It’s helpful when answering big questions like these to look at the answers of people in other times and other places. Their answers may or may not be right, but they likely share different biases that people of our own time. It’s therefore instructive to look at these answers, to ask if they are biblical, and to ask if they reveal any blind spots we might have as creatures of our own time and place.
Over the next couple days I’ll post quotations from various persons on the question of the purpose of government.
Edwards “preached that magistrates were to ‘act as the fathers of the commonwealth with that care and concern for the public good that the father of a family has for the family, watchful against public dangers, [and] forward to improve their power to promote the public benefit’ [WJE 8:261-62]. Their first three functions of government were to secure property, protect citizens’ rights, and—toward that end—maintain order. . . . Related to these first two functions—protecting property and keeping order—government was also to ensure justice. For Edwards justice was recompense of moral deserts. The evildoer would have evil returned in proportion to his or her evil deeds. Similarly, justice would prevail when the person who loved other received the proper return of his or her love” [WJE 25:321; WJE 8:569].
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A fourth responsibility of government for Edwards was national defense. Military force was justified when the ‘rights and privileges’ of a people were threatened or when the ‘preservation of the community or public society requires it.’ If ‘injurious and bloody enemies’ molest and endanger a society it is the duty of government to defend that society by the use of force [WJE 25:133; sermon on Neh. 4:14, WJEO 64].
The next two functions of government referred not to preventable evils but to positive goods—promoting a common morality and a minimum level of material prosperity. The fifth function was to ‘make good laws against immorality,’ for a people that fail in morality would eventually fail in every other way. Rulers therefore were not to ‘countenance vice and wickedness’ by failing to enact legislation against it or enforcing what had been legislated. Sixth, governments were to help the poor. Edwards believed that the state—in his case, a town committee in Northampton—had a responsibility to assist those who were destitute for reasons other than their own laziness or prodigality. The state was also obliged to help the children of the lazy and prodigal. Governmental involvement was necessary because private charity (here Edwards had in mind the charity of churches) was unreliable: ‘In this corrupt world [private charity] is an uncertain thing; and therefore the wisdom of legislators did not think fit to leave those that are so reduced upon such a precarious foundation for subsistence.’ Because of the natural selfishness of all human beings, including the regenerate, it is therefore incumbent upon the Christian to support the state’s efforts to help the destitute [Sermon on Prov. 14:34, WJEO 44; WJE 17:403.]
The seventh and final item in Edwards’s job description for the magistrate was religious. The good ruler was expected to give friendly but distanced support to true religion. During a revival, the magistrate should call a day of prayer or thanksgiving. But he should not try to do much more than that. . . . . In his private notebooks, Edwards reminded himself that the civil authorities were to have ‘nothing to do with matters ecclesiastical, with those things that relate to conscience and eternal salvation or with any matters religious as religious.’ In other words, he would not allow any magistrate to tell his parishioners what church to attend or tell him what to preach .
McClymond & McDermott, The Theology of Jonathan Edwards, 515-17.