"Society in every state is a blessing, but government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one; for when we suffer or are exposed to the same miseries by a government, which we might expect in a country without government, our calamity is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer." --Thomas Paine, Common Sense, 1776
My acceptance of the Bible as the authoritative rule of faith prevents me from agreeing with Paine on this point. The Bible is very clear that civil government, as a means of restraining evil, is not an intrinsic evil – not even a necessary evil. As a means of restraining evil, government is ordained by God.
But I understand why people before and after Paine have had this thought. We almost never see government in anything but its “worst state.” Because of that, it is not difficult to see why some think it an evil, even if a necessary one.
Those who call themselves Christians have far too often been enablers of government in its worst state. Those who call themselves Christians have often been vocal advocates of government doing things it was never intended to do: supply people with whatever goods and services they need or even want. These same Christians have also often been vocal opponents of government doing the one job God put it in place to do: take retribution on those who have done evils, especially evils to their fellow human beings.
This is why I can sympathize with the thoughtful student of government who looks at what people, even Christian people, have tried to make of government, and then decides that government is a “necessary evil.” Christian theology should have a lot to say about what government ought to – and ought not to – be. But because “politics” is controversial, and so many Christians see the avoidance of controversy as a Christian virtue, practical Christian teaching never seems to impact political views in meaningful ways.
I’m talking here about the level of “what I hear at my church.” Most of the people who dive headfirst into the “what the Christian faith should mean for politics” are wackos like Jim Wallis. Among those who might have something truthful to contribute to this topic, the tendency is to limit our points to things like “we want prayer in schools” and “we want to post the Ten Commandments down at the courthouse.”
It’s not that those are necessarily horrible ideas, but they are superficial. Notice that at your church you have probably never taken up topics like: Should the government determine what happens in schools? Is inflation evil? Can government be ‘benevolent’ without doing evil?
That list could be continued. I know that there is a lot of talk about faith and politics these days. But most of it is either from socialist-leaning people who want the government to be their church, or from Christians who are afraid to be anything more than very general about this very important matter.
So it is little wonder – and much the faulty of Christendom - that many modern Thomas Paines see government as nothing more than a “necessary evil.”