The Biblical Basis of Limited Government
The basic purpose of civil government is to uphold justice, freedom, and order in a fallen world. Jeremiah 17:9 tells us, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” This is why, because of our sinful nature, a government that disperses power is better than one that draws power into the hands of only a few.
Since humans cannot be trusted with power, safeguards must be instituted. One of these is the separation of powers. Isaiah 33:22 states, “For the LORD is our judge, the LORD is our lawgiver, the LORD is our king; it is he who will save us.” Notice the implication of judicial, legislative, and executive powers of God. This verse is one of the inspirations behind America’s three branches of government—commonly known as a system of “checks and balances.”
Another way to disperse power is through a concept known as “republicanism.” This is the belief in the power of the electorate—“We the People.” Exodus 18:21 instructs us, “But select capable men from all the people—men who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain—and appoint them as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens.”
Exodus 18:21 provided the biblical insight for “states’ rights” and localized leadership. America is made up of various states so as to keep all power from being consolidated into a centralized, federal government. Each state was intended to be, in essence, its own little country or republic, dispersing power even more so amongst and within the various county and municipal governments.
Accordingly, there is also the principle of “limited government,” which has its roots in Hebraic Law. 1 Samuel 8:17 warns us about desiring a king: “He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves.” The United States Constitution is an example of minimizing power, thus eliminating the possibility of a tyrannical government under such a king. The Ninth and the Tenth Amendments of the Bill of Rights specifically outline the principles of limited government. Even the Reverend John Cotton, a Puritan, wrote in the earliest days of New England, “It is necessary that all power on earth be limited.”
Along with the dispersal of power and limited government, the idea of low taxes (or the biblical principle of a flat tax) keeps powers in check and helps maintain freedom and justice. A good government preserves the God-ordained responsibilities of society’s institutions such as the individual, family, and local church. Recall that liberty is based on the right to private property. So low taxation limits the expansion of the State and protects individual liberty, securely placing power (or property) into the hands of the people instead of big government.
From a biblical standpoint, civil government was maintained by a half shekel poll tax. This was paid by all citizens strictly as a flat tax. A flat tax serves as a mechanism to keep the size of government small, thereby limiting its power. The Bible forbids progressive taxation: “The rich are not to give more than a half shekel and the poor are not to give less” (Exodus 30:15). Progressive taxation encourages envy by asserting that the rich deserve to pay higher taxes. The Bible says that envy is internally corrosive to a society because it “rots the bones” (Proverbs 14:30).
God’s laws also prohibit any taxes on inheritance. Confiscation of inheritance and property is clearly prohibited in the Bible: “The prince must not take any of the inheritance of the people, driving them off their property” (Ezekiel 46:18). Even our nation’s Founding Fathers realized the Biblical truth that taxing inheritance leads to the destruction of family.
Our founders also had Biblical reasons for establishing a tax exemption for churches. In Ezra 7:23, King Artaxerxes banned taxation of God’s house so that there wouldn’t “be wrath against the realm of the king and his sons.” Tax exemption of churches is an acknowledgement of God’s sovereignty. He alone can tax land and income. He does so through voluntary tithes, which are not the jurisdiction of the State but of individuals.
Americans once believed that to tax property is to tax God. In 1774, they denied Parliament the power to tax property in the first session of the Continental Congress. Our founders saw such taxation as an assertion of the State’s authority over our Lord. This signified a conflict over sovereignty between man and God. The Lord is sovereign over creation so any attack on property, including unlawful taxation, is an attack on individual liberty, the family, and on Him.
So, in the absence of an influential king or government, the ability to self-govern is essential. Liberty goes hand in hand with responsibility. In fact, responsibility and liberty reinforce and strengthen each other. It was Thomas Jefferson who said, “That government is best which governs the least, because its people will discipline themselves.” Actually, discipline enables us to learn right from wrong, as Proverbs 3:11-12 indicates.