Nicholas Wolterstorff: 13 Theses on Faith and Politics

Most of the time as I study for different preaching series there is a good amount of preparatory work that never makes it into a series and sermons. One of the hardest decisions as a preacher is what not to include in a sermon, even if you think it is so good that everyone should hear it.

That reality was abundantly evident to me than in the most recent preaching series on the kingdom of God that we recently concluded here at Eastbrook. In preparation for the final message in that series, “Faith-full Public Engagement,” I ran across an excellent essay, “Theological Foundations for an Evangelical Political Philosophy,” by philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff. While the entire essay is worth the read, near the end of that essay Wolterstorff shares thirteen theses on faith and politics in relation to government that I found particularly helpful. Here they are:

In conclusion, let me state some theses concerning government that a broad range of evangelicals can agree on—acknowledging that at some points, those representing Anabaptist tradition would disagree.

1. Government is not a merely human creation, nor is it a work of the devil. Government is instituted by God as part of God’s providential care for his human creatures.

2. The task assigned by God to government is twofold: to promote justice, both primary and corrective, and in its coordinating activities to enhance the common good.

3. Government, thus understood, belongs both to God’s providential care for us as creatures and to God’s providential care for us as fallen.

4. When government acts as it ought to act, it acts with genuine authority. That authority is to be understood as not merely human but as mediating Christian authority.

5. The corollary of the exercise by government of genuine authority is that its subjects are obligated to obey that authority.

6. Among the things that governments are authorized to do is apply retributive punishment to wrongdoers—provided that the punishment is itself of a just sort.

7. Though government, along with such other social institutions as marriage, family, and economy, is instituted by God as part of his providential care for human beings as creatures and as fallen, government, along with these other institutions, is itself fallen. That is to say, government and other social institutions never fully carry out the tasks assigned them by God.

8. Though not every failing on the part of government—or any other social institution—justifies disobedience, all too often governments do fail to such a degree that disobedience is required. The starkest examples of such obligatory disobedience are those cases in which government demands that something other than God be worshiped.

9. The Christian may serve in the offices of government; in doing so, he is mediating the rule over the state of that very same Christ who is the ruler of the church.

10. When the Christian occupies some governmental office, he or she must not be guided by customary practice but by the God-assigned task of government: to promote justice and the common good.

11. It is the duty of the Christian always to call his or her government to its proper task. Especially is this true for those of us who have some degree of voice in our governments.

12. Such calling of government to its proper task will ordinarily include proclamation. But whenever possible, it will also include the promotion of governmental structures that make it less likely that the government will fail in, or violate, its task.

13. Christians will honor and respect government; they will not talk and act as if government has no right to exist. And they will support government by paying taxes. They will not talk and act as if government, in assessing taxes, is forcefully taking from its subjects ‘their money.’ Financial support is owed government.

From Nicholas Wolterstorff, “Theological Foundations for an Evangelical Political Philosophy,” in Toward an Evangelical Public Policy, eds. Ronald J. Sider and Diane Knippers (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2005), 160-161.

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