Aristotle claimed the best form of government is a monarchy while the worst is tyranny. While many believe he was following his teacher Plato, I think they miss the point. The American Revolution proved one group of people’s monarch is another’s tyrant. Recently, someone asked me what I thought John Wesley would say about the splintering among United Methodists and the polarization in our society. “He would probably say,” I began, “it is what we deserve for rebelling against a Christian king.”
Christian Monarchy as Government
The question comes at a time when the United Kingdom, whose flag has a big red cross in the middle of it, is celebrating the crowning of a new King. Charles III is, as was his ancestor George III, titular head of the Church of England. The UK has freedom to worship/freedom of religion. But there is no separation of Church and State. John Wesley, as a loyal priest in the Church of England, was duty bound to oppose the American rebellion and the values it supported.
Most mainline denominations in the US, have a history of being state churches elsewhere under various monarchies. Immigrants from those countries brought their churches with them while leaving behind their governments. Christian monarchy, expressed either by King, Emperor, or Dictator, is obviously unnecessary. No matter how many claims to divine rights or upholding holiness in society these monarchs have made, Christian monarchy is inherently contradictory.
The Case of Samuel
The last Judge of Israel, Samuel, counseled the people to beware of a king. The king will take their sons and daughters for his service. He will not take just a few but thousands. The monarch will take the best grazing land, fields, and orchards for himself. He will take the strongest animals to work the fields. Basically, all of the people’s wealth will be moved from them to the monarch and his courtiers. (1 Samuel 9:10-20)
The people are not concerned. They insist on a king to govern them and lead them into victorious battles. From that time until the destruction of the monarchy and the temple by the Babylonians, the prophets called the kings out for leveraging power against the poor of the kingdom. Emperors and other monarchs who claimed to be Christian used the state church to do the same things.
Government of, by, and for the People
Democracy is about the decentralization of political power. Republics, as representative democracies, are meant to wield that power. But what is political power? Essentially it is the power to coerce by many means including violence. Can democracy be Christian? St. Paul makes a clear distinction between the power of government. “Authority does not bear the sword in vain!” (Romans 13:4c) He argues for doing good and being in obedience to governmental authority. But he is well aware of the cultic functions of Roman authorities. He accepts the authority only to an extent. An authority doing justice is doing God’s will. But it is not God nor does it receive the devotion one would give God.
Democracy can be just. It cannot be Christian. Democratic justice may not interfere with love your neighbor any more than it can interfere with loving God. St. Paul would see what John Wesley could not see. The cultic practice of any government is contrary to Christian devotion. If a king is a terror to any subject, that does not make the subject wrong. St. Paul did not blame Jesus’ judicial murder on the authorities. He knew his consent to the extra-judicial murder of Stephen was just a sinful. After all, he was defending the cultic practices the authorities allowed.
When believers enter government office, they are bound to uphold the values of the governing systems. It matters little if the individual Christian is a judge, head of state, governor, legislator, soldier, or peace officer. They do not cease to be Christian. But they cease to function in loving their neighbors, the strangers, or the enemies. They fall short. And if hard pressed will more likely find themselves acting the role of Pilate instead of what they thought they would do.