Christianity and Politics II: Order and Rule
Note: this is Part 2 of an ongoing series. See Part 1 here.
In the recent school board elections in the Texas town where I live the main line of attack of one slate of candidates against the other was that the latter were “being political.” Those making this charge, mind you, are the ones who are happy to hide the fact that pornographic material is available to students in hardcopy and digital form in our schools’ libraries, that students have been exposed to sexually indecent drag shows in school platforms online, and that the whole gamut of leftist sexual, political, and racial propaganda is being shoved down students’ throats while conservative teachers (the few remaining) face intense pressure to stay silent.
All this is hardly apolitical, but these left-wing candidates grasp something important from a public relations perspective. Americans have a pronounced distaste for the word politics. To most, it evokes the worst aspects of human nature. It has become virtually synonymous with an unethical grasping for personal advantage at the expense of all that is good and true.
Christians have their own reasons for being suspicious of politics. We recognize that humans are fallen sinners, and as such, prone to evil, arrogance, deception, violence, and more. “Getting political,” for so many, entails giving in to the basest of impulses. On top of that we can point to the way in which politics so easily becomes all-consuming in a way that is spiritually dangerous. Who doesn’t know a fellow believer for whom politics has seemed to crowd out love of God and neighbor?
Perhaps we should just admit it: politics is too thoroughly polluted with sin to be redeemable for the Christian.
But not so fast. It is certainly the case that sin infects everything in this fallen world, politics included, but that is not the end of the story. Nor is it the beginning. Politics is of divine origin. It is a vital and good thing created by God himself. To see this, we must turn to the beginning, to the opening chapters of the Bible. And there we will see that politics, far from a merely corrupt aspect of sinful, human existence, is at the heart of God’s creative design.
Maybe the word politics is too tainted by the idea of cynical partisan advantage (it need not be, but let’s allow it for the sake of argument). Let’s then use the words govern and governance. We can then employ to the simple definition of politics provided by Thomas Aquinas (and quoted approvingly by Protestant writers): “to govern is to lead what is governed to its appropriate end.” Governance, in other words, is ruling over people to lead them to live as God designed. Governing does not become necessary only with the Fall; it is built into creation itself.
Where do we see this? First, we see it in the idea of order. Unlike the Ancient Near Eastern narratives of creation (the Gilgamesh stories, etc.) the biblical account of creation does not begin with a cosmic battle between the forces of evil and chaos and those of good and order. Instead, God, in his serene, majestic, equipoise simply speaks the universe into existence. Once he has done so he continues his work by forming and fashioning the world he has made. God speaks; creation obeys. At the heart of creation is order. Order, stability, harmony, everything in its right place, serving its proper function.
As Aquinas puts it in On Kingship (1.14):
Moses has minutely and carefully set forth this plan of how the world was made. First of all, he sets forth the production of things in these words: ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth’ (Gen 1:1). Next, he declares that all things were distinguished from one another by God according to a suitable order: day from night, higher things from lower, the sea from the dry land. He next relates that the sky was adorned with luminaries, the air with birds, the sea with fishes, the earth with animals; finally, dominion over earth and animals was given to men.
Everything that God makes is good because he has made it, but everything is also good because it is rightly ordered. For example, a central dimension of the goodness of the lights in the sky is that they separate night and day, ruling over them, and providing order and stability to the world (Gen 1:18). The sky separates the waters above (clouds) from the waters below (sea), ordered as is fitting for a God of order (Gen 1:6; 1 Cor 14:33). As image bearers of God mankind is called to reflect the order God built into creation, seen most clearly in Adam’s call to “work and keep” the garden (Gen 2:15), and in the naming of the animals (Gen 2:19), in both of which Adam so clearly imitates the creational ordering work of God himself.
To be like God is to order God’s ordered cosmos according to his orderly plan. Order is at the heart of a proper conception of politics, which is nothing other than leading “what is governed to its appropriate end.” The contemporary lawlessness and chaos in the streets of many of American’s major cities, along with the likelihood that anyone attempting to stop such anarchy will be the one actually punished by our legal system, is the very antithesis of the political order built into God’s creational intention for the world.
Second, we see that politics is a good and necessary dimension of life in this world in the command God gives to Adam to rule over the world he has made. God gives Adam “dominion” over the earth and all its creatures (Gen 1:26). In fact, although the image of God means more than dominion, dominion is at the heart of that image (Gen 1:27):
So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
We reflect God’s being as ruler of the world when we exercise godly rule over that world. As Adam Carrington points out Aquinas even said that exercising dominion is so central to the image of God that the civil magistrate “bears a special likeness to God . . . since [the ruler] does in his kingdom what God does in the world.” John Calvin, Carrington further notes, argued similarly in the Institutes: “civil authority is, in the sight of God, not only sacred and lawful, but the most sacred, and by far the most honourable, of all stations in mortal life.” Most would probably expect Calvin to place pastors in that place of honor. But because political rule so clearly images God’s sovereign rule over the cosmos, and because it thereby so clearly manifests the image of God, Calvin says this of governing authorities in the state.
In Genesis 1:28 we read that Adam, as an aspect of his dominion is to “fill the earth and subdue it.” All of this, we must remember, is prior to the Fall. Had their been no Fall it would not have been the case that Adam would have had to subdue other men, but he is called to subdue the earth and its creatures. He is to rule over them, and to bring them into submission to himself. Though it is a point of much debate among Protestant authors historically it may be the case that included within the dominion mandate, and the command to subdue the earth, was the imperative to bring the satanic serpent under Adam’s heel as well.
To see how central rule, and therefore politics (dare I even say power?), is to God’s original intention for the world we can also turn to biblical texts that give us glimpses of the future, heavenly, new creation. Just a few examples will suffice. Jesus tells the twelve apostles that in eternity they will sit on “twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Matt 19:28) Paul, in 1 Corinthians 6 rebukes the saints in Corinth for taking “trivial cases” (roughly equivalent in seriousness to something like a speeding ticket today) to court against fellow believers. To reinforce how wrong this is Paul asks several questions of the Corinthians (verses 2–3)
Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, then, matters pertaining to this life!
I suspect this is a theme that doesn’t get the attention it deserves in the church today, and is one that many would even be somewhat perplexed by: Christians will take part with God in the final judgment, even judging the fallen angels. Revelation 22:5 says that the saints “will reign forever and ever,” even into eternity. These are the saints who take part with Christ in his defeat of his and their enemies on the last day (Rev 19:11–21). In this world it is often the case that God’s people are denied justice, but this will all be made right in the new creation, as signified by the notion of the saints judging and then reigning with Christ forever and ever.
Made to be Political
Politics needn’t be dirty business. Politics, both a creational and new creational reality, isn’t a result of the Fall. It is not—or at least need not be—idolatrous. It reflects God’s very being in that he is a God of order and dominion. As we will see in the next installment of this series, politics has been affected by the Fall, but just as with many other good things that God made (marriage, children, music, art, the written word, etc.) the inherent goodness of the institution remains.
Politics—ordering and ruling the world with justice—as a reflection of the image of the God who first ordered and forever rules the world is fundamental to who we are as human beings.
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