How Are Christians to View Government?: Lessons from Church History, Part 10

Sir_Thomas_Lawrence02Where We’ve Been

Over this series of articles, we have looked at one aspect of the historical ideas within Christianity about government. We focused on St. Augustine’s argument that human government inevitably tends toward corruption and abuse, since it is made up of fallen human beings. This means that government cannot be trusted with absolute power, and therefore that there must be limitations on governmental authority, as well as a system of checks and balances to prevent anyone from accumulating too much power and thus becoming tyrannical.

We also noted that from the earliest days of Christianity, church and state have been different institutions. Christianity originated as a persecuted minority religion and stayed that way for nearly 300 years, establishing this idea. Much of Western political history and theory has been a tug-of-war between church and state to try to figure out the proper balance of authority between the two.

Some of the most important theories related to the nature of state authority come from the Protestant Reformation. Luther’s doctrine of the Two Kingdoms and Calvin’s social contract theory were especially influential.

Luther also opened the door to violent resistance to government, though he did not entirely intend to. He originally advocated only passive disobedience to unjust laws, but the Lutheran princes’ lawyers convinced him that within the Holy Roman Empire, the law permitted resistance to higher authorities if it is led by “inferior magistrates.” Luther concluded that if it was legal, then it was also theologically acceptable, and so within the Holy Roman Empire, resistance to the Emperor was permissible if led by the princes, not private citizens.

This was a fateful concession. Protestant political theorists took an idea that was originally intended for the Holy Roman Empire and from it developed a generalized doctrine of resistance to tyrannical rule when led by the lesser magistrates; some English and Scottish thinkers took this one step further and argued for a generalized right of resistance by the people. These ideas were frequently combined with Calvinist social contract theory, most systematically in the work of John Locke, who provided the theoretical justification for the Glorious Revolution in England (1688), the Declaration of Independence, and, less directly, the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights.

Protestant resistance theory is not the only possible response to tyranny, however. The older, traditional understanding, revived by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was passive resistance and civil disobedience in the face of injustice. In many ways, civil disobedience is the tool of the powerless and is for many the only way to resist unjust laws and tyranny.

The question is, in the face of tyranny and injustice, which St. Augustine tells us is never far from government, what should be our response?

Our First Option: Work within the System

Given that the modern world is dominated by republics, we have options not available during much of the past. We have options to work for change within the system that were simply not available in many periods of church history.

As the American Founders believed, the only safeguard against tyranny is to elect people of integrity to office. In the current American presidential election, this is a real dilemma, because “integrity” is not the first word to come to mind with either of the major party candidates. Third-party candidates or independent candidates are an option, but ultimately, you will need to make your own decision before God about who to vote for.

Not voting would seem to be an option, as is dropping out of political life altogether, whether because our citizenship is in heaven or because we should not expect non-Christians to act like Christians and thus should not use politics to promote Christian morality. The difficulty with these lines of reasoning is, first, though we are citizens of heaven, we are also citizens here; in effect, we have dual citizenship. We have the opportunity to do good for our neighbor here, and if we abandon the political process we leave our neighbor to the mercy of people with a defective worldview and thus with a defective view of human life. That is not loving our neighbor.

The same argument applies to those who say we should not base laws on Christian morality because we cannot hold unbelievers to Christian standards. If we genuinely believe Christianity is true, that God loves us and knows what He is talking about when He tells us how to live, and thus that God’s standards are for everyone’s good, then out of love for our neighbor, how can we not work to promote Christian values and morality in society? This does not mean we should work to establish a theocracy, but since all the other competing worldviews and value systems are busy promoting their ideas, why should Christianity alone be excluded or silence itself? Again, this is a matter of loving our neighbor and doing everything in our power to promote true human flourishing for believers and unbelievers alike.

But what if the political process results in laws or regulations that are unwise or unjust? Our first choice should be to continue to work within the political process to bring about change. Our example here would be William Wilberforce, who worked in the British Parliament for decades to bring about the end of the slave trade and ultimately of slavery itself within the British Empire.

Wilberforce is a model for how to conduct a campaign to change the law and society. He took direct action through Parliament, proposing laws, having them rejected year after year, but continuing to bring them forward. He lobbied other Parliamentarians and promoted abolitionist candidates for office. But he also worked indirectly to change the minds and hearts of the people of Britain. He and his comrades in the so-called Clapham Sect worked to educate the public about the horrors of the slave trade, used the equivalent of the social media of the day, organized boycotts, produced books, broadsides, pamphlets, and posters, and did everything they could think of to sway the public to their side. And they did it over the long term, literally decades, before they succeeded. This is the kind of perseverance and creativity that is needed to effect meaningful change in society and thus in law.

The same tactics, updated for current technology, and perseverance can produce change in society today. We are seeing important shifts in public attitudes toward abortion because of long-term campaigning that has followed some of the ideas pioneered by the Clapham Sect.

But what if these approaches fail? What should we do when our voice is cut off from the political process? We will look at this question in the final article in this series.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.



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