Biblical Origins of the State

What is the proper relationship between church and state? Throughout history there have been many opinions about this relationship. Some have thought the state should serve the church, and some that the church should serve the state. Others have seen the two as having varying levels of independence, and still others have no use for one or even both of these institutions.

I suspect that much of the difficulty in answering this question arises from a failure to understand the state.

In practice, our understanding of what the state ought to be is primarily formed by what the state seems to be. Our understanding of the state comes mainly through observation. As we observe its actions, we believe that we discern its purposes from these actions. We see actions, discern patterns and then form an opinion of the purposes of the state. Although we all have opinions like this, these opinions ultimately do nothing to clarify difficult questions of what the state ought to do or be.

The origins of the state are lost in history and modern people tend to assume that the state as we know it is a natural fixture of human society. But while we take it as a given that there will be a state, we don’t have any clear understanding of why the state exists and therefore questions about what the state should or should not do quickly become lost in a fog of uncertainty.

Scripture does not record the origin of the concept of the state itself, but I believe it does record enough for us to infer its origin. I would set it out along these lines:

God made man and placed him on the earth to rule over it and multiply in it. The biology and psychology of man, as well as the knowledge Adam and Eve were created with meant that families naturally formed. Men and women paired off in marriage, sustained their physical bodies by toil and raised children in households. These households were all related to one another, yet independent of each other. These related but independent households thereby naturally formed communities.

Now this description has left out sin. Man was corrupt before a single child was born. In fact, the first child became a murderer. God himself dealt with the situation directly. He pronounced a curse on the murderer, but he also protected him from the rest of his fellow men who might otherwise have sought vengeance. This treatment of murder was immediately famous. As time went by, mankind developed arts and technology, and became increasingly corrupt. Eventually the earth was filled violence.

At a certain point, God wiped out nearly the whole world and started over with the family of Noah. But this time there would be a new way of handling murderers. God expressly commanded that murderers were to be executed by other men.

This new commandment requires men to enforce a law, namely, thou shalt not murder. The death penalty is stipulated. Now this commandment makes no mention of police or judges, and since there were only eight people alive and they were all closely related, I doubt that anyone thought of himself as a policeman or a judge. The commandment is not given to officials of the state, but rather to mankind as a whole. In this way, it is similar to the other commandments given to mankind, namely, to rule the earth and to multiply in population.

The requirement to execute murderers is, in the first place, a joint responsibility of all mankind. No process is described for determining guilt or carrying out the sentence. It seems reasonable to assume that if a murder was committed while there were only a very small number of people living on the earth, that the verdict might have been reached virtually unanimously. There would clearly be a need for public consensus on guilt because an intentionally unjust execution would itself be murder, and that murder would require justice. This need for agreement would naturally tend to produce some form of due process, although it might at first be ad hoc,and would certainly have no long tradition behind it.

In these early days of society without a state, there would nevertheless be humans in authority over other humans, and this might tend towards certain individuals assuming official judicial roles. Authority over others is first seen in the role of men as husbands, and then in parents raising children. Obviously, small children would not be a meaningful part of investigating or judging guilt. Although, children do not remain under parental authority after reaching adulthood, or at the very latest, marriage, nevertheless respect for one’s elders is natural and proper. This respect for elders could well result in looking to men of the older generations to take the lead in judicial matters. Note that the long, healthy adulthood of mankind’s earliest days would mean that several generations would all be able bodied adults simultaneously.

Another thing that would tend toward taking on official roles is the issue of logistics. As the population grew, it would eventually become impossible for everyone on earth to gather to determine guilt. If the population spreads out geographically, the difficulty of travel would lead to justice being a local matter. A densely populated area would eventually mean there would simply be too many people local to the crime for them all to take a very active role in investigation, trial and punishment. Despite this the need for public consensus would remain. This would tend toward the spontaneous formation of due process and clearly understood civic duty.

We see evidence in scripture of organic and spontaneous civil order. Prominent men in each community took an active role in public affairs. It is not necessarily the case that these elders were elected or otherwise selected to fill the role. Probably they were simply well known, well respected and voluntarily took on the responsibility of seeing that justice was done.

It seems reasonable to suppose that having been given the pattern of enforcing justice in case of murder, men extended the idea to other matters of justice. We should be careful to move too quickly here, however. No state has ever undertaken the responsibility of punishing every form of wrong, and it would be an abuse of state power to do so. But perhaps we can see that legal protection of property rights are inherent in the injunction against murder. If a violation of private property lead to violence, and that violence lead to death, then surely the investigation of the death must consider who was the aggressor. Thus property questions become a matter of public concern.

If you suppose that society could exist without recognizing the right to defend oneself or one’s property, you may consider that punishing self-defense immediately puts the innocent in a no-win situation. The would-be robber can simply say “I will fight you to the death, and if you succeed in killing me, the police will kill you.” This is clearly intolerable. Such a society would implode.

If the state forms spontaneously from the need to administer justice and to do so in a publicly agreed upon way, then we have a clear purpose in mind, and that purpose can inform our decisions about the institution. In the first place, the state must always pursue justice and never injustice. Additionally, this explanation of the state does not give it any authority to use its power to remake society absent clearly defined and suitably demonstrated instances of injustice. The state is not an instrument of doing general good, but rather of punishing heinous crime. Doing good remains the prerogative and responsibility of individuals and families. Just as each man must mind his own business, so the state must mind its own business.

This theory of the state does not suppose a general legislative authority. Nothing about its origin or purpose permits it to make laws apart from punishing preexisting crimes, like murder. That it must punish murder does not give it the latitude it to also punish anything else it likes. Nor is it free to define murder to suit itself. The definition must serve the commandment of God.


tiny lantern

One thought on “Biblical Origins of the State

  1. Nathan, I’m looking forward to reading! I so happened to be researching article V and came across this 38 minute video (truly outstanding!), 3 days ago. There was a link she supplied on “separation of church and state” I clicked on it also, so well done! I’ve added it here too. I hope you will check them out and let me know what you got out of them. Blessings, Craige youtube video: Publius Huldah before the Tennessee guvmint. Church and State blog.


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