God established civil government to be an avenger who brings wrath upon those who practice evil. The civil government’s power to use the sword is legitimate in certain limited cases. The Bible has mandated that the power of the sword is to keep the peace, to protect those who do what is right. Civil rulers are said to be “ministers of God” similar to the way pastors are “ministers of God.” They are God’s “deacons” in their designated governments, one ecclesiastical and the other civil.

Not all rulers live up to the honorable title of “minister.” Paul is speaking of the ideal. Not everyone who rules is ministering in the biblical sense: “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock … I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them” (Acts 20:28-30). What’s true in the church is equally true in civil government. Not every ruler who seizes power or who is elected to office will minister in a just way (e.g., Pontius Pilate, Herod, Hitler, etc.). Paul is describing what a ruler’s proper function is. The apostle is not making a moral judgment about any particular ruler or political policy. Rather, his words describe what civil governments ought to be and ought to do. Every ruler should seek to minister as Christ ministered.

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Jesus called Herod “that fox” (Luke 13:32). Jesus was not calling the legitimacy of civil government into question. He was making a value judgment about the government of Herod.

The typical ruler of Jesus’ day was a tyrant. “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them” (Luke 22:25). The distinguishing characteristic of true leadership is that of a servant. The ministry of the civil magistrate does not exist to serve its own end. The true minister (servant) exists to serve others, but never apart from the laws of God. This means that the citizenry should not appeal to the magistrate to govern outside his designated ministerial duties.

The rulers in the realm of civil government must rule according to God’s law, the standard of good and evil. No government has the freedom to rule by some arbitrary man]centered standard of good and evil or the “will of the people.” The civil magistrate is a true minister when it operates according to biblical absolutes.

The additional duties of civil governments are the well ordering of society and the maintaining of peace so that Christians are free to worship God, unhindered by forces hostile to the gospel of Jesus Christ. The state has the duty to preserve law and order so that the Church is free to spread the gospel of peace. The civil government must be made to realize that there is no real peace without the presence of the Spirit of Jesus Christ. This climate of peace can only be accomplished by administering justice and righteousness to everyone. Justice and righteousness are defined in terms of God’s law. Civil rulers are commissioned to represent God as the judge. They act in such a capacity when they punish those who do evil (i.e., break God’s laws), as well as publicly commend and reward those who do good (cf. Rom. 13:3-4).