Should Christians Trust the Government?

Do you trust the government? For many people, that’s the common question at the heart of several stories lately: The IRS targeting conservatives, the DOJ spying on journalists, the NSA tracking everyone’s phone calls. A lot of things may influence how you answer the question, including your politics. But how does your faith influence your answer? Let’s start by broadening the question: Should Christians trust government — not this particular government, but government per se?

To be sure, Scripture tells us that God gave us the institution of government, and it tells us why — essentially, to preserve basic civil order and justice so that we may be free to live peaceful and godly lives (e.g., Romans 13:1-7, 1 Timothy 2:1-2). But in telling us God’s purpose, it doesn’t tell us that the government will always fulfill that intended purpose. In fact, it shows us many examples of rulers abusing their powers. When Paul wrote, “Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good and you will receive his approval” (Romans 13:3-4), he was well aware that those words don’t describe the experience of Jesus, John the Baptist, Moses, David and Elijah, among others.

Scripture also tells us a great deal about our sinful nature. People in power aren’t immune to that. There’s ample reason to believe that those most prone to abuse power will be drawn to seek power and that (regardless of original intentions) access to power tempts people to abuse it. In fact, sometimes the worst abuses can come from those who imagine that they have the noblest motives. As John Adams put it, “Power always thinks it has a great soul and vast views beyond the comprehension of the weak; and that it is doing God’s service when it is violating all His laws.”

So, no, Christian citizens shouldn’t trust government. Obey, yes, though there are exceptions. (That’s a topic for another time.) But trust, no.

That doesn’t mean we should go to the opposite extreme — the presumption that the state is always up to no good, that everything it says is a lie. Government encompasses a lot of people at a lot of levels: Some of them may not deserve the label “civil servant,” but many of them do. Even a government that’s taken on some illegitimate functions may still pursue many legitimate ones. Moreover, God still works through flawed and sinful human beings to accomplish His purposes. It’s important to keep that perspective.

But we certainly should be vigilant toward government — always, regardless of who’s running it at the moment. Don’t assume the best or the worst about the state, but be discerning on a case-by-case basis: Check out the state’s claims and whether it’s staying within its proper role. A quote from James Madison strikes the right balance. “If men were angels, no government would be necessary,” he famously wrote in Federalist 51. But his next sentence, though lesser known, is just as important: “If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”

I’ve intentionally stayed away from the specific IRS/DOJ/NSA cases to focus on some Christian worldview groundwork, but feel free to get into those or other relevant topics, past or present.

So, to repeat the question(s): Should Christians trust the government? Do you trust yours?