Politics and the Christian Worldview

Posted on September 7, 2011 at 11:20 am,

This is the next in a series of posts critiquing Wayne Grudem’s book Politics According to the Bible. Today we deal with chapter four, in which he paints a picture of a Biblical worldview – something that will be foundational as we move on to look at particular political issues. I’ll start by looking at the things he highlights, before moving on to some omissions that I think are very important in the context of a discussion of politics in a 21st Century Western culture.

God created everything

Pretty simple and obvious. God created the universe and everything in it (Genesis 1). Whilst Christians disagree about the details of how He did it, and how long it took, it’s one of the most basic foundations of a Christian worldview. It has the implication that Go deserves our obedience and worship (Revelation 4:11), and that creation reflects God (Psalm 19:1, Romans 1:20). Grudem deplores that this fact is concealed from children in the school system, but gives no clear indication of how and when he thinks it should be taught.

God reveals both Himself and His standards in the Bible

Another foundational one here. The Bible affirms that scripture is from God himself in passages like Matthew 4:4 and 2 Timothy 3:16. And says that God will ultimately judge all of humanity (1 Peter 4:4-5, Acts 17:30-31). The implication for politics is that a Christian understanding of the God’s moral standards will affect our view of those political issues that have a moral dimension.

Creation was very good

Another foundational belief, this is seen in Genesis 1:31. Creation started off very good, being pretty much perfect. But even in this state, God gave humanity work to do (Genesis 2:15), which means that productive work is something good, being part of the purpose for which God made us. Therefore, the “ideal” life for human beings is not perpetual inactivity and laziness, but includes meaningful, productive activity. Although Grudem doesn’t say so, it’s worth noting that this doesn’t mean that every instance of work is good. There are jobs that are immoral, jobs that are utterly pointless, and jobs that are just wrong for the person doing them.

Sin

The Christian view is that there is some measure of moral evil (sin) in every human being (except Jesus). The Bible says that this is, historically speaking, the result of the sin of our first parents – Adam and Eve (Romans 5:12, 18-19), and that none of us are innocent of sin (Romans 3:23). Grudem draws several points out of this:

Firstly, he points out that the moral standard by which we should judge is something external to humanity. A moral standard derived from the belief that humans are inherently good, from observing human conduct, and considering human opinions is not a Christian one.

Secondly, he points out that human nature is not “basically good”. Grudem says that there are parts of us that are good (conscience – see Romans 2:15) and parts that are evil (selfish desire – James 1:13-15). He draws from this that evil does not come merely from the external influence of society, but from a result of a person’s evil choices.

Thirdly, he says that people should be held accountable for their actions, and rejects secular views that this should be avoided because they blame wrongdoing on the influence of society.

Fourthly, he talks about the existence of violent and irrational evil. He draws on Romans 13:3-4, which talks about government using force to restrain evil, and dismisses the idea that these people in this category can be reasoned with and that the “causes” (his punctuation) of their behaviour can be dealt with.

A curse on the earth

One impact of Adam and Eve’s sin was that God cursed the planet (Genesis 3:17-18), and that a lot of the bad things that we see in nature are not creation as God originally intended. The result of the curse is that nature gives us a harder time.

Using the world’s resources

Here, Grudem cites God’s command to humanity to rule over the earth (Genesis 1:28). He takes this passage to mean that we are to use the planet’s resources for the benefit of humanity. He says that this does not mean that we should use the earth in a destructive or wasteful way (the principle of stewardship), or treat animals with cruelty (Proverbs 12:10). He says that the command to love your neighbour as yourself (Matthew 22:39) implies that we should think about future generations.

He then goes on to say that we should view the development and production of goods from the earth as something that is morally good, rather than an evil kind of “materialism” (his punctuation). He applies this to all sorts of consumer goods, and considers that wrong attitudes about them (such as pride, jealousy, and coveting) do not mean that the products in question are evil. He takes the view that they are morally good, and doesn’t mention the possibility of them being morally neutral.

Finally, he mentions that it is not God’s intention that humans should live in abject poverty, or live as subsistence farmers barely surviving from crop to crop. He says that God’s intention is that we should enjoy the abundance of the planet’s resources. As an aside, I don’t think he’s objecting to people growing most of their own food, but merely to the fact that most human beings who do so live pretty much on the absolute poverty line.

So what does Grudem miss out?

The notable things that are missing in this brief survey of a Christian worldview is anything that points out that the two defining features of the 21st Century Western worldview (consumerism and individualism) are not Biblical. Both viewpoints have very significant implications for our view of a wide variety of political issues. By omitting them, some of Grudem’s conclusions on the implications of a Christian worldview are incomplete (in particular, some of what he says under the heading of sin, and what he says about consumer goods when it comes to using the world’s resources). Let’s look at them in turn.

Consumerism

In Western society, you are defined, in large part, by the things that you own. You are judged primarily on factors like the brand of clothes that you wear, whether you own your home or or rent it, or which smartphone you own. Those without the latest and “greatest” consumer goods are looked down on.

This is a complete contrast to the Biblical view of possessions. Christians are not to judge people according to their wealth and possessions (James 2:2-4), we are to be content in our circumstances (Hebrews 13:5), we are not to worry about our basic material needs (Matthew 6:25-33), and are to give generously and sacrificially out of what we have (2 Corinthians 9:6-11, Mark 12:41-44). Whilst we are not necessarily called to give up all the comforts of the place and time in which we live (though the call to simple living is absolutely prophetic), we should stand out as examples of people who do not make idols of consumer goods.

And this should have a profound effect on Christian views of politics. It should make us exceedingly cautious about pursuing greater wealth for the already rich nations in which we live at the expense of policies that will benefit the poorest in the world. It should make us wary of policies that will entrench the interests of the wealthy at the expense of the poorest within our society. It should make us more enthusiastic towards policies that will prevent the rich from having a greater political voice than the poor. And, above all, it will ensure that we stand out by advocating policies that put people before possessions and profit.

Individualism

One of the striking things about Western societies over the last few decades is how much we have moved away from valuing community. In the UK, pretty much every institution that provides community has shrunk since the days when Margaret Thatcher famously proclaimed that there was “no such thing as society”. Social clubs, trade unions, political parties, churches, and even marriages have seen declining rates of participation. As I understand it, this is something that’s occurring across the Western world. We see ourselves as individuals first, and members of a wider community second, if at all.

And this is a profoundly unbiblical way of seeing the world. Whilst God holds us to account individually for our actions, He also holds us to account as a community. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of examples in the Old Testament of God holding cities and nations to account for their collective actions. Most of the New Testament letters are written to communities of believers, rather than to individuals – and 1 Corinthians 12:14-27 makes it crystal clear that Christianity is something that can only be properly worked out in community.

In terms of politics, this means that we cannot take a purely individualistic approach to issues. There are some cases where we much take collective, rather than individual, responsibility. Whilst individual sin is very real, there are also collective sins that a community can commit. This may be in the form of sinful social practises. It may be that the structures and institutions we build encourage particular sins, that they systematically discriminate (e.g. institutional racism), or that they remove any sense of individual responsibility for certain actions (e.g. de facto slavery in sweatshops).

Basically, Christians should be aware of the possibility of communal and institutional sin. Our politics should aim to minimise its effects and ensure that it does not prevent justice being done for the poor and marginalised within our societies. In an age where every man looks to his own interest above those of others, we should do the opposite (Philippians 2:4), and our politics should not mimic the world in this respect (Romans 12:2)

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