Developing a Biblical Understanding of Decentralization

The Conclusion of Our Series on Resisting Injustice

Be sure to check out Part 1Part 2 and Part 3.

For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. – Colossians 1:16.

As we have worked to develop a deeper Christian understanding of the injustices committed by civil rulers with authority over us, we have examined themes in the Bible as they relate to civil government. The first was the covenantal nature of our relationships to help us see how modern governments are largely attempting to take God’s place in the cosmic order. Next, we went beyond Romans 13 to examine the role of civil rulers so that we might better understand the limits on the authority of our rulers and how many widely accepted government practices are biblically unjust. Here, we will continue to expand the application of scripture to the actions of our rulers by examining the biblical concept of decentralization.

In all of creation, there is only one truly centralized government: that of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. All sovereign authority rests in them and in no other. This has not kept the rest of us, however, from attempting to consolidate authority. God recognizes the wickedness of man’s desire to gain power unto himself and has thus often thwarted man’s grasping for power while prescribing for us a decentralized form of civil government.

The first hint of God’s provision for civil government comes after the flood in Genesis 9:6: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.” Here, the power of the sword was given to man, foreshadowing the civil rulers in Romans 13:4: “for [the one who is in authority] is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.” It should be of no surprise to us (and it was not to God) that man quickly abused this God-given authority.

At Babel, the people said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth” (Genesis 11:4). Most of us focus on the problem of the people of Babel disobeying God by making a name for themselves. But it is also important to note how they sought to accomplish this; disobeying God’s command to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” through consolidating authority and resources in a centralized society. God quickly brought an end to this rebellion by confusing their language and scattering them over the face of the earth (11:7-8). His will is not easily thwarted.

There are several other examples in the Old Testament of God punishing those who sought to make a name for themselves through the centralization of power. Abimelech’s head was crushed by a millstone after he consolidated power by murdering his 69 co-regent brothers (Judges 9). Nebuchadnezzar, whose kingdom reached “to the ends of the earth,” was made to eat grass like an ox as soon as he proclaimed, “Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty?” (Daniel 4). Also, it was prophesied in Daniel 2 that Christ would crush the four dominions (Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome) that ruled over “the children of man, the beasts of the field, and the birds of the heavens” or “over all the earth.”

As God crushes usurpers, he also provides a blueprint for decentralization in numerous places in scripture. This starts in Genesis 10 in what is called the Table of Nations that lists the 70 nations that God established with the people who had consisted of only one nation at Babel. 

Later, God provided a decentralized government for Israel through the 12 tribes, each independently ruled. This proved to be a model for the United States system of federalism, with the tribes, like the states, coming first then later sharing authority with a central, or federal, government—first judges then kings. Also like America, central authority in Israel under God’s design was decentralized, with Moses’ power shared throughout the tribes by the 70 judges he appointed (Exodus 18:21). Later, cities were ruled by their elders that sat at the city gates (Deuteronomy 21:18-21, Ruth 4:1-12, Proverbs 31:23). 

In the New Testament, the language of decentralized human government continues. Paul speaks of multiple “governing authorities” while acknowledging that ultimate authority rests only in God (Romans 13:1). This perspective is affirmed at Pentecost as Christ’s rule over the many governments of this world is acknowledged (Acts 2:30, Colossians 1:16) and the curse of Babel is reversed as the people are reunited under Christ’s rule, not man’s. (See Gary DeMar, God and Government).

America’s founders went to great lengths to establish a system of government based on the biblical principle of decentralization. In Federalist 47, James Madison wrote, “The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether or one, a few, or many and whether hereditary, self-appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.” 

Despite Madison’s forceful denouncement of centralization, some founders raised questions as to whether the Constitution had gone too far in response to the perceived shortcomings of the Articles of Confederation. In Brutus 1, an anti-federalist expressed concerns about the centralization of power under the Constitution: 

“This government is to possess absolute and uncontroulable power, legislative, executive and judicial, with respect to every object to which it extends, for by the last clause of section 8th (the Necessary and Proper Clause) And by the 6th article (the Supremacy Clause) … It appears from these articles that there is no need of any intervention of the state governments, between the Congress and the people, to execute any one power vested in the general government, and that the constitution and laws of every state are nullified and declared void, so far as they are or shall be inconsistent with this constitution, or the laws made in pursuance of it, or with treaties made under the authority of the United States. — The government then, so far as it extends, is a complete one, and not a confederation.”

It is difficult to find fault in Brutus’ prophecy of the centralization of power in American government. Whether through design flaws in the U.S. Constitution or in the flaws of subsequent American rulers and citizens, our federal government has amassed power in ways antithetical to God’s biblical design and the expressed intent of America’s founders. A consolidation that is ongoing today. 

The application of the biblical standard of decentralization is a straightforward way to help Christians respond to this trend. There are two primary applications. First, if the federal government is consolidating authority at the expense of the states or the people (Tenth Amendment), it should be opposed. Second, if state or local governments are consolidating authority at the expense of the people, they too should be opposed. These two applications can also be used to evaluate current government programs in terms of decentralization. 

It is important to understand that what makes this application function most effectively as a check on injustice and a defense of liberty is a covenantal understanding of “the people.” When “the people” is applied to individuals, it refers to those upon who God has bestowed the responsibility of self-government (Gen 2:16). When applied collectively, “the people” refers to family and church governments that—like the civil government—have also been granted authority to govern in the appropriate sphere.

This reminds us of Benjamin Franklin. When asked what kind of government the Constitutional Convention had given the people, he replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.” Franklin knew that a republic was only suitable for a self-governing people. A republic and its self-governing people cannot be kept if the people do not consistently oppose efforts to centralize power. One reason we have failed on this watch is that many Christians do not understand that Romans 13 not only puts restraints on subjects, but also on rulers. Those rulers who are a terror to good conduct rather than bad (Romans 13:3-4) have broken their covenantal relationship with God; Christian rulers and subjects both have a responsibility to resist covenant-breaking rulers within the bounds of their own covenantal authority. 

Using both decentralization and the covenant as our standard, we can see the injustice of federal consolidation of power in the federal income tax, the welfare state, the Civil Rights Act, Roe v. Wade, and the courts’ tortured reading of the Constitution’s Commerce Clause. And also in actions like pro-life activists being convicted in federal court for protesting the murder of children at a Tennessee abortion clinic and the coercion of Americans into consuming corporate products such as renewable energy and vaccines.

We see these injustices at the state and local level as well. For instance, in the role of public schools and minimum wage laws in the alarmingly high unemployment and murder rates among black men in Chicago; in the taking of people’s homes to benefit large, politically connected businesses; and in high levels of taxes and spending that support socialist programs like corporate welfare, “affordable” housing, and godless institutions of public and higher education.

Nate Fisher recently posted on X, “We live in an administrative-judicial bureaucracy w/ almost no relationship to the form of government established by the constitution.” He is right. As law professor Jeffrey Tuomala explains, today only lip-service is paid to the concepts of people as the political sovereign, federalism, and enumerated powers. The separation of powers has been undermined. And the pre-existing rights and laws that are supposed to bind and limit the authority of our rulers “have been relegated to third-class status,” replaced by rights related to sexual practices. Tuomala also suggests that the decline of the constitutional order extends beyond civil government. Rather than America maintaining a biblical balance of the various God-ordained ruling authorities, “the state is [now] the major usurper, and the church and family are the major abdicators of legal powers and responsibilities.”

It is not surprising, then, that one of the abdicators, the American church—mainline and evangelical alike, is largely blind to this collapse of America’s constitutional order over the last 235 years. And that many American Christians are blind to the injustice of modern American government.
Whether the constitution is dead or just on its last legs, the only way to resurrect a constitutional order based on the lordship of Jesus Christ is for the church to repent and declare to the world “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27) “so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities,” (Ephesians 3:10) not just those in the heavenly places, but throughout all the earth. This wisdom includes viewing our relationships through covenantal eyes, properly defining the role of civil rulers, and developing a biblical understanding of decentralization. Only in this way will the kingdoms of this world, including the United States of America, submit to Him through whom “all things were created.”

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Bill Peacock

Bill Peacock has worked in and around Texas government for more than 30 years combining his passions for theology, economics, and public policy. He writes on these issues at

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