(The text on which the following is based was published as a Briefing Paper by the Whitefield Institute during 2001.)
British evangelical Christians don't get involved in politics very much or very often. But evangelicals in the 19th century did, and changed the world for God. So should Christians today? According to a growing number of writers, they should.
He characterises politics as "inextricably bound up with coercive rule and the power of enforcement", and defines its "proper role" as being to curb evil by means of this power. In doing so, he puts into words what many of us believe.
But this is only a first step in understanding politics; we can go further, to a richer view of politics that is more satisfying. The purpose of this page is to discuss this further, richer view.
Augustine sees politics as of little eternal importance, and allows it only a minimal role. Goddard expounds some the reasons why Augustine believes this. First, in Genesis 1:26-28, where God tells humanity to 'have dominion over' various parts of the creation, what we are given 'dominion' over does not include other human beings. Therefore it cannot be God's ultimate intention that human beings will have 'dominion' over each other. Second, Jesus' authority was of a different kind. Third, because some Scriptures (e.g. Rom.13) support coercive power, however, politics must be God's will during this present era in which sin and evil abound, in that it provides humanity with a mechanism to curb evil. But, even so, politics is not effective in dealing with evil since the only real answer is redemption through Christ.
This view of politics is essentially a negative view, possibly deriving partly from Augustine's experience within a pagan political system in which coercive power was the norm and was cruel. If the value of politics lies only in the curbing of sin and evil, and yet does not effectively deal with them, it would seem to have no eternal significance, and no role in God's final kingdom.
This is an unsatisfying view of politics. One could be forgiven for thinking that time or effort spent in politics is a waste, when compared with more 'ultimate' and 'redemptive' activity such as evangelism. The result is that Christians tend not to get involved in politics, not even to curb evil. Further, this view does not seem to offer any principled way of relating politics to such things as economics, environment, foreign policy, social services, provision of infrastructure, etc. One's stance on such things is then at the mercy of the political party one belongs to or one's own personal interest, and not subjected to the critique of Scripture.
It is also a view that cannot give much practical guidance on political involvement. If politics is given by God, we can expect that at least some of his people will be called to engage in it, but the Augustine-based view gives us no basis for deciding who is called. If I feel a concern over the destruction of God's creation, how do I decide whether that constitutes God's call to become involved in politics, as opposed to my own personal feeling? And what kind of activity should I be involved in? Politics is to curb evil - yet what methods of limitation are valid? When is the method of limitation actually more evil than that which it is trying to prevent? Politics, we are told, is about the coercive power of enforcement - but when and how should we use that power? And what should be enforced? When should we accept, and when reject, established authority? Politics, we are told, is fraught with dangers, yet how do we recognise, meet and avoid the dangers? Not only does this view of politics provide no direct guidance for addressing such issues, it does not offer any basis on which to seek guidance.
A third problem with the Augustinian conception of what politics entails is that it does not agree with the full Biblical view. For one thing, the idea that politics curbs evil rests uncomfortably with the Scriptural notion that the cure for evil is not law but the Holy Spirit living in people. For another, if humans should not rule other humans, how can Luke 22:30, for example, strongly suggest that precisely this will happen in God's Kingdom. More importantly, the logic of his argument is weak, namely that since Genesis 1:28 does not speak of dominion over human beings, then it is outside God's intention. It is dangerous to build a complete system of thought, in which the effect is to relegate such an important topic as politics to secondary status, on the mere absence of a mention, especially as its absence can be explained in other ways. But, as we shall see, the main difference is that the Augustinian view misses some positive things found in Scripture.
Though Augustine was one of the greatest theologians of all time, he was always influenced by his early life and by the philosophy of Plato, to elevate the importance of the spiritual world and denigrate things of this material world. It was no wonder that he gave politics a secondary role. Also, in seeing politics as coercive power, we can detect the influence of Roman rule.
Paul Marshall's excellent book, 'Thine is the Kingdom', gives a starting point for a much richer, more positive view of politics that is more satisfying and able to guide us in practice. After noting its root in the Greek word polis (which means management of public affairs) Marshall starts from the same point as Augustine, the Cultural Mandate of Genesis 1:26-28. However, instead of arguing from missing words, Marshall examines closely the meaning of the Hebrew word that is translated as 'have dominion over': radah. He finds it to be more like stewardship and management than coercive power or what we would think of as domination.
Our Western concept of dominion is contaminated by Aristotle's monarchianism, to become something harsh and self-seeking. Such would be the type of power Augustine experienced in the Roman empire. But from passages like Ezekiel 34, where God condemns the self-seeking type of radah practiced by the "shepherds of Israel", it is clear that in God's eyes radah should be used to the benefit of the ones managed, and not for our own benefit, convenience or pleasure. This accords with Genesis 2:15, where humanity's role is as gardener and guard. (See fuller discussion of radah.)
Marshall continues by linking this with the Hebrew concept embodied in the word tsedeq, which English Bibles translate as 'justice' and 'righteousness'. Because these two words have connotations in English that differ from that of tsedeq (see discussion of tsedeq), Marshall defines the latter as "maintaining right relationships among all things in the created order." Note that this involves not just relationships between human beings, but also relationship with animals, stewardship of the planet, economics, social services, defence, etc. What 'right' means is based on tsedeq principles laid down by God, but which have always to be worked out afresh in each culture and context, and Marshall spends some time examining how this has occurred in various stages throughout Old Testament life. He then works out two modern examples in detail.
Political activity is therefore part and parcel of our being God's representatives on earth, and is meant to demonstrate the very heart of God in his love for the weak, the poor and in fact for all his creation.
But what is this politics, this combination of tsedeq and radah, like? It does not necessarily involve coercive power, so much as the working out of Biblical principles of tsedeq in the local situation, explaining them in ways that are attractive and understandable to those without any knowledge of God, and seeking to be persuasive and responsive. Authority structures and coercive power are seen as merely a means of engaging in politics, and not the core of politics itself. They are necessary, but are not the only means, as I shall show below. Therefore, Augustine's view is now seen as a specialisation of the view discussed here, in which the means and the core have been confused.
It is now easy to see how politics can relate to economics, health, environment, foreign affairs, etc. These things are of 'the created order', and it is our responsibility to manage the relationships between them. For example, consider economics. It is assumed (by Western politicians at least) to be the main criterion by which nations, communities, businesses or organisations are judged, and to provide the main goals for which we aim. But under the view outlined here, economics is a mechanism by which we can more effectively steward God's creation for its own good. This implies major changes to the way we view and practice economics.
Who should be involved in politics? Everyone should be. The Cultural Mandate given to us in Genesis 1 is to all people, both male and female equally (see v.27). This does not mean that everyone should stand for election, nor that everyone is called to exercise authority; there are many ways in which each of us is called upon to "manage and maintain right relationships among all things in the created order" - even in our everyday lives.
Unlike the Mosaic covenant, this mandate has never been rescinded. It is still in force, and we are called upon to obey. Marshall argues this cogently, and provides answers to suggestions such as "If Jesus is about to return, and this earth is to be destroyed (II Pet. 3:10), then what's the point of stewarding it?" (His answer is based on the importance of obedience, and other writers like Walsh and Middleton (1984) have pointed out that it is likely that the correct rendering of II Pet. 3:10 is that this earth will be 'renewed' rather than destroyed.) In fact, several passages clearly imply that the creation has a role in eternity. Col. 1:20 and Eph. 1:10 say that the whole creation will be summed up in Christ, and Heb. 1:1-3 says that the creation will be Christ's inheritance. Rom. 8:19-21 tells us that the creation will enjoy the same kind of release as we will at the resurrection. Therefore what we do to it (via our radah) is likely to leave its mark, throughout eternity. This kind of thinking completely escaped Augustine, who was influenced by Greek thinking about the transience of the material world. Readers interested in following this further are referred to Paul Marshall's more recent book, Heaven is Not My Home (1998).
So we see that politics as a combination of tsedeq and radah is no longer a secondary, holding operation to limit evil (though it does do that) but is a positive and primary mandate given by God before the Fall. This Cultural Mandate is a command of equal status with Jesus' Great Commission. So we can begin to see that this kind of politics might even have eternal significance. Though we are in the realms of interpretation here, it seems likely that the result of our tsedeq-radah will be to beautify, develop and prepare the creation for the One who will inherit it.
What are the dangers of politics? One mentioned by Goddard is that it can become an idol that demands devotion. But politics can go wrong for other reasons too, including injustice (which is disobedience against tsedeq) and complacency (which is disobedience against radah). The answer to dangers is not to avoid politics, but it is the same answer to all idolatry and sin: the cross of Christ and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in those involved. It is not politics that is the problem, but politicians - and that means everyone.
My own political activity has involved other means than coercive power. I have been involved in commenting on and influencing local land use plans, such as the Cheshire Structure Plan, the Warrington Borough Plan, and about half a dozen others, as well as local transport plans, etc. While most contributors to the local plan consultation process represent vested interests, and seek to steer the plans to meet those interests, we employed a different approach. First, we sought to establish principles of tsedeq that were especially relevant to the purposes of the plan. One example: for a land use plan, the requirement to steward the natural creation suggests the need for environmentally sensitive integration of human activity with the natural world, rather than (as we have it now) defining a few protected areas and allowing the rest to be 'up for grabs'. Then, in the second part, we commented on how each proposed policy either fulfilled or went against the principles set out in the first part. By and large, the local authority planners have been impressed with our work and we have had some influence (though other factors limit that).
This is not to imply that every Christian should get involved in local planning. It is an example of how one Christian did get involved in ways that did not require formal election etc. And I have found it has forced me to think out various issues such as inward investment, housing, countryside from this new direction. However, what matters is that we are all called to a certain kind of involvement, namely to take responsibility for both justice and also the structures of society that either encourage or hinder justice.
So we see that Scripture contains a very positive view of political activity, as the combination of radah with tsedeq. It involves managing all the relationships among things in the created order, as stewards, and for the good of the creation itself rather than for our own good.
Because all the creation will one day be summed up in Christ, such political activity is of eternal significance. Everyone is called to be involved in such political activity, but it involves many means and not just what is normally considered political authority. There are dangers, of course, but these can be recognised and avoided. I suggest that this view of politics is much richer than the Augustinian one, deeply satisfying, and that it provides a Biblical framework which Christians can work out in practice.
Goudzwaard B, (1981), Idols of our Time, Inter-Varsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois, USA.
Marshall P, (1984) Thine is the Kingdom, Marshall, Morgan and Scott, Basingstoke, U.K.
Marshall P, Gilbert L, (1998) Heaven is Not My Home; Learning to Live in God's Creation, Word Publishing, Nashville, USA.
Walsh B J, Middleton J R, (1984), The Transforming Vision; Shaping a Christian World View, IVP, Illinois, ISBN 0-87784-973-0.
Part of his xn pages, that open up various things from one of the Christian perspectives. Comments, queries welcome.
Created: 19 January 2003. Last updated: 19 November 2006 unet.