals, and functioned as priests and prophets. To the enemies of Israel they often showed no quarter and in some of their judicial decisions they may have been arbitrary but their leadership of their own people was apparently rather mild. The writer of the book of Judges reports, in chapter 17 and again in his concluding verse, Judges 21:25, "In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes."

Gideon did not even want to be king. After he had led the men of Israel successfully against their enemies, they asked him to rule over them but he replied, "I will not rule over you, and my son will not rule over you; the Lord will rule over you."¹²

After the death of Gideon one of his sons, Abimelech, seized power briefly and killed all of his brothers except one, the youngest, Jotham, who hid himself and escaped. When Jotham was told what his brother had done, he related a parable, recorded in Judges 9, about the trees going forth to anoint a king over themselves. The olive tree, the fig tree, and the vine all declined to abandon their productive pursuits to become king, so the trees then turned to the bramble and the bramble accepted.

The Worst on Top

In The Road to Serfdom, Prof. Friedrich A. Hayek, for somewhat different reasons from those cited in Jotham’s parable, reached a conclusion that resembles the parable of the trees and the bramble. Prof. Hayek describes how kakistocracy arises in a chapter entitled, "Why the Worst Get on Top."¹³

Samuel was the last of the series of prophet-judges. He administered justice in his own city of Ramah, a few miles north of Jerusalem, and traveled a judicial circuit that took him annually to Bethel, Gilgal, and Mizpah. When senility approached, Samuel made his two sons judges but the scripture records that they lacked their father’s honorable character and "turned aside after gain . . . took bribes and perverted justice."

The Jewish people were still engaged in the prolonged effort to conquer the land they had occupied. Recurring wars threatened their security. Such enemies as the Philistines were better organized and better equipped than the people of Israel who retained their loose tribal structure and had not yet fully abandoned the nomadic life. So the elders of Israel came to Samuel with a request: "Behold, you are old and your sons do not walk in your ways; now appoint for us a king to govern us like all the nations."

The request displeased Samuel and he prayed to the Lord who admonished Samuel to heed their request, "for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me. . . ." But Samuel was directed to tell them what it would be like to have a king. He did so in words recorded in I Samuel 8:

These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: He will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants. He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants. He will take your menservants and maidservants, and the best of your cattle and your asses, and put them to his work. He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves. …

The people refused to listen to Samuel, however, and insisted that they wanted a king to govern them and fight their battles. Their wishes prevailed. They got big government.

The king who was selected was Saul, of the tribe of Benjamin. Many years before, when Moses explained to the people of Israel the law that he had delivered to them, he told them what kind of person to choose as king when the time came. His counsel is recorded in Deuteronomy 17:

When you come to the land which the Lord your God gives you, and you possess it and dwell in it, and then say, "I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are round about me"; you may indeed set as king over you him whom the Lord your God will choose. One from among your brethren you shall set as king over you; you may not put a foreigner over you, who is not your brother. Only he must not multiply horses for himself, or cause the people to return to Egypt in order to multiply horses, since the Lord has said to you, "You shall never return that way again," And he shall not multiply wives for himself, lest his heart turn away; nor shall he greatly multiply for himself silver and gold.

In a book based on his research at the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace of Stanford University, Alvin Rabushka wrote, "Governments take resources from the public but use them to maximize their own welfare."¹&sup5; Both Moses and Samuel recognized this propensity and warned about it. To modern taxpayers the tenth part of their grain and vineyards and flocks, that Samuel said the king would require, must appear mild indeed but in time the burden became onerous to the people. Samuel’s prophecy that one day they would cry out because of their king was not realized immediately. Then, as now, persons with the vision to foretell the consequences of certain popular choices and actions could only tell what would occur as a result, not when it would occur.

David and Solomon

David succeeded Saul as king, united the people of Israel under his rule, defeated their enemies, pushed the borders of his domain south to the Gulf of Aqaba, an arm of the Red Sea, and by treaty with vassals extended his control north and eastward to the Euphrates River.

Thrusting aside an attempt of an older brother to become king, Solomon followed David, his father, on the throne. His reign was marked by lavish construction programs and public works projects. An extensive bureaucracy was established to man the elaborate governmental structure Solomon created. Twelve administrative regions were defined and each was to provide the taxes and other resources to support the king and his government for one month of each year. Solomon took as one of his wives a daughter of the Egyptian Pharaoh and built her a luxurious residence. He also built a temple at Jerusalem to be the center of worship for the entire nation. He was described as having "wisdom and understanding beyond measure, and largeness of mind like the sand on the seashore. .  ."¹ At the same time, however, the scripture speaks repeatedly of Solomon’s use of forced labor and it tells of the hundreds of wives and concubines that he took. History casts doubt on the wisdom of a ruler who burdens his people with oppressive taxation and encumbers them with the upkeep of a sprawling bureaucracy and a parasitic court.

Like the Roman Catholic popes of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Solomon mulcted the people of the resources to build imposing structures and create works of art. The popes left great paintings and sculpture, as Solomon left a temple that stood for four centuries, but the exactions of the popes brought schism to the Church and those of Solomon brought rebellion in the kingdom when his son, Rehoboam, succeeded him.

After the death of Solomon the people who assembled for the coronation of Rehoboam came to the new king with a plea: "Your father made our yoke heavy. Now therefore lighten the hard service of your father and his heavy yoke upon us, and we will serve you." Rehoboam sent them away for three days while he consulted first with the elders who had advised his father and then with his youthful associates. In the end he rejected the counsel of the elders that he accede to the people’s wishes. Instead he took the advice of his contemporaries and when the people returned for his answer, he told them, "My father made your yoke heavy, but I will add to your yoke; my father chastised you with whips, but I will chastise you with scorpions." Their appeal rejected, the people cried out, "To your tents, O Israel!" And the historian records in I Kings 12, "So Israel has been in rebellion against the house of David to this day."

The scriptures say that Saul and David and Solomon each reigned for forty years. So one hundred twenty years passed, or approximately four generations, from the time when the people abandoned limited government until the time when their descendents did "cry out" because of the king they had chosen. By 600 B.C. or earlier the people of Israel had learned, however, that government is indeed force — a dangerous servant and a fearful master.

The Role for Government

If government is force, as the serious students of the subject have agreed, what kinds of things should government do ? The answer is obvious. Government should do those things that can be properly done by the use of force. The question follows: What are the proper uses of force among responsible adults?

Nobody has answered that question more clearly than the nineteenth century French statesman, Frederic Bastiat: "Every individual has the right to use force for lawful self-defense. It is for this reason that the collective force —which is only the organized combination of the individual forces —may lawfully be used for the same purpose; and it cannot be used legitimately for any other purpose."

Government, therefore, is to be used to defend, to protect, to prevent violence, fraud, and other predatory acts. Other endeavors are to be left to the initiative and the choices of people acting voluntarily, either jointly or as individuals. In short, government should do what the judges of Israel did. Beyond that every man should do what is "right in his own eyes."

Obviously that is not the direction Americans have been moving for the past two generations. Instead, as noted earlier, a naive faith that government can solve all problems has taken root and persists in spite of the repeated failures of government social programs. But it makes no difference that large numbers hold a wrong view. Right is not determined by majority vote. As Anatole France stated, "If fifty million people say a foolish thing, it is still a foolish thing." And Supreme Court Justice George Sutherland said, "A foolish law does not become a wise law because it is approved by a great many people."²° Right, like truth, is usually discerned first by a minority, often in the beginning a minority of one.

Everybody Is Responsible

Everybody has a stake in preventing the unprincipled members of society from committing acts of violence or fraud upon peaceful persons, and should help pay a part of the cost of the police and defense mechanism necessary to protect people in their peaceful pursuits. Government is society’s mechanism for protecting and defending; it properly collects taxes to pay for these services. But when it takes from some persons what belongs to them and gives it to other persons to whom it does not belong, government commits an act of plunder. One person who uses force or the threat of force to take from another what has been honestly earned or built or created, commits an immoral act and a crime. Two or more persons banding together do not acquire any moral rights that they did not have as individuals. When government provides benefits for one citizen at the expense of another by doing what the citizen himself cannot do without committing a crime, it performs an act of plunder.²¹¹

Not only is governmental plunder immoral, it reduces the general well-being of the people. It does so by taking away from some people what they have produced but are not permitted to use. It reduces well-being by distributing to other people what they have not been required to produce. Both the producers and the receivers are thus deprived of incentive. And government reduces the general well-being by creating an unproductive administrative bureaucracy to do the taking away and the distributing. Society needs the productivity of all its able members.

The Lesson

Shifted to producing goods and services that can be exchanged in the marketplace, the legions of bureaucrats could add materially to human well-being.

How is the situation to be corrected that has been allowed to develop? Rose Wilder Lane points the way: "The great English reform movement of the 19th century consisted wholly in repealing laws."²² What is needed in the United States is to repeal laws, not to pass new ones. Repeal laws that vest some men with authority over other men. This is not to set the clock back, it is to set it right.²³

As Samuel warned the people of Israel when they chose big government, various prophets have warned the people of America. Prophets can only tell what to expect, however, not when to expect it. More than a century of suffering passed before the people of Israel rose to throw off the yoke from their necks.


1 Life and Death of the Welfare State; La Jolla, California: La Jolla Rancho Press, 1968; p. 52.

2 The Discovery of Freedom; New York, N.Y.: Arno Press, 1972; p. 27.

3 The Mainspring of Human Progress; Irvington-on-Hudson, N.Y.: Foundation for Economic Education, 1953, p. 71.

4 Charles Frankel, The Democratic Prospect; New York, N.Y.: Harper & Row, 1964; p. 136 and p. 30.

5 Charles A. Reich, The Greening of America; New York, N.Y.: Bantam Books, 1971; p. 350.

6 The Abingdon Bible Commentary; New York, N.Y., and Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1929; p.988.

7 E. F. Scott, The Literature of the New Testament; New York, N. Y.: Columbia University Press, 1936; p. 156.

8 Romans 13:1-7. All scriptural quotations are from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible; New York, N.Y.: Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1952.

9 I Peter 2:13-17

10 Quoted by Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind; Chicago, Ill.: Henry Regnery Company, 1960; p. 482.

11 Robert H. Pfeiffer, Introduction to the Old Testament; New York, N.Y.: Harper & Brothers, 1941; pp. 20-22.

13 Friedrich A. Hayek, The Road to Serfdom; Chicago, Ill.: The University of Chicago Press, 1944; Chapter x.

14 I Samuel 7:15-8:5.

15 Alvin Rabushka, A Theory of Racial Harmony; Columbia, S. C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1974; p. 93.

16 E. W. Heaton, Solomon's New Men; New York, N.Y.: Pica Press, 1974; Chapter 2.

17 I Kings 4:29.

18 Irving Stone, The Agony and the Ecstasy; New York, N.Y.: Doubleday & Company, 1961 (Signet edition).

19 Frederic Bastiat, The Law; Irvington-on-Hudson, N.Y.: Foundation for Economic Education, 1956; p. 68.

20  Address as President of the American Bar Association, at the ABA annual meeting, Saratoga Springs, N.Y., Sept. 4, 1917.

21 Bastiat, Op. cit. p. 21.

22 Loc cit. p. 239.

23 Wilhelm Roepke, A Humane Economy; Chicago, Ill.: Henry Regnery Company, 1960; p. 88.


"In deciding whether or not to give power over you to your most trusted friend, imagine that his authority might eventually be held by your worst enemy. Then act accordingly; for although the friend may never misuse it, there’s no way of telling who might inherit it from him."

James M. Rogers, "Two Ways to Slavery" 

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