A Theology of Government

Today is election day across the United States, though this  year many of the races and issues being decided upon are local rather than national or even on a state level.   Since it isn’t a national election, Ohio is not ground zero for the political battle this year, for which I’m grateful.    I don’t have the heart for listening to the negative campaigning and though many think that is a necessary but messy part of true democracy, I could live without it.

Biblical scholar N.T.Wright comments on what he discerns to be a theology of government found in the scriptures.   On the one hand, God is forever trying to bring order upon a universe which  tends toward chaos, and government is part of a god determined plan for order in the world.  On the other hand, rulers have had a penchant for choosing evil and abusing their power, and God finds it necessary to hold all leaders accountable for their behavior.  The fact that rulers are needed in the fallen world, does not give them license to do as they please.

“The Jewish political belief we find in books like this was based on a strong theology of creation, fall, and providence: the one God had in fact created all the world, including all rulers, and though they were often exceedingly wicked God was overruling their whims for his own strange and often hidden purposes, and would judge them in turn. This meant that a classic Jewish position, which echoes on well into the Christianity of the second and third centuries, seems to us today to play from both ends of the spectrum at once. The rulers are wicked and will be judged, especially when they persecute God’s people. But God wants the world to be ruled, rather than to descend into anarchy and chaos, and his people must learn to live under pagan rule even though it means constant vigilance against compromise with paganism itself. […]

Augustus Caesar

God wants the world to be ordered, to keep evil in check, otherwise wickedness simply flourishes and naked power and aggression wins. But the rulers of the world are themselves answerable to God, not least at the point where they use their power to become just like the bullies they are supposed to be restraining. Meanwhile, God is working out a very different purpose, which will result in the vindication of his people and the judgment of the Pharaohs and Babylons of the world. All this is based, of course, on a creational monotheism which, faced with evil in the world, declares that God will one day put it all to rights, and that we can see advance signs of that in systems of justice and government even when they are imperfect. This leaves no room for a dualism in which pagan rulers are thoroughly bad and can be ignored, or overthrown without thought for what will come next. Nor does it allow that kind of pantheism in which rulers are simply part of the fabric of the divinely ordered world, requiring unquestioning submission to their every whim.” (Paul, pps. 66,68-69)

G. Washington resigns his commission.


6 thoughts on “A Theology of Government

  1. guy

    Father Ted,

    Nothing in your piece here denies this, i’m just wondering, isn’t Christ’s kingdom meant to be a kind of order for the world that keeps evil in check? i mean, isn’t the living out of Christ’s teachings a method for preventing naked power and aggression from winning?

    Contextually, i’m thinking here about the role of the church versus the role of the state. i’m also thinking about which methods for order Christians should prefer.

    1. Fr. Ted

      I think Christ’s Kingdom does keep evil in check and partly does so in its conflict with chaos. Healing the sick, expelling demons, controling the waves and the weather – all miracles of Christ – show Him in this confrontation with chaos. Chaos is destructive, Christ comes to give life. When we take up the cross to follow Christ, we begin the war with the chaos within our hearts, minds and souls – with the passions. Humans were created to have dominion over the world, but we haven’t shown much willingness to have dominion over our passions, appetites, wills and desires. Relatively speaking, Jesus directed few comments toward world governments, but did speak a lot about ruling over the desires within ourselves.

  2. guy

    Father Ted,

    Thank you for your answer!

    i guess it seems to me that being a Christian is, in an important sense, already a commitment to certain political activities. –Not an affiliation with political parties or anything like that. But that the very activities one engages in while being a Christian (inasmuch as a person performs those activities successfully) inevitably have political repercussions. i mean if the Christian life is not somehow already a political life or is politically benign, why did Jesus ever get in trouble with the authorities? It seems clear that the political authorities in Jesus’ day clearly understood his behavior and speech as at least worth investigating and ultimately as a threat to their position or methods. This also seems true in Paul and Peter’s life as well and in the lives of early Christian’s martyred by Roman emperors. Surely, it’s not merely that authorities felt the need to execute/persecute people will “wild” or “fringe” sort of ideas. i take it that Christians merely living Christian lives (even in quietude) presents a sort of challenge or undermining of social structures, customs, or institutions that are sinful or unjust. (Consider how many 19th century white abolitionists were just as endangered by authorities as the blacks they saw and treated as equals.) Anyway, sorry to ramble. It’s just a topic that occupies me quite a bit.

    By the way, i don’t know if this only happened to me or if it’s systemic, but i never received an email notification that you had responded despite that i had subscribed to comments and confirmed my subscription. (i’ll subscribe again and see what happens.)

    1. Fr. Ted

      I think monasticism began and grew as protest against the official ‘imperial church.’ It was a reaction to those who were immediately enthralled that the state had embraced Christianity. The monastics were showing that Christians could live without the benefits of society, civilization, technology, etc. Christianity is not coterminous with society, but is rather to be a light to the world and salt of the earth. So it is never completely mainstream, but challenges the way we think about what is important and essential. On the other hand Christianity has a catholic appeal to it – it is the fullness of the faith for the life of the world and if it merely withdraws and puts its light under bushel to protect itself from contamination then it fails.

  3. It may be important to stress that it doesn’t appear Christ intended to upset the political order of the day – after all, Rome continued in power long after Christ’s death and resurrection. However, Christ’s actions were seen as seditious in some circles. We should, I think, recognize the limited value of speech over the higher value of action. Because ultimately, God isn’t concerned with the things we do for others, but the change that we experience as a result of the things we do for others. In other words, if I advocate for political change, and as a result hunger and homelessness is eliminated in our society, but do not myself change, then the “good words” are of no effect in my salvation. I am always struck by the narrative of the final judgement that those who Christ ushers into the ranks of His friends have no idea that they have done good things, or at least that they had ministered to Christ.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.