Democracies and Dictators

Disclaimer: This post is from the archives, and may not represent the current views of the author. It also may not be at all interesting to read. Continue at your own peril!

I’ve been in Vancouver visiting my parents for a little over a week now. I flew over a week ago Thursday and then spent some time with them. My sister also arrived this past Friday, so we are going to be doing some family stuff and whatnot. It should be good. They just recently packed up and moved to Vancouver, so this is the first time either of us have been in their new place.

Of course, because my dad got his new job at a church out here (which was the reason for the move), they have been eager to show off the church and introduce us to a bunch of people. That’s all well and good – I would much rather be sleeping in like I’m used to now on Sunday, but it’s interesting to see how this church handles their services and such. It’s a really large church building, though the congregation is not large enough to fill it, but they seem to do things pretty well. Their worship team is pretty good (much better than the one in Brantford – and I can say that since I was part of it for years), and I enjoy the pastor much better than the one in Brantford as well. So, I’ll put up with a church service or two if it will make my parents happy, and then I can go back to being a blissful heathen by sleeping in every Sunday and increasing my free time each weekend. (Really, I have no desire to convert people, but being non-religious definitely has its perks.)

Anyway, I was sort of half-listening to the sermon today, which was on the different gifts of the Spirit and ministering to others in the church, etc. and I just had a thought. I think what sparked it was when the pastor was talking about how our purpose is to please and worship God. This got me thinking on a completely unrelated note, but I thought it was interesting, so I’m going to share it. Maybe I’m the only one that will find it interesting, but hey, it’s my blog. So deal with it.

Democracy is generally seen by Westerners as a prerequisite for a just society. It makes sense – being able to vote was a hard-fought right that our predecessors gained. The idea of a representative government that is held accountable to the people and to a constitution is practically non-negotiable in most “civilized” societies. When we go into other countries to help (or “help”), we often advocate for democratic rights. When America went into Afghanistan and Iraq, they set up democratic governments. The women’s liberation movement and the civil rights movements were (partially) about the ability of women and racial minorities to vote. And don’t get me wrong here – I think these are important. Being able to vote about things that have an impact on yourself is an excellent idea. You won’t hear any complaints from me on that subject. Because when you consider the alternative – the tyranny of monarchs, dictators, military coups, fiefdoms, etc., you see a definite difference.

And of course, the modern church has styled itself after these democratic principles. Most Protestant churches (at least the second- or third-wave ones) vote on new pastors that are brought in. The board of deacons or elders is elected through nominations and voting by members. This all makes sense. Indeed, the whole Protestant movement is based on quasi-democratic principles, with people urged to read the Bible for themselves and doctrine being settled without a basis on tradition. The modern church in North America, largely Protestant, is a product of the same causes that underlie the democratic principles that we hold. And again, there’s no problem with that.

What I find strange is that the Bible doesn’t really share this point of view. The Bible talks a lot about God as our master, our lord, and our king. And although most Christians today probably don’t think about these labels very much, they are feudal terms (or rather, pre-feudal terms) that are based on a very hierarchical society. A “lord” is a person who owns land with a manor (think “landlord”), who then has power over the serfs that live on the land. “Master” is pretty obvious, and “king” is fairly clear as well. But in all these cases, it is a name indicating supreme authority. A master has his servants/slaves, a lord has his serfs or peasants, and a king has his subjects. None of these people have to consider the desires of their inferiors, or ask them for opinions. They have complete and absolute control over the people’s lives. And of course, this theme is abundantly obvious in the Bible. God is the supreme ruler of the universe, and as such, he has complete power over everyone on earth. The Bible is clear on this issue.

What the Bible does not have anything about is an idea of democracy. Of course, democracy was invented by the time at least the New Testament was written, but the pioneer of this government, Athens, had been subsumed into an empire by that point. So it makes sense that the Bible wouldn’t discuss democracy, since the writers lived in an empire with an emperor, and the writers of the Old Testament lived under kings, whether domestic or foreign. So despite what some might try to read into it, I can guarantee you that the Bible was not intended to advocate democracy.

Of course, the verses that the pastor today was quoting were about the church all being equal members in the body of Christ. The whole part about “the ear can’t say that he’s better than the foot” seems reminiscent of ideas concerning equal rights and whatnot. That’s a positive notion, and I wouldn’t want to take that away from the message there. But when you look at the broader context of the system the New Testament describes, clearly God is still in charge. The reason that all people are equal is not because we have the same rights, or follow the same rules – it’s because we are all sinners. In other words, you have kings, and you have peasants, and all the peasants are equal because they are not kings. There is no middle ground, and your equality is only guaranteed because you are just as worthless (compared to the king) as the other peasants. Well, now. That doesn’t seem quite as uplifting and progressive, does it?

So this is what I am trying to figure out. How does a church that claims to be based on the Bible come up with a way of running their church that is completely opposite to any system of governance that is found within the Bible? It doesn’t seem to make sense to me. The Catholic church seems to be more congruent with this, with their rigid hierarchy of laypeople, priests, bishops, cardinals, and the Pope (not that I am at all supportive of this system in general). This makes sense when compared to the Bible. What isn’t derived from the Bible is a congregation voting in a board of deacons, who then select a pastor who is also voted on by the congregation. That seems to be the complete opposite of what the Bible teaches. I’m wondering how a Christian can reconcile the two notions of the clear supremacy of democracy with the outdated notions of feudal lordship, hierarchy, and monarchy found in the Bible.

I should bring up one more point. What is irrelevant here is that God is apparently a “benevolent dictator.” This might be used to try and negate the idea that a monarchy is an inferior system, since a good king would still be doing what’s best for his people. Unfortunately, this doesn’t really solve the problem, because democracy is a way of the people deciding what they want for themselves. Regardless of whether the people know what they should ideally want, the point is that they have the right to have a say in things that affect their own lives. God, no matter how kind and loving he is, does not allow this. We don’t get to vote on what kind of sidewalks are in heaven. We didn’t get to vote on whether Jesus would be hung or crucified (though I guess that affected Jesus more than us, really). These are the sorts of things that a monarchy (excluding the much improved constitutional monarchy that is equivalent to a democracy anyway) simply cannot provide. I think it’s high time for Protestant Christians to choose – do you give up your right to autonomy and follow the outdated governing structure of the Bible, or do you embrace the progressive notions of democracy that you know are far superior? Take your pick.

3 responses to “Democracies and Dictators”

feeno

I'm glad you get to enjoy some down time with your family. That's nice of you to go to church with them. Is your Sister a Believer? What does she think about your Atheistic views.

Democracy? Until the Lord the comes back to rule I think a democracy inside the church will have to do. Who should get to decide? the Bible may not speak of democracy and God may not even advocate it, but God did set up a bunch of rules to follow. And set up people to make sure they keep the order.

Why do you think us all being equal means were all worthless as peasants? Why can't it mean were all as important as Kings? Actually it just means God is no respecter of persons. He's not impressed by the rich and famous. He will judge us by what's in our hearts, not what people think about us or whats in our bank accounts.

"Reputation is what man thinks you are, character is what God knows we are".

Btw, you have inspired my next post. I'll post it in a day or so. I'll keep you in suspenders until then.

Have you seen Cori-B lately?

Later Holmes, feeno

Jeff

Hey feeno,

I don't know what my sister wants to tell people about her beliefs, so I think I'd better leave it to her to describe them, should she so choose. But she seems fairly okay with my views of things, which is nice. I was never sure how family members (or friends) would react, but overall my experiences have been positive. I guess us Canadians are just so polite, eh?

So you think that democracy should be instituted in the church despite the fact that it is never advocated by God? Interesting. And you say God set up rules and set up people, but the point of democracy is that the people set up their own representatives. If God is "setting up" the leaders, then that's not really democracy, is it? I know that modern Western Christians have reinterpreted the idea of God setting up leaders to try and fit with real people voting for their leaders, but it sure seems like a stretch to me. And even moreso in the church setting when there's a clearly mandated structure set up within the Bible itself (see the letters to Timothy and Titus, for example), where it seems as though the authority of the churches consist of bishops appointed by existing apostles. It seems very much dynastic (in the sense of handing down authority) rather than democratic (where authority is given from the people).

Anyway, the idea of us all being as worthless as peasants comes from the countless passages referring to Christians as servants (or probably more accurately, "slaves") of God, and God as "Lord" and "Master". If Christians were all kings, I think the terminology would be different, don't you? The point is that the Bible makes essentially two categories: master and slave. Since only God is the master, we then are all slaves. Equal slaves, yes, but still slaves. Regardless of whether God is a respecter of persons or not, the fact is that throughout the entire history of the church, one's relationship to God has been couched in terms that resemble relationships that in any other situation we modern people would abhor. Modern democracies came about as a result of rebelling against monarchical rule (or at least creating a constitutional monarchy where the king/queen is essentially just a symbolic figurehead), and so it strikes me as surprising that the people that are the product of the American Revolution still see it as perfectly normal for God to be king. Somehow there seems to be a disconnect between the ability to have a say in issues that affect you on earth and issues that affect you in heaven. Because under a monarchy – benevolent or not – you get no say in things that affect you. I find it strange that Christians look forward to an afterlife where this is the case.

At any rate, I'll stop rambling now. Thanks for your comments 🙂

Dave Carrol

I think you're right…. it's quite unbiblical and shouldn't play out like that.

Church structure was actually big reason for planting an independent church as they way most Protestant churches are set is both unbiblical but also allow for proper growth (both in people inside the church and out)

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