“Politics is a dirty business.” So we hear constantly in some fashion in today’s discourse. Many degrade politics further by saying Christians should not participate in it, at least not consciously as Christians. It is base (not based) and low. Most Protestants confess the doctrine of total depravity–the belief not that everything is as fallen as it can be, but that there’s no person or human arena not fallen in some way. Yet if we were to pick one thing which is as fallen as it can be, it would often seem to be politics . Anabaptists have a long-standing tradition of political abstention for the sake of God’s Kingdom, making principled arguments that our earthly citizenship soils the purity of our heavenly one. Yet even defenses of Christian involvement in the political arena say to do so in spite of or to counter its evils.
Politics does include its fair share of corruption, lying, and other sins. Perhaps we live in times where such evils manifest themselves worse than in the past–though, while we do not live in the best of times, we certainly do not live in the worst.
Despite Christian claims to the contrary, this low classification of politics contradicts the Bible and Christianity’s historic relationship with it. As unlikely as it may look when we consider the politicians of today, the Christian must confess that politics possesses, necessarily, dignity–and the restoration of this dignity is a vital task for the contemporary church.
The dignity of politics originates from God’s establishment of all rulers and their governments. Romans 13, the classic text on this matter, says, “there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (13:1, ESV). Nothing established by God could be inherently wicked and vile. The Westminster Confession of Faith, moreover, declares that, “It is lawful for Christians to accept and execute the office of a magistrate” (WCF 23.2). We can participate without shame, without hiding our heads to duck into a voting booth.
Some Christians concede this, but little more. As some neo-anabaptists would put it, we have no choice but to take part in the political process, but we must hold our nose and give the bare minimum participation. But most Christian theology goes further than this, saying that politics is more than simply tolerable.. Consider, for example, what John Calvin wrote regarding politics. He said that, “civil authority is, in the sight of God, not only sacred and lawful, but the most sacred, and by far the most honourable, of all stations in mortal life” (Institutes, IV.20.4). No other vocation, apart from a minister in the church, held higher or even equal honor. As politics was the highest “station” in this mortal life, our perspective toward it is skewed if we only speak of it as low and disreputable.
We see the dignity of politics expanded upon in Scripture, as well as Christian theologians’ interpretation of these passages. In particular, we might focus on how the Bible refers to political rulers as “gods.” Thomas Aquinas, in his book, De Regno, made the general observation about Scripture on this point. He wrote that, “the judges of the people are called gods” (De Regno, Ch. 10, §72). He explains why by saying a ruler “bears a special likeness to God” (De Regno, Ch. 10,§72). Of course, all humans bear the image of God by the fact of their existence. Yet, Thomas sees a special imaging of God in the ruler. He explains why by adding he does so “since [the ruler] does in his kingdom what God does in the world” (De Regno, Ch. 10,§72). The imaging starts with a human task that looks like one of God’s. Scripture constantly refers to God by the political titles of “Lord,” “Judge,” and “King.” These are titles of rule. God rules the world, not like a lord, judge, or king, but as lord, judge, and king. He makes law. He demands obedience to that law, thus enforcing it against the disobedient. Magistrates follow His pattern, to the extent humans can. They rule in their kingdoms. They thereby make and enforce law in like fashion.
Thomas and others after him focus on some short but notable texts Exodus 22:9, 22:28 and Psalm 82. Building off of Thomas’s statements, many theologians take these texts to extol the grandeur of human political rule and its privileged place among vocations ordained by God. It comprises, then, a useful place to see politics’ dignity.
Calvin discusses this same point on several occasions. Exodus 22:28 reads, “you shall not revile the gods, nor curse the ruler of your people” (KJV). Other translations say “God” rather than gods. However, Calvin agrees with the Authorized Version, as does Thomas (in the same De Regno). Calvin says, “[God] has inscribed a mark of His glory” on magistrates. He later writes, “His own dignity is claimed for judges.” God receives glory and honor for his mighty and just rule. As ones imaging that rule, magistrates receive glory and dignity due to their office and attendant deeds.
This glory and honor of course must not turn into worship. In his Loci Communes, Peter Martyr Vermigli discussed this point. He asked whether one could bow to a king without committing idolatry, arguing that argued one could. In making his case, he noted of princes and kings that they, “in earth doo represent vnto men the authoritie of God, and doo supplie his place in the administration of things” (Loci Communes, XVIII.4.2). This point echoes what we have seen from Calvin and Thomas. But Vermigli adds a warning, writing, “we must beware, lest in our inward iudgement we attribute more vnto them than is méet; or expect more of them than their power and might is able to performe: for otherwise we should not scape idolatrie” (Loci Communes, XVIII.4.2). The image must never be confused with the Original. Rulers must never be worshiped but only given honor befitting human beings. Just as we should honor our father and mother, thereby keeping the Fifth Commandment, so we can and should honor our political fathers and mothers.
Returning to Calvin, he explains his point about political dignity more in expositing Exodus 22:9, which says,
“For all manner of trespass, whether it be for ox, for ass, for sheep, for raiment, or for any manner of lost thing which another challengeth to be his, the cause of both parties shall come before the judges; and whom the judges shall condemn, he shall pay double unto his neighbour.” (KJV)
Where the KJV says, “judges,” the ESV says “God.” Calvin here also translates the terms as, “gods.” For him, the text rightly reads so by way of “dignifying the office.” He goes on to say, “[rulers] represent the person of God, in whose hand alone is all dominion and power” (Commentaries on the Last Four Books of Moses, 3: 144). Again, we see the theme that rulers act in the place of God and that God confers special glory upon them in their task. Here we see Calvin in particular speak of “dominion and power.” Politics requires a dominion, a place and a people over which to exercise rule. It also requires power, the authority to make law and the coercive strength to enforce it. God’s kingdom is the world, and his power is infinite. Human rulers possess both dominion and power, though within the limits of human capacity.
These arguments continue when we move from Exodus to the Psalms. In his commentary on Psalm 82, the word Calvin translates as “gods,” he defines as magistrates, rejecting the possibility of the verse referring to angels. These rulers receive a divine-upbraiding in the psalm for improperly carrying out their function, especially in relation to the poor and needy. Calvin elsewhere says these are rulers, “on whom God has impressed special marks of his glory” (Calvin, Commentary on the Psalms, 3: 283) He later adds, “God has invested judges with a sacred character and title (Calvin, Commentary on the Psalms 3: 286).”
Here, we see implied another aspect of the divinely-imaged dignity and glory of earthly rulers. God does not just rule, he rules justly: “Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne” (Psalm 89:14), the psalmist sings. God makes the same demands of human rulers, that they rule righteously. Psalm 72 opens by asking God to give the king his justice and righteousness. Proverbs 25:5 also advises that, “Take away the wicked from before the king, and his throne shall be established in righteousness.” Thus, when rulers fail to exercise dominion and power properly, passages like Psalm 82 take them to task.
Calvin further adds a careful and proper caveat that he finds in Psalm 82. God clothes these rulers in a dignity and a glory like his and so rulers do not possess that dignity and glory intrinsically. Instead, the passage reminds these wicked rulers of their humanity, with God warning them, “like men you shall die, and fall like any prince.” Tyranny often involves rulers thinking they are God, repeating the sinful desire of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. They murder and steal for their own sake, rather than giving righteous judgment for God’s glory and the good of man. In this point, we see that a ruler’s glory comes not in extolling himself but in seeking these other goods. Beneath the honor lay a solid bed of personal humility.
Finally, we turn to Matthew Henry, who provides a 19th century voice to second these other theologians. Commenting on Psalm 82 as well, he writes, “Good magistrates, who answer the ends of magistracy, are as God; some of his honour is put upon them; they are his vicegerents, and great blessings to any people” (An Exposition of the Old and New Testament, 551). They are great blessings when they rightly image the true king, the true judge, the true lord. They do so best when they lean, rest, rely on the king of kings and lord of lords in ruling. Rulers should exercise divinely-bestowed wisdom in their lawmaking and law-enforcing, for wisdom says, “by me kings reign, and rulers enact just laws” (Proverbs 8:15). For the dignity and honor of ruling, finally, also speaks to the difficulty of the task. Calvin wrote,
“But it must be laid down as a principle, that no man is qualified for governing a commonwealth unless he have been appointed to it by God, and be endued with uncommon excellence. Plato, too, understood this matter well: for though, being a heathen, he had no true knowledge of this kind, yet his quick sagacity enabled him to perceive that no man is fit and qualified for public government which has not been prepared for it by God in an extraordinary measure.”
Thus, let us cease this degrading of politics, whether by withdrawing, making it only fodder for mockery, or solely an arena for lamenting one’s participation. We see in human rulers an image of God’s own kingship. We find a politics established by Himself for His glory and for our good. Let us pray for our leaders in these ways, asking that they rightly image the eternal King. May they exercise dominion with righteousness, power with justice. And may we give them the honor they are due, not worshiping but respecting them for exercising the highest of mortal stations.
Adam M. Carrington (Ph.D, Baylor University) is an associate professor at Hillsdale College, where he has taught since 2014. He publishes on matters of Constitutional law and political theology. He lives in Hillsdale with his wife and two daughters.