John’s gospel reveals a key attribute by which Christians can be recognized. Jesus told His disciples, “By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). Love—outflowing concern for others—is at the core of our Christian commitment.
So, why do so many wonder about Church government? Is Church government something that sincere Christians even need to bother understanding in the first place? The answer is, yes. Government is integral to the Gospel message. And, properly understood, it is integral to our understanding of God’s love.
Scripture records that Jesus came “preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God” (Mark 1:14–15). The word "kingdom" (from the Greek word basileia) means government. The gospel message Jesus brought was about the coming government of God to be established over this earth at His Second Coming. At that time, the “kingdoms” (basileia) of this world will become Christ’s, and He will reign or govern (basileuō) over them forever (cf. Revelation 11:15). Furthermore, those who now do the will of the Father will not only enter into that coming kingdom (basileia), but they will also rule, reign and govern (basileuō) in that coming kingdom (Revelation 5:10; 20:6; 22:5). However, Jesus warned that not everyone who calls Him “Lord” will enter into His coming basileia; but rather those who do the will of the Father will enter into that kingdom (Matthew 7:21).
God’s Government Is Based on Love
Jesus Christ revealed that the entire law is founded on two principles; love toward God and love toward neighbor (cf. Matthew 22:36–40). Indeed, as many are familiar with, God’s very nature is expressed as love (1 John 4:8, 16), and love is kind (1 Corinthians 13:4). However, as will be further explored, God’s nature is also expressed as tsĕdaqah, which means governmental righteousness, as in Isaiah 9:7 and elsewhere. Logically, godly government is then an expression of service and of love, which is the clear model provided in Scripture.
While God does require faith, repentance and obedience (Matthew 9:13; James 2:18–20) there is nothing oppressive or tyrannical about godly government. All of God’s instructions are for our good and for “instruction in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16) and are based on His laws of love. As Dr. Roderick C. Meredith has written, “God loves us so much that He let Jesus Christ come to this earth to die for those who were still sinners. He is not trying to ‘crush’ people and make them ‘cower’ for His pleasure. He sincerely desires that all should be saved. Those who are rebelling against God should certainly fear His vengeance. But those who are seeking to obey Him should be awestruck by His love, and should be moved to deep reverence” (Tomorrow’s World, September-October 2012).
It is important to note, as Jesus Christ instructed in Mark 10:44, that whoever desires to be “first”—whoever desires to be a leader, or to have authority—must be the servant of everyone else. A true godly leader is a servant, and according to Jesus Christ, an attitude of righteous service is a prerequisite and a requirement for those who would be in authority.
All governments (even those governments which are in rebellion to God) are in reality existing subordinate to God’s dominion. This does not mean that God approves of unrighteous governance. Far from it! Unrighteous governance is completely contrary to God’s very nature—His tsĕdaqah. But, any human governance is nonetheless ultimately allowed by, and subservient to, God’s sovereignty as Scripture makes plain, “For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God” (Romans 13:1). This is a lesson that humanity continues to struggle to learn. This was in part what the English grappled with in 1215, leading to the famous confrontation with King John and resulting in the Magna Carta. This was the same truth that, nearly 2,000 years earlier, the Almighty God had taught Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. Had either king truly understood what Nebuchadnezzar came to learn, “that the Most High God rules in the kingdom of men, and appoints over it whomever He chooses” (Daniel 5:21), perhaps they both would have avoided their respective humiliations. Yet neither man—just like most people today—fully accepted the lesson that it is ultimately God who rules and who governs (cf. Isaiah 22:22, Revelation 11:15). It is God who gives the laws which we are obliged to follow. It is God who even provides the model for the proper form of governance.
Why Godly Government
It is helpful to be reminded of the perfect model against which we should measure governmental efforts. God has always given humanity freedom of choice to choose between the right and the wrong (Deuteronomy 30:19). Unfortunately, history is full of wrong choices and wrong government.
What does the Bible reveal about God’s government and governance? In addition to being based on love, God and His government is also good (Mark 10:18), perfect (Psalm 18:30) and just (Isaiah 9:7). God’s justice stems from His righteous character, and His righteous character is reflected by His “perfect law” or His teleios nomos(James 1:25). God’s “perfect law” is without defect in any way. It is also, as James 2:8 reveals, a “royal” law (a basilikos nomos) which connotes that it is a law established by, and supported by one in authority. God’s “royal law” is appropriate for governing, and again, is always founded on love (Romans 13:1).
This royal and perfect law emanating from God is called His tsĕdaqah, or “governmental righteousness” (cf. Isaiah 9:7, 56:1; Psalm 119:142). Perfect and righteous governance is integral to God’s very purpose, as Job 37:23 reveals by describing that God is excellent in power and in judgment and in governance (tsĕdaqah). He executes righteous governance (tsĕdaqah) for all who are oppressed (cf. Psalm 103:6). It is Jesus Christ who is the branch of tsĕdaqah from the household of David (Jeremiah 33:15). It is Christ who will return to establish the Kingdom of God as described in Revelation 17:14 and elsewhere.
Christians today are to be imitating Christ and following His example in all ways (I John 2:6). While no human can act perfectly as God acts, notice that Abraham is counted as practicing tsĕdaqah righteousness (cf. Genesis 15:6). Likewise, King David also demonstrated tsĕdaqah in his life (cf. I Chronicles 18:14). It is no wonder that Abraham and David will receive very high positions in the coming Kingdom of God! What then is the purpose of this royal and perfect law? The purpose is to reflect His righteousness (tsĕdaqah), which leads to salvation (Isaiah 56:1). If we reflect His righteousness, then we will also reflect His love, and His example of service. We will then be on the path for qualifying to rule within the theocratic monarchy that will be established under Christ in the coming Kingdom of God (Revelation 1:6, 5:10).
Why should this matter to us today? Consider these words from our Presiding Evangelist in the Living Church News: “The type of hierarchical government Christ directed His servants to employ throughout both the Old and New Testaments is the exact form of government we will soon be teaching and practicing in Tomorrow’s World” (“Growth Through Servant Leadership,” January-February 2011, p. 2). Yet we are also reminded, “And we should all—from the greatest to the least—learn to administer our part in God’s government with love and humility, and with the approach of Servant Leadership” (ibid.). As Dr. Meredith wrote in The World Ahead: What Will It Be Like? God’s coming government will create “an entire new society based on love, joy and peace” (p. 2). God’s government is one of peace, fairness and righteousness.
In the Kingdom of God, there will be peace, righteousness, and true happiness. As Isaiah 11:9 tells us, “They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain, for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” God is love (1 John 4:8; 16). He governs with love. Godly government and godly governance are expressions, or manifestations of love. And God expects those who serve as leaders to serve and to lead in love. This type of leadership is often called “Servant Leadership,” and is based on Jesus’ example and instruction (Matthew 20:25–28). This pattern of loving servant leadership and ecclesiastical appointment—not oppression or corruption or politicking—is to be upheld by God’s Church; it is not to be changed (Matthew 28:20).
Beyond Today’s Confusion
God is not the “author of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints” (1 Corinthians 14:33). Sadly, today in the Church of God there is much “confusion” about Church government. This confusion is not only illustrated by the myriad differing forms of Church governance that exist, but it is also often exhibited in the manner of governance, as governance often becomes highly politically charged. There is also too often a lack of “peace” within organizations that have become highly politicized.
This is true throughout the professing Christian world as well. Consider the “Vatileaks” scandal that shook the Roman Catholic world in 2012. Why those secret Vatican documents were released at all is a source of speculation ranging from having “something to do with power struggles between senior Italian Church officials intent on putting their favorite candidates in good positions for the next papal election” to “a conspiracy” against the number two Vatican official. Regardless of the motivation for the leaks, these papers “show that, just like elsewhere, there are lies, intrigues and bitter feuds between rival parties” (Der Spiegel, June 4, 2012). “Vatileaks” may have made for sensational news headlines, but this scandal is sadly just an example of what can happen when power and politics are blended—and these problems are by no means limited to the Roman church.
The simplest answer to “why” there is such governmental confusion in Christianity today is that Adam and Eve partook of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. From that time on, mankind has too often neglected God’s clear instruction, rejecting “blessing” and instead choosing “cursing” (cf. Deuteronomy 30:19). As 2 Peter 2:10 specifically warns, there is a dangerous human tendency to “despise government” (KJV). In this passage, the Greek word kyriotēs is used, which typically refers to a governing reign, a government or a dominion—not simply “authority,” but the official capacity and rule of a government. This word (kyriotēs)is the same word that is used elsewhere to refer to God’s governing position and governing authority, both in this age and in the age to come (cf. Ephesians 1:21, Colossians 1:16).
God’s governing intent is to establish righteousness and peace (cf. Isaiah 9:6–7; Romans 14:17), and as has already been shown, all of God’s law, and all that God does, is founded on love (cf. Matthew 22:36–40; 1 John 4:8, 16). His tsĕdaqah, or governmental righteousness, is also a manifestation of His perfect love, despite the persistent human tendency to “despise” God’s instructions and His laws regarding righteous, biblical government. Let us be careful to embrace and obey, not to despise and reject, those instructions.