A Political Alternative

symbolicons-iconLegislative_509729_7Elections are around the corner here in South Africa. As always, there is a lot of conversation and even debate amongst Christians regarding the church’s political role and responsibility in addressing, influencing and even giving direction to a secular government.

I recently sent an e-mail response to a believing friend who asked a question along these lines, which may be of interest for those who are pondering this issue. If you have been tuned in to the local discussions in the Christian media and on the airwaves, you will note that the view below is a minority one:

“…The question is whether it is a government’s responsibility to acknowledge God. It appears from Scripture that a government’s role is to bear the sword, collect taxes, punish wrongdoers, and so on. In this they are “God’s servant,” according to Romans 13. When we pray for them, we should pray that they should govern well so that we may live “peaceful lives” (E.g. pothole and crime-free in SA), as Paul told Timothy. This does not necessitate any acknowledgment of God or Jesus or the principles of Scripture on the government’s side. It necessitates doing the job well. When I flew to Thailand last month, I could not care less whether the pilot was a Hindu, Buddhist or Christian. I wanted him only to be a pilot!

The Bible clearly distinguishes between 3 forms of justice: The justice of the gentiles, the justice of Old Testament Judaism, and the justice of Christ. The first applies to all governments worldwide, and has characterised them since the dawn of civilisation. The Babylonians and Egyptians are prime examples. There is a National Geographic (History edition) on the shelves at the moment that has dedicated a huge section to the justice system of the ancient Egyptians. If you page through it you get a crystal clear picture of the justice elements that constitute the responsibilities of a government, and they are remarkably similar throughout the history of the nations. According to Romans 2, these principles are written on the hearts of the gentiles!

I am of the opinion that John Calvin and the other Reformers undermined the Reformation with their belief that the justice system of a government should be expanded to include the Christian idea of justice. You cannot marry darkness and light. You cannot expect unregenerate people to function outside their calling. But you can expect them to govern well. When you try and forge some alliance between government and church, you end up with atrocities such as the old SA government’s marriage to the Dutch Reformed Church, where they justified their governmental injustices with an appeal to Scripture. It could be argued that they should have received guidance from other governments at the time (such as the USA), rather than from their local DRC leaders. The Biblical jargon confused the issue (most of it traceable right back to Calvin & Augustine), rather than clarified it.

Secular governance is a type of temporal governance allowed and sanctioned by God for the sake of the nations during this dispensation while the spiritual aspect of God’s Kingdom is being established in the hearts of regenerate people. When you mix the two you give the church a type of power that it was never supposed to have, and you give the state a sense of spirituality that it was never supposed to have. This is why Anabaptist historians call Luther and Calvin’s Reformation “neo-Constantiniasm.” They simply carried on what Constantine established in the 300s, and that eventually gave us Catholicism with its papal worship, government-subsidised priesthood and severe persecution of those who disagreed with their doctrine. (Wow, we can make it a capital crime to be baptised as an adult, and punishable with death!)

This does not mean that the church should be silent when a government goes off the rails, but it is a fine line to distinguish between governmental “sin” and “sin” as defined in the body of Christ. To use the pilot analogy again: If the pilot gets drunk I can and should address him, but this is not because I believe drinking is sin or because I am a fundamentalist teetotaller or because I believe that Jesus turned water into grape juice or because of any other doctrinal conviction. It is because drunk pilots are bad pilots. Also, I do not need to be a Christian to discern or address this. His co-pilot can also do it, and would perhaps do it even better as he is acquainted with the formal do’s and don’ts of drinking and flying as contained in whatever code it is that pilots live and fly by…”

In closing: Of course there are fuzzies in this debate, such as the abortion issue and the myriad of social injustices perpetrated by governments worldwide, especially against women and children. But we need to remind ourselves that we cannot expect people who are unregenerate to think about the sanctity of life in the same way that believers do. While we may work to address and rectify these issues for the sake of those at the receiving end, we always do it as citizens and never as a special type of Christian Crusader. We do it for the purpose of establishing the type of governance that God expects from the nations, never to impose a type of Kingdom ethic on the world, as though they are supposed to share in our understanding in exchange for us sharing in their authority.

As Stanley Hauerwas has quipped: “The church does not exist to provide an ethos for democracy or any other form of social organization, but stands as a political alternative to every nation, witnessing to the kind of social life possible for those that have been formed by the story of Christ.”