The Divine Economy (5)
“You shall appoint judges and officers in all your gates, which the LORD your God gives you, according to your tribes, and they shall judge the people with just judgment. You shall not pervert justice; you shall not show partiality, nor take a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and twists the words of the righteous. You shall follow what is altogether just, that you may live and inherit the land which the LORD your God is giving you.” Deuteronomy 16.18-20
Local and national government
In the divine economy—the economics of justice and love outlined in God’s Law—effective government begins at the local level. The outgrowth of home and the guardian of property and neighborly relationships, local government in the divine economy has priority of place in ensuring the workings of the divine economy by exemplifying, encouraging, and, when necessary, enforcing individual responsibility for the requirements of justice.
The Law of God does not envision a large national government which has as its primary purpose regulating the affairs of the nation to maximize material prosperity for all. That national government would be required in Israel is anticipated by God’s allowing the people to have a king (Deut. 17). But we note there the strict constraints placed on that central authority. The primary function of the king seems to have been to protect and oversee the affairs of the nation and to ensure that the divine economy is in good working order throughout the communities of the land. That scarcely a single king in Israel’s history managed consistently to fulfill this role bears witness both to the sinfulness of men and the sinful tendencies of national governments.
In the Law of God, primary authority was invested in local governments, in the form of judges and other officials, for ensuring that justice prevailed in all the towns and villages of Israel.
Local government in the Law of God
Local officials were selected (Hebrew, nathan—to set, appoint, or put in place) by the people they would serve, presumably, on the basis of character and their understanding of the Law of God and the traditions and promises of God’s people. These elders or judges met in the gates of the city, where, symbolically, their deliberations and actions could be observed as they protected the city against injustice, and where, as well, people could learn to live according to God’s Law by seeing them at work.
The Law of God envisions “sunshine” government at the local level, government in plain site of the people, with an informed “electorate” serving to fulfill, monitor, and preserve the integrity of local self-government.
As we see in Ruth 4, officials could be assembled at the wish of a member of a community to render a judgment in some matter or dispute. Undoubtedly, however, they also met with some regularity, perhaps to review the overall state of the divine economy in their community, and to discuss matters related to understanding the Law of God.
Government as shepherd
The local rulers of Israel were to regard themselves as “shepherds” of the people, who were the flocks of God (cf. Ezek. 34.1-10). As such, their duty was to care for the wellbeing of each member of the community, to do whatever the Law of God directed to ensure that the benefits of justice and neighbor-love flowed to all.
It should not surprise us that, in the economics of material wealth that dominates our society, rulers are more likely to be regarded as wolves in sheep’s clothing than shepherds of their constituents, although certainly much of that Biblical idea of government is still in evidence.
There are many benefits to granting the burden of governance to officers elected at the community level. Here, for example, we might more reasonably expect officials to regard themselves as the servants and shepherds of people they recognize as neighbors and friends, rather than merely constituents in some far-flung district or state.
Local officials should also be able better to understand the needs of their constituents than representatives in a far-off national capital. In the early days of the American experience, city and county government were much more important than at present. For example, school boards existed in every political precinct to serve the interests and needs of parents in that district for the education of their children, and every school was allowed to select curricula and teachers to fit its peculiar needs and concerns. In colonial America, for example, a schoolteacher in New York City was expected to know the Scripture and to be able to lead children in daily devotions. Similar requirements existed in other colonial jurisdictions.
Checking corruption in government should also be more easily achieved at the local level. It is certainly much easier at the local level to raise a concern with a local official, or to recall one when necessary. Further, we might expect to see citizens’ review boards operating to watch over the policies of local rulers and their interpretations of community norms of justice.
Decline in local government
Over the past 200 years government in America has become increasingly centralized, as Americans have come to believe that a strong central government is the best way to ensure maximum material prosperity for all. In other words, the worst fears of the Anti-Federalist writers are now coming to pass.
The result is that federal and state governments wield vastly more power than local officials. And, while wealth has increased in America, justice has suffered considerably and a mindset of entitlement has settled on increasing numbers of the nation’s people.
Meanwhile, how many Americans even bother to pay attention to or participate in local politics? For whom did you vote in the last county or city council election?
Just government begins in just self-government, learned from God’s Law, taught in Christian homes, practiced at the local level, and encoded, when possible, in the public policies of the land. There is a need, of course, for national governments. But these must keep in mind the primacy of local governments to oversee the outworking of the divine economy for the people in their care.
1. At the very least, Christians should pay more attention to local government. Explain.
2. How many forms of local government exist in your community? Councils? Boards? How should you pray for these (1 Tim. 2.1-8)?
3. What about the board that governs your church? Do you pray for the members of that body? What are some things you should pray for them?
Next steps—Transformation: Make it a point to pray for your local forms of government. Pray for each board or council and, as you are able, learn who serves on them and pray for them as well.
T. M. Moore
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Except as indicated, all Scriptures are taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.