In the past few weeks we’ve seen governments around the world curtail freedoms—with more probably to come—in an attempt to slow the spread of the Coronavirus. It provides an opportune moment to reflect on the nature of government, this loss of freedom, and how it could possibly be for our good.

Governments—the plural is worth noting—are appointed by God to restrain evil and promote good. As we read in 1Peter, they are sent by Christ ‘to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right (2:14). With this responsibility, they are given power to fulfil it[1].

You and I need to persuade people to get things done, governments can coerce people—they ‘bear the sword’ (Romans 13:4). And they have authority to raise revenue so they can discharge their role (Romans 13:6).

Governments are given the power and requirement to restrict our freedom … If they did not do so we would not be free to live as a society.

In other words, governments are given the power and requirement to restrict our freedom. However, this restriction is not to be arbitrary. Rather it is, ironically, to defend freedom. For example, I am forced to drive on only one side of the road, but it is this constraint which gives me the freedom to drive at all. Imagine for a second how ‘free’ we would be to drive if everyone could drive on whichever side of the road they wanted.

Of course, this does not mean all restrictions imposed by governments are good; governments have made, and continue to make, many poor and evil judgements. But there is no avoiding that restricting our freedom is part of what they are able and called to do. If they did not do so we would not be free to live as a society.

A government enables a society to exist and prosper by enacting justice and restraining evil. This requires righting specific wrongs; for example, investigating, prosecuting and punishing crimes. More broadly, it involves preventing wrongs—for everyone, but especially for those most likely to be victims of wrong, namely the vulnerable. It is important that governments act when there is a realistic threat of wrong. Where there is no threat the restriction of freedom is unwarranted.[2]

But in this age, there are real threats. Governments will have an army, and perhaps treaties, to prevent an attack; road rules to prevent accidents; consumer protection legislation to prevent dangerous products; and, as it turns out, restrictions on movement to prevent the spread of a virus, along with unusual financial support to prevent to alleviate suffering.

The specifics of what actions are required by a government will vary from time to time and place to place because the threats faced will vary from time to time and place to place. A dense city in a dry location will probably require a government-provided water system. A village near a clean river where it rains regularly probably won’t.

For this reason, it might be better to have ‘ideological instincts’ rather than a formal political ‘ideology’. An ideology claims that certain types of problems must be solved a certain way. An ideological instinct admits a predisposition—but not an absolute commitment—to solving a problem a certain way, recognising that particular problems require particular solutions. To borrow from the example above, an ideology would say water must (or must not) be provided by the government. An ideological instinct would say water is typically best provided by the government, but in this case, it doesn’t seem necessary.

All this should help us rejoice when we see good government, even while our own freedom is curtailed. Good government is an extraordinary gift from God. It provides real justice, protects us from real threats and enables us to live as a society.

And yet modesty is called for.

Firstly, they are granted a limited jurisdiction. Christ, with his resurrection, is Lord. He is Lord of all people, in all times, over all places and in every way. In this age, his rule is accomplished in several ways and one of these are governments (Romans 13:1,4). But note the plural. Each government has responsibility for some people but not others, and for some time but not all time.

Governments are granted a limited jurisdiction … responsibility for some people but not others, and for some time but not all time.

Secondly, governments cannot do everything. Along with the temptation to begrudge governments, we are also tempted to idolise them. We imagine they can save us and rid the world of all evil. Yes, the justice and protection they provide is real, but it is still provisional. And there are many things they can’t do at all. For example, they cannot make friends for us, although they can create conditions which make friendship easier or more difficult.

Lastly, even what they can do will be subject to incompetence, overreach and evil. Even a good government will do evil, and the world has many governments which are not good.

It’s this potential for overreach and evil which has me feeling, along with gratitude for their current actions, slightly uncomfortable.

In recent years, governments have been accumulating powers to control and monitor their citizens. We’re now witnessing how effectively they can deploy them. Unlike wealth, emergency powers quickly gained are not so quickly lost. I wonder, with horror, what things will be like if they ever decide to use their powers against us, rather than for us.

That will be a job for tomorrow: to petition our governments to lose those emergency powers, and to ask God to preserve good government for another season (1 Timothy 2:1-2).

But today’s job is simpler: to praise God for the good actions our government has taken to prevent illness and protect the vulnerable. And to freely obey, ‘not only because of possible punishment, but also because of conscience (Romans 13:5).

[1] I am indebted to Oliver O’Donovan for his observation that a true political authority consists of i) judgement (making judgements to restrain evil) ii) power (enforcing and funding judgements) and iii) representation (a context where judgements are made for a people and accepted by them). See Oliver O’Donovan The Ways of Judgement (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005). I don’t explicitly use the phrase ‘judgement’ and I use ‘jurisdiction’ instead of ‘representation’.

[2] O’Donovan, Ways of Judgement 13.