The Burden of Democracy
The American Church is commonly admonished to thank God for the freedoms that we enjoy as Americans, especially the freedom we enjoy in practicing our religion. I too offer my voice is admonishing such gratitude among my Christian brothers and sisters in America. As our attention sweeps across the globe, we are daily reminded that there are many places in which Christians do not enjoy such freedom. China, Russia, countries throughout the Middle East, and countless others suppress and oppress the preaching of the Gospel and the followers of Christ. I can imagine nothing more obnoxious than an American Christian who complains about the socio-political discord existent between faithful Christians and American culture, and who also never breathes a word of thanks to God for what freedoms and protections we enjoy.
We should be very grateful. That being said, my purpose here is not to enjoin thanksgiving. Instead, I think it is important to highlight something often forgotten, however much we give thanks. Namely, I mean to point out the responsibility that comes with the blessings of freedom: the burden of democracy.
Now, there are many ways in which the blessings we enjoy in America might incur a certain degree of responsibility. It is easy think of the parable of talents and of how each servant was expected to be productive with what his master had entrusted him. So, if given religious freedom in America, it would seem right to expect the American Church to be especially ambitious in her evangelistic efforts and all that such efforts ultimately entail. This is true and easily recognized, and so I set it aside.
What I prefer to consider is what responsibility might be incurred by the freedoms we enjoy, considering they are the benefits of living in a democratic-republic. We call these rights and freedoms our own due to the fact that our temporal citizenship belongs to the United States. As such citizens, it should be recognized that our citizenship comes with the responsibility of delegated self-rule. Our government, to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, is one which is of and by the people. At bottom, it is we who decide who our legislators and executive officers will be. Though oft forgotten, on all sides, American politicians are merely civil servants of the American people. The people, democratically expressed, are the foundational authority.
At this point, I should make it clear that it is not my intent to baptize any form of human government. Generally, I am against revolutions, unless the governing powers have severely betrayed their governing responsibilities (Think Adolf Hitler, not ‘Taxation without Representation’). Even under seemingly justifiable conditions, I am even more hesitant to endorse violent revolt. I do enjoy democracy and if given opportunity to choose or defend it as an interim form of government prior to Christ’s return (btw, he’s bringing a monarchy) I would. However, taking a page from Paul’s advice regarding one’s marital status, I would likewise say, “Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him.” [1Co 7:17a ESV]
In fact, I think Paul’s marriage commentary in 1 Corinthians 7 may be more relevant to this discussion than it may first appear. Consider what he says in verses 33-34 when he writes,
“But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband.”
Paul says that the married man/woman becomes anxious about worldly things because of all the responsibilities entailed by their relationship, while the single man/woman is free to only be anxious for the Lord. Might there be an analogy here for the Christian’s relationship with government? The answer depends on whether Christians living in select circumstances bear a greater responsibility for the rule of government than those living in other circumstances.
First consider Paul’s words on the rule of government:
“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer.” [Rom 13:1-4 ESV]
In his commentary, Paul identifies two parties: governing authorities and their subjects. The first is instituted and appointed by God to ensure all injustice is met with good and just judgment. Paul’s primary point here is that God has willed the existence of governing authorities - He is no anarchist. While this authority and the person holding such authority should not be too strongly differentiated, Paul’s purpose is not to blindly endorse any such person as “God’s Man/Woman,” at least not in a strongly positive sense (think less David, more Nebuchadnezzar). The governing authority has been appointed to be a servant for the good and to punish wrongdoing.
The call of the Christian is to submit. Are there circumstances under which the Christian may be called to resist? Possibly. Minimally, one thinks of the apostles’ refusal to comply with the civil authorities’ demands that they stop preaching the Gospel. Beyond this, one could imagine a person in a seat of authority who is not a servant for good and who is in fact himself a perpetrator of terrible wrongs. Accordingly, it would seem he has forsaken his own calling, it as though he is an abusive spouse, he has broken covenant. The Calvinist political philosopher Johannes Althusius argued that the ruling authorities stand in just this sort of covenantal relationship. According to Althusius’ understanding, revolt would not be the first course of action, but that sort of action may ultimately be required if the person cloaked in authority has thoroughly and maliciously forsaken his duties.
Now in Paul’s day, the authorities were Caesar and those he appointed to various positions of authority throughout the empire. The Roman citizenry and the vanquished peoples of the empire had no democratic say in these matters. Hence in his context, Paul’s instruction meets his audience in their political reality. There are rulers and those ruled. The sole responsibility of those ruled is to submit and to do good.
But what if Paul were directly writing to us in our political reality? Might he say something more? Living in a democratic republic, we decide as a people who will serve as our governing authorities. If the authorities are called to be servants for good and agents of justice and if we have a hand in their appointment, do we not bear a significant responsibility in their selection? One can believe whoever is appointed is ultimately predestined by God for that position, just as one might believe his/her marriage has been predestined. However, just as one would still be held responsible by God for the selection of her marriage partner, so it is that we remain responsible for the selection of our governing authorities in our political reality.
Even between elections, this responsibility remains. Our elected officials are our civil servants and we are their constituents. Our voice maintains a veritable authority between the ballot boxes. This means we cannot cast a blind eye to their activity in the interim, but must rather exhort them to pursue good policies and reproach them for any wrongdoing. As the people, we are the governor of the governors.
This is a responsibility that comes with great opportunity to accomplish much good, but it is likewise burdensome and distracting. We recognize that the Church is not called to be a civil authority, that her concern is to proclaim a coming King and Kingdom. Something seems to ring true in the popular desire to shake off all political involvement. And yet our political reality suggests that we bear a real responsibility for the rule of good government; what is more, Paul’s logic in Romans 13 would seem to identify this as a God-given responsibility.
This brings me back to 1 Corinthians 7 and Paul’s comments on a marriage as a possible analogy for the Christian’s relationship to government. Just as one the who is married is anxious about worldly entanglements, so it would seem that the Christian citizen of a democratic republic has been wed to such worldly concerns. By contrast, akin to the unmarried, those living outside of democratic circumstances have the freedom to be exclusively anxious for the Lord. We American Christians typically look with pity towards our brothers and sisters who live under dictatorships, and yet a closer look might reveal that they should have pity us for having to live under such distracting conditions because of our responsibility! I don’t mean to make light of their suffering, but their political realities come with certain advantages for the faith. We can almost imagine Paul writing to American Christians that he wished we lived in circumstances like his own, circumstances mostly void of political responsibility.
Recognizing this, we might be tempted to spurn our political responsibility. And yet, returning to the marriage analogy, I suggest we would be wrong to give into this temptation. The person who is married, recognizing their distracted interests, may be tempted to neglect marital responsibilities or even divorce in the name of serving the Lord. While Paul wishes all could be single as he was, he does not commend the married person taking any such actions. Instead, as earlier referenced, he says, “Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called.”(1Cor.7:20) Analogously, the same should be said for the Christian living in democracy. Called under democratic conditions, we follow Christ along with our God-given political responsibilities.
The Church has no form of government to preach other than the Kingdom of God, but her members will serve in the courts of worldly kings and worldly congresses; they will submit to morally good authoritarian policy and with careful discernment elect civil servants who will enact good policies. The American Christian bears the burden of democracy and should remain in her condition. She must take responsibility for what God has given her.