The “Lotus Revolution” in Egypt is both wonderful in its demand for increasing freedom for that ancient civilization and frightening in terms of how it will turn out. Who will rise to power? What kind of new government should be established? How will the new government affect the stability of the Middle East and of the entire world?
Because Egypt is now faced with a choice of new leadership, I thought it would be valuable to use this occasion for a primer on government.
As my friend Bill Burtness wisely points out below, there are really only three forms of civil government in our fallen world: 1) Anarchy – usually a transitional form of government, but in operation in places like Yemen and parts of Pakistan. 2) Tyranny – Egypt formerly had a secular-leaning dictatorship under Hosni Mubarak. It could get a religious one (radical Muslim) under groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood. 3) Democratic Republic – this could be established, a la the American model, if the Coptic Church leads a spiritual/character awakening in the nation.
I hope you can guess which one would be a blessing to the people of Egypt and globally.
Bill Burtness teaches the biblical principles of civil government in the United States, the nation of Kosovo, and other countries of the world. He’s one of the smartest men I know on civil polity.
After you read his excellent digest (which I’ve slightly modified), you might consider buying his e-book and boning up on this vital subject.
Big changes are coming to our world. Let’s pray that the peoples yearning for freedom will choose their governments wisely. RB
The Proper Functions and Boundaries of Civil Government
By Bill Burtness
Are there proper functions and boundaries for civil government? Can’t civil government just do whatever it wants? As we watch events unfolding around the world this week, we see stark examples of basic life principles concerning government that are clearly illustrated in the Bible. We can understand these events more clearly by analyzing them according to a philosophy of government.
VIEWS OF SOVEREIGNTY
To begin, we must point out that when talking about government, many of us immediately think about politicians and the special buildings in our nation’s capital. That, however, represents only one sphere of government – civil government. There are other spheres also – family government, church government, business government, self-government and others.
Everyone has a philosophy of government that guides their thinking and choosing. Our philosophy of government begins with our understanding of sovereignty. This is our view of who or what has top authority.
We can simplify our analysis by categorizing all philosophies and ideologies as resting upon one or the other of two ultimate presuppositions. Either 1) the personal, infinite God of the Bible exists, or 2) the personal, infinite God of the Bible does not exist. Both of these presuppositions cannot be true. They each define worldviews by which people live.
If God exists, we can see that He is the highest authority – He has ultimate sovereignty. If we believe that God does not exist, then there are two other possible answers to our question, “Who or what has ultimate authority?” Either the state has ultimate authority or the individual, in and of himself, has ultimate authority. These three are the foundational possibilities. Let’s quickly summarize each one.
The Sovereignty Grid – “Who is in Control?”
POSSIBILITY ONE – GOD IS SOVEREIGN
The Biblical View
God is sovereign
Liberty with law
Government by consent of the governed
Limited civil government
Individual character – the basis of a self-governing (democratic) republic under God
POSSIBILITY TWO – THE STATE IS SOVEREIGN
The Socialist view
The state is sovereign
Tyranny (no freedom)
Total civil control
Unlimited civil government
Individual character subservient to the state
POSSIBILITY THREE – THE INDIVIDUAL IS SOVEREIGN
The Humanist view
Individual is sovereign
Anarchy (no law)
No civil control
No civil structure
Individual character is autonomous or rebellious
These are the three presuppositional philosophies of government – God is sovereign; the state is sovereign, the individual is sovereign. Let’s analyze them a little deeper.
GOD IS SOVEREIGN
The alternative to the world’s system of tyranny vs. anarchy is the recognition that God is sovereign – God is ultimately the top authority. This assumes that God exists and is active in the world today. God’s sovereignty means He has supreme authority over men and nations. This was the American founding father generation’s view.
In this view, the Bible tells us that God created the heavens and the earth. He created us with the ability to govern our lives individually in our relationships with Him and with each other (Matt. 22:36-40). He told us how to do that by giving us in the Bible laws to which both men and the state should conform. This means that government is not derived from the opinions and passions of people, but is to rest on the wisdom of the Creator. His statutes take into account everything we do not know or understand and are motivated by His desire to secure love and the highest good. He says that these laws are not too difficult for us. The misery we see in the world is the simple result of individuals’ selfish choices and rebellion against God’s government of wisdom and love.
The Bible shows that civil government was given by God to man and has a proper purpose, which is to serve the individual by providing protection from force and fraud, not to control the individual. It is to secure the individual’s safety by protecting good and punishing evil (Romans 13:3-4). The state has a proper function to secure the ‘natural rights’ of the individual to life, liberty and property. Tyranny exists to the degree the state oversteps these proper boundaries.
To the degree that God’s sovereignty is recognized and honored by the people in any society or nation, there is freedom without chaos as the people individually control themselves under God according to His Law and ways. There is order without tyranny, because the Law is written on the hearts of the people. The result is peace and prosperity as the context of life. The individual is free to advance himself and his family as he sees fit.
THE STATE IS SOVEREIGN
If one does not believe that God exists, or does not know Him personally, then the biblical view really does not exist in his mind or experience. “Unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God,” Jesus told us. In this case, we look around and ask, “Where does top authority lie?” Many then suppose that the state is sovereign – that supreme authority rests in the civil government.
The extreme of this view believes that whatever the state decrees is absolute, right and by definition must be obeyed. The purpose of civil government is to control the individual’s life, not serve and protect the individual. The value of the individual is defined by his contribution to the state.
In other words–the state is God. In the extreme, the state decides who should live and who should not, what the individual can and cannot do, what his career will be, how many children he may have, what property he may have, how much of his earnings he may keep, what he may do with his property, what he may think and tell others, where he may travel, and what he may teach his children.
Here, the state gives rights to life, liberty and property as it wills and can take these rights away as it wills, to strengthen its control.
Employing the educational, media and political elites, the state’s purpose in this view is to control the lives of the people. This is tyranny – total civil control. This control can either take a secular or relgious form.
THE INDIVIDUAL IS SOVEREIGN
There are individuals who rebel against this control, reasoning that, “The state is actually just people like me; what gives them the right to tell me what to do?”
If we believe that God does not exist and the state is not sovereign, then our only alternative is that the individual in and of himself must be sovereign. In this extreme each person is autonomous in his own life and chooses for himself what values will be his and what rules of conduct he will abide by.
This is anarchy – no civil control. Anarchy, however, is only a short transitional phase before tyranny. People need and want order and peace. In times of anarchy they look for a strong ruler on whom they can depend. This is what was happening in the Bible in Judges. The last verse tells us, “In those days there was no king in Israel, everyone did what was right in their own eyes.” They were free but God had faded in their hearts from being king. Soon, (I Sam. 8) they were demanding of Samuel a human king “to [rule us] and fight our battles.” Their dependent character would not be dissuaded so God ultimately gave them the king they desired.
The alternative to the world’s struggle between anarchy and tyranny is the Biblical view that the civil government’s proper function is to serve and protect. This liberty is sustained only by a populace of strong, self-governed character under God. Every nation must choose between anarchy, tyranny, or bilblical freedom. Let’s pray that Egypt and America–and many other countries will experience spiritual awaking and corporate character enough to retain the new wine of civil liberty.
* Excerpts from Chapter 3 of the new resource, Philosophy of Freedom: Principles of American Self-government, by Bill Burtness– a layman’s analysis in simple terms of the Biblical ideas that formed the basis of the American founding documents and philosophy of government. It is a .pdf e-book on pre-publication Internet Sale – $10.00: