The purpose of government and God’s eternal purpose
by Ken Myers
In the first chapter of the letter to the Ephesians, the eternal purpose of God is described as “a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” Two paragraphs later, we glimpse Christ’s ascension to rule all things seated at the right hand of the Father. “And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.”
Summarizing this passage, theologian Philip Turner writes: “The goal of the entire creation is unity in God’s Son. Given the extraordinary expanse of this purpose, the assertion found in Ephesians 1:22–23 is arresting. The arena in which God’s plan for the world now unfolds is small rather than large. It is in God’s assembly, the church, rather than in an empire, that Christ’s administration of the divine purpose first becomes visible.”
The letter to the Ephesians is the central concern in Turner’s Christian Ethics for the Church: Ecclesial Foundations for Moral Thought and Practice. But the fact that the Church is at the center of God’s purposes does not imply that Christians can be indifferent to or relentlessly cynical concerning questions about social and political order. So the last three chapters of his book examine social and political life as understood in light of the Church’s primacy in God’s plan for the world.
Here are several paragraphs from the chapter titled “An Ecclesial View of Life within Political Society.” Note that this passage is only a part of a larger argument that Turner develops.
“For minds shaped by the view that governance has been brought into being and sustained by human will and wit, the thought that government owes its origin and continuance to divine power and the purposeful intervention of God in history no doubt appears at best fanciful and at worst more than a little frightening. After all, has it not been the case that when the power of God is linked to ‘the powers that be,’ too frequently a way has been opened for authoritarian rule? Those whose moral focus is the common life of the church should be fully alive to this possibility. Again and again in the history of the church, believers have been confronted by the dread power and divine pretensions of government. It is not without reason that martyrdom became a fundamental marker of Christian identity early on.
“Aware as they may be of the demonic potential of all forms of governance, Christians nonetheless hold to a providential view of the basis of political authority not only because they rightly see that no government can guarantee its continued existence by the exercise of will alone but also because they believe the scriptural witness that God has power and authority to overcome all the forces (no matter how dreadful) that oppose his purposes. Because they believe that God’s governance of the course of history is both dependable and good, they place the rise and fall of nations not within the orbit of human will and wit but within the providence of a good and faithful God. This belief, drawn forth by God’s faithfulness, offers hope in the midst of history’s most dire moments.
“This belief also provides a way to address a question that remains unresolved by various contemporary attempts to root political authority and obligation in the dictates of human will and intelligence. The issue can be posed in this way. Contract theory roots political authority in a shared prudential judgment about what political arrangement best serves the interests of individual choosers. On this account we recognize political authority and accord obligation to it because, in doing so, we affirm our autonomy and so also our dignity as moral beings. One need not hold the beliefs in providence set out above to recognize three problems this view presents. First, speaking of an obligation to oneself hardly does justice to the standard meaning of the word (involving a debt to others). Second, if the authority of government rests finally upon our own will, in cases of serious conflict, if we find ourselves at odds with the judgments of authority, in a real sense we are forced to will against ourselves. As a result, we find ourselves in a state of alienation from the authority to which we once considered ourselves bound. Third, it is notoriously difficult to give an adequate account of why people who, in theory, recognize their interest in a particular form of contract will in reality support this contract when they survey the less-than-ideal circumstances in which the putative agreement must be lived out.
“By way of contrast, the account of the basis of political authority given by those who root political order in divine providence does not begin with conflicts between contending human wills. For them the originating issue is not how to manage conflicting human wills. Rather, it is the profound conflict between divine and human will. As Oliver O’Donovan has written, the command of political authority ‘strikes us like a meteor from outside our world, cutting across our projects and ambitions precisely because it is not the human will that has generated it, but the divine will mediated through human agents.’ For those who root governing authority in divine providence the first question is, therefore, not how conflicts between contending human wills can be resolved but whether God’s providential ordering of our conflicted wills is in fact good.
“The appropriate response to this question is not a political theory but a testimony to the faithfulness of a good and merciful God who will not desert his creation, who (again and again) will bring order out of the contending wills of the peoples of the earth, and who will preserve his people throughout the vicissitudes of history until his redemption of the world is complete. That said, the purpose or purposes of God’s preservative provenance remain unclear, as does the sort of order God wills to establish it. In our hands, political order can serve any number of purposes. Indeed, some forms of order can prove more terrible than the worst forms of disorder. In response to this dread possibility, Christian tradition has stated with considerable boldness what the purpose of God’s providential ordering of human affairs is. It has also insisted that not just any form of order will do.
“Christian tradition holds that the basis of political authority is divine providence and that the first goal of divine governance is the establishment of political order. Order preserves life within a ‘war-torn’ world, and as such is to be understood as an aspect of divine providence. Order is consequently a goal that Christians dare not pass by. The view of fallen human nature held by Christians through the ages (along with observation of what happens when public order breaks down) draws them to the conclusion that, in the absence of political order, divine purpose cannot be realized and human goals cannot be reached. From an ecclesial perspective, however, the establishment of order does not exhaust God’s providential purposes.
“The Augustinian tradition holds that God’s purpose in establishing political authority involves more than provision of a peaceful space in which life can continue. The deep purpose of that peaceful space is to provide opportunity for the church to carry out its mission. This tradition can and has been interpreted simply as a justification for governance that grants the churches special privileges. This interpretation entirely misses the point, however. The point is that the purpose of what we call ‘the state’ cannot be properly understood until the fact of its existence is located within God’s providential ordering of human history. Within the providence of God, the purpose of political authority is not to provide the church with political support. Rather, it is to provide space and time within a fallen world for God, through his people, to accomplish his purposes. In theological terms, all forms of governance (including church governance) can be rightly understood only as they are viewed through the lens of God’s final purposes. From this perspective, all forms of governance are but temporary measures designed to facilitate God's eternal purpose and namely, in the words of John 4:23, bring the people's worship of God 'in spirit and truth.’ Hence it can be fairly said that Christians understand God’s purpose for the establishment of political order to be evangelical. This is not to say that our various forms of governance serve as divinely appointed instruments of salvation. They emphatically do not! It is to say only that these temporary arrangements make it possible for the church (words of the Book of Common Prayer) to carry out its assigned task in ‘peace and tranquility.’ If, however, governance claims to be an instrument of salvation or if it turns its face against the church and seeks its suppression or destruction, Christians may be certain governance now stands in opposition to its assigned role within divine providence and, in consequence, has become demonic — the instrument of anti-godly power.”