A Biblical defense of limited government and free-market principles
Michael Thomas Hamilton · Nov 29, 2017
With each passing year, Americans suffer the consequences of increasing government control over personal decisions affecting their everyday lives. No family budget line item bears the thorns and thistles of overregulation more than health care. Many long for a “free-market” revival: a reduction of government interference with how patients live, shop for providers, and pay for service. Others fear liberated markets would rob the needy—not only of health care, but of money, equality, and supposed entitlements.
What’s a Christian to think about free-market principles? Should Christ-followers defend people’s right to buy and sell at will—or should we support stricter government control?
Our response ought to stem from what God’s Word says about the proper role of government. With few exceptions, this role does not include forcibly limiting people’s freedom to steward their God-given resources.
Government in the Beginning
Today, it is hard to imagine the United States government confined to Biblical boundaries. Nonetheless, the Bible reveals God’s limited purpose for government. God instituted government to administer justice in response to increasing violence on the earth.
Corrupted by sin, man progressed from eating the forbidden fruit to murdering his brother within one generation (Genesis 3,4). Within six generations, Cain’s descendent Lamech was wearing murder as a badge of honor (Genesis 4). By Noah’s day, “the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence” (Genesis 6:11, ESV). This grieved the Lord, earning His wrath and judgment—the Great Flood.
After the Flood, God instituted human government for a specific purpose: to answer violence with justice. “I will require a reckoning for the life of man,” God said. “Whoever sheds the blood of a man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image” (9:5–6).
This decree made men accountable not only to God for bloodshed, but to each other. Having tasked man with the administration of justice, God covenanted with Noah never again to “destroy the earth” by flood (9:11).
Death and Taxes
The Apostle Paul confirmed the Biblical role of government as one of punishing—and deterring—violence. The ruler “does not bear the sword in vain,” Paul wrote. “For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:4).
So important is the government’s role of answering violence with justice that Paul instructed Christians to respect and value it: “For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed …” (Romans 13:6-7). In other words, taxpayers fund the government specifically to protect them from violence.
Sometimes, taxes are oppressive—a fact today’s free-market proponents often lament. Jesus Himself, when asked whether God approves of tax evasion under an oppressive regime, told the Pharisees to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” (Luke 20:25). (Perhaps an even harder challenge for the Pharisees—and for us—was the second part of Jesus’ response: render “to God the things that are God’s.”)
Warning Against Unlimited Government
The Biblically defined role of government—the administration of justice as a check against violence—is a principle applicable to any form of government man dreams up.
The principle held true in the 1,000-plus years between Noah and Moses, a period for which Scripture prescribed no form of government. It applied to Moses’ governance as the sole leader of the Israelites, as well as to the judicial system Moses later established (Exodus 18). It applied to regimes described in the book of Judges. The principle applied to (and was frequently neglected by) the monarchies of Israel and Judah, and it applied to the Roman empire under which Jesus and Paul lived (and were killed).
God’s Word warns against forms of government that grant rulers too much power. Such rulers overstep government’s Biblically defined role. When the Israelites, jealous of other nations, demanded a king, Samuel cautioned that a king would do more than draft soldiers and laborers into service for national defense:
He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants. … He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the Lord will not answer you in that day. (1 Samuel 8:13–18)
Here Samuel warns of taxes and enslavement having nothing to do with the government’s proper role. (Notably, the king’s sum takings would exceed the 10 percent tithe God commanded Israel to pay the Levite priests in Numbers 18:21–28).
Old Principle, New World
Since setting foot on American soil, Christians have attempted to apply Biblical principles to various forms of self-government. In his 1630 sermon “A Model of Christian Charity,” Massachusetts Bay Colony Governor John Winthrop charged his Puritan congregants and fellow citizens “to follow the counsel of Micah, to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God” (see Micah 6:8).
The Biblical role of government—answering violence with justice—was much on Winthrop’s mind. In his last public speech, Winthrop warned that without sound governance, men would “grow more evil, and in time to be worse than brute beasts.” British philosopher and monarchist Thomas Hobbes famously echoed Winthrop’s belief, writing in 1651, “worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death: and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”
America in the Middle
The United States’ Founders heeded these and other warnings against weak government. They also stressed the importance of limiting government to its proper role.
The Second Continental Congress held that God has given man natural rights to life, liberty, and property. “[T]o secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men,” the Declaration of Independence reads. Consequently, people have the right to abolish governments (such as King George III’s in 1776) violent toward their lives, freedom, and property, the Declaration states.
Although not all the Founders were Christ-followers, they baked two Biblical principles of government into the birth of the United States: First, government’s proper role is to protect people. Second, justice flourishes when rulers are confined to this proper role. When rulers overstep, injustice abounds.
Today, cries of injustice fill the United States, a country increasingly used to government intervention in health care, education, the environment, entitlements, and the economy. Our rulers tell us what to teach our children, how to identify genders, whose abortions to pay for, and who must pay for birth control.
Laws should protect us from bodily harm, subjugation, and theft—all forms of violence—by punishing and deterring the perpetrators. Most regulations, however, seem an unwarranted and unwelcome violation of our right to choose how to live, conduct business, spend our money, and worship. For example, the last decade’s restrictions of health care markets have discouraged price transparency, inflamed insurance rates, and put more patients on the government dole.
Different views of the proper role of government breed disagreement about what constitutes government overreach. Christ-followers ought to derive their views from Scripture, even if that means letting go of their support for programs God did not institute government to run, however well-intentioned such programs may seem.
Modern history has proven that many of these taxpayer-funded programs could achieve their goals more efficiently if left to a free market. Unfortunately, history also shows that although poverty is less rampant in free-market economies, poverty persists. As Jesus said, “The poor you will always have with you” (Matthew 26:11, NIV).
In every age, the obligation of ministering to “the least of these” falls first and foremost to God’s people, who, in rendering to Caesar what is Caesar’s, must not fail to render to God what is God’s (Matthew 25:40, Luke 20:25).
Samaritan member Michael Thomas Hamilton (firstname.lastname@example.org) is founder and lead writer at Good Comma Editing, which supplies research, writing, editing, and instruction for professional teams. He provides Midwesterners with American heritage tours of Boston, Massachusetts and serves on the boards of Forge Leadership Network and the Miami Valley Women’s Center. A Hillsdale College graduate, his writing appears in The Wall Street Journal, National Review, WORLD Magazine, The Federalist, The Hill, Townhall.com, and other publications.