Democracy is great, but the church is called to practice something better.
In many American churches, the Sunday closest to July 4 is a patriotic service. The national anthem or another patriotic hymn is sung while the American flag is marched down the center aisle.
Many churches do this, or something similar, because they believe democracy is the form of government God specially favors. Democracy is a kind of kingdom of God on earth, and the United States has been chosen by God for spreading democracy everywhere.
Those in the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition tend to be skeptical of this view. We do not identify any national government with the kingdom of God, so our allegiance to national governments has careful parameters. Most of our congregations do not sing patriotic hymns during worship services or display the American flag in the sanctuary.
But Mennonites are sometimes too dismissive of our government, so let me take a moment to defend democracy.
What form of government does God want people to live under?
This question is embedded in Israel’s sacred story, and part of that story goes like this:
God used Moses to lead the Israelites out of slavery and bring them to Mount Sinai, where God gave them a set of laws. These laws formed the basis for a new government. That government was a theocracy. In other words, religion ran the government, and the laws were based on loyalty to the God of Israel.
Most nations at that time were theocracies; but one aspect of Israel’s theocracy made it unique: It did not have a king. The Israelites did not give their allegiance to a king but—ideally—to God alone. There was no central government, only a loose confederation of tribes. Leadership was in the hands of local elders, priests, prophets and—in the case of war—judges.
How well did this form of government work out? According to the Book of Judges, not very well. Because there was no centralized authority or standing army, Israel was constantly vulnerable to attack and domination by other nations. Various judges had success in battle, trusting in God’s intervention, but the victories were local and temporary. Envy, competition and violence among the tribes and between towns were frequent. Women and the vulnerable suffered horribly. Leadership was often corrupt or deeply flawed. The Book of Judges paints a picture of existence that was nasty, brutish and short.
After a couple of hundred years of decentralized, local leadership, the tribes of Israel said, “Enough” and demanded a king. The prophet Samuel tried to warn them of the consequences:
“These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take one-10th of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the LORD will not answer you in that day” (1 Samuel 8:11-18).
In other words, having a king with centralized power will result in a military-industrial complex, a draft, loss of freedoms, heavy taxation and confiscation. Nevertheless, this looked a lot better than their current circumstances, so the Israelites proceeded to create a monarchy: a king with centralized power that would be passed on to the eldest legitimate son.
How well did this form of government work out? According to Israel’s sacred story, not very well. Saul, the first king, turned out to be mentally ill. David, the next king, was highly effective, but he abused his power to commit adultery and murder, and his eldest son led a civil war against him. Solomon, the next king, attained the throne by murdering the competition. He brought wealth into Israel but at the cost of the importation of foreign gods and the implementation of oppressive labor. His reign was so controversial that, after his son Solomon’s death, the nation split into two—the north and the south—each with its own monarchy. The two lines of kings were generally worse than the ones who came before them. Eventually both kingdoms were destroyed by invading empires, their kings assassinated or imprisoned and their sons murdered.
But around the time Israel collapsed and became a dream, far away in Greece, in the city of Athens, people were creating a new form of government called democracy. Citizens voted for their leaders, and leaders served limited terms. The system was not ideal: women, slaves and lower classes could not vote. Nevertheless, democracy was a revolutionary idea.
Which form of national government would you prefer to live under today: a decentralized theocracy, a monarchy or a democracy? Despite its never making an appearance in the Bible, I would choose democracy. Nowhere in the Bible do people vote or leaders serve for designated terms. Even Jesus never promoted democracy. Jesus never asked his disciples, “Raise your hands if you think we should go to Capernaum”
or, “Who is in favor of Judas being our treasurer?” Despite the lack of democracy in the Bible, it is a better form of national government than any that we see in the Bible.
This does not mean democracy is ideal; in fact, it also has serious drawbacks. Let’s look at some of the defects of American-style democracy. Money has tremendous influence over elections and legislation. Those with the most money can hire the most lobbyists, afford the most lawyers, file the most lawsuits, pull the most strings, fund the most candidates and block or support the most legislation. The super-rich can fund their own campaigns or set up their children in politics, creating a political aristocracy. American democracy is dominated by a wealthy elite.
Another problem with democracy is that the majority rules. This certainly sounds like a fair principle, but it means the minority gets shut out. In American democracy we have a winner-takes-all approach. If a candidate wins an election by the slimmest percentile, he or she wins everything, and the other candidate—who received almost the same number of votes—gets nothing. So the majority has the power to impose its will on even a sizable minority.
Democracy is also often unstable. This is not so much true in the United States as it is in many other countries. Democracy sometimes leads to more crime and more social instability. Consider Russia, which in the 1990s became a democracy. High unemployment, organized crime and other social problems have caused the country to move toward a dictatorship. Consider Egypt, which recently became a democracy, where mass protests and a financial crisis led the military to depose the elected president. Consider Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan—all democracies and all highly dysfunctional.
Winston Churchill said the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter. He also said democracy is the worst form of government—except for all the other forms that have been tried. I tend to agree with him.
The Bible never came up with the idea of democracy, but it did come up with two concepts that are essential for good government. The first concept is this: Good government must protect the vulnerable. Leviticus 19 provides a sampling of laws reflecting this concern:
“When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the LORD your God. …
“You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning. You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind; you shall fear your God: I am the LORD.
“You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor. …
“You shall rise before the aged, and defer to the old; and you shall fear your God: I am the LORD.
“When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God” (Leviticus 19:9-10, 13-15, 32-34).
The United States has, in some ways, incorporated this concept of protecting the vulnerable in the Bill of Rights. The Constitution, as originally written, did not have the Bill of Rights, but James Madison pushed for its inclusion because without something like a Bill of Rights democracy can be just as oppressive as any other form of government.
The second concept essential for good government comes from Jesus:
“The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves” (Luke 22:25b-27).
Jesus is saying that in pagan national governments, power is centralized; the ruler imposes his or her rule through coercion and the threat of force. The resources of the nation are also centralized, and the ruler can divvy out those resources to whomever he or she wishes and is praised for doing so.
But this is not how Jesus wants his disciples to operate. Instead of leading from the top, they are to lead from the bottom. Leaders are servants. They do not have coercive power, privileges or perks. They do not hand out benefits from a position of superiority. Instead, leaders simply serve and do what is best for others.
I do not know whether it is possible for a national government to operate like that, but it is how the government of Jesus’ disciples—the church—is supposed to be run.
Most American churches have borrowed the concepts of democracy. We often vote for our leaders and chairpersons and make decisions with a show of hands. But many churches have gone beyond democracy to something closer to the way of Jesus. Instead of holding elections in which two candidates vie for a church position, fostering a system of winners and losers, many churches have a system of congregational discernment resulting in a slate of recommended leaders, all of whom are affirmed together by the congregation. Instead of majority-rule votes, which inevitably cause consternation for the minority, many congregations do not move ahead with a decision until they have reached a consensus. In churches that are seeking to follow Jesus’ way, leaders are not given special privileges or prestige; instead, all are treated as equals, and leaders serve for the purpose of benefiting the congregation, not themselves. Jesus tells us this is our form of government.
I am glad the United States is a democracy, and I am glad I live in the United States. But it is not the kingdom of God. As a Christian I call on the government to live up to its Bill of Rights and to do an ever-better job of protecting the vulnerable. As a Christian I call on the government to use as little violence and coercion as possible, and I suggest that the best way to lead is to serve others. But as a Christian I call on the church—not the United States—to truly be God’s government in this world.
Ryan Ahlgrim has been the pastor of First Mennonite Church in Indianapolis.