The Role of the State – an Excerpt from Christian Ethics and the Church

The following is an excerpt from Christian Ethics and the Church, by Philip Turner.

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As long as history lasts, the churches will have to defend their borders against hostile incursion. As part of that defense, they will also be called upon to remind political authority that most of life rightly takes place beyond the reach of its controlling arm.

It is the belief of Christians that people are created as social beings and that their destiny is to live as social beings. It is also part of their belief that the providential role of political authority is limited. People flourish as human beings by taking part in the various forms of communication and exchange that compose a common good. Within God’s providence, political authority is charged with regulating these systems in a way that, as O’Donovan writes, preserves the public freedoms that create the space in which individuals can exercise their innate freedom to think and act.

Cover ArtIndividual freedom is a part of the social air people breathe as they go about the business of living. It does not depend upon political authority for its existence. Indeed, when political authority extends its reach into the spheres that properly belong to individual freedoms, it exceeds its boundaries. It does so either by exerting authority to crush freedom or by using authority in a pretentious way to take charge of human betterment.

Political authority functions within its proper limits when it provides a framework in which people and social organizations can go about their daily business. Within this framework, the job of political authority is not to become the architect of public good. Its job is more reactive than constructive. Its work is to make right what injures public good. It exceeds its proper limits when it seeks to create an ideal social order or when it attempts on a smaller scale to make people better. O’Donovan terms this limitation on political authority as “the reactive principle.” As he says, it is a principle that “supposes that harmony is not a design conceived in a ruler’s head, but a nexus of social communications that exist and flourish antecedently.”

He rightly points out that this view of political authority in no way implies minimal government. Defense against injury of one sort or another can in fact lead to extensive governmental responsibility. Further, overly restrictive limitation of these responsibilities and powers can in its own way prove just as harmful as overextension. In carrying out its appointed role, political authority is to be reactive rather than invasive or architectonic. This reactive view of political authority is rooted in Christian anthropology and in Christian views of the providential role of governance.

Human beings are social, one wants to say, “all the way down.” They rightly look to political authority not for the perfection of their lives but for an ordered space in which they can pursue their lives in ways that benefit both themselves and the societies of which they are a part.

©2015 by Philip Turner. Published by Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

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