What Would An Ideal Polity Look Like From a Christian Perspective?

January 16, 2015

Editor’s Note: Canon & Culture is beginning 2015 with a Symposium on Statecraft and political theology featuring six essays from Research Fellows of the ERLC’s Research Institute.

There is no ideal polity, at least not in the way most Westerners would think about the matter. Following in the Greek tradition of Plato and Aristotle, democratic Westerners think in terms of one constitutional structure versus another, as in “Give us democracy, not monarchy!”

Yet the biblical worldview does not work this way. It idealizes no civil polity in abstraction, but evaluates every historical polity according to whether or not it accomplishes the task that God has set for civil governments in Genesis 9:5-6 (elaborated upon in Romans 13:1-7). The ideal polity, if we’re going to call it that, is one which renders judgment according to God’s understanding of right, thereby preserving and honoring all people made in his image and providing a platform for the redemptive work of his special people.

Under a certain set of cultural conditions, the institutions of a liberal democracy best accomplish these ends. But in some contexts they don’t. Democracy, like every other constitutional form, belongs in the category of prudence, not absolute principle.

That said, there is one polity form the Bible idealizes, but we’ll come to that in the conclusion.

Go Ahead And Preach To The Choir

The first thing Christians must recognize in writing about better and worse forms of government is that we must start by writing as Christians to Christians. This contradicts, I understand, what is patently obvious to several very smart friends of mine. They insist, as many do, that Christians should theorize about government and justice in a manner that is “publicly accessible.” If your theory of government cannot convince the majority of non-Christians, what good is it?

Yet their argument is not only pragmatic. Too, they might appeal to natural law, or common grace, or to government as a creation ordinance. Government is for everybody—Christian and non—so we should make arguments for everybody, right?

I agree there is time to make publicly accessible arguments. But if you start here, you will trade away the terms of the conversation. No one actually builds a theory of government and justice apart from their basic worldview commitments, and if you pretend that you can, you will simply let someone else’s basic commitments define the conversation. It’s better and more honest to start by acknowledging your basic commitments, to ask others to do the same, and then to figure out how make the constitutional and policy implications of your own commitments persuasive and accessible.

All that to say, any conversation between Christians about the ideal form of polity must first be a deeply biblical one.

The Problem With Idealizing Any Form Of Government

What then does the Bible say about the ideal form of civil government? Absolutely nothing. To then argue for one form over another goes where God has not gone.

Genesis 9:5-6 provides the original charter for civil government. Three times in verse 5 God says he will require a reckoning for the life-blood of a human being. The fact of government is not grounded in consent, but in what God requires. Verse 6 then articulates the basic principle of governance and justice: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.”

Humankind remained wicked after the flood. God determined to stay his own hand of judgment and let history continue. Still, he established a human mechanism for preventing the Cains from killing the Abels, thereby establishing a modicum of peace and order. In Genesis 9:5-6, God therefore authorizes humans to wield the sword to render judgment for crimes against other humans.

What’s interesting, however, is that this text says absolutely nothing about how governments should be formed. By military conquest? Inheritance? Democratic agreement? Those are the three basic options, but nowhere does the Bible say.

In fact, God employs several forms of constitutional structures to govern his own people through course of the Old Testament: family structures among the Patriarchs, judges from Moses to Samuel, monarchy from Saul to the exile, and then, apparently, the formally independent qahal while in exile. No system is sacrosanct.

As Westerners, we typically want to say that some form of liberal democracy is the best of the worst (to paraphrase Churchill). Our political imaginations are almost incapable of conceiving of something else. And within a certain kind of political culture, imbued with centuries’ worth of Christian-ish values, I would agree. The various structures that Americans associate with liberal government (popular elections, a written constitution, a bicameral legislature, judicial review, the separation of executive and legislative branches, and federalism) have contributed great good to the state of many Americans.

Still, we cannot say that these are the right structures for all times and places. How well has democracy fared in the post U.S.-occupied Afghanistan or Iraq, or in the former Soviet republics of central Asia?

When you idealize a governing structure and concept of justice that does not have the express endorsement of Scripture, you risk both the idolatry of substituting man’s wisdom for God’s, and you risk trading one set of injustices for another.

My point is not to say I would prefer a non-democratic government. But I do mean to relativize just a bit what we take for granted as Westerners, and to distinguish what’s absolute (the Bible) and what’s merely prudential.

What The Ideal Government Does 

What then does the ideal government do? Whether it’s a monarchy, oligarchy, or democracy, the ideal government acts as God’s servant, as Paul puts it. It employs the sword to approve what is good and to punish that which is bad (Rom. 13:1-7). It renders judgment, as God puts it in Genesis 9:5-6.

But this is only the proximate purpose of government, just like the proximate purpose of highway guardrails is to keep cars on the road. The ultimate purpose of government is to provide a platform for God’s plan of redemption, just like the ultimate purposes of those guardrails is to help cars get from city A to city B. Genesis 9 comes before Genesis 12 and the call to Abraham for a reason.

Paul therefore observes that God determines the borders of nations and the dates of their duration so that people might seek him (Acts 17:26-27). People need to be able to walk to church without getting mauled by marauders. They cannot get saved if they are dead.

He also urges us to pray for kings and all in high positions so that we may lead peaceful and quiet lives. “This is good,” he continues, and “pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved” (1 Tim. 2:2-4). We pray for our government so that the saints might live peaceful lives and people will get saved.

The ideal government, ultimately, provides a platform for the work of the saints. It builds a stage for the drama of redemption. It doesn’t interfere with the church’s work, and it makes sure that no one else does either.

Two basic kinds of governments then show up in the Bible: those that shelter God’s people, and those that destroy them. Abimelech sheltered; Pharoah destroyed. The Assyrians destroyed; the Babylonians and Persians, ultimately, sheltered. Pilate destroyed; Festus sheltered. And depending on how you read Revelation, the history of government will culminate in a beastly spilling of saintly blood.

If I were forced to point to a single verse that capture’s the Bible’s political philosophy, it just might be 1 Kings 3:28. Following the episode with Solomon and the two prostitutes, the narrator observes that the people of Israel “stood in awe of the king, because they perceived that the wisdom of God was in him to do justice.” A good government relies on God’s wisdom and justice. Specifically, it employs the wisdom of God to do justice (see also 2 Sam 8:15; 1 Kings 10:9; Ps. 72:1-2; Prov. 29:4 Ezek 45:9). It employs the power of the sword to insist that people are treated as God-imaging ends not as means. And, again, perhaps the most important way it treats humans as made in the image of God is to provide the church with the freedom to do its work.

The Truly Ideal Polity 

A final biblical lesson: there is no ideal polity apart from renewed and regenerate hearts. You can have God’s chosen king and a divinely revealed law, and still a nation will lurch toward idolatry, injustice, child sacrifice, oppressing the poor and foreigner, and ruling by bribery.

The truly ideal polity combines not only righteous laws, but hearts that actually want to obey those laws. And that ideal polity can in fact be found in the new covenant, regenerate church.

Really, this is the topic for another article. But for the record, it is the local church that should act as God’s ideal polity on planet earth. Churches are Christ’s kingdom embassies of God’s justice and righteousness, and they are to provoke the wonder and envy of the nations.

Where will swords first be beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks as enemies learn to love one another? Where should we look for “the just and lasting peace” that Abraham Lincoln pined for in his second inaugural? Where should we expect to see little black boys and girls sitting down with little white boys and girls, as Martin Luther King, Jr. dreamed? In your church and mine. There the end of history has broken into the present, and we find God’s version of the ideal polity.

The view expressed in this commentary belongs solely to the author and is not necessarily the view of the ERLC.

Jonathan Leeman

Jonathan Leeman (PhD, University of Wales) is the editorial director for 9Marks and an elder at Capitol Hill Baptist in Washington, DC. He has written for a number of publications and is the author or editor of a number books. He is also an occasional lecturer at Southeastern Baptist Theological … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24