On God’s Ordaining the State

In another place, I have commented on the necessity of differentiating between government and the State by explaining the following:

If I were to summarize the distinction between the role of government and the institution of the State, I would follow the tradition of Franz Oppenheimer, Albert Nock, and more recently by Stephen Kinsella in noting that government rightly acts coercively in upholding justice in response to a crime; and the State wrongly acts coercively to systematically contradict justice and [itself] act criminally.  When Augustine observed that, “Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies? For what are robberies themselves, but little kingdoms,” he was contributing to the logical necessity of dividing between coercive bodies which pursue justice and coercive bodies which are inherently at odds with justice.  For how can two bodies which act in opposite ways both be considered substantially the same?

We must “distinguish between the economic (peaceful and productive) and the political (coercive and parasitic) means of wealth acquisition” (to quote Hans Hoppe).  Following the definitions provided above, government may be used to refer to the non-state role in society of maintaining law and justice and thereby supporting and acting consistently with the “economic means” of interaction between individuals. Conversely, if the State is used as defined above, then it is “a vast engine of institutionalized crime and aggression, the “organization of the political means” to wealth, [and] this means that the State is a criminal organization.” (Rothbard)  This is all tautology, true by definition alone.

The Bible itself doesn’t refer to this exact distinction.  In the New Testament it merely refers to rulers and authorities, and in every instance in the context of encouraging the Christian to arrange himself under that authority for the sake of the peace.  Christians must understand that the kingdom of heaven is not to come by means of overthrowing the established authority.  The precise nature of its coming is the great debate of eschatology but in any case Caesar’s throne is not the throne on which Christ will sit.

Now, the great point of Romans 13:1-7 (which I’ve analyzed in detail here) and other important passages with similar themes such as 1 Peter 2:13-17 is that God reigns supreme even above the various governments that exercise authority throughout the world.  Perhaps some of these governments are more preferable than others; a lot can be said about the tyranny of the United States empire, yet I would be lying if I claimed I preferred the despotism of Mao Zedong.  God is supreme above all these governments, and yet, the nature of God’s sovereignty runs even deeper than this; for not only is he supreme above them, but he as in fact ordained their existence in time and space.  All that is, is because God has declared those things to be.

When we talk about the nature of the State and the nature of God’s ordaining the State, we can often remain too imprecise.  But let’s apply some logic.  God ordains everything that is; the State is; therefore, God ordains the State.  This is true, even in light of the fact that the State, as defined above, contradicts the preceptive will of God.  Now, I am completely aware that not everyone, especially in historical theology, uses state in a way that is different than “government” generally.  But the difference between the definitions above is plain and unavoidable and I was in need of a word to label each definition.  My understanding of the essence State is consistent with the political works of essayists like Albert Nock and perhaps even more convincingly the Israeli military historian Martin Van Creveld in his sweeping work “The Rise and Decline of the State.”

Now, it is agreed, especially by the Calvinist, that there is nothing that has not been ordained by God.  The existence of evil itself is not exempt from such a sweeping declaration.  To say then that the State was ordained by God cannot be said to be itself proof of the State’s moral goodness.  We must apply the standard of right and wrong in the Bible, summarized by the Ten Commandments, to determine whether there is anything that the State does by its very nature in systematic contradiction to this moral (or natural) law.

Saying that the State is a divine institution misses the point.  Everything is a divine institution because everything has been instituted by God.  Some might respond by noting that a difference between a man made and God made institution should be considered here.  But this also is a failure to consider that a man made institution merely refers to the means which God has ordained to accomplish his will.  Can man make something that God did not first will the man to make?  This very thought challenges the Calvinist creed.

Some states arise by conquest and others by deceitful slogans and immoral promises.  But no matter the means of the state’s rising, nothing is outside of God’s hand.  God pursues various ends by various means.  We believe that it is not only the ends which God ordains, but the means also.  What man intends for evil, God intends for good; that is, his good purpose (a necessary interpretation in light of America’s various “Joel Osteens”).  God desires to use all sorts of evil to bring glory to himself.

It is in various other places that we analyze the “Anatomy of the State,” as Murray Rothbard put it and anyone who is interested in understand what the state is, and what it is not, is encouraged to start with that linked essay.  As for now though, we will admit our position is that the state is evil. For those uncomfortable with such a claim, the apparent radicalism of this statement can be forgiven by considering a quote from Gordon H. Clark on the matter:

“This answers a question which is occasionally raised in political discussion as to whether the state is a positive good or essentially an evil. The Christian answer is that the state is not a positive or unconditional good, but rather a necessary evil. To do justice to the Christian view, one must insist on both adjective and noun. The state is an evil not only because of the abuse of power by the magistrates, but also because it interferes with freedom and introduces an unnatural superiority among men.”

Whether it is necessary or not is a subject for another time, and such a conversation requires both nuance and patience (especially in light of our distinction between State and government), but it is important that for now, we see the state as it really is: something that would not exist if Adam had not disobeyed God.

Now then, assuming that the State is evil and also assuming that God has ordained the State, what is our response to it?  My answer is quite similar to John Piper’s when he sought to tackle the question “How can we hate what is evil if God has ordained it to happen?”  This question and its answer applies perfectly to our scenario. Unfortunately, Reformed Christian thinkers since the time of the American Revolution have largely ignored the development of political theory by libertarians and paleo-conservatives and therefore have a seriously underdeveloped and underwhelming understanding of the nature of the state and its relationship to society.  That aside, Piper’s answer is quite fantastic indeed and we can simply refer to it in our quest to determine how we can think of the State.

I don’t disagree that we should hate the horrific evil that is in the world. We should hate Satan’s designs to destroy people, even though God could snatch Satan out of this world in a minute. He could take him away. He is clearly willing that there should be a Satan, otherwise he would destroy him in a minute. Therefore the fact that Satan is there by God’s permission and design does not reduce my hatred of Satan, because God ordains that I hate Satan. In fact, one of the reasons he leaves Satan marauding in the world is precisely so that there would be an occasion for me to declare myself to be morally against evil. If there were no evil there then that kind of dynamic wouldn’t even happen.

See my article “God Glorified in the Evils of Statism.”  Earlier on in Piper’s answer, he states:

You can hate something and consider it evil and yet still see it as an expression of God’s will.

God has ordained the State, wherever it does exist. This is a logical necessity.  But it is not implied in this that those communities that have developed without the State in history are to be condemned. In fact they should be considered with great enthusiasm! In Terry Anderson and Peter Hill’s analysis of the Western Frontier, they noticed that protection services, courts, dispute resolution, and criminal prosecution (the conglomeration of which we can refer to as “government,” but certainly not “the state”) were all provided “on the market” and peacefully.  If one of those services were given by a provider who did a poor job, people stopped using their services and other service providers entered the market.  The competition was helpful for the society. The service fees were low and falling, property rights were defined, contracts were vital, and, as it turns out contrary to Federal government propaganda in later years throughout the “public schools,” the “wild west” wasn’t so wild after all.

While that scenario is certainly more attractive and consistent with libertarian political theory, the fact of that matter is that we live in the era of the State.  It surrounds us at every point.  The State has declared itself to be the God of the land. And yet, not one blade of grass remains unknown to God. Being pilgrims in this imperfect world, we submit and await the coming of the true king.  In the meantime, we ought to be vocal and speak truth into the lives of those participants in statism. We should always explain why what the State is doing is both morally wrong and economically disastrous. In arranging ourselves under their rulership and not seeking to overthrow by violent revolution, even if it might be considered tyrannical, we are attempting to live peaceably in the midst of a dangerous institution.  We ought to share the gospel truth with all who listen and understand that a time may be coming when the gospel is outlawed.  Caesar exercised tyranny over the first century church and yet Peter and Paul said to turn the other cheek.  In following this good advice, we do not vindicate the State’s deeds, but suffer through them.  Vengeance belongs to the Lord and we have been saved from his almighty wrath.  That is the best news of all.