Few days ago, Nigerians went out to select their preferred candidates for the positions of President, Vice President, and members of the National Assembly. In two weeks, they would also be selecting the respective state governors and the members of the different state legislatures. Thus the four-year election cycle runs.
While we are quickly settling into this democratic system, following about three decades of military rule, it bears reflecting on the very purpose of the institution of government itself. Why should a society have a government? What role does it serve? In light of the Christian worldview, this warrants both negative and positive responses.
I’ll start with the negative.
We don’t need government to ‘save’ us or create a heaven on earth. Politicians love to make this claim. They promise all sorts of comforts – good jobs, excellent infrastructure, safe streets, a vibrant economy, and so on. In other words, they tell us that by electing them into office, we would have all that we need to make our lives better. Actually, this is false (many of us know this already).
What goes into making a people happy and prosperous is a lot more complex than selecting a particular candidate at the polls. There is a vital place for cultural practices and belief systems. The presence and role of other institutions besides government (the family, schools, and churches) are also important. What about the attitudes of the people to essential things like work, time, or life? These all contribute to determine the health of any human society, whether in Africa or anywhere else?
So why then do we need the government? There are two key reasons.
We need government for order
It is essential to underscore the role of the government in maintaining order in society. Let’s assume that, on a given day, every individual wanted to take out their car and move in any direction they please. One driver wants to drive on the left side while another prefers the view from the right side. Or you have an individual who instinctively chooses to build his house right under an electrical installation. Perhaps a group even decides to print its own currency note. Imagine the chaos that would ensue. So we need some institution with the authority to impose some form of order. This was Paul’s exhortation in Romans 13:1-7.
We need government for justice
As the Bible and experience both confirm, we are fallen creatures. Humans, whether intentionally or out of ignorance, often fail to do what is right. Without the presence of the government and its justice-enforcing arm, we would be at the mercy of one another. A business partner could decide to swindle me, a man could take out his frustrations on his pregnant wife, and a cash-strapped, struggling lady could blackmail her employer for monetary gain. Where each of these succeeds without some punishment (and, sadly, they sometimes do), the fabric of society gets torn. It is the responsibility of government to preserve society by meting out appropriate justice.
In other words, the government won’t change human nature; we have the power of the gospel for that. Neither will the state create paradise on earth for any society. God is bringing about that through the spread of the gospel. Nevertheless, government still has an important role, under God, for the preservation and wellbeing of human society. And for that, we can be truly thankful.