Oliver O’Donovan, Professor of Christian Ethics and Practical Theology at New College, University of Edinburgh, is the author of such highly regarded books as Resurrection and Moral Order: An Outline for Evangelical Ethics (Eerdmans, 1985) and The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology (Cambridge University Press, 1999). SAET has been interviewing a number of theologians and political philosophers, including Professor O’Donovan.

On the day of the mid-term elections in America, I thought this was an excerpt worth posting:

The essential political duties we owe to our neighbours are those of living together with them peacefully under the law, and of giving proper support to the institutions of government that uphold the law. It is very unglamorous, and very necessary.

To this essential basis a democratic polity has added the specific responsibility of voting in elections. To perform that democratic task well is quite difficult.

It means listening carefully to political debates and sifting the true from the false in a self-questioning way, aware of the subtle influences of prejudice upon ourselves as well as upon others.

It means to be open to persuasion, ready to change one’s mind.

It means achieving a clear sense of the difference between what we can and must decide and what we cannot and should not try to decide.

I should mention, perhaps, that the medieval political theologian, John Wyclif, stated at the beginning of his massive work “On Lordship” that any discussion of political relations must begin from 1 Corinthians 13, where everything essential was to be found.

The “average American in the pew” seems not uncommonly to be told (or so it appears to us as we listen in across the Atlantic Ocean) that she or he has much larger political responsibilities than this: to make the Gospel heard in public life, to bring in the Kingdom of God and to make a better world, and so on. Some of these tasks are indeed tasks of the Church, which all Christians share, but not distinctively political. Some are political, but not tasks of the Church so much as promises of the work of the Spirit of God, for which we must pray and wait—while fulfilling our mission and doing the work that comes to our hand—humbly and without pompous pretensions. We cannot be too alert to the fact that the realm of politics is inhabited by principalities and powers that would command our worship in place of Christ.

There is, of course, such a thing as a specific vocation to serve in politics. But the question did not ask about. Indeed, none of the questions have asked about that. And that, perhaps, is one of the things that most strike the European onlooker about the way American Christians think about politics: the “professional” politician, though always present in the background, is never a topic of discussion. Is there, we sometimes wonder, a condition of general denial in the USA about the professionalisation of modern politics?

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7 thoughts on “Christian Duty and Politics”

  1. G. N. Barkman says:

    This is an excellent, thought-provoking, informative article. Thanks!

  2. Jeff says:

    You mean we shouldn’t want the Gospel heard in public life? You mean the basic Christian confession, “Jesus is Lord,” has no bearing on public life? Sure, there are lots of problems with the way American Christians view politics. Point taken. To heart. But that the Gospel should not be heard in public life is incoherent. It is ultimately our demise. Jesus is Lord of all. And this includes the United States. So let every knee bow low, including those appointed to govern the nation, before the King.

    1. Jeff, I’d suggest a more careful and charitable reading of O’Donovan’s statement. After all, he proceeds straight on to say, “Some of these tasks are indeed tasks of the Church, which all Christians share, but not distinctively political.”

      Additionally, I’d suggest reading his book “Desire of the Nations.” You will find that he takes the claims of the Lordship of Jesus over the political realm very, very seriously.

  3. Jeff says:

    Matthew, Thanks for the suggestions, especially the book. I’m glad to hear that O’Donnavan acknowledges Jesus’ lordship in the public square. Would love to see it play out. Would also love to hear of one politician who acknowledges openly and publicly Jesus’ lordship over the political realm. Maybe O’Donavan points to good models of this. I’ll have to get his book. But the lorship of Jesus does not seem to me to be observed in public discussions (like blog posts), and he is certainly not acknowledged openly in the public square. The Gospel is not distinctly political. Agreed. That’s not the quibble. It is this: where does Jesus’ lordship play out in the political arena in the U.S.? Not least among politicians? Where is the open acknowledgement?

    1. Andrew says:

      The great thing about the lordship of Jesus Christ is how it’s operative whether people acknowledge it or not.

      1. dkm says:

        Thank you Andrew. Good point.

    2. Jeff says:

      Yes, and no. Jesus is Lord of all, whether we like it or not. But,for example,Luke 6:46: “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?”

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Justin Taylor


Justin Taylor is senior vice president and publisher for books at Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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