When government falls short

(Photo: Unsplash/Element5 Digital)

How easy it is to express our discontent with elected officials. A foul policy, wrong priorities, or unagreeable budget cuts (or increases). The list of grievances a government can succumb to is extensive.

In a liberal representative democracy, where a government is elected to represent the wishes of the majority of voters, voters have the opportunity to express their discontent with the government by casting their vote. Yet in the three interim years (in other countries, four), discontent emerges in other ways.

From public submissions in the legislative process, grumbling about the latest tax increases (or cuts), or to the extreme of rioting, the manifestation of discontent appears equally as extensive as the 'sins' of the government.

This predicament behoves us, as Christians, to consider where we find ourselves in this and more importantly, where do we find Christ in this?

The proper working of the government

To say there is a proper way the government should work seems presumptuous. The range of theories about how a government ought to act is exemplified in the extremities witnessed in the 20th century. Yet the Bible does not mix words on the status and role of the government.

For the government is appointed by God (Romans chapter 13, verses 1-2), instituted to punish bad conduct (verse 3), and established as God's servant for our good (verse 4).

Before the onslaught of objections to how this ought to be interpreted begins, the argument that Paul makes in response to these axioms is a simple Christian concept which is echoed throughout Scripture.

Live in such a way that your conscience is clean and you are at peace with one another.

The (sometimes) fictional majority

The New Testament world that Paul wrote Romans was not a time of individual freedom as we know it, nor a time of representative democracy. The phenomenon of governments rising and falling based on election cycles without fear of coup or collapse is a novel reality.

The government, even in New Zealand's Mixed-Member Proportional (MMP) system, is often elected by the majority of voters. Whoever receives the most votes forms a government. This arrangement seeks to keep the government in check and ensures that those in power are rightly authorised to act based on the wishes of voters.

Yet even this notion of 'self-government' can seem to fail.

Consider the 2016 US election where Donald Trump received less individual votes than his opponent, Hilary Clinton.

Consider the New Zealand 2017 election where, though National as a party received the largest percentage of votes, the fate of the government was determined by a politician whose party received only 7.2% of votes.

Other times, the government really does properly and fully represent some majority of votes. Consider the current New Zealand government where one party, Labour, received 50% of the vote and 65 of the 120 seats in Parliament.

These sorts of discrepancies beget the question again: what does a clean conscience mean in the face of these issues?

A Christian conscience

In his 1859 book, On Liberty, John Stuart Mills explores what happens in society when the notion of an elected government becomes the norm. Like anything, we are often blind to the shortcomings of a 'good' thing until we have the opportunity to experience that very thing fully.

Elected government is a very example of that. With elections and individual freedoms largely normative in many countries, what we deem to be unfair in government action becomes more pronounced, we find ourselves more prone to discontent and anger over government action.

Yet when faced with such issues, Paul, speaking about the government, exhorts his readers in Romans chapter 13, verse 5,

"Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God's wrath but also for the sake of conscience."

Expounding on this, Paul states further in 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."

In the face of what we deem to be unfair policies or questionable election results, Paul reminds us to respect and to honour those in leadership. How convicting this is when we complain about the government in our pews, at the water cooler, or in Facebook comment sections.

This is not a simple issue, and there are a plethora of opinions on right Christian action, but consider Paul's words to Timothy in 1 Timothy chapter 2, verses 1-4,

"First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings, be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Saviour, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth."

Paul reminds us that the government always sits beneath God. When discontent with government action emerges, may we not forget that not only is the government instituted by God, but that God remains sovereign over the government.

In the face of this reality, may we strive to live at peace with a clean conscience.