CHRISTIANS AND POLITICS: WHAT ARE OUR RESPONSIBILITIES?
The purpose of this short essay is to attempt to explain the place that a Christian is supposed to take in society. Many Christians seem tempted to latch on to the notion that we are not of this world, or that our citizenship is in heaven, as an excuse to escape all political responsibility. Others excuse themselves from all public forums, elections and activities by arguing that our purpose, as Christians, is not to be involved socially but to preach the Gospel. However, as I will argue here, it seems that the Bible teaches that Christians should be active members of society. Though our citizenship is, ultimately, in heaven, and though we are not of this world, and though we should be actively preaching the gospel, we are still in the world and are to be active members of the earthly society in which we find ourselves. Our commission, to go into the entire world and preach the gospel does not mean that we are freed from all responsibilities to be active members of society. The two activities, preaching the gospel, and being actively involved in society and government, are far from contradictory. Rather they should go hand in hand. I will begin by arguing that man is, by nature, meant to live in a community, society, or country. I will also note some of the types of government. Then we will look at what the Bible teaches about the Christians role in society and I will note what this means today, and what responsibilities a Christian has towards their country regardless of their government.
Man as a Social Animal
In the Politics Aristotle notes that man is not self-sufficient, and, therefore, needs to live in community. The first sentence in his Politics says, “Every state is a community of some kind, and every community is established with a view to some good; for mankind always act in order to obtain that which they think good.” A couple paragraphs later Aristotle claims that “he who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be either a beast or a god: he is not part of a state. A social instinct is implanted in all men by nature.” Every person who is born finds themselves, immediately, in a number of different communities. They are born, generally, into a family unit of some sort. The family unit is the smallest form of community. Aristotle gives an argument based upon how the state was eventually formed. “The family is the association established by nature for the supply of men’s everyday wants…But when several families are united, and the association aims at something more than the supply of daily needs, the first society to be formed is the village. And the most natural form of the village appears to be that of a colony from the family.”
If, I have argued in other articles, the end of any thing is its proper good; and, if the good of a thing is to fully actualize its nature; then human beings, who are by nature rational animals, in order to be virtuous - good, must become fully human. There are some human virtues that cannot be actualized without a community (i.e. – hospitality, generosity, loving one’s neighbor, etc.). Therefore, if men, by nature, require a community in order to be fully human, then, humans, by nature, are social animals. Therefore, the main purpose of any community should be the development of the human virtues, both practical and intellectual, in the constituents of the community. Humans, therefore, are, by their very nature, meant to live in community, and living in community is necessary for the development of Human virtue.
Communities, by their very nature, are in need of direction; and, or so it seems, if the upright leave communities without direction, then evil men will take control of the state. We need, therefore, to consider, briefly, the different types of government. Communities, as Aristotle notes, are formed as follows, “the members of a state must either have (1) all things or (2) nothing in common, or (3) some things in common and some not.” These three options are exhaustive. The second option, as Aristotle notes, is impossible, as a community, by definition, has at least one thing in common – place.
There are many types of governmental structures that correspond to either of the other two options. I will briefly outline some of the more common and well-known government structures. Communism is the political view that could be summed up by the phrase, “share and share alike”. The idea is that all the citizens of the community receive equally from the community regardless of their contribution to the community (ideally all citizens of the state should contribute equally to the state). This type of government is often applauded as truly treating all people equally, yet the focal point of this type of government is not the people, but the state itself. The community is more important than the individual members of the community. However, Aristotle’s critique of this type of government still applies today, "Such legislation [making all men have all things in common] may have a specious appearance of benevolence; men readily listen to it, and are easily induced to believe that in some wonderful manner everybody will become everybody's friend, especially when someone is heard denouncing the evils now existing in states, suits about contracts, convictions for perjury, flatteries of rich men and the like, which are said to arise out of the possession of private property. These evils, however, are due to a very different cause - the wickedness of human nature."
Socialism is very similar to Communism in its attempt to render all of the members of the community equal, and is easily confused with Communism. In fact, “socialism will transform itself into communism when most of the work that people perform in society becomes its own reward, making differential monetary reward generally unnecessary.” According to the Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, “socialism takes equality to be the basic ideal and justifies coercive institutions insofar as they promote equality. In capitalist societies where the means of production are owned and controlled by a relatively small number of people and used primarily for their benefit, socialists favor taking control of the means of production and redirecting their use to the general welfare. According to Marx, the principle of distribution for a socialist society is: from each according to ability, to each according to needs.” Some forms of socialism take on a democratic flavor, and we saw Obama attempting to make the United States into a Social Democracy. A Social Democracy maintains a form of representation, but maintains that all the members must be kept on the same level of equality, regardless of how hard they work.
A Democratic state is governed by the people. Normally representatives are chosen, or elected, by the people to represent them in the government of the entire nation. In a democratic community all of the members are considered equal, and all are, theoretically at least, given equal say in the decisions made by the community. This means, of course, that all the decisions made by the community are binding, equally, upon all of the members of the community.
A Monarchy is a state that is governed by a single ruler. All of the members of the community are morally bound to obey the decisions of the monarch who is supposed to make the best decisions for the community.
An Oligarchy is government of the many by a few elite leaders. Ideally the leaders of an oligarchy should be the most virtuous, independently wealthy, well-educated and wise. If such is the case then the leaders will not succumb to bribery (as they are independently wealthy), they will not succumb to lies (as they are well-educated), they will not be tempted towards evil (as they are virtuous), and they will make the best decisions for the community (as they are wise). The fact that there is a group of leaders, rather than a single leader (as in a Monarchy, or quite often in Communist or Fascist states), means that there are checks and balances against the corruption of one of the individual leaders. I would argue that the government of the early church was organized as a type of Oligarchy. The universal church, spanning the ages, is, according to the New Testament, somewhat of a Monarchy, with Christ as its sole leader, but the church government of the earthly church is an Oligarchy (the leadership of the many by the qualified few – elders).
Returning to Aristotle’s critique of Communism, no human government will ever be perfect due to the corruption of human nature. Man corrupts everything he touches, and putting a bunch of humans together doesn’t tend to diminish the corruption. The question as to which form of government is best is a question for another publication. We turn now to the claims of the Bible about a Christian’s role in society and government.
The Christian in Society
There are two points that need to be presented when we discuss questions about the Christian in society, and the biblical view of man in society. First of all we need to understand some very basic principles about God’s role in the establishment of society and government. Secondly we need to look at what the Bible explicitly says about how Christians are to interact with society and with the governments of the countries in which they find themselves.
God and Government
The Bible presents a paradox when it discusses Gods role in the establishment of society and government. A paradox is not a contradiction, though it may be hard to understand and harder to explain. There are a couple of points that we need to consider when we discuss God and human governments.
First of all, God created men to live in community. In Genesis 2:18-25, after having created man, God says that it is not good that man be left alone, rather he needs a friend, so to say. What we noted above as an observation of Aristotle about the nature of man, is revealed to us in God’s word – namely, that man is by nature a social animal. God created humans to live in communion with other humans, and with God.
Secondly, human governments find their authority and their beginnings in God himself. In a sense, God is the architect of human society, politics and governments. Insofar as God created man to live in communities, he also created man to be a political animal.
Thirdly, as far as the Christian is concerned, the authority of any government is derived directly from God. Therefore, when the government acts to reward or punish the people that are living in its community, its actions are authoritative because they derive their authority from God. Therefore, whenever a government justly punishes an evil person they are acting as God’s ministers. As we mentioned above, the role of a community, and therefore of its government, is to facilitate the formation of the human virtues. Any government that facilitates the formation of human virtues by justly punishing the unjust, and justly rewarding the just is a righteous government and it acts with the authority of God. Any government that does the opposite, is, therefore, an unjust government, and should only be obeyed insomuch as it does not oppose the law of God (natural law not Mosaic Law).
Fourthly, God sovereignly rules over all of the nations. This point brings up an important issue for Christian theologians - the problem of the sovereignty of God and the free-will of man. I have already addressed this question in many other blog posts so I will not take the time to address it here. I will simply note that God’s sovereign rule does not remove from man his responsibility. We are held responsible for what we could have done, that was right to do, but didn’t do (I think that in a society where we can cast our vote for the least unjust government we are morally obligated to vote.), as well as for what we did do that was wrong. Christians, therefore, are morally obligate to be as involved in politics – defending justice and combating injustice - to the extent that they are permitted by the society in which they find themselves.
The Christian in Society and in Relation to Government
There are a number of points that should be noted concerning how a Christian is supposed to interact with the society in which he/she finds themselves. The Bible leaves much unsaid, but, the principles that are made explicit should be noted. Most of these principles could be arrived at through reasoning, without divine revelation, as they are principles that all humans should abide by, not just humans, and could be, arguably, deduced from human nature. Due to the nature of these principles they will not follow any conceivable order.
First of all, it is wrong and considered rebellion against God to disobey just laws that are established by the Government of the Society in which one finds oneself. If, as was noted above, all human institutions receive their authority from God himself, then disobedience to the human authority is disobedience to God’s authority.
Secondly, we are morally obligated to pay our taxes. Jesus paid not only the Roman taxes, but the temple taxes as well. We can discuss whether or not the taxes are appropriate, but we are expected to pay them whatever they may be. When we reside in a government were we are legally permitted to use certain measures of change, such as demonstrations, petitions, running for office, etc., we may even be morally obligated to pursue those legal measures in an effort to change that which is unjust.
Christians are, thirdly, to be submitted to their governments in every just demand. This means that insomuch as the government does not ask a Christian to deny Christ, or require sinful behavior of its members, a Christian is biblically required to obey every ordinance of the government of the country in which they live. In a state where it is possible to change laws, a Christians is morally obligate to use every lawful means to change unjust laws and to institute just laws. Interestingly enough, Paul upheld the Roman laws and customs concerning slavery, not because they were right, but because that was the law. However, he taught that if it was possible for a slave to legally obtain freedom, then that slave should pursue freedom. It seems that we can logically apply this to our contemporary situation such that we are taught, by Paul’s example, to uphold the laws of our country insomuch as they are just and humane, but, whenever the opportunity presents itself we should always seek to better the conditions of those around us, using whatever means are lawful in the society in which we live (insomuch as they are also acceptable in the eyes of God). For example, in societies where the government tends towards democracy one of the ways in which a Christian can make his voice heard, legally, is by voting for the best leader (or representative). It would even be possible for a Christian to run for office in the hopes of bringing about a positive change to society.
Furthermore, Christians are implored, by the biblical authors, to be model citizens, the best members of the Country that they are living in. We are to love our neighbors, do good to all men and especially other Christians, and to live peaceably with all men. Our life should be so blameless that the only reason that we could be persecuted is due to our faith in Christ. In certain societies, with certain governments, it is almost strange to see one citizen helping another, but Christians should be setting the standard, not worrying about their own lives, and helping out those around them.
Fifthly, laziness is forbidden. Interestingly enough, Paul would have been dead-set against any state that encourages laziness by being overly generous towards those who do not work. Paul tells the church in Thessalonica that he who does not seek (desire, or wish) to work, thus remaining idle when he is capable of work, should not eat. Those who work, on the other hand, have earned their salary, and should be allowed to rejoice in the fruits of their labors. I would argue that these comments demonstrate that Paul would be dead-set against the economic situation of the Canadian Socialist government in which those who have a higher salary (frequently demonstrating either a greater education, or a greater need for the service rendered) are obligate to give a higher percentage of their salary in taxes than a person with a lower salary. It seems unjust to apply higher taxes to a person who makes more money, and fewer taxes to a person who makes less money. The person who works for his money has earned it. Regardless of the type of government in which a Christian finds himself, he should be a tireless worker at whatever task he has before him. Christians are to be contributing to society as indefatigable workers who do all for the glory of God. Regardless of whether we receive that wages that we have earned, or lose half of them to socialist taxes, or are given the same benefits as everyone else regardless of how hard we work (as in a Communist society), we should complete whatever task is before us as if it is for God and not for our own glory.
Finally, Christians are called upon to be active members of society, participating in any social event that is not sinful. This means participating in festivals, social gatherings, and public forums. For a Christian living in a State that allows him to have a say in how the country is run this means that a Christian should use whatever means are open to him to raise up every just cause and extinguish every unjust cause.
There is so much more that could be said on this topic, and, in fact, much has already been said which I did not have the space to reference in this short thought. My purpose in writing this thought on Christians, Society and Politics, is to start a dialogue, to get people thinking about these issues.
Paul rebukes the Corinthians for misunderstanding one of his instructions. He had told them to have nothing to do with “sexually immoral people (1 Cor. 5:9)”, but, he was talking about people who claimed to be followers of Christ and yet were sexually immoral, not non-Christians, “not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. (1 Cor. 5:10)” We are still in the world, and, therefore, have a responsibility as active members of society.
Aristotle, “Politica,” in The Basic Works of Aristotle, trans. Benjamin Jowett, ed. Richard McKeon (New York: Random House, 1941), 1127.
 The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, 2nd ed., Ed. Robert Audi (1999; repr., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), cf. “Political Philosophy”.
Cf. 1 Timothy 3:1-7.
Cf. Rom. 13:1.
Cf. Rom. 13:1.
Cf. Rom. 13:2-5.
Cf. Dan. 4: 17, 25, 34-5; 7-8; 11.
Cf. Rom. 13:2.
Cf. Matt. 17:24-27, Mk. 12:13-17, Rom. 13:6-7.
Cf. Rom. 13:1, Tit. 3:1, 1 Pet. 2:13-15.
Cf. 1 Cor. 7:20, Philemon 13-18.
Cf. 1 Cor. 7:21.’
It is not the case that just because a certain means of attaining a desirable end is lawful, that that means is also virtuous and God –honoring. We need to be discerning in how we go about changing the society in which we live.
It seems advisable to stay away from a Christian state, as most experiments with such a notion have been detrimental to society.
Cf. Rom. 12:18, 13:8-10, Gal. 6:10, 1 Thess. 4:11-12, 2 Thess. 3:6-12, Tit. 3:2, 1 Pet. 2:12, 3:13-17.
Cf. 2 Thess. 3:10.
Cf. 1 Cor. 9:4-14, 2 Thess. 3:6-12.