Thinking biblically about politics

I came across this helpful post by Martin Salter. His church – Grace Community Church, Bedford – are currently going through a series aimed at helping their members think biblically about the upcoming election. I thought it was a useful post highlighting the key questions we need to think about when it comes to voting.

To that end, I thought I would go a little bit further and engage with those questions myself. Like Martin, I have no desire to tell my congregation how to vote (honestly!) I must admit, I’m not great at keeping my tendencies under my hat (as a quick glance at the ‘about the author’ page of this blog will show), so I’m pretty sure most my congregation know where I sit politically and where I am likely to place my vote. Despite that, I am not in the business of defying gospel unity simply because someone thinks and votes differently to me. I just wanted to think through Martin’s question and show my working.

1. How do you view the state? Beast or servant of God?

It seems hard to maintain a scriptural argument that the state is inherently evil. Passages such as Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Peter 2:13-17 seem clear enough that God appoints rulers for our good. That is not to say that the state will always act in godly, honourable ways. Even the most rudimentary knowledge of history shows that to be patently false. However, Paul and Peter suggest the state is God’s servant for our good.

A proper view of God’s sovereignty, providence and agency in the world may help us out here too. There can be no doubt that some evil empires and autocratic rulers have done heinous things that cannot, in any meaningful way, be considered godly. However, even such leaders are still God’s servants. They hold power only because the Lord allows it and their acts of evil are only permitted by God to serve his greater purposes. Though they may not appear to act for the good of their own people much of the time, they are nonetheless permitted to act as they do within the grand scheme of God’s plan.

Yet, the general thrust of Pauline and Petrine writings on government make clear that rulers are God’s servants. What is more, they suggest rulers are generally there for our good. Whether we can make arguments about ungodly leadership and those who rule in ways that don’t appear to be for the good of the people, we surely cannot suppose that the state is necessarily, inherently evil.

2. What do you think the state should do? Big or small? Why?

There seem to be very few (if any) biblical imperatives for the state. Some of the things that seem important are these:

  • To collect tax for the collective good (cf. Mt 20:20f; Rom 13:7)
  • A taxation system based upon ability to pay (cf. Deut 16:17)
  • To punish evil and encourage good (cf. Deut 16:18-20; Rom13:4; 1 Pet 2:14)
  • To allow a certain degree of individual freedoms (cf. 1 Pet 2:16)
  • Equality before the law regardless of gender, status, or country of origin (cf. Deut 16:11f)
One of the key reasons argued in favour of a small state on principle, is the inherent evil of the state itself. As already said, there is no biblical reason to assume the state is inherently evil. Therefore, there is no reason to insist on a small state for this reason.

As we consider the things we have highlighted as important for the state (NB: this is not exhaustive), it strikes me none of these things are affected directly by big or small government. Each of these things can be achieved, in some measure, on either system.

Nevertheless, it would be my contention that the collective good for which tax is collected is best achieved through a large public sector. Certainly, I would argue state ownership of certain (most?) public services serves the collective good in a better way than allowing such things to be run by private enterprise for the primary purposes of profit.

Beyond this, we must consider how the state can work for the benefit of the people. It strikes me there is biblical warrant to consider the state a fundamental good for the benefit of the people whereas there is no scriptural warrant to view business and private enterprise as inherently good (scripturally speaking). That is not to say business is necessarily evil all the time but it is to say there is no biblical warrant to consider businesses as inherently good nor as working for the best interests of the people. 

Scripture has much to say about the value of work and a government that creates jobs does a great service for its people. Even where such job require state funding, work is itself valuable and preferable to welfare (which requires state funding too). A large public sector generally provides greater scope for work than attempting to create jobs through the private sector.

3. On what basis does the state function?

In the run-up to the last election, I wrote an article here discussing this very issue. I stand by most of my considerations there.

In summary (though I suggest you read the article itself), I make a sort of case for natural law as the basis of legislation (or natural rights, akin to Locke and Hobbes argument). I begin with the central premise that all men and women are made in the image of God and are therefore born with certain rights (unalienable rights, if we want to go for Jeffersonian language). I go on to argue that whatever does not impinge upon the common rights of others ought to be lawful. Whatever impinges on the common rights of others ought to be illegal.

This view is primarily about legislation that affect individuals. In particular, it takes account of 1 Peter 2:16, which appears to allow for a certain degree of personal freedom. Beyond this personal form of legislation, government is primarily to seek the collective good of its people. Taking account of those personal freedoms, such collective good will be worked out in different ways depending on context and individual disposition of the policy maker.

4. How do you view the relationship between church/Christians and the state – disengagement, suspicion, co-belligerence, sphere-sovereignty, or something else?

I would advocate a form – if not the exact form expressed by Kuyper – of sphere sovereignty.For both the protection of the state, the people and the church it is absolutely right for there to be a separation between religion and politics. There ought to be no state church nor one particular dominant religious voice (Christian, secular, or any other). That is to protect the people from undue influence of one particular religious (or non-religious) persuasion and also to protect those religious (or non-religious) institutions from unnecessary interference by the state.

As in (3), I believe Christians (churches simply being collections of Christian people) have particular rights inherent to them. The state should not interfere in matters of religion except, and only when, certain religious practices interfere directly with the inherent rights of another.

The obvious issue with this position is what happens when religious freedoms directly conflict with the freedoms of another. For example, should the religious freedom of a group who deem it acceptable to engage in child-sacrifice be respected? Clearly, as this religious practice impinges directly on the inherent rights of the child in question, the government would be entirely justified in intervening here. Of course, there are legitimate questions to be had over what constitutes interfering with the inherent rights of an individual and how far such things are central to the freedom to practice one’s religion. But, as a general rule, this seems a sensible position.

However, the issue is often not so clear cut. In today’s climate, it is very often religious freedom pitted against sexual freedom. For example, should a church that objects on biblical grounds to homosexual marriage be forced to carry them out because a homosexual couple seeking to marry are entitled to do so legally? With a separation of church and state, this question becomes incredibly straightforward. The government are the only organisation permitted to carry out marriages. So a church would be in no position to carry out the legal ceremony. Weddings would then only be carried out as a religious, non-legally binding, ceremony. There would be no cause for government intervention as marriage was permitted to the couple in law, as to everyone else, whereas the church would be free to bless (or not) the marriage according to their own conscience. Such questions, naturally, become much more complex with no separation of church and state.

This is broadly how I answer those questions. How about you? Why not comment below and explain how you address these things? Answering these question can really help you work out where to place your vote.