Sermon: Good Government

A sermon preached by the Reverend Dr Trevor Jamison at Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, North Shields, June 30th 2024 – the Sunday before a General Election for the Westminster Parliament

Matthew 5:1-16; Romans 13:1-7

Watch the whole service on YouTube


In November last year, realising that there was likely to be a General Election some time in 2024 – but who knew exactly when that might be? – the Evangelical Alliance carried out a survey of  evangelical Christians concerning their political attitudes and voting intentions.

They published their findings in a report: ‘Thinking Faithfully About Politics.’ In the introduction they state, ‘The Christians we surveyed would be more likely to vote for parties that protected free speech in the workplace, opposed assisted suicide, reduced the time limit for abortion, supported safe and legal routes for asylum, backed religious freedom in trade deals and increased the minimum wage. This is not a portfolio of policy preferences that neatly map unto any party platform.’

There’s the rub. There is no simple way in which Christian faith, either in its evangelical form or in any other tradition – enables you to decide which political party or individual to vote for in this week’s general election.

Some Christians don’t perceive any problem. They are fully engaged in politics, committed to one political party, though with the danger of losing any distinctive Christian contribution that might make because faith gets subordinated to the needs and views of their party. Other Christians go in the opposite direction. They decline to get involved in politics at all. No “Christian Party” exists, so instead they put their efforts into evangelism and discipleship with eternity in view, rather than the here and now.

The United Reformed Church, in our statement concerning “The Nature, Faith and Order of the United Reformed Church” says the following: ‘We believe that Christ gives his Church a government distinct from the government of the state. In the things that affect obedience to God the Church is not subordinate to the state, but must serve the Lord Jesus Christ, its only Ruler and Head. Civil authorities are called to serve God’s will of justice and peace for all humankind, and to respect the rights of conscience and belief.’

Then, if this statement is being read aloud in a church gathering, those present are invited to respond with, ‘While we ourselves are servants in the world as citizens of God’s eternal kingdom.’

So, as a Church, we say that the political sphere is significant; it’s important enough to speak about it at length in our identity statement. Some of what we say reflects a history of opposition to civil government’s attempts to dictate to people in this nation the content, form and practice of their religious faith. Other parts of the URC statement, though, proclaim a positive role for civil government and our responsibility to make a positive contribution to that as ‘servants in the world.’

All of that’s good stuff, but you might feel it does not help a lot in deciding how you are going to cast your vote this coming Thursday – always presuming you have not already sent in your postal vote!

That same statement about the nature, faith and order of the United Reformed Church also says that ‘the highest authority for what we believe and do is God’s Word in the Bible alive for his people today through the help of the Spirit.’ It would be good then to look at a couple of Bible passages to help ourselves think through our attitude, to politics and voting.

Just to be clear, though, and to avoid any disappointment, you will not find in scripture instructions to vote for any one of the parties which appear on the ballot paper this week. None of these parties existed when the biblical books were being written, and nor were there much in the way of general elections back then. Still, it’s worth thinking about what the Apostle Paul had to say about government in his day; it’s worth paying heed to Jesus’s words about being salt and light in this world.

‘Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.’ (13:1) That’s what Paul says about government – it’s God-given. That’s a pretty big claim, especially since Paul was writing not about a democratic state, such as the twenty-first century UK in which we live today, but about the decidedly undemocratic, Roman Empire, with its low tolerance threshold towards dissent or disagreement.

Yet, when you think about, Paul is right; government is a God-given gift, even though governments might not always make a good job of the task that God has given them – to be God’s servant for the people’s good. (13:4) It follows, then, that we should respect government. It is there to protect us from the bad actions of others (13:3) and to benefit us, its citizens. Therefore government is to be respected, indeed honoured, and, says Paul, one of the ways in which we do that is to pay our taxes! ‘You also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. Pay to all what is due to them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honour to whom honour is due.’ (13:6, 7)

In our setting today, apart from making sure to pay our taxes, one of the ways in which we express our respect for government is to take seriously our responsibility for electing it. while governments have the responsibility for looking after the good of their people, we, the people, have a responsibility for playing our part in deciding who shall govern as God’s servants for our good.  And since we live in a democracy we get to do that by voting.

Just as an aside, responsible action might include spoiling your vote because you think none of the candidates are worthy of being entrusted by God with the care of the people. If that’s the case, then it’s important that knowledge of public disenchantment is made just that – public. I think it’s also important to vote, even when you do so in a constituency where your preferred candidate has no chance of being elected. You (and others) by your votes make known the strength of your viewpoint within your society.

So if government is to be respected as a God-given gift, and if we have a responsibility, as servants in God’s world, to help to elect our government here in the UK, how should we respond on Thursday and in the succeeding days? That’s where those words from Jesus speak to me today.

Jesus says, ‘You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot.’ (5:13)

He also says, ‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.’ (5:14-15)

‘Salt of the earth’ and ‘light of the world’. Jesus points his followers in the direction of the earth, the world. We are not just to be concerned with our own situation, whether  as individuals or as church, but be concerned about the wider world. Jesus expected disciples to make a difference in the world. He was not impressed when they do not. “Salt” should make a difference, should add a distinctive flavour, but if not, then it is dumped – ‘thrown out and trampled underfoot,’ says Jesus.

More positively, Jesus says we can be ‘the light of the world.’ He compares his followers to a ‘city built on a hill’, visible to others, even in the dark, as the fires and lanterns of its dwellings shone out in the night. We are to ‘let … [our] light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.’ (5:16)

Jesus is convinced that we, his followers, can take actions that will affect the world through our good works and glorify God in the process. That is a big “ask”! On another day I could talk more about all of the individual actions and church activities through which we do have a positive, significant impact upon our community; this immediate part of the earth; God’s world. Today, though, a few days before an election, we are applying this to how we vote.

So show some respect for God’s gift of government. Act responsibly and  respond to that gift of government by voting. And when you do vote, make your choice, with the needs of others in mind; be a grain of salt and a little flash of light, there for the benefit of the earth, for God’s world. Amen.

Prayer for time of election

Almighty God, you are the source of wisdom and justice, and the giver of the gift of government.
Guide all of us who at this time are called to choose representatives to serve in the Westminster Parliament.
May we cast our votes in this General Election with a true sense of our responsibility.
And give to those who are elected, we pray, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, so that they may be your good servants, working for all the people and for the good of the earth, your world; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

            ( Taken and adapted from Church of Scotland Book of Common Order)

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