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Government and Jurisdiction

Written By
William O. Einwechter

The concepts of government and jurisdiction are inseparably related to one another. Government speaks of the authority to govern, while jurisdiction speaks of the defined sphere in which the legitimate authority of a government is exercised. A great tragedy of our day is that the biblical concept of government has largely been lost, even among Christians.[1] This being the case, it is not hard to imagine that the notion of jurisdiction has ceased to be a viable force for limiting the individual governments to their proper and legal spheres. The result of the demise of biblically defined government and jurisdiction is confusion, conflict, and the concentration of power in the state. Liberty, order, justice, and prosperity are dependent on a true knowledge of government and jurisdiction, and that true knowledge is attained by considering these matters from a biblical, covenantal perspective.  

The Bible teaches that God is the source of all authority and legitimate government among men (Rom. 13:1-2). Government is the exercise of authority in an appointed sphere, and all authority resides, ultimately, in God. God’s government, or kingdom, rules over all. God has, however, created man in His image and charged him with the task of taking dominion in the world. Central to the task of dominion is the exercise of God-given authority in the domains of government established by God for the directing of life on earth and for the administration of God’s law among men. For the government of the world and mankind, God has established three covenantal institutions: family, church, and state. That is, the family, church, and state are individual governments that are established by covenant and possess God-ordained powers and jurisdictions.

Because the issues of government and jurisdiction are so central in the life of man, so necessary for the proper administration of God’s law, and so foundational to liberty and justice, we must give close attention to these matters. We will pay a heavy price if we do not! To assist us in asking the right questions in regard to government and jurisdiction, and to motivate us to see how important the issue of jurisdiction is, we will consider two foundational texts from Scripture: Luke 20:2 and Deuteronomy 21:1-3.

I. Luke 20:2

And it came to pass, that on one of those days, as he taught the people in the temple, and preached the gospel, the chief priests and the scribes came upon him with the elders, And spake unto him, saying, Tell us, by what authority doest thou these things? or who is he that gave thee this authority? (Luke 20:1-2)

The chief priests, scribes, and elders represent the Sanhedrin, the ruling body in Israel in both civil and religious matters. They come to Jesus in the Temple and demand that He answer for His actions, i.e., His exercise of authority in casting the merchants out of the Temple and teaching the people within its precincts. They have the right to question Jesus for they have jurisdiction over the Temple, and Jesus does not reject the legitimacy of their questions, though He understands the unbelief and hostility that lie behind them. His counter question (Luke 20:3-4), about the authority of John the Baptist, is not a rejection of the  validity of their questions nor of their right to ask them; it is only intended to expose their utter inability to rightfully judge the proper answer to their questions.

That Jesus accepted the legitimacy of their questions alerts us to the importance of them. In fact, this text lays before us the questions all of us need to be asking whenever someone exercises authority among us. As individuals, husbands and fathers, church members, citizens, or magistrates, we need to get these questions down and be asking them constantly. What are these questions? There are two of them.

1. By whose authority do you do these things?

They ask Jesus, “By what authority doest thou these thing?” This means: What sort (or kind) of authority stands behind your actions? Simply your own? Do you have anyone else to whom you can appeal to justify your exercise of power? Is your claim to have authority to do these things backed by proper authority? They also ask, “Who is he that gave thee this authority?” This is essentially the same question as the first. They challenge Jesus to specifically name the source of His authority. They want Jesus to name the one who empowered and commissioned Him to act as He has.

Their challenge to Jesus builds on the idea that no man has authority in himself; all authority is delegated to a man by a higher authority, going back ultimately to God. No man has original authority residing in himself, and if his authority is legitimate he must be able to properly answer this question. This is the fundamental question of government. All authority is exercised within the sphere of a duly constituted government. To answer the above question a man must be able to show which government has empowered him and the specific means whereby it did empower him.

2. Does your authority empower you to do these things?

They ask Jesus, “by what authority doest thou these things?” Do not miss the significance of “doest thou these things.” They are saying to Jesus, “Even if you can demonstrate that you have been commissioned by legitimate authority, does your commission extend to these things?” It is one thing to name the source of your authority, the government you represent, it is another thing entirely to prove that your grant of authority includes the power to do this or that. This is the fundamental issue of jurisdiction. All authority is limited to a specified sphere of action and domain. The men questioning Jesus may grant that He has some authority, but does He have authority to do what He has done in the Temple? Jurisdiction defines the boundaries of a person’s authority in two senses: it defines over what or over whom a person has authority; and what that authority empowers a person to do — to apply what laws, and to carry out what duties.

These two questions are the fundamental questions of government and jurisdiction. Learn to ask them of yourself as you exercise authority, and to ask them of others who exercise authority over you.

II. Deuteronomy 21:1-3

If one be found slain in the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee to possess it, lying in the field, and it be not known who hath slain him: Then thy elders and thy judges shall come forth, and they shall measure unto the cities which are round about him that is slain: And it shall be, that the city which is next unto the slain man, even the elders of that city shall take an heifer, which hath not been wrought with, and which hath not drawn in the yoke. . . . (Deut. 21:1-3).

Deuteronomy 21:1-2 depicts a very serious problem that urgently calls for a solution: the body of a dead man has been found in the field and it is not known who has killed him. Innocent blood has been shed in Israel, and the land has been defiled, thus inviting the judgment of God on the people. The solution to this difficult situation is provided in the case law of Deuteronomy 21:1-9. Here, the action required to cleanse the land of the guilt of innocent blood and to restore it to favor with God is revealed. But notice that the text not only makes known the action required to purge the land, but it also identifies who is responsible to carry out the work that will free the people from guilt; both aspects are important and essential in resolving the case.

Deuteronomy 21:2-3 indicates that the elders and judges of the city closest to where the body is found are charged with the duty of carrying out the law of God. Hence, the solution to the problem begins by assigning responsibility. In legal terms, in governmental terms, it begins by determining who has jurisdiction in this case.

The word “jurisdiction” comes from two Latin terms, juris, meaning “of right” or “of law,” and dictio, meaning “to speak” or “to declare.” Hence, the word “jurisdiction” refers to the right to declare and administer the law. It establishes the legal right by which rulers exercise their authority, and it also defines the sphere and extent of that authority. In Deuteronomy 21:2, the right and responsibility to administer the law of 21:3-9 is determined by carefully measuring the distance from the dead body to the nearest town or city.

Although this law speaks to a specific circumstance, it also illustrates a very important principle: before God’s law can be applied, it is essential that jurisdiction is established. We must be diligent to “measure” out which government has jurisdiction over the issue or problem facing us before we can properly carry out the law of God and solve the problem. If jurisdiction is not first established, not only will the problem not be solved, it will, at least in the long run, be intensified. This principle applies to all the governments that God has established — family, church, and state — and to the jurisdiction assigned to each of these individual governments.

Conclusion

If God’s authority is to be properly administered by men, we need to carefully consider the questions and issues raised by Luke 20:2 and Deuteronomy 21:1-3. In all circumstances where authority is exercised, these two fundamental questions of government and jurisdiction must be asked. Ask them of yourself as you exercise authority, and ask them of those who exercise authority over you: 1). Who gave you this authority? — the question of government; and, 2). Does your authority empower you to do these things? — the question of jurisdiction

1. ^ For an introduction to the subject of government from a biblical perspective, see William O. Einwechter, “Government,”The Christian Statesman, vol. 145, no. 2 (March-April 2002), pp. 3-7.

This article was originally published in The Christian Statesman, vol. 149, no. 6, November - December, 2006.