This is a short paper I helped to write about the General Election in Ireland in 2011:
Many Christians are asking questions about how they should respond to what may be among the most significant elections in the history of the state. They are wondering what they should expect of the incoming government. Most importantly, they are wondering what God expects of the incoming government, and whether they can use their vote to advance his expectations.
Ireland is a democratic republic. Its constitution was adopted in 1937, and it is more supportive of many biblical values than are the constitutional statements of other European countries. But the most important component of the Constitution is probably its preamble. These words set out the framework within which the rest of the Constitution should be understood:
In the Name of the Most Holy Trinity, from Whom is all authority and to Whom, as our final end, all actions both of men and States must be referred, We, the people of Éire, Humbly acknowledging all our obligations to our Divine Lord, Jesus Christ, Who sustained our fathers through centuries of trial, Gratefully remembering their heroic and unremitting struggle to regain the rightful independence of our Nation, And seeking to promote the common good, with due observance of Prudence, Justice and Charity, so that the dignity and freedom of the individual may be assured, true social order attained, the unity of our country restored, and concord established with other nations, Do hereby adopt, enact, and give to ourselves this Constitution.
This preamble may be the most significant recognition of the state’s obligation to God of any modern country. But it is biblically justified? Should the people of Ireland really expect to elect a government that will recognise that “all authority” comes from God, and that he is the one to whom “all actions both of men and States” must finally be referred? Should Irish Christians expect to elect a government that will be held accountable by God? And if so, to which standard will that government be held accountable?
God’s law and its purposes
The Bible teaches that the laws which God gave to his people through Moses can be divided into three elements – moral (think of the Ten Commandments), ceremonial (think of the animal sacrifices), and civil (think of the rules governing the political life of Israel). The New Testament books explain how these various parts of the Mosaic law apply in the new covenant age.
The ceremonial law has been abolished with the once-for-all sacrifice of the Lord Jesus.
By contrast, the moral law (summarised in the Ten Commandments) continues to be enforced – it works to condemn the sinner, by driving him away from any hope of pleasing God by his own efforts; and, after conversion, it is our guide in sanctification, for our progress in the life of holiness can be measured by the extent to which we conform to the moral law. This might sound strange, but remember that the Old Testament law is useful for “training in righteousness” in the new covenant era (2 Tim 3:14-17). And remember that the moral law of the Ten Commandments is summed up by the new commandment to love one another (Rom 13:8-10).
But what about the category of civil law? Were God’s expectations of Israel unique? Or did Israel’s civil law have anything to say to other nations?
God’s laws for nations
Israel was a theocracy: it was a nation governed by God. And his government was very strict. Religious pluralism was not tolerated in Israel (“you worship your God, and I’ll worship mine”). Neither was there any ethical pluralism (“you believe in marriage, and I don’t, but we can still get along, can’t we?”). It was a very different place from modern-day Ireland.
The story of Israel demonstrates that God also held other nations to his own standards. Through Israel God judged the nations (Lev 18:24-30), even though they hadn’t adopted his laws. And although Israel’s civil law was very strict, God expected that pagan nations would find it attractive (Deut 4:5-8). Indeed, the hope of Israel was that the nations would come to see the wisdom of God’s laws (Isa 2:2-4).
The lesson from this is that, in the old covenant, God held nations to be morally responsible. Nations were held responsible as nations. And individuals involved in the government of pagan nations were held responsible by God not just as private “citizens,” but as members of government. Psalm 2 describes nations rebelling against God by casting away his law, and instructs the leaders of those rebellious nations to return to his law and to submit to it. God isn’t just interested in the lives of individuals. He also holds nations morally responsible.
How does this work out in the new covenant? We might be surprised: God’s expectations of pagan governments do not suddenly disappear. The apostles are quite clear that God continues to hold national governments responsible to his law.
Peter writes to believers suffering under the brutal persecution of the Roman empire (1 Peter 2:13-14). But he doesn’t downplay the responsibility of the state. Instead, he insists that even a persecuting pagan government has a duty to “punish those who do evil and praise those who do good.” That is the job God gave it to do.
Paul writes to believers living in Rome itself (Rom 13). And his message is exactly the same. The Roman government was instituted by God (v. 1-2), was given authority by God (v. 1), was described as “God’s servant” (v. 4 [twice], 6), was given moral responsibility by God (v. 2), and was given authority to punish wrongdoers as an expression of God’s “judgement” and “wrath” upon them (v. 2, 4, 5). In other words, Paul was arguing, one of the ways God would execute his wrath on sinners would be through his servant, the government. God puts national governments in place so that they should uphold his law.
These are incredible statements. Where does Paul get his definitions of “good” and “wrong”? Well, we can think about the answer to that question by seeing how he uses these moral terms elsewhere in Romans, and by remembering what it is that God’s wrath punishes. God’s wrath punishes sin; and Paul only ever uses moral terms like “good” and “wrong” in reference to God’s law. God defines what is good and just. And national governments should uphold it.
So Paul and Peter agree: even in the new covenant age, God continues to hold nations morally responsible. The nations of the world continue to have obligations to uphold God’s holy law.
So how should modern Christians think about their responsibilities during the general election? Building on the teaching of Rom 13, we should recognise that government has divine authority; we should respect its responsibility to be an executor of God’s wrath against sin; and we should “be subject” (v. 1) to it.
Obviously being “subject” would mean something entirely different to believers in first-century Rome and in twenty-first century Ireland. But at the very least, we in modern Ireland should recognise our responsibility not to undermine our state’s recognition of its divine responsibility. We should not vote in such a way as to speed up Ireland’s movement away from God’s laws for the nations.
So how should we vote? “Be holy in all your conduct” (1 Pet 1:15), including voting, remembering that holiness is defined by God’s law (Rom 7:12). We are always to expose works of darkness (Eph 5:11), not silently support them in the ballot box. Our voting and all our political involvement should uphold God’s moral law in the nation. “Righteousness exalts a people, but sin is a reproach to ANY people” (Proverbs 14:34) – including Ireland.
How important is this focus on politics?
The themes of civil government and Christian responsibility to that government are minor themes in the New Testament. But Christians have been provided with principles that we can apply today. What is important about this teaching is the context in which it was given. The lives and writings of Paul and Peter show us that mission was more important to them than politics. God’s kingdom advanced not through political agitation but through gospel proclamation.
Today things are no different. Christians should not be agitating to impose anything by force. God’s kingdom advances by means of the Great Commission. Jesus Christ has ultimate ethical authority – not the state, not any cultural consensus (Matt 28:18). Our Divine Lord, Jesus Christ, knows what is right for Ireland. Our part is to honour him, just as our Constitution acknowledges we should do, in how we vote in this important election.