A biblical framework for understanding politics – part 2

In yesterday’s post I began to set out a framework for understanding and engaging with politics. I started out with a high level approach and showed that political authority has three key characteristics. It is created as good, it is fallen, and it has the potential for redemption.

Next, let’s have a look at government in particular, and I want to suggest that the key way of understanding it is to view it as both legitimate and it is limited. First let’s take a look at why it is legitimate.

The nature of government

government is legitimate

We’ve already considered that political authority is a concept put in place by God, but government is the outworking of that political authority.

The writers of the Old Testament point to a God that was the creator of the heavens and the earth and as such held authority over all things. Psalm 82 tells us that He is supreme over all nations and their gods.

A number of times in the Old Testament God humbles the created gods that are put up to oppose him. This happens with the prophet Baal when the Ark of the Covenant is placed in the same tent and again for King Nebuchadnezzar, where in Daniel 4.34 he was forced to admit that God’s dominion rules forever.

The psalmist recognised that the coming Messiah, the offspring of King David would exercise God’s universal rule over all nations through one person. (Ps 2.4-6)

If we move into the New Testament we see the same picture reflected. The apostles saw Jesus as having complete authority and his rule placed him as a threat to the worldly rule of Caesar. (Acts 17.7)

In 1 Peter 2.13-17 and in Romans 13.1-7 government is shown as legitimate and established by God, and as a result we should submit to it.

What’s interesting is that in both 1 Peter and in Romans the preceding sections could cast doubt on our submission to political authorities but the writers let this tension linger. Despite the challenges and potential problems, government is shown as legitimate.

The role of government is cast in broad terms: it is for commending the right and punishing the wrong.

Julian Rivers addresses this: “Anyone who fulfils the task of government has a divine mandate for that task. At some point presumably a claim of authority loses its legitimacy but that point is not identified.

Throughout scripture, in both the Old and the New Testament we see that human government is legitimate.

government is subject to the law and held to account

Governments are legitimate because they are accountable to God.

In the fourth century when Emperor Constantine was declared God’s representative on earth Gregory of Nazianzus insisted that precisely because Christians understand God to be Trinity, no human ruler can ever reflect God adequately.

And it has been a central claim of political theology down the ages that Kings remain answerable to God for their actions.

This conviction runs counter to the regular proclamation that ‘God is on our side’, whatever side that might be.

A core biblical theme is that each individual is accountable to God for the actions they take while on earth, and that has to include our political activity. (Matt 25.31-46)

As well as being accountable to God an important practical outworking of legitimate government is a human structure of accountability which gives space for critique from those who have some distance from the immediate decision making. But we’ll come onto that in a little while.

government is limited

The mandate for government is to commend the right and to punish the wrong. Both simple sounding and asking an awful lot.

We have perhaps got rather used to a picture of limited government, and in particular in non-conformist church circles, to not view the role of government as promoting true religion.

But in scripture we see a holistic picture that calls people away from a life that is focused on the self and towards reconciliation with the one true God.

We also are given a picture of new creation where there will be no more death or mourning, where everything will be made new.

So it’s not immediately obvious that the role of Christians, whether in politics, the judiciary, the public sector, or anywhere else, is not to give themselves fully to the work of building God’s kingdom and trying to achieve this through the institutions of government. It is not immediately clear what limits there are to the potential for government in meeting this goal.

However, government is necessarily limited because of the methods that are at its disposal. The final recourse of a human authority is the taking of life, and this sits awkwardly with a King who rejected the way of the sword.

It is also limited because you cannot coerce people into doing something. At the end of the day, you can take away liberty, you can confiscate property, but if you only ever end up taking life to enforce your rule you lack the legitimacy that comes with consent to be governed.

This does not mean that government is rendered useless, but it does provide a cautionary tale in case we start to think that government can do all that we might want it to do.

There’s a further limitation, and that comes from an understanding of the law, the law given to Israel.

We see particularly clearly in Paul’s writings that there are limits to the law. It can show people how far short they fall from God’s perfect plan, but the law clearly failed to make Israel righteous and we too should be careful that we don’t invest too much faith in a system that is after all a human construct.

And as we mentioned earlier, government is subject to the same affect of our fallen nature that our own inability to be righteous on our own so clearly demonstrates.

government should be diffuse

A further limitation on government is that power should be diffuse, and by this I mean that it should be spread out rather than concentrated in one place or person.

This works itself out in two ways. Firstly political rule is not the only form of authority that we live with. There are other institutions that the Bible clearly values and it is essential that we understand the roles that the family and the church play, as well as our own freedom to self-govern, when we consider what we want the state to do.

The church exercises authority, and the authority that it exercises comes from God and not from political authorities.

This cracks open the idea that political government is the only source of authority. The family is a further structure that is given a crucial role in ensuring order and peace. In the marriage union we find another foundational social unit.

The second way that this works out is that political authority is not just not the only form of authority, but within that authority the operation of power should be diffuse.

While there is no mandate for a particular form of government under the new covenant we are told that we should live as salt and light among all people.

We can learn from the practice of Israel. God put structures in place through tribes and priests, he gave them judges, he provided them with a king when they wanted to be like other countries. He sent prophets to call the kings back to account.

The Kings which Israel so desperately desired were joined by prophets who held them to account. Power was not given to a single person, and no particular model worked better than the former.

Even the very best of people, on their way to full and final redemption through Christ are still broken and inclined to act in a way that serves themselves and not the good of all.

So political authority is created good, it is fallen and it has the potential for redemption.

We should also acknowledge that while there is clearly a legitimate role for government this role should be limited, and it should be diffuse rather than concentrated in one particular place or person.

Read on: Part 3 – Government in the New Testament

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