STUDY THIRTEEN: CHRISTIANS, GOVERNMENT AND POLITICS
© Rosemary Bardsley 2006, 2016
As Christians our relationship to the government, to government laws and to political questions is an ethical issue. Our choices in these areas either
Honour God or dishonour him,
Work towards his kingdom or against his kingdom,
Link in with his will or are at odds with his will.
Much as we would like to divorce ourselves from them, these issues challenge us to formulate a Christian ethic out of which responsible Christian attitudes and actions will be generated.
A. HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVES
A.1 Political leadership in biblical times – a brief overview
Patriarchal period: The patriarch was the recognized leader of the extended family/clan.
Exodus to Joshua: God called and appointed Moses, then later Joshua, as the authoritative national and spiritual leader of the people of Israel. Moses was assisted by Aaron, also appointed by God. Moses appointed capable men from the tribes of Israel as officials/judges over the people. Joshua’s role included that of military leader. Rebellion against Moses was viewed as rebellion against God.
Period of the judges: God empowered and raised up leaders to rescue the tribes of Israel from their enemies. To some extent during their lifetime some of these leaders kept the people on the right track spiritually. When there were no leaders the people did what was right in their own eyes with disastrous results.
Period of the Kings: [The concept of a monarchy was not God’s choice for Israel. His ideal was for Israel to be a theocracy. God ‘gave in’ to Israel’s persistent demands for a king, but not without warning them that it would not be as wonderful as they anticipated. 1 Samuel 8].
While the first kings, Saul and David, were kings by God’s direct appointment, for the most part after that the kings of Judah and Israel rose to power for a variety of human reasons: by inheriting their father’s throne, by political conniving, by military victory or coup d’état, by assassinating their predecessor, and so on. While most of these kings were also military leaders, God held them responsible for the spiritual condition of Israel. Whenever a godly king was on the throne the nation prospered. When ungodly kings ruled the nation fell apart. Apart from the few prophets who spoke the word of the Lord faithfully, for the most part, the religious leaders [priests and prophets] followed the lead of the kings, and incurred the same judgment. The people, rather than rebelling against this national degradation, loved to have it this way.
Periods of foreign dominance: At times of domination by foreign powers, leaders were appointed in Israel who were subject to the authority of the usurping power – after the destruction of Jerusalem, at the return from the Babylonian captivity. God’s instruction to his people was to submit to these foreign leaders because they were the instruments of his judgment.
The New Testament period: The Roman government was in charge, with various governors, consuls and proconsuls, along with the Roman military presence.
At the same time a semblance of self-government was maintained by the existence of Jewish kings – Herod, Philip, etc – who were more or less figure heads.
In addition, the Jewish Sanhedrin along with the High Priest maintained some control over matters relating to Jewish religion.
The nearest any of this comes to our contemporary democratic government is  the capable men chosen as leaders to assist Moses [they were chosen from among the people, but they were chosen by Moses, not by the people], and  the instances in which kings came to power in Israel because they were popular with the people or with the military [but they were autocratic in their government method once they were in power.] Nevertheless we can see from these various forms of government in the Bible that national leadership has an in-built moral/ethical aspect: rulers and leaders are themselves accountable to God for the way they rule and lead. In addition, in so far as God uses governments/rulers, even godless ones, in his grand purposes, how people respond to governments and rulers is also an ethical issue.
A.2 The changing relationship between church and state
From the conversion of the Roman emperor Constantine [c313AD] onwards, church and state became increasingly unified. By the end of the tenth century the power of the church over the state was such that the church’s control over every aspect of western society was complete. At the time of the Reformation some German princes seized the opportunity presented by the division in the church to revolt against the power of the Holy Roman Empire [comprising a large part of Europe, ruled by Germanic emperors and dominated by the Roman Catholic church]. This move resulted in the Peace of Augsburg 1555. However the church/state union did not disappear; it merely changed. The principle of ‘states follow the religion of their leader’ was adopted. For many generations ‘the church’ played a significant role in national politics. In contemporary society the church has a much diminished role even in countries where there is an official ‘state religion’. There are however a number of countries where the ‘state religion’ is the only legally permitted and/or legally recognized religion.
A.2.1 Which countries have a ‘state religion’?
Roman Catholicism: Andorra, Argentina, Bolivia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Liechtenstein, Malta, Monaco, Paraguay, Peru, some cantons of Switzerland, Vatican City.
Church of England: England. [In England, the reigning monarch is also ‘head of the Church of England’.]
Lutheran: Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Finland.
Reformed: Some cantons of Switzerland
Orthodox Church: Armenia, Cyprus, Finland, Greece.
Note: It is common where there is a ‘state religion’ for that religion to degenerate into nominalism, and for living faith to almost disappear.
Islam: Afghanistan, Algeria, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Brunei, Comoros, Djibouti, Egypt*, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Libya, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Somalia, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, Yemen. [*Egypt recognises Islamic Shari’a as a main source of legislation however makes no mention of Islam as the state religion.]
Buddhism: Bhutan, Cambodia, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand [religious freedom is guaranteed by the constitution of Thailand], Tibet [government in exile].
Secular states [no official religion; separation of ‘church’ and ‘state’]: Australia, Canada, France, India, Japan, South Korea, Syria, Turkey, USA. [People in some officially secular states experience significant religious persecution or discrimination.]
Communism: China [including Tibet], Cuba, Laos, North Korea, Vietnam. [In some communist countries all religion is outlawed. In others the state officially endorses or sponsors certain religious organizations. All non-sponsored religious activities are disapproved to one extent or another.]
The status of the relationship between church [or religion] and state significantly impacts the lives of the citizens of a country and raises ethical issues for Christians. For example:
Should Christians obey a government that denies God?
Should Christians obey laws that forbid the practice of the Christian faith?
How should Christians respond in the midst of religious discrimination or persecution?
B. BIBLICAL PERSPECTIVES
We can identify from the scriptures some key theological concepts relating to government. [In this section the term ‘government’ is used to refer broadly to all systems/forms of government, ranging from single person government [monarchies or dictatorships] to democratically elected representative governments.]
Please read the scripture passages at the end of each perspective.
God’s ideal is that he himself should be acknowledged as King, not only individually, but on the national level. The whole earth, after all, is his creation, his possession. It owes not only its origin, but also its continuance, to him. [1Samuel 8]
This ideal is an impossibility in a sin-driven world for the foundational sin out of which all sin derives, is the rejection of God as God. This ideal existed in Genesis 1 and 2, and will not be implemented again until the end of the age in the new heaven and the new earth, when all sin and all that is opposed to God will be removed and all that remains will be subject to God as King. [Revelation 21:1-8; also 1Corinthians 15:24-28]
The existence of human government is a divine compromise for the age between Genesis 3 and Revelation 21, necessitated by the existence of sin. The existence of sin necessitates the imposition of laws and of penalties for breaking those laws. Without laws and penalties human society would self-destruct. Governments are in place to ensure the survival of the human race. Whether they honour God or not, they are his instruments to preserve life on earth. As such, they are also evidence of his compassion and instruments of his common grace, by which he preserves human life on earth. [Romans 13:1; 1Timothy 2:1-4]
Human governments are unavoidably imperfect, will unavoidably make wrong choices, and have great potential for evil, because they are comprised of sinful human beings, who take their nature from whatever gods they have put in God’s place. [Jeremiah 2:5, 26-27; Jeremiah 32:32].
Governments, including godless governments, are used by God as the instruments of his justice and his judgment of other nations, while at the same time being themselves answerable to him for the acts of violence they engage in against other nations. [We will look at this further in the study on War.] [Isaiah 45:1-2; Jeremiah 5:12-19].
God also uses government as instruments to bring about his purposes. [John 19:8-11; Acts 2:22-24]
God holds governments accountable for the way they rule and the suffering they bring upon people.
Comment on the above perspectives:
C. IS THERE A MORALLY RIGHT ATTITUDE TO GOVERNMENT?
It is fairly common for Christians to see their relationship to government as outside the realm of ethical choices – to think, for example,
That Christians don’t have to obey government law, [a misinterpretation of the ‘you are not under law’ of Romans, which is teaching about not having to keep God’s law to be saved.]
That Christians should not get involved in political issues, even when these are issues on which there is a clear biblical direction.
C.1 Do Christians have to obey government law?
What is the clear teaching of these verses? Explain your answer.
C.2 How should Christians respond to anti-Christian treatment from those in authority?
Increasingly Christians are being marginalized. Even where active persecution is not practised subtle forms of pressure are exercised to silence the Christian voice and eradicate the Christian perspective. How we respond is an ethical choice.
Study these Scriptures. What pointers do they give to help us make the right choices in the presence of active government opposition to Christianity or subtle pressure to silence the Christian perspective?
D. SHOULD CHRISTIANS GET INVOLVED IN POLITICAL ISSUES?
Where a government is elected by democratic elections in which voting is compulsory this automatically involves every elector in ethical choices:
Which candidate supports biblical principles?
Which political party is most likely to uphold biblical principles?
Which policies will most likely continue to sustain the liberty to practise the Christian faith?
Should I seek exemption from compulsory voting on religious grounds?
In addition, because democratically elected parliamentarians are dependent on our continued support for their continuance in government, we the people actually have it in our power to influence government decisions. We can contact our elected representatives and make our voice heard – we can make the biblical perspective on political issues heard.
Over and above our personal preference or political alignment is our prior responsibility to God’s honour, God’s kingdom and God’s will.
Considering this primary responsibility think deeply about the questions below.
What would be the appropriate biblical choice in an election if the political party for which you normally vote adopted a policy that went against biblical standards, while the party you normally did not vote for maintained biblical standards in that issue? Validate your answer.
What is the ethical choice for Christians: to do something to try to prevent human cloning, or to sit back and say ‘it’s none of our business’? Validate your answer from the Bible.
Is it right or wrong for a Christian to seek election to government? Validate your answer from the Bible.
‘Liberation theology’ encourages Christian involvement in political activism, particularly in relation to human rights, poverty and social justice. In some countries this has included alignment with the extreme left political party. While God commands social justice, respect for human beings and relief of poverty he does not endorse discarding other moral ethical values in order to obtain them. Comment on the difficult ethical choices confronting Christians faced with governments that deny human rights and social justice.
A final word: Paul wrote: ‘I urge, then first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone – for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good and pleases God our Saviour … ’ [1Timothy 2:1-3]. This helps to have a right perspective both towards governments, and towards war, which we are about to consider briefly in the next study.