My title this morning is "Democracy". This is the first in a short new series of sermons over the next month called 'The Bible and British Values'. Our custom on these early summer Sundays is to look thematically at a range of topics in the light of the Bible's teaching, rather than expounding a particular passage of Scripture. Having said that, if you could have that reading from Romans 13.1-7 open in front of you, that would be good. It sets out some basic principles of how we should understand and relate to government that we'll look at a bit later. It's on page 948.
In this series we'll be covering what our government describes as the fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs. Today, our focus is on democracy.
I was moved the other day to hear being interviewed on the radio a blogger from Bangladesh, who was using his blogs to argue for liberal democracy in Bangladesh, his country. He and others like him there are under threat from the rise of violent Islamism in Bangladesh. Some have been murdered. His life is danger. He receives death threats constantly. He was asked about his attitude to that. He said that he knew he might be killed, but that it wouldn't matter, because the important thing was to work for peace, justice and democracy. He is literally risking his life in order to promote the democracy that we take for granted.
Democracy is under threat from extremist Islamism. But there is a danger that democracy is coming under threat too from the opposite direction – from extremist Liberalism. A healthy, genuinely liberal democracy requires the necessary freedom to express views contrary to those held by the prevailing majority. If the power of the state is used to begin to shut down the expression of such views, then a properly open democratic process will be threatened. So it's worrying to read a report of a recent interview with Nicky Morgan, the Secretary of State for Education. It said, I quote:
Children who speak out in class against homosexuality could be viewed as potential extremists under Government guidelines intended to prevent Islamist terrorism, Nicky Morgan, the education secretary, has suggested.
Mrs Morgan said comments by children that they consider homosexuality to be "wrong" or "evil" could "trigger" concerns from teachers under guidance designed to help schools detect possible radicalisation.
Jonathan Evans, the former head of MI5, has observed that we need to beware of using powers against harmless people out of a desire to demonstrate that they are not directed against one religion alone. He is surely right to draw attention to that danger. Ironically, such abuse of power could end up threatening the very values that the government says it is seeking to protect.
Just how problematic is this business of defining "British Values", was graphically illustrated the other day. Following the terrible shootings in Tunisia, the Prime Minister called for a new "intolerance of intolerance" in relation to radical Islamism. He said:
We must be stronger at standing up for our values – of peace, democracy, tolerance, freedom. We must be more intolerant of intolerance – rejecting anyone whose views condone the Islamist extremist narrative and create the conditions for it to flourish.
The government has defined extremism as, I quote:
Vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs.
But radical Islamism is a faith if it is anything. So the Prime Minister is calling for intolerance of one expression of faith (quite rightly) – thereby contradicting his own government's definition of a British value of "tolerance of different faiths and beliefs".
Clearly not all expressions of faith should be tolerated. And clearly these "British values" need to be qualified if they are to be understood rightly. Above all, they need to be qualified in the light of the Christian faith – the faith which has provided the foundation of our national life for so many centuries.
To do some serious thinking about just these issues was the purpose of the Jesmond Conference that David Holloway convened earlier this year. Its theme was "British Values in the Light of the Bible and the Christian Tradition". In preparation for it David edited a booklet called "British Values and the National Church". It's available on the bookstall.
It's worth getting for David's introduction alone. That's about recent turning points in British history and how our understanding of values in this country has shifted by stages away from the underlying assumption of the truth of the Christian faith.
It is that conviction about the truth and importance of the Christian faith as the foundation of our national life that we need to recover. The four sessions of the Jesmond Conference considered that further, with a focus on each of those four British values of democracy, the rule of law, freedom and tolerance. This series is picking up those themes again. If you want to pursue them further yourself, then you might like to know that all the talks from the Jesmond Conference are available to view or read on Clayton TV. Just look under 'Jesmond Training and Talks' to find them.
So is it the case that democracy needs a Christian foundation? Back in 1987, in his book 'A Nation Under God', David gave this characteristically prophetic warning. I quote :
But when [a] Christian value system is not being properly nurtured, there is no guarantee that liberal democracy can continue indefinitely. After all, it needs a great deal of commitment to function well. And it has yet to be proved that the civic faith can function well in a culture without the background of Christian faith.
In the light of that, there's a telling comment on the current state of democracy from John Keane, Professor of Politics at the University of Sydney. He wrote:
Disquiet and disaffection, like a fast-moving swarm of sticky locusts, are spreading through the drought fields of democracy.
If it's the case that a possible crisis of democracy is looming, then how important it is that we understand what the Bible has to say about government. That's what Romans 13.1-7 is about. It's one of the most important New Testament passages on the purpose of government and the Christian's relationship to it. I like to sum up its teaching in this way: First, we should submit to our government for the sake of God; and secondly, we should submit to God for the sake of our government. Let's take a look at it.
First, We Should Submit to our Government for the Sake of God
Here's Romans 13:1:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.
Then three times Paul describes government as the servant of God. So what are the implications of this teaching about government?
For a start, government is God's creation. God established it.
Then as well as being made by God, government is God's agent. It governs for God. It serves his purposes of ordering our life together, for our welfare. To put it another way, God rules humanity through secular authorities. So in verse 4 Paul describes governments as those who carry the sword. I quote:
... for he [the one in authority] is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer.
So for instance when there's a threat to the safety of our citizens from the infiltration of violent Islamists battle-hardened by their experiences in the Middle East, then it's the government's responsibility to decide on the appropriate measures to protect us – and to implement them. There are clear consequences of that for us. We should submit to the authority of governments. They have legitimate authority that should be accepted. They should not be rebelled against. Verse 2:
Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgement.
And verse 5:
Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God's wrath but also for the sake of conscience.
So, for instance, temptation to evade paying tax will be seen for what it is: temptation to rebel against the rule of God, otherwise known as sin. Verse 7:
Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honour to whom honour is owed.
As well as accepting the executive authority of governments to govern, we should also obey the laws that they enact.
If Government is God's servant, then it should of course exercise its authority in accordance with God's will. Verse 3 of Romans 13:
For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad.
What the state requires should be in line with what is 'right' according to the Word of God. More on The Rule of Law next week.
So, we should submit to our government for the sake of God. He requires it. That's the first principle. But a right understanding of that has to be balanced by a second principle, which is this:
Secondly, We Shoud Submit to God for the Sake of Our Government
There is a question that all this inevitably raises. Is God teaching us through his Word that this obedience to secular authority should be absolute and without exception?
The answer to that has to be a clear 'No!' The fact that governments rule for God does not give them carte blanche to do what they like, or to demand what they like. The submission and obedience required of us is not absolute. It is conditional. There are exceptions.
Governments themselves are under authority – the authority of their maker. Psalm 22.28:
For kingship belongs to the LORD,
and he rules over the nations.
God rules over governments.
Remember, though, the context within which the apostle Paul is writing this. The government under which Paul lived and wrote was the Roman Empire: the empire which brutally executed his Lord and Master Jesus; the empire which in the end put Paul himself to death. So it's not just governments that suit us to which we owe obedience.
What, then, is the condition of our obedience to be? It is this: if our obedience to secular authority would require us to disobey the Word of God, then we should obey the Word of God rather than the authorities. Such disobedience is not rebellion. It is submission to the higher authority of God.
So for instance, when the apostles Peter and John are required by their own Jewish authorities to stop telling people about the risen Jesus and persuading them to become Christians, Peter replies to them:
"Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard."
That's Acts 4.19-20. The time may come when in godly ways the state must be disobeyed. That kind of disobedience will not be and must not be an act of rebellion, but an act of submission to God which seeks to put things right again.
Governments can perpetrate terrible evil which reverberates down the generations. When they do, we must resist – and obey God rather than men.
So we should submit to our government for the sake of God. But we should submit to God for the sake of our government. What, then, are the implications of those principles for democracy?
Well, for a start, we will make godly and vigorous use of the rights that are granted to us by the authorities under whom we live. That's what the apostle Paul did when he protested at his treatment and put the wind up the authorities on the grounds that he was a Roman Citizen. That's what Paul did, too, when he appealed to Caesar and thereby secured for himself free transport to Rome – one of his key strategic destinations. Read about that in Acts 16 and 25.
So we should rejoice in and use our democratic rights. Not least, when we have the right to vote, we should use it. But more than that, we should use our right to debate and disagree and lobby and campaign for change. We should do that collectively, and for some that will be a particular individual calling. In this country we shouldn't take for granted the blessings of the heritage that we have. We even have an official opposition, so disagreeing with the government, far from being forbidden, is built into the system. We should make the most of our rights.
We need to ask ourselves, then, whether our attitudes and behaviour in relation to the government under which we live is in line with what the apostle teaches. Do we habitually obey the law – or are there ways in which we need to change our habits? Are we using our rights – or are we complacent, timid, or negligent? Will we disobey the law when obedience to God requires it – or do we value a quiet life above faithfulness to God? And are we praying for and working for good government – or are we just content to look after number one?
In his Jesmond Conference talk on the British Value of democracy, David Holloway gave us a very striking quotation from Marcello Pera, a distinguished Italian academic and former President of the Italian Senate. He is not himself a Christian. But as he surveys developments in Europe, he writes:
My overall view … is that if we remove the Christian underpinnings from human rights, not only will liberal doctrine collapse, but Western civilization will fall along with it…
With its words, liberal secularism preaches freedom, tolerance and democracy, but with its deeds it attacks precisely that Christian religion which prevents freedom from deteriorating into licence, tolerance into indifference, democracy into anarchy.
Democracy in this nation, of which our government speaks, is of course explicitly built on Christian and Biblical foundations. We must not forget that or allow it to be forgotten – We have a constitutional monarchy. The Queen has to enact the laws agreed by Parliament and is herself subject to the law. That is a principle with roots that go back in this country to the Magna Carta, 800 years old this year. The Magna Carta is itself explicitly founded on Christian faith.
The Queen, at her coronation, was also required to "maintain the Laws of God and the true profession of the Gospel." And she was given the charge to receive the Orb "set under the Cross and remember that the whole world is subject to the Power and Empire of Christ our Redeemer". Our democratic constitution is explicitly built on a Christian basis. That is what we are in danger of losing.
May God have mercy on this nation and on this government. May God use us all as we play our part in democracy and use our democratic rights for the kingdom of God. And may God give us grace to work for the re-establishing of the British value of democracy on its Christian foundation.