Biblical Insights from Lex Rex: Governments are Formed Voluntarily

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed”

Declaration of Independence

Was the American Declaration of Independence a sinful rebellion based on enlightenment philosophy, or can it be defended Biblically? To begin answering this question, I am reading Lex, Rex by Samuel Rutherford to see what Biblical insights I can glean.

Politic power of government befits not a man singly as one man, except in that root of reasonable nature; but supposing that men are combined in societies, or that one family cannot contain a society, it is natural that they join in a civil society, though the manner of union in a politic body, as Bodine says, is voluntary (Gen 10:10; 15:7)

Samuel Rutherford

Rutherford considers a time when people were just beginning to be numerous enough to form governments. The great flood left a family in place, but no civil government. By the time of Noah’s great-grandson Nimrod, it made sense to start kingdoms. Why did Nimrod become a king? Because “he was a mighty hunter before the Lord” (Gen 10:9, ESV).

The manner in which Nimrod becomes king is neither supernatural nor sinful. God does not directly establish the monarchy because of Nimrod’s inherent superiority. On the other hand, Nimrod does his hunting “before the Lord,” not in rebellion to the Lord. Men are drawn to follow Nimrod because he is “mighty,” and this is not contrary to God’s good design for men.

There is no indication that Nimrod forces people to join his kingdom. Nimrod voluntarily builds his kingdom, and men voluntarily follow him. His kingdom expands into uninhabited regions as families naturally grow. This project would be unsustainable without the consent of the governed.

Note that the formation of Nimrod’s kingdom happens before the tower of Babel is built. His nation is not a result of man’s rebellion against God. It was natural for a government to form as the population grew; that Nimrod should be the king of this government was the choice of Nimrod and the people. Nimrod does not compete with God by building his kingdom, but righteously uses his strength to establish order in God’s world.

Rutherford’s second proof text in the quote above is Genesis 15:7, in which God declares that He has brought Abram to the land of Canaan to possess it. This seems less relevant to Rutherford’s point, but it does indicate that God endorses the natural formation of governments. God is not opposed to the idea that a man should come to possess a land. Since God did not directly establish the first governments, we can assume that He left men free to establish governments for themselves.

In the nation that God makes from Abraham, the first monarchy is established by the will of the people, qualifications set by God, and the direct choice of God.

When you come to the land that the LORD your God is giving you, and you possess it and dwell in it and then say, “I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are around me,” you may indeed set a king over you whom the LORD your God will choose. One from among your brothers you shall set as king over you. You may not put a foreigner over you, who is not your brother.

Deuteronomy 17:14-15

God does not set the king over the people; the people set the king over themselves. But they cannot choose anyone for this task; he must be an Israelite. When this happens in history, we see that 1. the elders of Israel demand a king (1 Sam 8:4-5), 2. God chooses the king from among them and anoints him (1 Sam 10:1), 3. God’s will is shown to the people by a random process (1 Sam 10:20-21), 4. the people of Israel consent to his kingship when they see how tall he is (1 Sam 10:24), and 5. Samuel explains the rights and duties of a king, according to God (1 Sam 10:25). This is a unique case because God is the true King over Israel, but it demonstrates that God endorses the natural process by which a nation chooses a ruler from among its people.

Nimrod and Saul become kings by the consent of the governed. The formation of governments happens naturally, and God approves of the general concept. Even in Israel, God does not directly set a king over the people, but chooses a king whom the people voluntarily set over themselves.

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