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By David J. Smith
January 28, 2012

Noah Webster’s An American Dictionary of the English Language, first published in 1828, defines government this way:

Government, n.

Direction, regulation. “These precepts will serve for the government of our conduct.”

Control, restraint. “Men are apt to neglect the government of their temper and passions.”

The exercise of authority; direction and restraint exercised over the actions of men in communities, societies or states; the administration of public affairs, according to the established constitution, laws and usages, or by arbitrary edict. “Prussia rose to importance under the government of Fredrick II.”

The exercise of authority by a parent or householder. “Children are often ruined by a neglect of government in parents.” “Let family government be like that of our heavenly Father, mild, gentle and affectionate.”

Webster states that government begins with the individual and the “regulation of his conduct.” Government, in this older definition, is moral and personal before it is practical and institutional. Without self-governed individuals who follow some MORAL code, we cannot expect good family, church, and civil governments to be developed. Self-government (or self-control) under God is the foundation of any society.

Self-government undergirds all institutional governments, including parents and children in family government, pastors, elders, deacons, and members in church government, and civil servants and citizens in civil governments at all jurisdictional levels (city, county, state, and national). Webster did not define government solely in civil or political terms.

Many modern dictionaries obscure the fundamental moral and different applicable features of government. The term “government” is most often equated with politics than the moral flow of power and force in the operation of family, church, and a decentralized political order. There is little to NO mention of family and church government in modern usage. While there is some discussion of “moral conduct or behavior,” the relationship between “moral conduct” and good government is rarely, if ever, discussed in modern dictionaries.

In modern usage, especially in the media, “government has become a synonym for civil government alone. “Government” is an all-embracing term that is used for anything done by the State (“State” is being used as a synonym for the highest level of civil government: national or federal). Below are some typical sentences from the media:

  • The government releases crime figures.
  • The government sets educational policy.
  • The government delivers unemployment statistics.
  • The government administers tax policy.
  • The government establishes monetary reform.

By phrasing these statements in this way, the media assume there are no other governing institutions with legitimate jurisdictional authority. A more correct description of the State’s function would have some qualifiers attached to the word “government.”

This more Biblical understanding of government leads us to consider the following points. First, civil government is decentralized. We have civil governments at the national or federal level, fifty state governments, dozens of county seats within each state, and hundreds of city governments. Second, civil government is just one government among many other legitimate non-civil governments! Civil government should have jurisdiction in only those areas where it has Biblical and Constitutional authority to govern. There are governments, family and church, which also have legitimate jurisdiction in their God-ordained spheres.

(Now that He ascended, what is it but that He also descended first into the lower parts of the earth? He that descended [Jesus into the grave] is the same also that ascended up far above all heavens, that He might fill all things.) And he gave some apostles, and some prophets; and some evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God …” (Ephesians 4:9-14).

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