According to recent research, a large majority of Americans of both sides of the political divide thinks it is “too risky to give presidents more power”. On the other hand, they seem to want the government to do more to solve problems. Just how big should the government be? And what are its legitimate functions? The Bible believes in only one all-powerful authority structure: the government of God himself. Every other authority in the Bible is severely limited in the scope of its power.
Christians sometimes think that life under the Old Testament law of Moses was burdensome, because there were so many laws. The Talmud (Makkot 23b) counts 613 commandments or regulations in the five books of Moses. The ancient Babylonian code of Hammurabi had only 282 laws. But the law of Moses is a feather landing on the shoulder compared to the crushing weight of the yoke of modern law. No one even knows how many laws are in force in America. Between 1995 and 2016, the Federal government alone issued over 4000 laws and over 88,000 regulations, many of them extensive and detailed. And that does not count the multiplied thousands of laws and regulations already in existence, or those rules instituted by state and local authorities.
The law permitted Israel to have a king, but he had to be one whom God had chosen. The king’s power was limited. He had to follow the law like everyone else – he was even required to write out his own copy – and he was not permitted to use his position to enrich himself, nor to exalt himself. The king had to serve under God, and fear him (Deut. 17:14-20). He was constrained also by the other centers of power in the kingdom, such as the tribal leadership, the priesthood and the prophets. This did not mean, of course, that the kings of Israel and Judah always followed the rules or recognized the legitimacy of the other leaders in Israel. Far from it, as the history of Israel shows.
Kings in the surrounding nations often had far more absolute power, and Samuel warned the people, when they asked for that kind of king, that they were in fact rejecting God as their king. They would get a king who would conscript them to his military and domestic service, tax them heavily, and even enslave them (1 Sam. 8). Human government with unlimited power would be oppressive and unrighteous, and it would become an idol, usurping the place of God in the lives of the people. David’s son Solomon refused to live under the law of Moses, taking many foreign wives, and worshipping foreign gods. God’s judgment was to reduce the scope of his power, in the days of his son Rehoboam. Rehoboam was such an oppressive and authoritarian ruler – most likely through heavy taxation and forced labor – that most of Israel rebelled, dividing Israel into two kingdoms, and removing the majority of the nation from his control. The way the book of Kings details this history makes it clear that Solomon and Rehoboam abused the power they had been given (1 Kings 12-13).
In Romans 13:1-7 Paul discusses the role of government. He recognizes that it is God who establishes human government, for the purpose of punishing evil and rewarding good. This is why people should be subject to the authorities. But in the very act of urging believers to submit to governing authority Paul makes it clear that human authorities have their legitimacy only under God’s authority. No human authority should be absolute.
Government, Paul implies, can legitimately institute taxes to support the righteous goal of suppressing evil, and some scholars think that Paul was warning Roman believers against a tax revolt. The law of Moses instituted taxes for Israel, such as the temple tax (Ex. 20:12-14), a half-shekel for each adult male, and the tithes, which supported the Levites (Ex. 18:20-24), and were used to help the poor (Deut. 26:12). Jesus said, when asked about taxes, “The things that belong to Caesar, render to Caesar, but the things that belong to God, to God” (Mark 12:17). Jesus acknowledged the right of Caesar to collect taxes. But Jesus’ statement also has the effect of restricting the arena of Caesar’s authority. Caesar has no authority over what belongs only to God.
Taxes are in principle therefore legitimate, but like so much else, in practice they can be oppressive, and even in this arena the scriptures limit government power. The prophet Amos condemned Israel for ill-treatment of the poor, and exacting heavy taxes from them (Amos 5:11). The original Greek word for the tax due to Caesar in Mark 12:17 is kensos. Kensos was simply the Latin word census brought into Greek. The census in the Roman empire was the registering of the subjects of the empire in the provinces for the purpose of taxing them; the name became associated with the tax itself. The particular tax Jesus was asked about was the Roman poll tax, the tributum capitis. Every man had to pay a denarius to Rome. There is evidence that, understandably, many Jews were upset about this poll tax. The Jewish revolt of A.D. 66-70 against the Romans was largely instigated by zealots who resented paying the poll tax to their Roman overlords. Only a few years earlier (A.D. 60), Britons led by Boadicea also revolted against the Romans because of their anger at corrupt and oppressive taxation. And this began something of a British tradition. The Peasant’s Revolt of 1381 was against the imposition of a poll tax by John of Gaunt. The main reason former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s popularity declined, to the extent that her own Conservative Party parliamentary colleagues threw her out of office in 1990, was that she instituted a wildly unpopular poll tax. Biblically, taxes should not be oppressive.
Jesus said that he had been granted “all authority in heaven and on earth” (Matt. 28:18). If this is true – and it is – then there is no room for any other absolute authority. All other authorities, including government, are relativized and limited. The more all-controlling a government becomes, the more it claims for itself privileges belonging only to God.