Thursday, October 6, 2016

God and Politics: A Few Reflections

* A piece I wrote for our weekly church bulletin to go along with the sermon on 1 Peter 2.13-17.

The arena of politics can be difficult to navigate.  Now throw theology in the mix and the difficulties seem to multiply.  Yet, God has given us his Word and he speaks to the political realm in a number of different passages.  Today passage—1 Peter 2.13-17—is one such passage that gives us direction on how to reason as Christians.  As will be mentioned in the sermon today, we need to apply God’s unchanging principles to changing circumstances.  Within the history of the church Christians have had to live under varying political realities: monarchies, oligarchies, parliaments, tyrants, and democratic systems.  These differing political realities still require the people of God to heed God’s timeless instructions.

A helpful essay is Attitudes Towards the State in Western Theological Thinking by Torleiv Austad in the October 1990 issue of Themelios.  Here are a few select quotations from Austad’s piece:

From the NT texts which speak of the life of the Christian in the world, we may draw the following conclusions for understanding the mandate and limits of the state: First, the mandate of the state is to deal with and regulate the common social, political, and economic life of society.  Secondly, the state has the right to require taxes from the citizens to be able to take care of some of the common needs, such as food and clothing, work and social welfare, law and justice.  Thirdly, the state has to take care of and reward those who are doing right and to punish those who are doing wrong.  Thus the state is on the way to fulfilling its mandate of administering justice.  If the state pretends to give itself divine attributes and becomes involved in people’s relationship with God, it goes beyond its limits. It is also a transgression of those limits when a state offends elementary civil rights, especially when it restrains freedom of conscience.  In addition, a just state, i.e. a state which functions in accordance with its mandate, may not be totalitarian in terms of claiming sovereignty in all areas of life without crossing the line and entering into injustice and demonic power.

The task of the church over against the state is threefold: First, the church has to remind the state of its mandate and limits.  Secondly, the church should encourage the citizens, Christians included, to co-operate with the actual state as far as it is true to its calling.  Thirdly, because the state is constantly tempted to become totalitarian and degenerate, the church and Christians are called to be critical of every state and evaluate its functions on the basis of ethical premises. (p. 20)

Austad goes on to note that in the New Testament the state is given neither principled renunciation nor uncritical acceptance.  He writes:

The apparently contradictory attitude can be illustrated by comparing Romans 13 and Revelation 13.  In both cases Christians are confronted with the Roman state.  While the governing authorities according to Romans 13 respect elementary civil rights, the same state in Revelation 13—about forty years later—is seen as the beast from the abyss.  Therefore the attitude of Christians has changed from obedience to disobedience.  Within the eschatological horizon of the NT the relationship between Christians and the governing authorities is never fixed; it is complex, sensitive and changing. (p. 22)

The interface between the church and the state can be tricky.  Faithfully navigating through all the twists and turns of both cultural and political analysis as well as critically engaging in rigorous biblical and theological thinking is difficult.  Even when Christians agree on fundament principles from God’s word there may still be disagreements on how to best apply those principles to concrete problems and situations.  May God give us the grace and wisdom to faithfully pursue righteous and justice in all that we do—including in the realm of politics.