The State we are in

We are thinking about the different worldviews and ideologies that underpin different political approaches and how Christians should engage with them.  One important factor to consider is our attitude to the State.

There are two aspects to this.

  1. Is the State “benign” – at worst neutral and at best a force for good? Or is the State inherently evil?
  2. What exactly is the role of the State? How much power should it have? What is it responsible for? Where are the boundaries?

 1. The State, benign or Evil?

In apologetics, we talk both about pre-suppositions and pre-dispositions. This reflects that our worldviews are underpinned both by intellectual assumptions, what we think and believe and  also by our emotions. We have a pre-disposition to respond to ideas and institutions in particular ways. Our response may be shaped by our experience (for example, think about how someone will respond to the idea that God is “Father” based on their relationship with their own dad).

So, how do we view the State? If we are suspicious of it and see it as part of the World’s system then we will be suspicious of political approaches that encourage the Government to take an active role in most areas of life. We are likely to favour limited or no involvement by the State in things like welfare, health etc. We will prefer governments that don’t legislate much. However, if we see the State as essentially benign and good we will be more disposed towards solutions like the NHS, overseas aid budget etc.

This might help us to understand why Christians can disagree politically.  Two Christians may both be motivated by a desire to help the poor and vulnerable, care for the sick and stand up against racism.  One of them will support a party that promises to increase NHS spending, protect disability benefits, keep us in the EU and increase taxes. The other voted “leave” in the EU Referendum and supports a political party that promises to reduce taxes but also acknowledges that the pay- off for this will be a reduction in public services.  Why the two very different responses? As we’ve noted it isn’t because of a different attitude to the poor, vulnerable or foreigner in our midst. However, the first has a positive attitude towards the State, believes it should take a lead on these things and is willing to pay more in taxes to enable this. The second person doesn’t trust the State, they believe that individuals, communities and churches should take responsibility for these things and would rather pay less in tax so that they can choose how best to use their money to help the poor and vulnerable.

At this stage, you’ll realise that there are two other factors to consider before either person makes a final decision. First of all, we still need to ask what the role and scope of the State is which we will do shortly and secondly managerial questions remain about what is the most effective way of doing those good things.

First of all, what does the Bible tell us about how we should regard the State?  I want to suggest that there are three helpful places to turn to in the Bible. Romans 13, 1 Peter 2 and Revelation 13.

Revelation 13 portrays beasts that rise from the sea. The beasts have power and authority including over trade. I believe that these beasts represent the systems and powers of this World including governments, international bodies and individual rulers. From this perspective, those powers are under the authority of Satan.  They stand proudly against God and encourage idolatry. We are told not to compromise with them.  If your understanding of “The State” is primarily shaped by Revelation 13 then you are likely to view it extremely negatively.

However, Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 provide a different perspective. In those passages, we are called to respect and submit to those in authority because God has put them there as his servants to punish bad and reward good. If we focus on these passages to the exclusion of Revelation 13 we may naively regard The State as wholly benign. Though note, even a little wider reading in 1 Peter where it talks about masters (1 Peter 2:18) and husbands (1 Peter 3:1) shows that Peter isn’t naïve and isn’t asking us to respect just because people themselves are good.

Putting these passages together enables us to construct a Biblical attitude towards The State, governments and indeed all authorities. We will recognise that we live in a fallen world and in the now and the not yet. This means that our rulers are fallen and finite too.  However, in so far as they seek to do what is right, they are following God’s purposes and intentions. Governments are an element of common Grace put there to restrain evil. However, because of fallenness, Governments and leaders are vulnerable to temptation. Furthermore, when we put our trust in any particular institution then we risk falling into idolatry.

I suggest that the Bible calls us to a balanced and nuanced view of governments. There is a right respect for the office of leader that Christians should display but this is not unquestioning loyalty, rather it is that of the critical friend who is willing to challenge wrong thinking and wrongdoing.

  1. The role and scope of the State

Now this is where it gets interesting because I may have a benign view of the State but still see its role as limited or a negative view but begrudgingly recognise that the State should be involved in all the things mentioned above.

This is because there are different views of where the boundaries are.

Two Kingdoms

First of all, some Christian thinkers have argued for a “Two Kingdoms” doctrine.[1] Under this approach, God rules over the World through two means. The first Kingdom is that of Law and the State. The other Kingdom is that of Grace and the Church. Both operate in separate spheres and have little if any interaction and overlap.

This position is particularly associated with Martin Luther and is based on an interpretation of Jesus’ instruction to give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.

Under this approach, the world is ruled by the State and is not bound by the same duties that Christians are under. This is where we start to see some of the wider implications of our discussion recently about civil and religious marriage. This is a good example. The Two Kingdoms approach suggests that there is something called Christian marriage which is given by God, through the Church.  Therefore, it is the Church’s business who it marries and who it doesn’t.  Similarly, it is nothing really to do with the Church whether or not people outside of the church get married or not, divorced or not and whether or not the law recognises same-sex marriage. We are dealing with two, non-competing spheres and therefore two very different things.

Such an approach is also likely to lead to a strongly pietistic view of how Christians should engage in the World around them. Under this view, the church’s sole concern is preaching the Gospel and making disciples and therefore Christian leaders should stay completely out of politics.

However, we should want to raise some strong question-marks about this approach. First of all, we might want to have another look at Jesus’s instruction to “Give to Caesar.” Is Jesus really just saying that some things belong to God and some to the State? The context is that the Jews are trying to trick him about taxes. They show him a coin, it has Caesar’s head on it.  One view of the conversation is that Jesus is challenging them. There they are talking about which King they should serve and they are already compromised. They happily use Caesar’s coinage. Indeed in a few days time, they will reject Jesus as their King and announce that they serve no King but Caesar. If that is true for them, then everything they own is from Caesar.  But properly speaking, a Jew of Jesus’ time should know that all good gifts come from God. We owe our whole life to him. We can’t just spate part of our time, emotions, mind, money off and say “that’s God’s bit.”  Indeed, even the Two Kingdoms approach sort of recognises that when it says that God rules the world through these two realms. The State should be accountable to God. Yet this approach cuts off the very means that governments have for knowing what God’s will is.  Personally, I would want to argue that this approach is unhelpful and that Christians do have a responsibility to engage in public life just as men and women like Joseph, Daniel, Esther and Nehemiah did in times past.

Lex Rex

Samuel Rutherford was a great puritan thinker.  He argued not for a two Kingdoms role -indeed, he was primarily think about a context in which the state was Christian but he did argue for a separation of powers and responsibilities in his manifesto Lex Rex.[2]

He identified three key spheres of authority

The King/The State

The Family

The Church

His argument was that each had different types of responsibility. Tyranny comes when one or other power steps across the boundaries and acts outside of its limits.

Now, under this model, the role of the State is fairly limited.  Its focus is on ensuring the rule of law and defence of the realm.  This is the position that has essentially been followed by what we now associate with right-wing, free market politics. If the state steps into areas such as religion, social care etc. You see, matters to do with marriage, care for the elderly, education etc. belonged with the family.  That’s why some people on principle prefer to home-school their children.

Lex Rex is helpful in getting us to think about the limits and boundaries of power.  However, I think there is a small weakness. The weakness is that it was an attempt to describe how things like the State should function at a specific time in history but even at that stage, the concepts of state and church had evolved from when the Bible was written. The State had already moved from simply being about the power of the King.

Why is this important?  Well, think about how parliament functions and then think about how societies functioned in the pre-modern world.  Remember that the concept of a nuclear family would have been alien to such societies (including Israel). Families were extended to include multiple generations and did not function in isolation but as parts of tribes and clans.  So, when Parliament meets to consider how we should look after the elderly or provide for the poor, when we send our children off to school, then is this about the State taking responsibilities that it shouldn’t? Or is this really the modern equivalent of the extended family at work?[3]

Conclusion

How we view the State will affect our approach to politics. Decisions about how much we should pay in tax, whether benefits should be increased or cut, how we fund healthcare etc. will be affected by whether or not we see the State as benign or evil and where we believe its limits and boundaries should be.

However, whilst Christians may disagree about how we should care for the poor, protect the vulnerable and stand for justice but we should agree that decisions will be motivated by these things.

 

[1] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Two_kingdoms_doctrine

[2] http://www.portagepub.com/dl/caa/sr-lexrex17.pdf

[3] For an interesting, more detailed discussion of such things, have a look at John Frame’s article here https://www.the-highway.com/theonomy_Frame.html

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