Our country is deeply divided and emotions are running high. As the temperature of political debate has risen, some have disengaged from politics in disgust, while many fear the implications of Brexit for their families and livelihoods.
What does God’s Word say in the midst of such political turmoil?
The Apostle Paul wrote, “I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone – for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness” (1 Tim.2).
We should, “first of all”, pray:
- “requests” for the needs of our country e.g. wisdom for parliamentarians and peace in their constituencies
- “prayers” for everyone involved e.g. immigrant communities and the people of Northern Ireland who are fearful for their future and the Brexit negotiators who are deciding it
- “intercession” for individuals in need of God’s grace e.g. for the Prime Minister and Michel Barnier
- prayers of “thanksgiving” for God’s many blessings e.g. our long history of stable parliamentary democracy built on Christian principles of justice, honesty and compassion.
Paul urges prayer, “for kings and all those in authority”, even the tyrants of his day, to allow us to live “peaceful and quiet lives”. This is not retiring to a tranquil seaside cottage. It’s living free of external persecution and internal division, in “all godliness and holiness”, our distinctive Christian lifestyle of morality and mission. Paul’s concern is not just order in society and the church, but commending our faith to unbelievers in need of our Saviour. He continues, “This is good, and pleases God our Saviour, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.”
With forecasters predicting financial disaster and commentators lamenting irreparable social divisions we may well feel unsettled and anxious. But many Psalms proclaim our complete safety in the loving arms of our heavenly father e.g. “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in times of trouble…be still and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations” (Ps.46).
The Bible reassures us that God is completely in control, even when human folly and selfishness bring chaos e.g. “the Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone he wishes” (Dan.4). He directs every detail of his universe and of human history, including these Brexit negotiations, ”according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will” (Eph.1). His will may include giving us up to experience the damage of our godless priorities and policies – exposing our need of the wisdom of his Word and the governance of his Son.
In Christian history there have been various views of how church and state should relate. There are important lessons to be learned from when the Roman Catholic church controlled the state (resulting in the religious persecution of the “Holy Roman Empire”) and from when the state tried to control the church in 1930’s Germany (when “Confessing Church” leaders like Barth and Bonhoeffer bravely insisted that God speaks in his Word and not in political leaders…like Hitler). In the UK today we have a ‘Constitutional Partnership’, where church and state recognise and respect each other as having different roles. Our role as Christians and churches is to be “prophetic” - respectfully but faithfully and without compromise, proclaiming and contending for the Word of God and the godly lifestyle consistent with it, within our denominations and throughout the nation.
Because, as Paul explains, if “God our Saviour wants all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim.2) then every local church should be the “pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Tim.3:15) holding out the gospel in our community, city and nation. So Christians must speak up, unashamed to bring the light and hope of the gospel into this current political turmoil.
Some of the current debate has become marked by a nasty and threatening hostility. Even between Christians, many conversations reveal little of the grace and restraint of our Lord. Jesus said some hard truths to some rulers of his day, but always with careful restraint, often with reference to God’s Word. Even during the dreadful injustice of his trial, he was respectful to the rulers who mistreated him. And from the cross, in the midst of intense suffering for our sins, he prayed for the forgiveness of his enemies.
So Paul writes, “Do not let unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God…get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Eph.4). Conscious of unbelievers who are listening, Brexit offers an opportunity for Christians to be distinctively patient and forgiving and to disagree kindly.
The Apostle Peter wrote, “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men” (1 Peter 2). Our model for humble submission is not mindless grovelling but the humble submission of our Lord Jesus who reasoned passionately in prayer with his Father in the Garden of Gethsemane, but concluded humbly in submission to his father, saying, “not my will but yours be done”. Christian submission to government, even where we passionately disagree with its policies, is a distinctive attitude that resists our sinful desire to indulge the rebelliousness of our hearts.
Elsewhere the Apostle Paul explains that however bad the government, God directs the outcome of every election or war, however wickedly conducted, so that “Everyone must submit themselves to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently anyone who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted and those who do so will bring judgement on themselves” (Romans 13).
The Bible qualifies our submission to governments with some limitations:
- if obedience would involve immorality (e.g. Hebrew midwives would not obey Pharaoh’s command to kill baby boys (Ex.2) as Christians in our NHS will avoid colluding with abortion)
- if obedience would involve idolatry (e.g. Shadrach, Meshak and Abednego would not obey the king’s command to bow in worship of his golden statue (Dan.2) as Christians today will not participate in multi-faith worship)
- if obedience would involve silence (e.g. the Apostles told their rulers that they must obey God and not cease evangelism as Christians today cannot agree to stop speaking with gentleness and respect about Jesus)
- if obedience would involve abuse of power (e.g. Nathan the prophet confronted David’s adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband and John the Baptist confronted Herod’s marriage to his brother’s wife as Christians today, while turning the other cheek to personal hurts, will protest and challenge rulers who abuse their power in hurting their subjects.)
But within such limitations, even if we strongly oppose the policies and decisions of our government, Christians are to be distinctively submissive and respectful. So in the current Brexit crisis:
- We may exercise our right granted by law to march in protest but not engage in civil unrest or rioting;
- We may disagree with the government or opposition and passionately but politely plead with our MP to represent our views, but we may not rebel against laws passed by government or speak or tweet disrespectfully of any ruling authorities.
Peter gives the reason for this submission: “For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men” (1 Peter 2). Those who bad-mouth Christians will often be quietly impressed when believers are not selfishly rebellious but willing to accept authority, while we yearn for the heavenly community where Christ governs in perfect wisdom and justice.
And so lastly…
LONG FOR THE GOVERNMENT OF JESUS
At Christmas we are often reminded of Isaiah’s promise of the government we all need in Jesus, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end“ (Is.9). This king, Jesus, has now come and we already enjoy his government when we submit to the rule of his Word, the Bible. We already experience the wisdom of this Wonderful Counsellor in his teaching, the power of this Mighty God in protecting us from Satan, the care of this Everlasting Father in his faithful provision of our daily needs, and the peace with God and his people that this Prince of Peace secured on the cross.
We enjoy the government of this king now, we watch his kingdom growing as the gospel is preached and people submit to his government, and we look forward to his government being fully installed in the new creation. This Brexit chaos makes us realise that politicians cannot negotiate the deal or transform society or offer the government we long for. Brexit makes us yearn for the blessings of the kingdom of heaven and for the wise and compassionate government of Jesus!