Tag Archives: Genre: Governance

The State

What should be the Christian perspective on the secular State?

Perhaps the best place to begin one’s reflection on what might be called a Christian theology of the state is Romans 13:1-7. Paul begins with a categorical injunction that ‘everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities’. The reason offered for this bold injunction is equally startling: ‘for there is no authority except that which God has established’ (Rom 13:1). The first thing to be said, therefore, about the Christian conception of the state is that the secular state is established by God. This implies that God is sovereign over the state, however powerful the latter may be. Commenting on this passage, C.E.B. Cranfield writes: ‘it is God that sets up (and overthrows) rulers, and … no one actually exercises ruling authority unless God has, at least for the time being, set him up’.

Romans 13 tell us further that God has set up the state for a purpose. The ruler is God’s servant, and the primary purpose of the state is to punish the wrongdoer and to commend those who do the right thing (Rom 13:3-4). Put differently, the state is responsible for creating a legal system that would enable, and indeed encourage human flourishing. Without the state and the justice it is tasked to implement, all forms of creative cultural activities would not be possible. The state is given the right to wield the sword in order to bring about law, order and peace to human society (Rom 13:4). As long as the state carries out its duty in ensuring that justice and peace prevail in human society, it is God’s servant because it is fulfilling the divine will. Dietrich Bonhoeffer puts it this way: ‘The mission of government consists in serving the dominion of Christ on earth by the exercise of the worldly power of the sword which is given to it, and to it alone, in deputyship for God’. Romans 13 urge everyone to submit to such a servant state, because in doing so they are submitting to God himself.

Christians have the duty to pray for those in government so that they will fulfil the task that God has given to them. In 1 Timothy 2:1-2 Paul writes: ‘I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone – for kings and all those in authority, that they may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness’. The Swiss German theologian, Karl Barth is surely right when he said that prayer is the Church’s most important service to the state. In praying for the state, the Church hopes that it will always be faithful to the task that God has entrusted to it. In addition, Christians are commanded to submit themselves to the authority of the state that seeks to do the will of God by promoting justice and peace: ‘Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are set by him to punish those who do right’ (1 Peter 2:13-14).  Civil obedience is part of Christian discipleship.

It is, however, absolutely crucial to point out that the Christian’s submission to the state is never unconditional or unqualified. The state, it must be remembered, is a creature that belongs to this world. As such it is a fallen creature. The reading of Romans 13:1-7 must therefore always be accompanied by a ‘nevertheless’. The state that is obedient to the will of God can become the idolatrous state that tries to usurp the place of God. The servant state of Romans 13 can become the totalitarian and demonic state of Revelation13. The injunction for the Church to pray for the state and for rulers serves as a clear warning of this possibility. It is precisely because the state is a fallen creature that can easily lose its way that the Church is asked to pray for it.

How then should Christians respond to the idolatrous and totalitarian state that is no longer concerned for justice and human welfare? Are Christians still required to submit to such a state? The concept of civil disobedience has a long history in the Christian Church dating back to the early martyrs of the early centuries. Civil disobedience is implied by the great medieval theologian, Thomas Aquinas, who taught that ‘if the emperor order one thing and God another, it is God who is to be obeyed’. The implicit allusion to civil disobedience in this statement is made explicit in a later section in his dogmatic work, Summa Theologiae in which he wrote: ‘when a regime holds its power not by right but by usurpation, or commands what is wrong, subjects have no duty to obey’. When confronted with the demonic state, civil disobedience becomes part of Christian discipleship.

This means that while Christians can indeed be patriotic, their patriotism can never be undiscerning or unqualified. Christians can never chant the mantra, ‘My Country, Right or Wrong!’, which expresses a naïve but dangerous sentimentalism regarding the state. Such idealism is not confined to totalitarian or Marxist accounts, but is found even in modern democracy. The proper attitude of the Christian to the secular state can be best expressed by the concept critical patriotism. As the term suggests critical patriotism implies that while the patriotism of the Christian is authentic and sincere, it is never undiscerning and triumphalistic. It implies that what is right or wrong is not determined by the state, but by a higher power. It further implies that the state is not infallible and thus never above criticism. Critical patriotism is in fact the truest and most earnest form of patriotism because it wishes and hopes that the state would be what it is meant to be, what God intends it to be: the servant state which stands on the side of justice and peace.

Dr Roland Chia

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. 
This article was first published in The Bible Speaks Today (August 2013).

The Role of Government

In Paul’s epistle to the Church in Rome, we find the most profound statement in the New Testament on the role of the state or government. The Apostle teaches that governing authorities have been instituted by God to establish social order and justice (Romans 13:4-15). This understanding of the role of the governing authorities is undergirded by Paul’s concept of the state as an institution that is established by God. ‘Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities’, he writes, ‘for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God’ (13:1).

What is truly remarkable is that Paul could write in this way about the governing authorities despite the fact that he was a subject of a totalitarian state ruled with an iron fist by Caesar, who regarded himself as a demigod. Be that as it may, Romans 13 has become the locus classicus of the Church’s theology of the state. It has led the great Reformers of the sixteenth century to teach that despite its obvious imperfections and even perversions, the state is a manifestation of divine grace, used by God as an instrument to maintain earthly justice and restrain evil.

Of course, the concept of the state and government has evolved radically since the time of the Apostle Paul. In modern democracies the concept of the government and its role is extremely complex and nuanced. This subject was the focus of the Perspective 2013 Conference organised by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) at the Shangri-la Hotel on 28 January. This flagship conference attracted more than 800 participants, many of whom were academics, civil servants, business people, and civil society advocates. The theme of the conference – Governance – and the fact that it was held only two days after the Workers’ Party won a decisive victory in the Punggol East by-election made it all the more poignant.

Among the distinguished speakers were Professor Chan Heng Chee, the former Ambassador to the United States, Kishore Mahbubani, the Dean and Professor in the Practice of Public Policy of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Lawrence Wong, Acting Minister for Culture, Community and Youth and Senior Minister of State, Ministry of Communications and Information, and Sylvia Lim, Chairperson of the Workers’ Party. Security was tight as the Guest-of-Honour at the conference was Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

That the political culture of Singapore is undergoing a transition is made quite evident in the 2011 General Election as well as in the more recent, but no less telling, results of the by-election in Punggol East. Not only are the younger electorate more political aware and vocal, they are also eager to play a more active role in shaping the future of the nation. This, together with the sweeping political and social changes that are taking place in many parts of the world, have resuscitated the old question of the role of the government.

Since independence, the government of Singapore has played a significant role in almost every aspect of the development of the city-state: economics, education, infrastructure, social cohesion, etc. It is through the fore-sight of our founding leaders and the interventionist approach to governance they espoused that a country like Singapore, with zero natural resources and profound constraints, is transformed into what it is today. Put differently, we may say that it is the ‘soft-authoritarianism’ of the government, as Professor Chan puts it in her talk, with its principled pragmatism that were largely responsible for the Republic’s success, against what appeared to be almost insurmountable odds.

But with the emergence of a younger electorate and the changing political and social scenarios, a tectonic shift appears to be taking place and big government may no longer be prized as highly or even deemed as effective as before. Democracy, as Professor Chan has perceptively pointed out, is after all, elastic. This emergent political sensibility is accompanied by the desire for greater citizen involvement, a shift from big government to a participatory form of democracy. This is surely to be welcomed because it would create the requisite  political ambiance for civil society in Singapore to truly flourish. PM Lee himself explicitly encourages this in his 90-minute session that concludes the IPS conference.

But, interestingly, while Singaporeans now want a greater say in national issues, they still think that the government must continue to play a prominent role. This came across quite clearly in the results of the Prisms project conducted by IPS, which sought ‘to engage the people of Singapore to reflect on the different dimensions of governance and to work towards a future they desire’. Whatever one’s concept of the government might be, the latter still has an important role to play in the life of the nation. But the role of the government has to do not only with the economy and the general wellbeing of the citizens, important though they undoubtedly are. It has to do essentially with the establishment and development of a social order that would ensure that justice and equity prevails.

This brings us back to the Apostle’s teaching in his epistle to the Christians in Rome. One of the ways in which the government maintains social order is of course through the Rule of Law. But to speak of social order is surely to presuppose a certain moral standard, no matter how vague and broad that standard may be. Therefore to say that the role and responsibility of the government is to maintain social order based on justice and equity is to suggest that the government should also take a keen interest in the moral integrity of society.

Of course morality cannot be legislated and there are certainly profound differences between law and morality. But there are also significant overlaps in the relationship that should never be hastily dismissed. Although morality is irreducible to law, there is a profound sense in which sound laws are not possible without morality. To some extent as least, the law is based on the moral values that society affirms and which are then translated into rules for the ordering of the common life. Having been so shaped by moral norms, the law in turn provides the ground and possibility for morality. As theologian Helmut Thielicke has put it, ‘For the state, as the majestic organ of the law, makes ordered existence possible, and this means that it makes ethical existence possible by creating its physical presuppositions’.

In this regard, the representative democracy according to which Singapore has elected to fashion its politics is perhaps the best model of governance to achieve the right balance of a strong government and energetic citizen participation. It is also the model which enables the government to resist the slide to a crude ‘majoritarianism’ or a crass moral populism, and exercise significant leadership that will not only ensure the establishment of social order, but also the preservation of the moral integrity of society. And it is precisely in the exercise of such governance that the state becomes by divine providence a faithful servant of God, even if it does not know his name or acknowledge his sovereignty.

Dr Roland Chia

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. 
This article was first published in The Trumpet (TTC).

Religion and Violence

June 2015 Pulse

The beheadings of American journalists, James Foley and Steven Sotloff, and the British aid worker David Haines by the Islamic State (IS) in 2014 have not only shocked and outraged the world, but they have also revived the debate about religious violence.

Both President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron were determined to stress the distinction between the IS and Islam as a religion. In an address in Parliament, Cameron categorically asserted that the “IS is not Islamic” and that “they are not Muslims; they are monsters”.

In the past 15 years, numerous books have been written on the contentious issue of religion and violence. For example, in When Religion Becomes Evil, published just one year after the horrific events of 9/11 (Sept 11, 2001), Charles Kimball argues that “it is somewhat trite, but nevertheless sadly true, to say that more wars have been waged, more people killed, and these days more evil, perpetrated in the name of religion than by any other institutional force in human history.”

Apart from the fact that Kimball does not identify these rival institutions or provide evidence for his claim (perhaps he thought it too trite to require evidence), scholars have also criticised him for naively bracketing religion away from political ideologies. Such separation is artificial and contrived. As Jonathan Smith has rightly put it, “religion is solely the creation of the scholar’s study … Religion has no independent existence apart from the academy”.

Be that as it may, are there religions that promote violence by their doctrines or attitude towards unbelievers? Many would argue that all religious traditions have at their centre the commitment to peace and non-violence. Konrad Raiser writes that from the religious perspective, violence “is a manifestation of evil and all religions are struggling with the question where this evil comes from and how it can be overcome”.

From the Christian theological perspective, however, because of human sin it is difficult to think of any form of organised human activity or institution that could not be corrupted or perverted.

Take democracy for example. A broad and popular way of describing democracy is a ‘government by the people for the people’. Many people would no doubt maintain that democracy is a good form of government, with its commitment to human dignity and freedom.

Yet democracy not only can go terribly wrong, it can also be dangerous. Adolf Hitler was democratically elected. And even though democracy is said to prevent oppressive governments, in Germany and South Africa it produced, for a period, extremely racist societies.

For many Muslims, jihad (a term that is often brandished unexplained by the media) refers fundamentally to striving for moral goodness and justice for society. And although this concept has four meanings, one of which is associated with just war, it does not in principle encourage acquiescence to violence.

However, since the 1970s under the influence of the Egyptian Umar Abd ar-Rahman and the Palestinian Abdallah Azzam, the ideologist for the Hamas movement, this concept has been radicalised by extremist groups, including those associated with Wahhabism. Al Qaeda and IS have commandeered the radical meaning of jihad in promoting their violent campaigns against the West and fellow Muslims who do not embrace their political convictions.

That Islam itself does not promote violence is evidenced by the fact that the Quran does not describe Allah as the ‘lord of war’ but rather as compassionate and merciful, and as the loving one and the forgiver.

Etymologically, islam, which refers to the surrender or submission that human beings must show to Allah, is derived from salam, which means peace – hence the Muslim greeting, “Peace be with you” (Salàm Ualaikum). In fact, in Surah 41:33-35 we read the injunction: “Requisite evil with good, and he who is your enemy will become your dearest friend.”

Although religious beliefs in themselves are not causes of violence, it is important to note that religion – like ethnicity and language – is a significant marker of identity. And as a marker of identity, religion can be subtly used to fan the flames of social and political conflicts. When religious sentiments are combined with political ideologies in a certain way, even a peaceful religion can be conscripted in the exercise of violence.

Dr Roland Chia

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.
This article was originally published in the January 2015 issue of the Methodist Message.

Secularism asserting its superiority to the religious traditions

How should Christians respond to the growing influence of secularism?

THE WORD “SECULAR” comes from the Latin saecularis which means of an age or of a generation. This term points to concern for this world and for the affairs of our time as opposed to other-worldly concerns. Traditionally, the term secular has a negative connotation in the sense that if something has to do with or is related to this world, it does not relate to the supernatural, religion, the church and so on.

The first thing to be said about secularism is that it is a worldview, that is, it is an interpretation of reality based on certain philosophical presuppositions, for example, that all reality is physical. Furthermore, secularism is a philosophy of life in that it proposes a set of life-regulating beliefs, for example, that everyone should have the liberty to conduct their lives as they wish as long as they do not put others in harm’s way. Therefore, secularism is not morally and politically neutral. For example, there are secularists who champion the legalisation of euthanasia and libertinism.

Philosophers have distinguished two different forms of secularism, and a clear grasp of the differences between them is indispensable for a more nuanced Christian response. The first form of secularism has been described as “positive”, “supersessionist” or “militant” secularism. Secularism is here portrayed as the cure that rids human civilisation of the disease of religion. Secularism of this variety is deeply wedded to a naïve philosophy of science, a reductive “scientism” that hails it as the key that will unlock the mysteries of life. With the advent of modern science, so the rhetoric goes, darkness has turned to light and religion has given way to reason.

There is a growing number of “evangelists” for this secularist outlook, many of whom are noted intellectuals like Steven Pinker, Ayn Rand, Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Edward O. Wilson. These thinkers are on a crusade to expunge religion from all public debates, and to ensure that religious ideas and institutions lose their public significance. The various Humanist Manifestos (1933, 1973, 2000) are aimed at promoting a naturalistic, reductionist account of human life, framed within a liberal, democratic political theory.

Some philosophers have perceptively described militant secularism as a pseudo-religion. In his powerful critique of communism in his own country, the great Russian theologian and mystic Nicolas Berdyaev argued that communism’s hatred for religion stems from the fact that it looked upon itself as a religion which had to replace Christianity. The deep implacable hostility of communism to faith in God, its ferocious atheism is compelled by its claims to a monopoly on worldviews.

Communism, as an atheistic and militant form of secularism, is therefore, more than an ideology. It is idolatry. Since man, writes Berdyaev in his provocative The Origins and Meaning of Russian Communism (1955), is a “religious animal, when he rejects the one, true God, he creates for himself false gods and idols and worships them”.

COMMUNISM SHOWS ITSELF as a religion in which veneration is not made to the saints but to the leaders of the world proletariat, whose “icons” hang in every room of every building. Militant secularists in democratic West who worship at the altar of science also unconsciously regard secularism as a form of pseudo-religion.

The second form of secularism is often described as “negative” or “modest” (even “benign”). Associated with philosophers like John Locke and John Rawls (rather than Hobbes or Rousseau), this form of secularism on the surface appears to be more accommodating. It maintains that society is indeed ideologically and religiously plural, and that it should be proud of its different cultures and religions. Thus on the surface, it appears to allow a place for religious views. As one author puts it, this softer form of secularism appears to be interested in religion, albeit in a disinterested way. Modest secularism champions the cultivation of tolerance, and appears to be working towards a greater acceptance of the aspirations of individuals. One must be given the liberty to pursue what one happens to believe makes for peace and happiness, including, of course, religion.

According to this view, society merely acts as a neutral referee: it simply observes and regulates the competition between the religious and the non-religious. In some places, the government is given this role as the neutral arbiter which does not take sides, and which works for the common good. This form of “benign” secularism is more acceptable than its militant cousin because it creates space for religion without committing itself to a particular religious doctrine.

Although the Christian can be more open to this form of secularism, he or she must also be critical of some of its claims. Space allows only the briefest discussion of these issues. Firstly, the claim to neutrality must be critiqued because, as we have already seen, secularism is itself a worldview and presents a certain philosophy of life. Thus, it favours certain approaches over others, and it holds a certain moral position. In other words, although modest secularism claims to be neutral, it in fact conceals a whole series of metaphysical and ethical commitments. Even the pragmatism and fair play it champions are established on philosophical and ethical assumptions.

Secondly, its claim that it is better able to achieve consensus in a pluralist environment must be called to question.

Thirdly, in assuming the role of arbiter, secularism is in fact asserting its own superiority to the religious traditions. And insofar as its arbitration is subjected to its own dogma, and not based on rational arguments, modest secularism may turn out to be not so benign, because its announced neutrality can merely be a cover for its hegemony. Finally, “modest” secularism in fact shows its modesty to be false when it suggests that the secular approach alone is capable of fairness and genuine concern for the common good.


“Traditionally, the term secular has a negative connotation in the sense that if something has to do with or is related to this world, it does not relate to the supernatural, religion, the church and so on.”

Dr Roland Chia

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. This article was first published in the Methodist Message.


Every Christian must submit himself to the governing authorities

How should Christians understand the meaning and responsibilities of citizenship?

THE WEBSTER DICTIONARY defines a citizen as “an inhabitant of a city or a town, a member of a country, native or naturalised, having rights and owing allegiance”. Broadly speaking, therefore, citizenship has to do with the relationship between an individual and a community.

In ancient Greece, when the community in question is the city-state, a citizen is a member of a particular city-state. In modern times, however, with the rise of the nation-states, citizenship is defined in terms of one’s membership with a particular nation.

In modern political theory, the concept of citizenship comprises three important elements. The first is legal: the citizen is a legal person with the freedom to observe the laws of the land, and who has the right to the latter’s protection. The second is political: the citizen is a political agent who actively participates in society’s political institutions. That such participation – in whatever form – is expected of citizens can be traced to Aristotle, who wrote, “To take no part in the running of the community’s affairs is to be either a beast or a god!” And finally, identity: as a member of a political community, the citizen receives a distinct identity.

The socio-political climate of the Graeco-Roman world of the early Christians is radically different from that which prevails in modern democratic societies. Even then, the early Christians had always understood their role as citizens of the Roman Empire, and had sought, despite sporadic oppositions and persecutions, to fulfil it to the best of their abilities.

A Christian understanding of responsible citizenship is based on two important theological and ethical principles. Firstly, Christians maintain that civil authority is established by God for the ordering of human society, and that it is the duty of the Christian to submit to it. The Apostle Paul, writing to Christians in the capital city of the Empire (often described as the “eternal city”), issues this explicit injunction: “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.” (Romans 13:1).

Peter reiterated this injunction, urging Christians in Asia Minor to submit “for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men”. (1 Peter 2:13). Responsible citizenship requires also that Christians pray for those in authority, whether kings or governors, that they may fulfil their God-given roles. (1 Timothy 2:1-2).

The second principle governing responsible citizenship, according to the Christian perspective, is tied to the command to love the neighbour. The Christian’s political engagement and involvement are motivated by his profound concern for the welfare of others and for the common good of society. Even the quest for peace finds its motivation in this command. As the great 5th century theologian Augustine put it, Christians seek the “peace of Babylon” because they are called to love their neighbours (even their enemies).

As citizens, Christians therefore must be actively involved in the affairs of the political community to which they belong. Christian prayer for the peace of society, polisor nation can never be made from a ghetto, a safe haven of un-involvement and detachment. As neither a beast nor a god (Aristotle), the Christian citizen must actively engage in the affairs of the nation. If Christians are called to love their neighbour, then it is also imperative that they make every attempt to improve the political lot of their fellow citizens (regardless of race, language or creed). As responsible citizens, Christians must therefore pay their taxes, obey the laws of the land, respect the property of others, vote, and even defend their country. In fact, Christians must strive to be model citizens. (1Peter 2:11-12).

However, Christians must recognise the fact that they hold a dual citizenship. The Apostle who exhorts the Christians in Rome to recognise and obey earthly authorities also wrote these remarkable words to the Christians in Philippi: “But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Saviour from there, the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Philippians 3:20).

No theologian has reflected so rigorously or written so elegantly on this profound truth as Augustine. In his famous treatise, The City of God (which took the theologian 13 years to write), Augustine argues that Christians are members of the City of God whilst living with members of the earthly city. While it is their responsibility to seek the welfare of the earthly city, and to serve their fellow human beings, Christians have a distinctive citizenship from which they receive their distinctive identity. As citizens of heaven, they often find themselves in the invidious position of trying to live a Christian life while at the same time struggling to keep the “peace of Babylon”. The members of the City of God can therefore never be fully “at home” in the earthly city.

More importantly, Christians must understand that their citizenship with the earthly city must be defined and shaped by their heavenly citizenship. This simply means that while Christians must do their best to serve the nation, this service must always be part of their greater service to God. Christians are loyal to the nation only if such loyalty does not call them to be disloyal to God. Christians are pilgrims in the earthly city, but their eyes are set on the eschatological City of God. This means, for the Christian, all earthly powers, kingdoms and dominions – indeed all political life – must be relativised. The nation or country to which Christians belong and of which they are citizens can never be the ultimate concern of the Christian.

Responsible citizenship, according to the Christian perspective, can never embrace an idolatrous form of nationalism. Responsible citizenship is not about elevating one’s nation or country to a status that does not belong to it, treating it as an absolute or as infallible. It is about enabling the state to achieve its true purpose, and to fulfil its God-given role: to serve God and the people.


  • Christians maintain that civil authority is established by God for the ordering of human society, and that it is the duty of the Christian to submit to it.
  • The second principle governing responsible citizenship, according to the Christian perspective, is tied to the command to love the neighbour.

Dr Roland Chia

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. This article was first published in the Methodist Message.