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Christianity and public life: Critiquing national leaders

November 2020 | by Chris Hill

If you are politically minded you will have read many different views on our government’s actions recently. During times of unrest and uncertainty it’s natural that we judge our national leaders on how ‘well’ or ‘badly’ they respond. Is it helpful that we engage in this way? And if so, what principles should Christians follow?

In a democracy we consider it a national right, even a duty, to hold our politicians to account. We shouldn’t forget that the most important command that God’s Word gives us concerning governing authorities is not criticism, but submission. Paul writes: ‘Everyone must submit to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those that exist are instituted by God.’ (Romans 13:1, CSB).

It’s also true that there is a strong and rich tradition of God’s spokespeople on earth ‘speaking truth to power’ in stark, outspoken terms. The prophet Amos strongly critiqued and judged the acts of nations surrounding Israel, and the books of Kings and Chronicles ring out with judgments on the kings of Israel and Judah – affirming that what they did was either right or evil in the eyes of the Lord.

Let’s assume that within the context of showing submission and honour to our national leaders (1 Peter 2:17), we are also permitted and expected to hold them to account. In a democracy, it’s natural for us to have an even greater interest in doing so. Indeed, that is what our democratic systems invite us to do once every few years by casting our vote in a sort of ‘peaceful revolution’.

So, when we are holding our national leaders to account, how can we make sure we are ‘judging according to righteous judgment’ (John 7:24)?

Recognise the difficulty of objectivity

In a democracy it’s particularly difficult for us to accurately hold our governments to account, because of our own involvement in the process. We are invested in the successes and failures of our politicians in a way that the subjects of other political systems never will be.

If someone attacks our ‘chosen’ leader, we have a personal interest in defending them – see, for example, the many critiques of the government’s response to Covid-19, and those speaking out in their defence.

On the other hand, if a leader we opposed makes a mistake, we are particularly inclined to point out and magnify that mistake. We need to watch out for the inevitable bias that we experience as we play our part in the political process.

Recognise individual ‘good’ and ‘bad’ decisions

One of the strong evidences of the integrity of the Bible is that it presents a full, warts-and-all view of its characters. There is only one flawless hero presented in the Bible – the verdict otherwise is that ‘there is no one righteous’ (Romans 3:10).

We see this vividly illustrated when the ‘heroes’ of the Bible fall into sin (such as King David’s adultery and murder of Uriah, and Peter’s denials and subsequent hypocrisy). If we believe or speak as if our political leaders were incapable of making mistakes, then we are in for a disappointment.

On the other hand, if we start to believe that a particular leader is all bad and can do no good, we also need to beware! In 1 Kings 21:25, we read the following damning assessment: ‘There was never anyone like Ahab, who sold himself to do evil.’

Yet in the following verses we read that the same man ‘tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and fasted’, and that God mitigated his judgment in response to Ahab’s humble act: ‘I will not bring this disaster in his day.’ If the single virtuous act of one of the most wicked leaders in the Bible was recognised, there is an example for us, too.

Recognise our own ‘knee-jerk’ reactions

Because we are all part of the political process, it’s easy for us to get emotionally involved. This makes it harder for us to process information carefully. One professor of government and politics recently observed that ‘we have a very active electorate, but they are not really thinking very much about what they’re doing’.

We tend to gravitate towards opinions, people, and media outlets that confirm our existing beliefs. Yet we need to acknowledge our own fallibility and do our best to understand others who hold a different perspective. ‘The first to state his case seems right until another comes and cross-examines him’ (Proverbs 18:17).

Aim for a genuinely ‘Christian’ political perspective

If we are honest, we often rely more on secular philosophy than we would like to admit in forming our political opinions. The Bible is not a political textbook – but it can inform our political understanding. If Jesus is the ‘head over every ruler and authority’ (Colossians 2:10), our first question should be ‘what did Jesus teach?’

Sometimes this may lead us into unexpected territory – for example, the Bible’s teaching on welfare and wealth (1 Timothy 5:3-10, James 5:1-6) appears to cover both ‘left’ and ‘right’ wing policies. But there are many helpful organisations that seek to help us develop a truly Christian perspective on public life (Christian Concern, The Christian Institute, the Jubilee Centre, to name three).

Let’s allow God’s Word to transform even our political opinions as we ‘take every thought captive to obey Christ’ (2 Corinthians 10:5).

Chris Hill  has been interested in politics from a young age, and has been actively involved since 2013. He attends Ashford Community Church in Kent.