Does Government Have Authority over the Church or Family?

September 2021

Far too often, those in government give into the temptation to take responsibility and authority for things outside of their appropriate purview. In the past year, politicians have regulated businesses in ways that clearly violate basic principles of a free economy. Sweeping regulations restricting churches clearly violate our nation’s founding principles of religious freedom. Programs created by the state supplement or replace the role of parents in the lives of children. Mandatory injections currently challenge our medical freedom. We are constantly told the government has a vested interest in keeping us safe. We’ve been told that our government leaders have the right and the obligation to require us to do what they believe will keep us safe. 

We balk at some of these restrictions in the name of our rights and freedoms being taken away. But where did these freedoms come from? What gives us the confidence or right to say that the government is wrong and has overstepped its bounds? We point to a higher law, a higher ruler referred to in our nation’s founding creed as “Nature’s God.” Let us look briefly at what God has in mind regarding the authority and purview of government and where those lines are between the responsibilities of the state, church, and family.

Each institution has a sphere of authority with jurisdictional limits that must be respected.

John MacArthur

The Bible tells us God established three separate and distinct institutions: Family, Civil Government, and Church. Each has its own jurisdiction and authority as established by God. John MacArthur puts it this way, “Each institution has a sphere of authority with jurisdictional limits that must be respected.”[1] However, these institutions do not receive their authority in a linear structure with Civil government on top with the other two answering to it, as some would have you believe. Rather, these three institutions were ordained by God and derive their just powers in parallel to each other under God. Each is accountable to God and is submitted to by individuals, provided the institution does not require disobedience to God. But in the case that it does, as the Bible tells us, we must obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29). As Jack Hibbs put it: “Christians should submit to our earthly authorities but there comes a point when our highest authority has to be obeyed…”[2]

Christians should submit to our earthly authorities but there comes a point when our highest authority has to be obeyed…

Jack Hibbs

It’s important to note we are to both accept the authority of those placed over us and honor them as commanded by God. In Paul’s letter to the Romans, we see this distinctly in the case of government. Some may say Paul could not have anticipated the wickedness and violation of liberty we are seeing today. Reconsider the following verses and remember who the government leaders were and how they ruled in Rome in the days of the early church. When Paul was writing this letter, Christians were experiencing extreme persecution. Paul himself would die under the leadership of Nero. Tacitus, the Roman historian and politician, claimed that under Nero’s rule Christians were murdered in the most bizarre and horrific ways. Keep in mind the persecution, horror, and martyrdom the church faced at that time when reading the following verses. 

Romans 13:1-7

1 Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God.

2 Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves.

3 For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same;

4 for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil.

5 Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience’ sake.

6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing.

7 Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor.

The following scriptures further discuss the three institutions and God’s supremacy over each.

God is Over All

  • Romans 11:36: For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.
  • Isaiah 33:22: For the Lord is our judge; the Lord is our lawgiver; the Lord is our king; he will save us.
  • Psalm 22:27-28: All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations shall worship before you. For kingship belongs to the Lord, and he rules over the nations.
  • Colossians 1:17: And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

Family Government

  • I Corinthians 11:3: But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wifeis her husband, and the head of Christ is God.
  • Ephesians 6:1-4: Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.“Honor your father and mother” (this is the first commandment with a promise), “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.”Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.
  • Colossians 3:18-21: Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives, and do not be harsh with them. Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord. Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged.

Church Government

  • Titus 1:7-9: For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.
  • Acts 20:28: Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.

Civil Government

  • I Peter 2:13-17: Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperoras supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God.Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.
  • I Timothy 2:1-2: First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people,for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.

However, leaders don’t always follow God’s commands. Sometimes rulers exceed their authority and specifically violate the jurisdiction of another institution or sphere over which they have no authority. History has seen many individuals and groups misuse the authority of these governing institutions to gain wealth or power, this past year being no exception. Pastor John MacArthur of Grace Community Church responded to one such misuse last year in a letter including the following:

God has established three institutions within human society: the family, the state, and the church. Each institution has a sphere of authority with jurisdictional limits that must be respected. A father’s authority is limited to his own family. Church leaders’ authority (which is delegated to them by Christ) is limited to church matters. And government is specifically tasked with the oversight and protection of civic peace and well-being within the boundaries of a nation or community. God has not granted civic rulers’ authority over the doctrine, practice, or polity of the church. The biblical framework limits the authority of each institution to its specific jurisdiction. The church does not have the right to meddle in the affairs of individual families and ignore parental authority. Parents do not have authority to manage civil matters while circumventing government officials. And similarly, government officials have no right to interfere in ecclesiastical matters in a way that undermines or disregards the God-given authority of pastors and elders.

When any one of the three institutions exceeds the bounds of its jurisdiction it is the duty of the other institutions to curtail that overreach.

Click here to read MacArthur’s full letter:

Each one of the three spheres of government sometimes overstep into the authority of another sphere. Sometimes one sphere neglects its own responsibility causing another institution to feel an urge to step in and fill a void. Some may, for example, see the church failing to minister to the poor and needy and think that government should step in and take over that responsibility. Some may object to the worldview parents teach their children and think that the government should step in and direct learning. Some people may try to carry out justice themselves, taking on the role of government to punish evildoers. We need to remember that two wrongs don’t make a right, and we shouldn’t try to reconfigure God’s design, regardless of how sound we think our reasoning is.

God has designed and assigned authority in this world.  Yes, sometimes it doesn’t work the way it should.  But this isn’t because God’s design is flawed, as some claim.  It is because man is fallen. The brokenness of this world should remind us of the hope we have in the perfect world that is yet to come.

In the meantime, we must live in pursuit of God’s plan and trust Him in it (Prov. 3:5-6).  Actively going after what we are to do (Micah 6:8, James 1:27, and Mark 10:21), and doing it with all our might (Ecc 9:10). If we start with what we know God has commanded us to do, we will be headed in the right direction.

There is much more which could be covered on this issue. However, in summary, a major Biblical principle to remember is that one should be content with the fruits of his own labor and that which is voluntarily given to him. One must avoid desiring or receiving the fruits of another man’s labor, which is taken from another on an involuntary basis. (Ex. 20:17; Luke 3:14; Rom. 13:9; Phil. 4:11-13; I Tim. 6:8-10)

When we shoulder our personal responsibilities rather than expecting the government to come to our rescue, we take a positive step toward lower taxes, smaller government, and increased freedom. 

And let our people learn to devote themselves to good works, so as to help cases of urgent need, and not be unfruitful. Titus 3:14

[1] John MacArthur, “Christ, not Caesar, Is Head of the Church,” Grace to You (Grace to You, July 24, 2020),

https://www.gty.org/library/blog/B200723#

[2] Marianne Napoles, “Churches to Ask Governor for May 31 Opening,” Champion Newspapers (Champion Newspapers, May 9, 2020),

https://www.championnewspapers.com/news/article_fc1e3cca-9160-11ea-89ac-0fa6937dba4d.html