Does the Bible Teach Democracy?

Posted on August 31, 2011 at 11:16 am,

This is the sixth in a series critiquing the arguments of Wayne Grudem’s book Politics According to the Bible. Today we’re looking at his claim in chapter 3 that the Bible offers some support to the idea that government should be chosen by the people. This is not a discussion about the practical arguments that Democracy is superior to the other forms of government humanity has tried, it’s about whether the Bible can be used to support that argument.

Given the times and places that the Bible was written, it’s hardly surprising that not one verse explicitly mentions the concept of democracy, a fact which Grudem acknowledges. Whilst the rulers of nations back then were almost exclusively kings (there are a few exceptions – Moses, Joshua, and the Judges being the most obvious examples), Grudem says that monarchy is not endorsed or commanded.

I’m not convinced that this argument is watertight for two reasons. Firstly, the book of Judges repeatedly bemoans the lack of a king in Israel at that point in its history. Whilst this verse appears to be taking aim at anarchy, rather than alternative forms of government, the alternative interpretation isn’t nonsensical. Secondly, God specifically instituted a monarchy within the nation of Israel for the centuries between 1 Samuel and 2 Chronicles. Whilst I agree with Grudem that this doesn’t establish a universal precedent, It puts a much higher burden of proof on any claim that the Bible tends to support some other form of government.

So lets look at the principles Grudem pulls out in favour of Representative Democracy:

Everybody is equal in the sight of God

Grudem begins in the beginning, by pointing out that Genesis 1:27, and other passages state that all humans are made in the image of God, and hence have equal status. He then argues that this means that the idea that a hereditary family could have the right to rule over others without their consent is unreasonable. He doesn’t say whether this argument would apply to other nondemocratic forms of government – such as individual dictatorship, rule by an aristocratic class, or rule by a particular profession.

And the argument has a couple of flaws that Grudem doesn’t address. Firstly, unless the ruler(s) over a particular nation use significant amounts of force to enforce their rule, it can be argued that – by not actively rebelling against the government – the people have given some degree of assent to the government in question. And secondly, equality of status doesn’t necessarily imply equality of role (an argument that Grudem uses himself in some areas of theology). If you do not consider that ruling a nation gives you greater status, then a belief that God has put certain people, families, or institutions on the Earth for the purpose of ruling a nation is consistent with the belief that all human beings have equal status.

Now, I’d agree that belief that human beings are all of equal value is foundational to the ideological basis of democracy – making this aspect of the Bible’s teaching consistent with democracy. But it falls far short of making other political systems less consistent with scripture.

Accountability of Rulers

Grudem cites his arguments in favour of separation of powers (which we covered on Friday) to argue that government needs to gain and maintain consent from those who are governed as the ultimate separation of powers. In writing up that argument, I pointed out that the Biblical case is for checks and balances, and that separation of powers is simply one method of doing so. Free and fair elections, of course, one other.

Again, I agree with the conclusion that the Biblical principle in question is entirely in harmony with the ideological basis of democracy. But it seems to be going too far to say that it implies that Christians should necessarily prefer it above other political systems.

Serving the Common Good

Grudem returns to the argument that government is there to serve the common good (Romans 13:4), and then claims that the people themselves are the best ones to decide what is actually in their communal best interest. The problem here, is that Grudem has used the wrong argument from the right principle. There are plenty of areas of policy where the general public are badly informed.

For example, when a report suggested that there may be a link between the MMR vaccine and autism, many parents panicked and stopped their child from being vaccinated. Even if the study in question hadn’t been falsified (as we later found out), few apparently had the scientific knowledge to know that the result had been blown out of all proportion (it suggested that there might be a link, rather than proved that there was). And fewer realised that having their child catch mumps, measles, and rubella because they hadn’t been vaccinated could be far worse (i.e. fatal) than having them more likely to become autistic, or that the scale of the panic was putting the whole nation at far greater risk of these diseases.

In such cases, it may be better to ensure that the people in charge listen to expert opinions and give them more weight than they give public opinion (which, in this case, had been stirred up by a sensationalist press). Which is why I prefer representative democracy to direct democracy – it gives a chance for experts on a subject to have their view count for more when it comes to policy making.

There is, however, an argument from this verse that actually works, although its implication is a lot weaker. If Government is to be “God’s servant for our good”, then it makes a lot more sense for the government to listen to what its citizens have to say about issues than it does for them to ignore it – you can’t serve somebody’s best interests without taking their views into account. And free and fair elections are a very good way of ensuring that those views are taken into account when it comes to government.

Government works best with consent

The book then points out that there are several occasions in the Old Testament where rulers sought the consent of their people, and adds in one example from the New Testament church (although this is not talking about government, the principle applies to all forms of leadership). He also cites Rehoboam in 1 Kings 12:15-16, who lost control of ten of the tribes of Israel by doing not seeking the peoples’ consent as well as several pagan rulers who are viewed negatively for oppressing those they ruled over.

This argument is, of course, almost a tautology. There are two ways to rule a nation. One is by obtaining at least the passive consent of the people you are governing. The other is by using overwhelming force to impose your will on an unwilling populace. The Bible clearly favours the former, but also shows examples of it happening in a non-democratic system.

I would agree with Grudem that this is a good argument in favour of democracy, as consent is built into the system, rather than being dependent on who holds the power at any given time. Having said that, it’s perfectly possible for a democratically elected government to be one that the population didn’t want (in some systems, the governing party or coalition can get absolute power on fewer votes than the opposition), rule harshly (the Nazis were democratically elected into power in 1933), or enact major policies that clearly do not have the consent of the population (e.g. the Poll Tax in the UK during the late 1980s/early 1990s).

The King of Kings

Grudem also points out that the Bible teaches that one day our current governments will be replaced by the direct rule of Jesus, who will rule as the perfect king over the entire Earth. He cites Revelation 19:16 and Daniel 7:14 and concludes that – until that time – democracy does seem to be the best form of government, based on the principles he has pulled out.

Whilst I think that there is plenty of space in what the Bible teaches for Christians to prefer other systems of government (there are plenty of great figures from church history who did), there is also plenty in the Bible that supports the principles behind democracy. Whilst I think Grudem clearly overstates the case, he does come to the right conclusion.

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