2.2.8 How should government be constituted? Clarifying the question

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Unit 2 Contents


We now come to the last of the three basic questions about government which have given the order we’ve followed in this part of this unit. How should government be constituted?

Perhaps what this question means will be less obvious than the previous two – which asked ‘What should government do?’ and ‘Why obey government at all?’

The ‘How?’ question is about the structure or form of government.  Political thinkers have for many centuries agreed that there are four basic ways of answering this question.

First, the power to govern can be concentrated in the hands of one person, namely a monarch – a king or queen.  A root of the word ‘monarch’ is the Greek monos, which means ‘lone’ or ‘single’.  As we have already seen, the ancient Israelites had a monarchy for a long period, and at the time of Jesus many of them hoped that this monarchy would be restored.

Second, the power to govern can be held by a small group in society, whether this is, say, 30 or 300.  The word traditionally used for government by such a group is ‘aristocracy’.  Literally, this means ‘rule by the best’ (from the Greek aristos, meaning ‘best’).  The reason this label is used is that the aristocracy forms a class in society which brings up its children in a way that equips them for ruling – so they are better able to rule than others because it’s what they’ve learned to do since birth.  At least this is the theory!

Third, the power to govern can be distributed among a large number of people.  When this is the case, all those who have a share in power are called ‘citizens’.  The political system overall is called a ‘republic’ or, in the contemporary world, a ‘democracy’.

Fourth, there can be a ‘mixed constitution’. This is where the form of government combines elements of all three of the above (or at least of two of them).  Britain is a good example of a country that has a mixed constitution.  Various parts of what governing involves are shared among a monarch (the Queen), an aristocracy (the House of Lords, to which, in theory, the best people are now appointed, rather than being members by birth), and a democratically elected assembly (the House of Commons).

These four forms of government can be summed up as:

monarchy:                    rule by one

aristocracy:                  rule by a few (the best)

republic/democracy:  rule by many

mixed constitution:    rule by a combination of one, a few, and many

The above gives just basic definitions of these terms and there is much more that could be said.  But what does the Bible have to do with these different forms of government?  Is there anything in the Bible relevant to which is best?

In fact, the main thing the New Testament means for this issue is to add a new dimension to the question or, in other words, a new ingredient into the mix.  You might be able to think what this is.



In light of our study of Jesus and especially of St Paul’s letter to the Romans, can you think of what the new ingredient is that the New Testament adds to the whole question about forms of government?

This isn’t an easy question, but once you know the answer, it might seem obvious.


We have seen that Jesus’ ministry was first and foremost about a radical renewal of what it means to live as God’s people that didn’t depend on ordinary political means to bring it about (i.e. not on enforced law and military power).  We have seen that, similarly, St Paul exhorted the Roman Christians to live together in faith in Christ and by his Spirit (Romans 8, 12), not by law that controls only ‘the flesh’.  This vision can make earthly government just look irrelevant.  But, in line with Jesus’ apparent acknowledgment that, under God, Caesar had a place (which we studied in 2.2.6), Paul taught that the Roman imperial government was authorized by God, indeed was God’s servant, and should be obeyed (as we saw in 2.2.7).

The new dimension this generates is a contrast between the Christian community and earthly government.  The birth of Christianity introduced into the whole question about government a new element – which was the existence of the Church itself.  This community that professed that Christ’s authority is supreme wasn’t willing to see itself as under Rome’s authority alone – even though it recognized Caesar had a role.  So this meant there was a new duality – the contrast we now refer to as between Church and State.

Regardless of whether there is a monarchy, an aristocracy or a democracy, the existence of the Church adds this new dimension – and complicates the issue!  How should government which says, “We have power in this territory to enforce our rule”, relate to this community which says to them, “You are not the ultimate authority”?

In short, Jesus’ ministry and the growth of the Christian community posed a new question about the form of government.  How in practice should the Church and political power be related?

A few centuries after the New Testament, Pope Gelasius I (in office 492–496) had to insist to the Caesar of his day that, “There are two powers, august Emperor, by which this world is chiefly ruled, namely, the sacred authority of the priests and the royal power…”1. Gelasius’ short statement of this church/state contrast has been quoted innumerable times as, ever since, people have engaged in working out what it means in practice.

This will be in the background throughout this module, and at sometimes we shall focus on it directly.


End of 2.2.8

Go to 2.2.9 How should government be constituted? Forms of government in Scripture

Module B outline

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  1. Letter of Pope Gelasius to Emperor Anastasius, in J. H. Robinson, Readings in European History (Boston: Ginn, 1905), 72, reproduced in Fordham University’s Internet Medieval Source Book, accessible (22 May 2013) at http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/gelasius1.asp