Join us

Biblical checks and balances

In a week of further political upheaval, what does the Bible have to say about checks and balances?

Parliament resumed in abrupt fashion this week after the Supreme Court ruled that the prorogation which took affect in the early hours of 2 September was null and void and that parliament was in fact still in session.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn brought forward his speech to the Labour Party conference to return to London for parliament to sit on 25 September with a sparse agenda of prayers and urgent questions and ministerial statements (if any). 

The 11 justices of the Supreme Court ruled unanimously on 24 September that they had the authority to adjudicate on whether the prorogation of parliament was lawful and found that in this case it was not. The court criticised the government for failing to provide any evidence of why the prorogation was required, and in its judgment noted that a decision to prorogue parliament…will be unlawful if the prorogation has the affect of frustrating or preventing, without reasonable justification, the ability of parliament to carry out its constitutional functions.”

While the resumption of parliament may lead to developments relating to Brexit that otherwise would not have happened due to its suspension, the most important consequence of this judgment is the significant evolution of the role of the Supreme Court as a check on government power. 

Sponsored

Parliament has already passed legislation requiring the Prime Minister to request an extension if no deal is agreed with the European Union, and parliament has also refused to support the early dissolution of parliament for a general election. This leaves the Prime Minister as unable to command a majority in parliament to support his Brexit plans, but parliament as unwilling to either support an election or a vote of no confidence that could lead to a change of government. 

The Supreme Court’s actions are therefore about far more than our present Brexit paralysis. The assertion of its role as a court that can overrule the government elevates its role and profile in our political process. The US political system has traditionally been built on a system of checks and balances between the legislature, the presidency and the courts, each with distinct realms of authority and holding a check on the others. 

The UK legal system has traditionally been different with the Law Lords within the House of Lords acting as the highest legal authority. The separation of the Supreme Court from parliament 10 years ago, and this week’s judgment, show a shift towards a more formalised process of checks and balances. 

The UK’s lack of a written constitution has sometimes been viewed as a license to reinvent convention at the whim of those in power. While the evolution of our constitutional system may demonstrate that in action, it’s now clear that the government isn’t the only one with power. 

The Bible doesn’t tell us how governments should be organised, but it does give us a few principles to approach understanding political authority. The first is that governance is a God-designed institution. From the first moments of humanity’s creation, Adam and Eve were given a mandate to name the animals, bringing order, and to steward the resources in the garden. 

Throughout the Old Testament there is an ambivalence to the form of authority, with each demonstrating the capacity for human fallenness, but also the capacity of political institutions, through judges, kings, priests and prophets, to provide order to society and to work for righteousness. Government is viewed as legitimate but limited. 

The capacity of the government to do all that we might want it to do is firmly rejected, and Jesus’ account of rending to Caesar what is Caesar’s is a reminder that while earthly rulers may hold authority, that authority is delegated from God. 

When the kings of Israel went awry God sent prophets to call Israel back to His purposes. When Jesus came to earth it was as a servant-King who went to His death on a donkey, not to military victory at the head of an army column. There is a limitation to earthly political authority, and to invest it with hope to do more than it can is a form of idolatry.

The Bible paints a picture of political authority as delegated from God, but for use to His ends, for the exercise of just judgement and the pursuit of righteousness. While the phrase checks and balances doesn’t occur in scripture, that’s what prophets were doing when they called kings to account. Our understanding of human fallenness should temper our expectations of what any earthly authority can achieve. 

Our rootedness in God’s created design enables us to know that we have a part to play in the ordering of society and the stewarding of God’s created world. And our hope in God’s eventual return and the complete coming of the kingdom gives us hope to look to the future and know that we can see glimpses of it today. 

With the political uncertainty of recent days, we can be reassured that God is both intricately interested in the affairs of our world, but unfazed by the shifting sands of who’s up and who’s down, and which Brexit outcome is the most likely at any given point. Newspapers may print their flowcharts of likely outcomes, but God declares His kingship over it all. When the world brims with chaos our call is to join with God in His ongoing redemptive work and pray for His kingdom to come. 

As our Father taught us to pray: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.”

And Paul writes to Timothy: I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people – for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our saviour who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:1 – 4).

About the author

Danny joined the Evangelical Alliance in 2008 and has held a range of roles in the advocacy team. He currently looks after media relations and oversees advocacy programmes and projects including public leadership. Before working for the Evangelical Alliance, Danny, who has degrees in politics and political philosophy, worked in parliament for an MP. Danny is passionate about encouraging Christians to integrate their faith with all areas of their life, especially when it comes to helping them take on leadership outside the church. He frequently provides comment on current political issues, both in Evangelical Alliance publications and to the press.

See more from Danny Webster

You are already subscribed to our mailing list.

Please confirm your subscription in the email we have sent you.

By signing up you agree to our Data Protection Statement