“When it comes to a matter of public policy, Christians have to assess biblical priorities.”
So says the Christian Institute, in a section of its “Election Briefing 2017” entitled “Biblical priorities in voting.” The question, in other words, is “What guidance does the Bible give to the Christian who is wondering how to vote?”
Of course, elections for public office are not mentioned in the Bible. True, ancient Athens was a democracy, and the Roman Republic had democratic institutions as well – the Centuriate Assembly was elected by Roman citizens, and had considerable powers. But by the time of the New Testament, the emperor ruled supreme, and voting by the citizens was a thing of the past.
But does the Bible give any guidance about what Christians should hope to see in rulers. And, in particular, does it give any guidance about what issues Christians should be focussing on when looking at manifestos and questioning candidates?
Politics and the Ten Commandments
The Christian Institute has this to say:
. . . the Bible is “clear, direct, and decisive” about a whole host of political issues. For example, a vote for abortion or euthanasia is a vote to break the sixth Commandment on the law of murder (Exodus 20:13). These are the kinds of issues that we focus on in this briefing – straightforward matters of right or wrong.
That is a very interesting comment. It seems to be saying if one does not vote in favour of making abortion a criminal offence, one is voting to break the 6th commandment. The implication is that people are, at the very least, encouraging others to break the break the commandment if they vote this way. At worst, they may be breaking the commandment themselves.
This immediately raises a question: Does this apply to other commandments? If I were an MP and there was a vote on making adultery a criminal offence, would it be breaking the 7th commandment if I didn’t vote for it? If there was a vote on making it a criminal offence to make idols, would I be voting to break the second commandment if I didn’t support it? If there was a vote on whether to make coveting ones neighbour’s possessions a criminal offence, would I (as a Christian) be under a moral obligation to vote to make wanting someone else’s possessions a criminal offence?
In other words, it seems to me that just because something is forbidden by one of the ten commandments, it does not necessarily follow that Christians should want it to be a criminal offence. The Westminster Confession of Faith describes the Ten Commandments as part of the moral law; it does not suggest they form a basis for the judicial law. It seems to me that there is complete agreement among Christians that breaking the sixth and eighth commandments should generally be criminal offences, and most Christians would also reckon that some violations of the ninth commandment (thou shalt not bear false witness) should also be. But beyond that, there is no general agreement among Christians that breaking any of the others should be a crime. Indeed, I have never encountered a Christian who thought covetousness should be a criminal offence.
What exactly is forbidden by the sixth commandment?
And, speaking of the Westminster Confession, the Westminster Assembly also produced a document called the Larger Catechism, which in answer to the question “What are the sins forbidden in the sixth commandment? ” includes “sinful anger, hatred, envy, desire of revenge; all excessive passions, distracting cares; immoderate use of meat, drink, labour, and recreations; provoking words, oppression, quarrelling, striking, wounding, and whatsoever else tends to the destruction of the life of any.”
Which, if any of these, should be criminal offences?
The fact is, I believe that murder should be a criminal offence – but not simply because the Ten Commandments forbid it. But I am not sure which violations of the sixth commandment should be criminalised. It seems to me that there is strong case for making abortion a criminal offence because I find it very difficult to see why a living human individual that is entitled to legal protection after it is born should not be entitled to legal protection beforehand. Equally, it seems to me that killing another person in order to relieve their suffering – even with their consent – should be a criminal offence. (That is basically because the law does not generally allow one to do things that are otherwise illegal just because one’s motives are good, and someone might consent to something in a very depressed moment that they might later have changed their mind about.)
What are the Bible’s political priorities, anyway?
If I really wanted to know what the Bible had to say about about priorities in voting, I wouldn’t start with the Ten Commandments. In fact, I wouldn’t start with the Old Testament. We live in the New Testament age – the era of the gospel. As I explain in some detail on my post “What does Jesus want us to do with Leviticus“, things have changed fundamentally since Old Testament times in a way that they have not changed since. The relationship between Christians and government is basically the same as it was in the days of the apostles – in other words, New Testament times.
So my starting point for asking about the Biblical priorities in voting is to ask “What were the things that the New Testament Christians looked for in government – and particularly in rulers? Does the New Testament have anything to say about that?”
And the answer is that it does. I wrote:
“it seems that the only matters of public policy that the New Testament has much interest in is that rulers would preserve order and freedom. Paul, writing to Timothy (I Timothy 2:1-2), says “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” The big priority was basically that rulers would allow people to lead a peaceful and quiet life. In other words, pray that we would be spared tyranny, war, and a breakdown of law and order. These seem to be the only real political concerns of the New Testament.“
I would suggest that if you are looking for Biblical priorities in voting, you have it there. The priority is that rulers will allow people to lead a peaceful and quiet life. In other words, that we would be spared tyranny, war, and a breakdown of law and order – and that our brothers and sisters in Christ elsewhere may also be spared those things.
And furthermore, I think that by the standards of New Testament times, we in Britain do pretty well for those things. Law and order, by historical standards, is excellent. We have not had war on British soil for hundreds of years. And freedom, including religious freedom, is pretty good.
So – what should our priorities be today?
As priorities in the election tomorrow – and this is true of all recent general elections – I think there are two practical priorities.
The first is religious freedom. The concept of religious freedom is complex, and I would not expect a government to allow anyone to do anything at all, simply on the grounds that it was part of their religion. No modern western government is going to allow, for example, human sacrifice. The freedoms we should be vigilant about, it seems to me, are freedom of speech and freedom of association.
The second practical priority is foreign policy. The actions our government affect our brothers and sisters in Christ in other countries.
The Barnabas Fund recently published an editorial that asked “Are persecuted Christians ‘the elephant in the room’ in the UK election? ” It said
“There is a very real threat that by the time of the next UK general election in 2022 large parts of the Middle East will have been emptied of Christian populations which have lived there since the first century, as Christians flee beheading, enslavement and other forms of religious cleansing by a whole range of jihadist groups.”
Their Manifesto for Persecuted Christians says
Soon after the 2003 Western-led military intervention in Iraq a targeted campaign of church bombings, kidnapping and assassination of church leaders began. Consequently, although only 3-4% of the Iraqi population were Christians, roughly a third of all Iraqis who have fled the country are Christians. When the Syrian civil war started in 2011, anti-Christian violence soon began there too. One of the jihadi groups targeting them evolved into IS. Christians and other non-Muslim minorities such as Yazidis have been executed and enslaved as jihadists seek to religiously cleanse the area of ancient communities such as Christians and Yazidis who have lived alongside Muslims for centuries, and very harmoniously in recent generations.
That is pretty diplomatic. When you read the words “Soon after the 2003 Western-led military intervention in Iraq a targeted campaign of church bombings, kidnapping and assassination of church leaders began,” what you are basically being told is that the main reason that the Christian communities in the Middle East have been decimated in the past 15 years is the foreign policy of America and Britain. However, the Barnabas Fund is not about to say so in so many words!
What about the Syrian civil war and the Jihadi groups there who have sought to cleanse the area of its ancient Christian community? The plain fact is that America and its Middle Eastern allies were instrumental in instigating the conflict in Syria, and they also supported the Jihadists. This is something that the mainstream media in the west has been remarkably quiet about – but it is well documented – see my blog post last year “Syria 2: Politics, insanity and dishonesty” – and the Christian community in Syria is very well aware of it.
What are the Biblical priorities for voting in tomorrow’s election? It seems to me that the two main issues are religious freedom and Middle East policy.
And it further seems to me that with regard to Middle East policy, what we really need is the ability to admit that the policy followed by Britain and the US – at least for the past 15 years – has been completely disastrous.