Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Preparing to vote

Blue, red, yellow, purple, green? What’s your political colour? To be honest, I find myself more “murky black” than anything else. I don’t mean depressed. I mean that when I consider the various parties, I find my own convictions resonate with certain policies within each party. And when you combine their colours, you get a murky black.

An election can be particularly hard for the Christian. We may not find ourselves strongly resonating with any party – and perhaps deeply concerned about all. So how should we vote?

Well, last week we learnt that God establishes all governments (Rom 13v1). And in establishing a democracy, he has established a government in our country in which he has given us particular responsibility too. And this not only affirms why we should vote, it gives wisdom on how to vote.

Whether we vote tactically to make a point, or vote for the candidate we think will best represent our concerns, our key question must be this: “Which candidate or party will best fulfil the God-given role of government?”

And so our task today is to consider what exactly that role is, so that we can weigh the parties and candidates against it. I have to say I’m no expert. And I’m certainly not going to commend anyone in particular. But I will try and help us understand what the Bible teaches those who govern should be doing.

(1) It seems agreed that according to the Bible, the primary role of government – is to ensure justice. In other words, government is to prohibit what is wrong to maintain order so society can flourish.

Psalm 82 records a rebuke from God to the rulers of the nations. The “gods” may refer to angelic beings who represent such rulers, but more probably to the rulers themselves whose rule should entail imaging God. To them God asks: “How long with you defend the unjust and show partiality to the wicked?” (v2)

Justice is God’s key concern for government. So what does scripture more widely tells us about this role?

1) Government is to ensure justice by administering God’s laws.
The big question today is how can a government determine what is just? Should a non-Christian government be expected to legislate according to biblical values? Should we encourage them to? Should such things determine our vote?

Some say we can only expect government to act according to natural law – our instincts over right and wrong that reflect the image of God that has been fractured by sin.

The problem here, is that the Bible teaches we suppress this instinct in order to justify sin. Read Romans 1. Paul explains how this leads to society actually approving the very things God forbids (Rom 1v32).

And we’ve seen that so clearly in the redefinition of marriage. Human instinct can’t be relied on, even to recognize something so seemingly obvious. Instead, pressure groups manipulate public opinion and use the opportunity to oppress those who disagree.

More than any other government for hundreds of years, our government is living proof of just how much rulers need to rule according to the wisdom of the Bible. And that’s why Christian involvement is so key. You see, there is no other way we can know what is truly righteous and so just, and so good for human society.

And so it is that throughout scripture, nations and governments are held to account for the degree to which they’ve held to the principles of God’s law.

First, we learn that rulers today are especially responsible for acknowledging Christ and so reflecting his will in governing: This is implied in Psalm 2’s call for rulers to “kiss the Son” – ie. God’s king, which Acts 4v25-26 teaches looks to Christ. In the Psalm, the rulers’ desire is to throw off his “shackles” implying a refusal to abide by his will.

More clearly, it’s pictured in Isaiah’s portrayal of nations and kings drawn to God’s glory as displayed in his people (Is 60). In particular, he speaks of how kings will serve God’s people and use their resources to honour God and restore his kingdom (60v8-10). Certainly, this looks to the new creation (Rev 21v23-27). But Matthew shows us how it was fulfilled in the wise men following the light of the star to Christ (Is 60v6, Matt 2v1-11).

In other words, it is entirely appropriate for rulers (as any individual), to give their allegiance to Christ and use whatever resource and authority God has given them to benefit Christ’s kingdom (although not to enforce faith).

This expectation, outlined in Psalm 2 and Isaiah 60 is the background to Jesus singling out “kings” and “governors” as two groups his disciples would testify to (Lk 21v12-13). As the leading representatives of humanity, they are called to acknowledge God’s Son.

And this is surely implied in understanding the significance in Jesus’ day of the declaration “Jesus is Lord.” Just as the rulers of the nations embraced by the Roman Empire were to affirm that Caesar was Lord and so submit to his reign, all rulers are instead to give this sort of allegiance to Jesus. He is the “ruler of the kings of the earth” (Rev 1v5) – whether those kings accept it or not.

Of course it would gain little to simply assert all this to a member of parliament or candidate. Such things need an appropriate God-given context, as was the case with Paul in Acts 25-26. Nevertheless, recognizing all this does remind us why it is entirely fitting to seek to influence government policy in a way that better conforms it to the will of Christ, and why his concerns should determine our vote.[1]

Second, we learn that even if rulers today do not acknowledge Christ they are still accountable for the degree to which they govern according to the principles of God’s law: Government finds its first expression in the call to fill and subdue the world in Genesis 1v26-28. But that rule is to be exercised in a way that images God. So principles of justice are to reflect his character and its expression in the order of creation – principles that are formulated as laws through Moses.

The rest of the Old Testament confirms this. So the nations are judged according to how well they’ve upheld the moral principles of those laws. Sodom is condemned for its immorality (Gen 19). The Canaanite nations are said to have been vomited out of their land for breaking God’s commands in Leviticus 18 (Lev 18v24-28). And amongst other things, the prophets condemn the nations and their rulers for idolatry, pride, greed, violence, unjust war and people trafficking (Isaiah, Amos) – all concerns reflected in the Mosaic law.

It is striking here that immediately after outlining the role of government in punishing wrongdoers and commending right, Paul defines what is right according to love as the fulfilment of the Ten Commandments – ie. to the principles of God’s law (Rom 13v1-10). In his commentary on verse 4, Doug Moo writes: “Paul is assuming that the laws of the state embody those general moral principles taught in the word of God.” The point in verse 4 is that it is God’s justice not their own, that governors are responsible for administering. Their justice must therefore reflect the principles of his law.

Proverbs 8v15 states: “By God’s wisdom kings reign and rulers issue decrees that are just.” Yet Psalm 19v7 tells us it is “the statutes of the LORD” that “make wise the simple.” Proverbs 14v34 states it is “righteousness” that “exalts a nation.” Yet Psalm 19v9 tells us that it is “the decrees of the Lord” that are “righteous.” The point is that there is no-where but to God’s law that someone can go to learn how to govern in a truly just way. So Isaiah 2v1-5 pictures the nations in the last days coming to God’s people with a desire to be ruled by his law, implying this is the ideal for government.

Some other verses we don’t have time to consider, but also imply that nations and rulers are accountable for keeping God’s laws are Ps 119v118-119, Ezek 5v5-8, Deut 4v8, Is 24v5-6. But I hope the point has been made.

My son Reuben has a great Thomas the Tank Engine toy. You draw a line with a water pen, and it follows it as its track. But if you don’t put the line down? Well, it goes all over the place.

What we’ve been witnessing in the UK in recent years, is the engine of government driving forward but without a track to run on. And so it’s been all over the place.

So we need to be doing our bit to lay the track. Whether it acknowledges Christ or not, government is responsible for administering God’s law. And so we should vote for those who will most promote its principles – and not because we want privilege, but because this is for our nation’s good.

In the book “God and Politics” Greg Bahnsen states just this: “Every believer” he says, “is obliged to make use of his political voice and vote to support those candidates and measurers which best conform to the rule of God’s law.”[2]

The thing is: testing policies against God’s law is not simple. There are two particular things we must consider. First, we must consider context: We should not expect government to enforce as high standards as we have in the church. In Matthew 19v1-9 Jesus taught that remarriage was only permissible for Christians under certain conditions. But he said Moses permitted other grounds because Israel’s hearts were hard. Not all sins should be crimes. Some can be permitted.

And here, we shouldn’t expect government to enforce the same standards as those of Old Testament Israel either. The strictness of their laws reflected the fact that they had to be particularly holy to survive God’s presence in their temple, and to maintain order and pass on the faith in a hostile environment that couldn’t cope with much nuance. It is interesting here, that whereas God therefore required the death penalty for all sorts of crimes. Outside of that context, in Genesis 9v5, he only required it for murder.

What we must therefore do, is consider whether there was any way a particular law was specific to the time of Israel, and then carefully apply its principles to our own context today.

Second, in doing this we must also consider providence: When you learn to sail you are taught to watch the water to see on its surface where gusts of wind are blowing. The reason for doing this is because it is extremely hard to make any headway sailing against the wind, whereas much distance can be covered when you sail with it.

In a similar way we need to watch which way the winds of God’s providence in our nation are blowing, remembering that King Jesus governs everything – even what he considers evil (Eph 1v22). So there are many principles we might want adopted in our laws, but that, for his own purposes, he has not currently established a desire for in our country (eg. biblical marriage). Here much prayer is needed that the cultural mindset might change. Yet, there will be areas where Christ has already brought about a mindset that might be sympathetic to other concerns he has (eg. abortion), or not yet allowed culture to fully drift from a particular concern (eg. on assisted suicide). When voting or seeking to influence government, it would seem wise to give more consideration to these sort of concerns rather than ones government may be immovable on.

2) Government is to ensure justice by punishing, commending and delivering.
Having established the source of law for any government, the Bible stresses three ways of administering it. Here, let’s turn again to Paul’s words in Romans 13v1-7. Take a look. What are we told God has sent rulers to do?

1) They must punish the wrongdoer (v4)
 “The sword” refers to the use of force, and has been said to justify war in some contexts, where the wrongdoer is another nation. But the immediate context is the punishment of those who do wrong and so breaking the laws of the land.

So in terms of voting, we should ask: “What candidate or party will best prohibit the things God’s law prohibits?

2) They must commend the good (v3)
Now to commend is about rewarding. It is about praising or acknowledging, and promoting the good by that means.

So here we might ask: “What candidate or party will most affirm the principles God’s law affirms?”

3) They must deliver the oppressed
Now this is not explicit in Romans 13, and so is often forgotten by Christians. We can get so concerned with the key topics of the day, such as sexuality, that we miss this.

But I want to suggest it is implicit in punishing wrong and commending good. In fact, my conviction is that it is the thing God most stresses in scripture. So, again, look at Psalm 82v3-4 [R]

Here we might ask “What candidate or party will most act for those the Bible terms weak, protecting them against the powerful?” For the unborn, the elderly, the disabled, the unemployed, the poor, the trafficked, the immigrant, the sick, the discarded, the bereaved, and for children in care?

The place of the Ten Commandments
Well, there is much in every manifesto, and much in God’s law. But in considering these three questions, it is useful to consider the Ten Commandments. After all, they are what Paul points us to in Romans 13, and in being written by the finger of God himself, are sort of highlighted and underlined as reflecting his key concerns.

A brief consideration tells us the following should be priority concerns, whether in considering what a government should punish or commend, or who it should speak up for:
1) The issue of Christian freedom is primary, so that Christians are free to commend Christ and his ways, and so call people from idols to have God as their God (commandments 1-3).
2) Aside from its particular application to Israel’s circumstances, the Sabbath law tells us God is concerned for the wellbeing of workers, that they are not oppressed or overworked, which touches on issues around welfare, immigration and people trafficking (commandment 4).
3) He is also deeply concerned for the family, with parents able to pass on their values to children and children caring for their parents (commandment 5).
4) The dignity and sanctity of life is also to be upheld, stressing the seriousness of violence and, of course, abortion and assisted suicide (commandment 6).
5) The importance of supporting committed heterosexual marriage is rightly key, as is permitting people to teach that sex should be kept for that context. Anything else in the Hebrew mind was adulterous. Here might be the place to weigh a candidate’s attitude to pornography and the sex industry too (commandment 7).
6) Honesty is stressed both in outlawing theft and the affirmation of truthfulness, touching on integrity in the government, business and the media in their use of money and information. More directly, there is a concern for truth in courts, and so irrespective of whether a lawyer can be afforded (commandments 8-9)
7) Greed may come last as it lies behind the breaking of every other commandment. We might consider how consumerism could be checked so that it doesn’t oppress or impoverish others, whether directly or by its impact on the environment (commandment 10).

Of course there are many more issues. What of the NHS, of house-building, of the economy, of education and the environment?

(2) That leads to what might be termed the secondary role of government: supervision: supplementing activity where needed so society can flourish.

Some argue that government should only be concerned for justice, ensuring order so that other institutions in society can take charge of the rest. They would therefore reject the idea of a publicly funded NHS or school system.

Now, we should certainly note that if God’s law was better administered, these things wouldn’t be so needed. It’s striking that in Psalm 72, the king doesn’t seek prosperity in itself – by taking charge of the economy. He seeks justice, and prosperity follows. That’s surely the principle in the proverb that “righteousness exalts a nation.”[3] For example, stable families usually mean better mental and physical health, better education, more in work, more income, more taxes, a more prosperous society etc.

This suggests a key problem today is one of emphasis. Government is most concerned for the supervision when it should be most concerned with justice – most concerned with the economy when it should be most concerned with morality.

Nevertheless, I am not convinced that government should not supervise various aspects of society beyond the law.

The call for Adam and Eve to fill and subdue the world in Genesis 1v26-28 implies that government of a people is a sort of extension of the government of a family. So Jacob’s family through his twelve sons was a sort of mini-nation.

Just as there is no reason why families should not team up for better care or education, there is therefore no reason why government shouldn’t. Nebuchadnezzar was condemned not for building Babylon, but for proudly glorifying himself for it and not defending the needy. That’s the key thing. That whatever good a government manages to do, it glorifies God for.

But, having said this, Bible wisdom implies particular limits to this supervision, that we might consider as we vote too:

First, limited power. In 1 Samuel 8v10-20, Samuel relates how Israel’s king will use his power to oppress the people for his own gain. As Lord Acton famously said: “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Just consider how ready some of our own politicians were to effectively steal from the taxpayer through their expenses.

So rulers must be subject to law, to regulation and to the electorate. Democracy is actually a biblical idea. In the Old Testament, elders were to be trustworthy men, elected by the people to govern with the king and priesthood. They were therefore accountable to the people, and a check on power.

Second, limited sphere. The model in scripture is one that encourages localism, where as much as possible was done by families, then communities and then regions, with the higher strata only getting involved when really necessary (Deut 1v9-18). This made people more accountable and more responsible for the running of things.

So government wasn’t to do everything, but protect the freedom of these other institutions to play their part. Only when they couldn’t do what was necessary locally, would the higher strata of government step in.

Third, limited ambition. The prophets condemned nations for taking pride in their own resources and achievements (Ezek 28v1-19). Government can gain an idolatrous messianic complex, assuming it can and is responsible for ridding the country of all poverty and evil. It can’t. Only Jesus can do this, which is why spreading the gospel is paramount. And it is here government becomes so dangerous, especially when it isn’t influenced by God’s word. It can justify all sorts of restrictive laws on almost any matter, such as those in the name over inequality or hate speech today. It is not that these things are good. But legislating on them can end up pulling of the wheat of law abiding citizens with the chaff of those who might commit crime.

[1] Just as the fact that he has been given all authority in heaven and on earth gives the church a right to preach to and teach the nations (Matt 28v18-19), so it gives it a right to preach to and teach even rulers, and call those who confess faith in Christ to display it in their governing.
[2] p53
[3] See also Dan 4v27