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Democracy is a deeply confusing term in our modern moment. Many people refer to America as a “democracy,” but that isn’t exactly the case. America is a federal constitutional republic, with democratic elections.
In fact, many of our Founders, like James Madison, rejected the notion of direct democracy as dangerous. In Federalist No. 10, Madison warns about the risks of “factions” rising up, and, through the exercise of direct democracy, instituting what amounted to “mob rule.” Madison argued that the American Constitution provided a “happy combination” of both democracy and republican-style government that protects the interests of the minority group(s).
After all, direct and unfiltered democracy is what you get when two wolves and one sheep vote on what’s for dinner. That’s why we have institutions like the Electoral College, which prevent the rule of a sheer 51 percent majority in the United States at the federal level.
But if you listen to the news or even President Biden’s recent speech, you hear charges like “our democracy is under attack” in America. What does that mean? It’s hard to parse, exactly; even more so when you remember that Democrats control the Presidency, the Senate, and the House of Representatives. Republicans aren’t exactly the ones in charge right now, and certainly not the scary “MAGA Republicans” who President Biden warns are a threat to the very “soul of the nation.”
What makes the whole conversation even more complicated is how theologians and Christian thinkers have joined in the “democracy is in danger!” exercises of emoting. Recently, one Australian theologian, Michael Bird, said that he “prefer(s) Biden over the anti-Democratic Trump any day of the week and twice on Sunday!” He said this even though Biden is one of the most horrifically pro-abortion presidents we have ever had. Confronted with this reality, Bird doubled down, claiming that he would “rather live in a liberal democracy with LGBT parades, than live in a Christian theocracy where Christianity is enforced at the point of a gun, and therein lies our difference.”
What is this “democracy” that (ostensibly) orthodox theologians (must) prefer, even if it comes with abortion and gay pride parades? Should all Christians want “democracy” this much? Is it more important than public virtue and morality?
In short, I would argue that, as Christians, our loyalty to a certain form of government can never surpass our loyalty to Christ. We don’t worship democracy — we worship Jesus. Furthermore, the Bible doesn’t prescribe one infallible form of government for humanity, despite what many in our post-modern, post-war era may believe.
Space doesn’t permit an exhaustive biblical theology of government in this short piece. But when you read the Bible, you realize that it has quite a bit to say about the principles of just government, while not nearly as much to say about what the form of government should be.
As we must, we begin with the beginning. In Genesis 1:27-28, we derive three critical pieces of what government, from God’s perspective, must recognize and do. We read:
“So, God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.’”
First, we see that mankind is made in God’s image; therefore, government must respect His image-bearers. Humans are not disposable. They are not made for whatever purposes their government may want to use them for. No, humans are made in the image of the Divine Creator. Good and just government respects the dignity, value, and worth of all mankind (even the unborn ones).
Second, God commanded Adam and Eve to “rule.” Government is therefore preferable to anarchy. Anarchy is the opposite of what God commands for His creatures. Adam was to function in a kingly role, mediating and representing God’s ultimate rule over all of creation.
Third, this rule would be accomplished in part by fulfilling the command to be “fruitful and multiply,” that is, by families. Government is, at its most basic level, the cooperation of various families who join together to secure and further their common good. But what this presupposes is that families are essential to the government and must be respected by the government. And not just families, but the building block of families — marriage. Governments must acknowledge that marriage is, and only ever can be, between one man and one woman. This is what God teaches in the beginning and what Jesus affirms in Matthew 19.
Okay, all of that is a sketch of a government pre-fall. Before Genesis 3:1-7 and the entrance of sin and wickedness into the world. In Genesis 4, we get the first murder. By Genesis 6, God is ready to wipe out mankind, and He does so in the flood.
Genesis 9 is the next key passage on a biblical view of government. Noah is given many of the same instructions as Adam, but with a new command: retributive justice. God commands Noah that, in the post-flood world, government must defend and avenge the life of image-bearers. We read in Genesis 9:6 that “Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made mankind.”
Theologians refer to this as the “sword.” God gives the sword to civil governments to punish lawbreakers.
Speaking of law, God’s vision of just rule is fleshed out even further in the Ten Commandments. In Exodus 20:1-17 we find the charter document, the constitution so to speak, of the Israelite theocracy. They would be a people governed directly by God, with His rule mediated through prophets, priests, and judges (like Moses and Aaron). Make no mistake — this was no democracy. God got the one, only, and final vote on the laws of the land.
The Ten Commandments, combined with the rest of the Mosaic law in the Pentateuch, served as the basis for the laws of Israel under their future kings, beginning with Saul, David, Solomon, etc. Each of the kings was charged to be a just and righteous ruler who knew and followed God’s laws (Deuteronomy 18:14-20).
Fast forward to the New Testament, and Jesus Christ comes, in the flesh, to earth during a period of the Roman occupation of Israel. Israel no longer had a Davidic king but was under the boot of a pagan Caesar.
In one of the most critical passages teaching His followers (Christians) how to think about government, Jesus said this in Mark 12:17:
“Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”
In this one sentence, Christ makes it clear that there are allegiances and duties that Christians owe to God that they cannot give to an earthly ruler. Yet, at the same time, He affirmed that earthly rulers, even those who are not Christian rulers, are due respect and a certain degree of submission — and yes, even taxes.
Paul carries forward this theme in Romans 13:1-7, where he argues that Christians should submit to governing authorities. Just as importantly, though, he argues that the magistrate is “God’s servant for your good.” Rulers — elected or not — must never forget this. They answer to God, and their job as rulers is to govern for the good of those they oversee. To be clear, the “good” of those they govern is not just a nebulous, open-ended concept. No, the good of those governed is good that God would recognize as good, and that includes banishing evil from the public square and honoring the one true God and His moral precepts and commands.
In short, the Bible makes it clear that governments are instituted by God, for the good of mankind, accountable to God and to the people they serve, and they are to rule justly and righteously in accordance with God’s revealed laws.
These are the principles. As far as the forms of government, well, the Bible doesn’t have much to say in a prescriptive fashion. The Israelites had a theocracy mediated by a monarchy under the Old Covenant. Kings are not necessarily evil. One can argue that the Church is clearly meant to be ruled in a congregational, i.e., more democratic fashion, but you won’t find a direct argument for democracy in the pages of the Bible. The story ends, again, with a king. Not just any king, but the true, high king — King Jesus.
Christians can reasonably argue towards forms of representative government from Scripture (and I would agree with many of those), but the reality is that “democracy” isn’t a biblical mandate and therefore Christians are free to disagree about the benefits of it. Either way, no one should worship it.
In fact, some of the clearest examples of democracy in the Bible turn out rather poorly.
First, we have the Tower of Babel. No one denies that the Tower of Babel was the greatest feat of ancient democracy! We read in Genesis 11:1-4 that:
“Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.”
Look again: one language, one people, one goal. They came together, as a faction, in a unified rebellion against God. This was majority rule to the max.
“‘Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.’ So, the Lord dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city.”–Genesis 11:7-8
Their democracy sought to play God, to ascend to the throne of Heaven. Instead, the One who sits on the throne of Heaven came down and broke up their party.
Second, we have Pontius Pilate asking the people to weigh in on a judicial decision. As Jesus was on trial before Pilate in Matthew 27, we read that:
“Now at the feast the governor was accustomed to releasing to the multitude one prisoner whom they wished. And at that time they had a notorious prisoner called Barabbas. Therefore, when they had gathered together, Pilate said to them, ‘Whom do you want me to release to you? Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?’ For he knew that they had handed Him over because of envy.
While he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent to him, saying, ‘Have nothing to do with that just Man, for I have suffered many things today in a dream because of Him.‘
But the chief priests and elders persuaded the multitudes that they should ask for Barabbas and destroy Jesus. The governor answered and said to them, ‘Which of the two do you want me to release to you?‘
They said, ‘Barabbas!‘”
The people voted. Democracy in action! But…they voted to condemn an innocent man and to free the guilty. The crowd got what they wanted. So much for “sacred democracy.”
To be (very) clear: I think America’s constitutional republic, with its separation of powers and system of democratic elections, is, on the whole, a great system and one that can be defended on a biblical basis. Given the fallen nature of man, it makes sense to maintain checks and balances — such as popular-vote elected representatives in the House and Senate, albeit with a mixture of fixed allotments (Senate) and proportional allotments (House). The same goes for the Electoral College and the Supreme Court.
The reason why so many liberals (and even progressive Christians) are shrieking about “threats to democracy” is really because they demand to get their way—all of the time. They view anything that sets back their agenda as “undemocratic” even if it was accomplished through entirely legitimate means.
For example, the Supreme Court overturning Roe v Wade was doing exactly what it was supposed to do under our Constitution. That was a restoration of our government, not a deformation of it. It certainly wasn’t a threat to our democracy.
Free speech, as well, is not a “threat to democracy.” Free speech means that Americans get to say things, and ask questions, even if the left doesn’t like it.
The influence of Christianity on our government, or the hoped for and worked for influence, also isn’t a threat. Christian influence on our laws isn’t “undemocratic.” Christian nationalism isn’t a threat — it’s a good thing.
The point is this: Not everything that the Left doesn’t like is “undemocratic.” Christians need to realize this. Rather, most of the “solutions” the left proposes — packing the Supreme Court, getting rid of the Electoral College, getting rid of the filibuster in the Senate — are the real threats to our nation and to the foundation of our constitutional republic.
Finally (and I would hope this goes without saying, but it clearly doesn’t), Christians shouldn’t be so inseparably committed to something like “democracy” that they are willing to support or tolerate great evils like abortion.
It could very well be that a form of monarchy, constitutional or otherwise, could produce an equally just, if not more just, rule than a modern democracy. Christians need to have this speed on their governmental stick shift.
Because, at the end of the day, Christians must demand that governments be just. Some leading theologians speak as if the Gospel is dependent on a “liberal democracy” to go forth. But I thought the Gospel was “unchained” (2 Tim 2:9)? These “give me liberal democracy or bust” voices are the real “Christianity can’t survive without our preferred political order” group. We should reject that.
Justice is more important than democracy. And justice can be secured for image bearers under any number of forms of government. Thus, Christians (who should be politically active) must demand a just government, not just a democracy, “no matter what.”
Because even now, and forever, Christ is King. We serve a heavenly Monarch. No one elected Him; He is the one who elects us. His throne is secure. Democracy will one day pass away. But the rule and reign of Christ shall endure forever.
Follow William on Twitter! @William_E_Wolfe
Ready to dive deeper into the intersection of faith and policy? Head over to our Theology of Politics series page where we’ve published several long-form pieces that will help Christians navigate where their faith should direct them on political issues.