A biblical framework for understanding politics – part 4

[update: the full series is available as a PDF here]

In the final post in this series we will take a step beyond considering how we should view politics and government and set out in hazy terms what such a government should do.

If you’re only just joining us I would suggest taking a moment to catch up. In the first post I explored the key characteristics of political authority, in the second how we should view government, and in the third what the Lordship of Christ meant for all this.

The purpose of government

We’ve already looked at government as an ambiguous concept, caught in the tensions between it’s created status and its fallen nature, and between it’s legitimate role and it’s evident limits.

The exercise of political authority is often equally dubious. These tensions exist in what the government seeks to do and how it does it.

But we’re invited to the task of living in these tensions and working to bring the redemptive hope of Christ into the outworking of government and across all of society.

Here are three broad areas which the Bible suggests should be within the scope of government.

Commitment to human equality

It’s astonishing that the church has let the concept of equality be snatched from its grasp, because equality is such a fundamental part of biblical teaching.

We are all equal under God, this is true in our created status. It is true in the universality of sin, and it is true in our universal need for redemption.

Jesus was radically inclusive in his ministry, he deliberately sided with the poor and the disenfranchised. He overturned the social order and he overturned the tables of those who would profit from the poorest.

But that wasn’t were equality began. In the laws for Israel there was a strong seem of justice running through them. The laws for the ownership of property and slaves ensured that intergenerational social mobility was not hampered.   Israel was warned against taking a king and the prophets railed against the injustices perpetrated by them.

In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians he exhorts them to generosity, and he uses the old Testament portrait of the manna provided in the desert to point out that those who gathered much did not have too much and those who gathered little did not have too little.

For the common good

All governments promote and seek some form of common good. What this looks like is different in different contexts and sometimes gets lost in the pursuit of just judgement.

Thomas Aquinas noted that the common good existed for the good of the people and not for the good of the ruler. For much of history this was not the way that political authority operated.

The concept of the common good is based on the idea that a community is more than a series of disconnected individuals, it works upon the coming together of those people and their working together for a common cause.

While Christianity has often emphasised individual choice, especially in relation to salvation, it has also affirmed the need for community structures that enable us to live fulfilled lives as part of wider society.

It is the role of government to promote such structures while making sure that they do not dominate them. When the common good comes to the fore it makes sure that no one suffers permanent social exclusion.

This means that particular attention should be paid to those who are liable to experience such exclusion. David McIlroy comments, “The weight of the classical tradition is solidly behind the prioritising of the needs of the weakest, in whom it has been recognised that we see the face of Christ with special clarity.”

Exercise of just judgement

The third core function of government, alongside a commitment to equality and working for the common good is the exercise of just judgement.

The Christian tradition has long acknowledged that the Christian ruler must discern the requirements of Christian moral teaching within and for the complex realities of the society that has to be governed.

This means that there are very few absolutes of what a governing system should look like. I think if we cast our minds through history we can see the rights and wrongs of political systems of every hue. Including those who explicitly reject Christian teaching, and those claiming to govern in its name.

It is not possible to take judgements in a neutral space. It is simply one of the myths of contemporary political thought that there exists a space where all prejudices and conceptions of the common good can be removed and a judgement reached that abides by the rules of justice and nothing else.

Instead, we have to accept that there are many competing claims to subjective morality, and these require us to offer a substantive argument for why the values we hold, and the truths we believe, are for the common good.

And we need to keep one eye on the fact that human concepts of justice will only ever be limitedly just. This means that that the capability of government to promote the good, and exercise judgement, while present, is limited.

Conclusion

The apostles chose to reinforce the radical message of Jesus’ death and resurrection and refused to accept the absolute claims to authority that the Roman Empire demanded.

But they didn’t reject the fact that it had authority, they just saw its authority as limited. They continued to remind the authorities of their duties and responsibilities and reflected the role of the prophets in the Old Testament.

We must remember that neither tyranny nor anarchy are what God desires. The institutions of political authority have good in them as they reflect the nature of our created God. But they are also fallen because they are formed by fallen humans.

But most of all, we must hold to the hope for the ultimate redemption of all things and how we are commanded to have a role in that rebuilding.

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