Welcome to this mini series of posts which more or less mirror a talk I gave at the Salvation Army’s training college this week. There’ll be four posts in all but even spread across this many words and posts it is a fairly fast tour through the biblical themes. Hopefully, it will help provide a better understanding political authority, and what this should look like when worked out in the institutions of government. Alternatively you can download the whole series as a PDF.
Each of the posts offer a further layer to help us understand what the Bible has to teach us, so today we stay on quite a conceptual level, but hopefully by the end a picture full of texture and colour will have been built up. I also hope it will be clear why I consider politics as something essential for Christians to engage with. As this comes from a talk I apologise that the quotes aren’t properly referenced, most of them come from God and Government edited by Nick Spencer and Jonathan Chaplin, but others I’ve dug out from a variety of other sources. However, I’d suggest you don’t read that book because then you’d realise just how significantly it has influenced the development of these posts. (that was a joke. it’s a fantastic book which I’d very strongly recommend, and I’ll freely admit most of this comes from it)
In this first post I’ll look at political authority in general and pull out three aspects of that authority which we can draw from the Bible.
In subsequent posts I’ll consider how we should view the idea of government more specifically, and then a reasonable amount of time will be given to assessing the Lordship of Christ and what this can teach us about the exercise of political authority.
In the final post I’ll touch on a few of the main purposes of government and how these are affected by our understanding of the bible.
Nature of political authority:
powers as created
So to start, let’s take a look at the nature of political authority.
In the beginning God created the world. We understand creation as the divine work of calling all things into being.
And in Genesis while we see that the earth is created by God we also see humans given a role of authority – they are co-creators.
It’s not just a one off command, a one time only opportunity; Adam and Eve were asked to name all the animals. They were told to go forth and multiply and to have dominion over every living thing that moves on earth.
This command is not just about biological reproduction, it is also about the work of governing, directing and developing culture. Nigel Wright states that “The building of societies, nations and cultures is thus understood as part of human responsibilities before God, part of what we are called to do”.
Government as an institution, or even the organisation of basic communities, would not exist outside of the human beings that comprise them. There is no franchise model that we buy into, government is not a pre-ordained, off the shelf, divine institution that we partake in. It is what we create.
The outworking of governance, and the form that it takes, is a product of our ingenuity and our God given creativity. It is what we do in our role as co-creators with God.
The political authority we recognise as government is what enables us to achieve goals that would be out of reach on our own. It is the way that we come together to build a social structure that works for the good of all.
So my first point is this: political authority is a divine creation in its origin but human in its prescription and its outworking.
powers as fallen
If we stopped there we’d have a rather one sided view of political authority. Because it all sounds rather rosy, but it bears very little resemblance to the exercise of political authority we see around us.
Let’s take a whirlwind tour through the outworking of political authority in the Bible because it doesn’t always paint a picture of political authority as good. Representative democracy was not on the scene but there is still a good spread of different regimes.
We have Pharaoh and the Egyptians and their oppressive regime, we have the Babylonian and Assyrian Empires and the brutality that went with their conquest.
In the New Testament we see the Roman Empire in all its glory, bringing order to the known world but at the cost of human dignity.
In both Daniel and Revelation the empires of this world are described as a ravaging beast (Dan 2.31-45, 7.1-8; Rev 13).
If the institutions of political authority grow out of our human nature, then not only will they reflect the good that is in us, placed there at creation, but also the fallen and sinful nature to which we turned.
We should not be surprised that the exercise of political authority will be as corrupt as our own nature is.
Too often governments are simply an expression of domination, as Walter Wink says, wielding power through violent means over the majority for the sake of the elite.
It’s taken a long time for political authority to move from serving those elites to acting in a way that is in the interests of the whole country. And we’re not there yet.
Power isn’t given up easily, even in our present democratic state we have to ask whether the exercise of political authority is done in a way that reflects our created state or our fallen nature.
We see that political authority is an ambiguous power. It is God given and it is honourable, it is an outworking of the cultural mandate we have been given.
But it is also used for the pursuit of self, and for the oppression of others. And we have seen this far too frequently throughout history.
powers as ‘to be’ redeemed
This is not the end of the story, Nigel Wright comments, “Fallenness is not the last word about anything or anybody”.
If the institutions of political authority reflect ourselves as created in the image of God, and marred by our fallen nature, then they too can be redeemed.
Where once they worked to serve our ambitions and schemes, they can be turned to serve others and honour God. They can shift to fulfil the life enhancing role that God had in mind at their creation.
But the redemption is only ever partial in the here and now.
We live in a space where the Kingdom of God has begun to break in. But we see only a glimpse of its true glory. In the same way political authority will only be fully redeemed in the fullness of time.
This means we cannot hold too great a hope for the redemption of political authorities.
Yet it is a hope. It is a hope that the power of the state can be used to enhance life, promote justices and secure peace and prosperity for all.
When the exercise of political authority moves towards the work of justice it is both a reflection of the good in its original creation and itself a witness to the activity of redemption that is at work.
Therefore: government is an ambiguous concept
I’ve very briefly outlined three aspects of political authority, but they don’t operate separately, or consecutively. It is not that any particular political authority is good, fallen, or only on its way to redemption.
Instead the three aspects are threads that intertwine and exist simultaneously in all political authority.
Overall, this view of political authority as created, fallen and on its way towards redemption shows us that government is an ambiguous concept.
It’s not to say that all examples of political authority are equal, at different times and in different places the redemptive possibilities may be nearly invisible as humans in their fallen state exercise authority with all the selfishness they can muster.
Likewise, we should not focus too much on any one of the three perspectives, if we consider only the original good that we are created with we can be naïve as to the potential dangers.
And too much focus on the fallen dismisses the potential for good and we can become paranoid about the exercise of authority.
If we forget about that redemption is only partial we can be overly optimistic about what will come next.
The three threads need to be held in tension.
And this ambiguous picture of political authority is reflected in the biblical ambivalence towards its outworking.
We’ll look at the nature of government in the New Testament in a future post but it is worth noting Jesus’ words to Pilate at this point. In John’s gospel when facing trial before Pilate Jesus says: “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above.” (John 19.11)
There are limitations on earthly political authority, there are things it can do, but it cannot act alone, and it cannot act without recourse to a greater source of authority.
Julian Rivers assesses government as “a natural product of human society made much harder by sin; a good gift, like marriage, and like marriage, easily distorted and subverted”.
And I think this is a picture we would recognise. The modern state has achieved huge strides in promoting human welfare but it has not been without abuse.
In tomorrow’s post we’ll probe a little deeper into the nature and role of government as the outworking of political authority to understand this tension further.