Today we start a new series called 'Life in Society', and this morning's topic is 'Our part in democracy'. That's my title. It's timely at the beginning of what will be a momentous year for democracy in this country, with the referendum on the independence of Scotland on 18 September, and the General Election on 7 May.
There is a book by a certain David Holloway, called 'A Nation Under God'. It was published back in 1987, and it is still very valuable. In his chapter on 'Democracy and the Family', David asks the question:
But is there anything essentially Christian about democracy, beyond promoting individual responsibility?
And in answer to that, among much else, he says:
As a matter of fact liberal democracy as we know it is a phenomenon that seems to have thrived on Christian soil.
And he goes on, with a characteristically prophetic warning :
But when [a] Christian value system is not being properly nurtured, there is no guarantee that liberal democracy can continue indefinitely. After all, it needs a great deal of commitment to function well. And it has yet to be proved that the civic faith can function well in a culture without the background of Christian faith.
In the light of that, and 25 years on, there's a telling comment on the state of democracy from John Keane, Professor of Politics at the University of Sydney. He recently wrote:
Disquiet and disaffection, like a fast-moving swarm of sticky locusts, are spreading through the drought fields of democracy. Look around, beyond the borders in which you're living. Public disenchantment with politicians and official "politics" is on the rise everywhere, stirred up by factional infighting and mischief-making populists.… Nobody knows, but the parallels with the great crisis that brought democracy to its knees during the 1920s and 1930s seem palpable.
If it's the case that a possible crisis of democracy is looming, it's all the more important that we understand that background of Christian faith of which David wrote and which underpins a Christian approach to politics, government and democracy. It is a background derived from the teaching of the Bible, God's word written. We need to know what the Bible has to say about government.
And we'll focus mainly on Romans 13v1-7 – one of the most important New Testament passages on the purpose of government and the Christian's relationship to it. So please have that open in front of you.
So I have three simple headings. First, we should submit to our government for the sake of God; secondly, we should submit to God for the sake of our government; and thirdly, we should use our democratic rights for the kingdom of God. So:
First, WE SHOULD SUBMIT TO OUR GOVERNMENT FOR THE SAKE OF GOD
Take a look at Romans 13v1:
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. (Romans 13.1)
Then three times Paul describes government as the servant of God. In verse 4 he says that the one in authority "is God's servant for your good..." And again, "he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer." And then in verse 6:
For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers [that is, servants] of God, attending to this very thing. (v6)
Perhaps our attitude to tax is an indication that our attitude to government needs some revision.
So what are the implications of this teaching about government?
For a start, government is God's creation. God established it.
Then as well as being made by God, government is God's agent. It governs for God. It serves his purposes of ordering our life together, for our welfare. To put it another way, God rules humanity through secular authorities.
He doesn't only rule through them. Above all, he rules through the Scriptures. So the Reformer Martin Luther, for instance, often spoke of God as ruling by Word and sword, the sword being the symbol of secular power and authority. Paul speaks in that way in verse 4, where he describes governments as those who carry the sword. I quote:
for he [the one in authority] 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. (v4)
God rules our earthly existence partly, then, by the agency of governments and the power that they wield. So for instance when there's a new threat to the safety of air travel, it is the government's responsibility to make the appropriate decision about airport security measures – and to act on it. What that decision should be is another matter. But the principle is right.
There are clear consequences of that for us. We should submit to the authority of governments. They have legitimate authority that should be accepted. They should not be rebelled against. Verse 2:
Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgement. (v2)
And verse 5:
Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God's wrath but also for the sake of conscience. (v5)
So, for instance, if we have a right understanding of the role played by government in ruling for God for the common good, our basic attitude to Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs will not be one of resentment. It will be one of gratitude to God. Temptation to evade paying tax will be seen for what it is: temptation to rebel against the rule of God, otherwise known as sin. Verse 7:
Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honour to whom honour is owed. (v7)
As well as accepting the executive authority of governments to govern, we should also obey the laws that they enact.
If Government is God's servant, then it should of course exercise its authority in accordance with God's will. Verse 3 of Romans 13:
For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. (13.3)
Rulers should be ruling according to what is right. How do we know what is right? God has given us his law in the Scriptures. The Ten Commandments are its fundamental principles.
So what the state requires should be in line with what is 'right' according to the Word of God. And even where the Word of God is not know there is ultimately no excuse, because as Paul says earlier in Romans, in 2.15, "the work of the law is written on [the Gentiles'] hearts..." Laws should be framed according to what is known to be right.
We should submit to our government for the sake of God. He requires it. That's point one. But a right understanding of that has to be balanced by point two, which is this:
Secondly, WE SHOULD SUBMIT TO GOD FOR THE SAKE OF OUR GOVERNMENT
There is an unspoken question that all this inevitably raises. Is God teaching us through his Word that this obedience to secular authority should be absolute and without exception?
The answer to that has to be a clear 'No!' The fact that governments rule for God does not give them carte blanche to do what they like, or to demand what they like. The submission and obedience required of us is not absolute. It is conditional. There are exceptions.
Governments themselves are under authority – the authority of their maker. Psalm 22.28:
For kingship belongs to the LORD,
and he rules over the nations. (Psalm 22.28)
God rules over governments.
Before we breath a sigh of relief, though, and think that we can despise all governments and as far as serves our own interests ignore all that they say, remember the context within which the apostle Paul is writing this. The government under which Paul lived and wrote was the Roman Empire: the empire which brutally executed his Lord and Master Jesus; the empire which in the end put Paul himself to death. So it's not just governments that suit us to which we owe obedience.
What, then, is the condition of our obedience to be? It is this: if our obedience to secular authority would require us to disobey the Word of God, then we should obey the Word of God rather than the authorities. Such disobedience is not rebellion. It is submission to the higher authority of God.
So for instance, when the apostles Peter and John are required by their own Jewish authorities to stop telling people about the risen Jesus and persuading them to become Christians, Peter replies to them:
"Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard." (Acts 4.19-20)
That's Acts 4.19-20. But aren't the authorities God's servants? How does that square up? The fact of the matter is that servants don't always do what their master requires of them. When governments act contrary to God's Word, it doesn't mean that they're no longer God's servants. It means they're disobedient servants. And when they rebel against God, there's no neutral ground. They begin to serve Satan instead.
That's what is happening, for example, when they begin to persecute the church. So in Revelation 13 godless, Satan inspired powers are described as the beast which:
… opened its mouth to utter blasphemies against God, blaspheming his name and his dwelling, that is, those who dwell in heaven. (Revelation 13)
The time may come when in godly ways the state must be disobeyed. That kind of disobedience will not be and must not be an act of rebellion, but an act of submission to God which seeks to put things right again.
So, for instance, the Westminster 2010 Declaration of Christian Conscience put it like this:
As UK citizens we affirm our Christian commitment … to be subject to all governing authorities and obey them except when they require us to act unjustly.
And then this:
We will not be intimidated by any cultural or political power into silence or acquiescence and we will reject measures that seek to over-rule our Christian consciences or to restrict our freedoms to express Christian beliefs, or to worship and obey God.
Governments can perpetrate terrible evil which reverberates down the generations. When they do, we must resist – and obey God rather than men.
Government is God's servant. Sometimes it is a rebellious servant. But all governments will be brought to account. Because we owe God our obedience, we owe governments our obedience. But our primary allegiance is always to God. We should submit to our government for the sake of God. But we should submit to God for the sake of our government. So then:
Thirdly, WE SHOULD USE OUR DEMOCRATIC RIGHTS FOR THE KINGDOM OF GOD
God requires just and God-honouring executive government. He requires just laws. And he also requires that those laws are justly applied and enforced.
All of that means that if we are seeking to live in submission to God's will and Word, four things should be true of us.
First, we will obey the law – whether that's being rigorously honest as we fill in our tax returns, or keeping to the speed limits.
Secondly, we will make godly and vigorous use of the rights that are granted to us by the authorities under whom we live. That's what the apostle Paul did when he protested at his treatment and put the wind up the authorities on the grounds that he was a Roman Citizen. That's what Paul did, too, when he appealed to Caesar and thereby secured for himself free transport to Rome – one of his key strategic destinations. Read about that in Acts 16 and 25.
So we should rejoice in and use our democratic rights to debate and disagree and lobby and campaign for change. In this country we shouldn't take for granted the blessings of the heritage that we have. We even have an official opposition, so disagreeing with the government, far from being forbidden, is built into the system. We should make the most of our rights.
If we have the right to vote, we should use it. We should find out about the candidates and the policies of the parties. We should use Godly discernment. And we shouldn't forget that postal vote under a pile of papers or busy ourselves on Election Day until the polls close and it's too late for us to mark our cross.
Thirdly, we will disobey the law of the land if – and only if – we are required to do so by obedience to the law of God. That Westminster 2010 Declaration was being thoroughly Biblical when it said:
We pledge to work to protect the life of every human being from conception to its natural end and we refuse to comply with any directive that compels us to participate in or facilitate abortion, embryo-destructive research, assisted suicide, euthanasia, or any other act that involves intentionally taking innocent human life.
We call on government to honour, promote and protect marriage and we refuse to submit to any edict forcing us to equate any other form of sexual partnership with marriage.
And fourthly, we will pray for and work for good and godly government. That will mean praying for and working for godly executive government, godly legislation, and a godly judiciary.
Here's a recent example, close to home. This week Colin Hart wrote to the supporters of the Christian Institute, asking us to tell our MP that the Prime Minister should focus on persecuted Christians. Colin said:
… David Cameron has boasted of his [quotes] "huge, historic" achievement of redefining marriage. Not for the first time the Prime Minister pledged to export gay marriage and LGBT rights across the world. We hear much about this, but very little about what the Government is doing to protect Christian minorities who are being martyred for their faith overseas …
In Iraq, on Saturday, …the BBC reported that 300,000 Christians had fled for their lives from Islamist militants. On Sunday morning, Boko Haram was destroying four churches, killing at least 30 people in northern Nigeria. The 200 schoolgirls have still not been found.
Surely these atrocities deserve our Government's attention, not the fads and fashions of the metropolitan elite. Many commentators have been asking why the persecution of Christians has been such a low priority.
Can we urge you to email your MP today?
We need to ask ourselves whether we are doing those four things. Do we habitually obey the law – or are there ways in which we need to change our habits? Are we using our rights – or are we complacent, timid, or negligent? Will we disobey the law when obedience to God requires it – or do we value a quiet life above faithfulness to God? And are we praying for and working for good government – or are we just content to look after number one?
May God have mercy on this nation as we go through this year of key democratic votes and next May a new government is established. And may God use us all as we play our part in democracy and use our democratic rights for the kingdom of God.