Some time ago, the well-known American evangelical leader Al Mohler proposed a model for determining the importance of particular doctrines, which many Christians have found helpful. Drawing on the medical principle of “triage”, where patients are categorised according to the seriousness of their condition and then treated in order of priority – Mohler devised what he called a “theological triage.” Mohler proposed three levels of seriousness with respect to theological truths, which would help Christians identify how critical any particular doctrine is to the Christian faith and what response should occur when a primary doctrine is being challenged, as opposed to a truth of tertiary significance.
To summarise, first-order doctrines are the essential truths of the faith, such as the death, resurrection and deity of Christ; the Trinity and justification by faith. To deny any one of these is to depart from biblical Christianity and create a serious theological problem. For Mohler, second-order doctrines are those that are not fundamental to the faith but are serious enough to divide Christians who have differences on them into different denominations (eg; credobaptism vs. paedobaptism; Calvinism vs. Arminianism; Complementarianism vs. Egalitarianism). Third-order doctrines are those which are even less central to Christian faith and practice than those mentioned above and while they are not insignificant, they should not necessitate any division between believers at the local church level (eg; many debates about eschatology).
The triage is helpful because if accepted, it helps Christians see that a debate about whether or not Jesus is divine is much more serious than the question over whether infants should be baptised. Likewise, the question of whether or not women should be pastors would be seen as substantially more significant than a debate over the details of the Millennium in Revelation 20.
As Australia prepares to vote this weekend for Representatives and Senators who will form the next Federal Parliament, there are a range of issues that Christian voters find themselves concerned about and for many the question of how to decide between principles, policies, parties and political candidates is fraught with difficulty. What do I do if Party X supports something I feel passionate about, but also wants to make changes I really disagree with? What should I do if Parties X, Y & Z all have aspects of their policy that I find very problematic?
While this post won’t resolve all of those questions, I want to suggest that a “political triage” from a biblical perspective might be quite helpful for working through these issues in the dying days of the election campaign.
#1 The Fundamental Issues
The first-order political issues for Christians in this (and every) election should be based on the following considerations: a) What is the essential role of governments according to the Bible?
b) What does the Bible encourage Christians to pray for our government and society?
c) What other essential principles should we consider when supporting candidates for election to parliament?
a) What is the essential role of governments according to the Bible?
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.
(Romans 13:1-7, ESV)
Time and space do not permit a thorough exegetical analysis of Romans 13, but there are some helpful principles that can be deduced from the above passage. If governments are instituted by God for the good of societies, for the administration of justice and maintenance of law and order and bear some kind of economic responsibility through their receipt of taxes – then it follows that only a candidate that can positively contribute to these essential functions of government should ever be endorsed by Christians in a democratic election. If you have good grounds to suspect that a party or candidate will substantially compromise the delivery of justice, the rule of law or national security – you should not vote for them. Similarly, if you have grounds to believe they will behave illegally, use public money in corrupt ways or plunge the nation into bankruptcy, they should automatically be disqualified from receiving your vote.
These principles are not supposed to be a gateway to careless nitpicking. A party that wants to change one law you don’t think should change isn’t necessarily corrupting justice in the nation. A party’s track-record of questionable economic management is not the same as one who poses a lethal risk to the economy etc; But if you sincerely believe someone cannot perform the essential functions of government outlined in the Bible, you shouldn’t vote for them.
b) What does the Bible encourage Christians to pray for our government and society?
First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. (1 Tim 2:1-4, ESV).
We’re called here to pray for a political situation where we can be leading peaceful, quiet, godly and dignified lives and where the gospel can advance unhindered and bring salvation to many. I suggest that what we’re told to pray for is also what we should aim to vote for. This passage reinforces the idea that our prime criteria for governments is their facilitation of a stable and peaceful society – but it adds another important element. Christians should pray for and vote for leaders who will enable us to freely carry out the vital work of gospel ministry. Practically speaking, this means that you should only vote for a candidate or party that is serious about maintaining freedom of religious expression in Australia. Any party or person who wishes to restrict the capacity of Christians to freely worship God, live consistently with Christ’s teachings and freely spread the good news should never receive a Christian’s vote at any election.
c) What other essential principles should we consider when supporting candidates for election?
“Single issue voting” is where you refuse to vote for a particular candidate based on a critically unacceptable position they hold. In light of the above, a single issue that determines who you don’t vote for might be something like:
“I won’t vote for any candidate that compromises the rule of law in Australia” or “I won’t vote for any candidate that wants to restrict essential freedoms, like freedom of religion, association or speech.”
There are a range of additional issues that relate to Christian ethics or fundamental liberties that might cause a Christian voter to reject a candidate or party based on their policy position. The most important one is the most fundamental right of all: the right of all innocent people to have their lives protected by the law. Christians should refuse to support parties and candidates that advocate the acceptability of abortion or euthanasia – both of which wrongly destroy innocent lives.
The legally sanctioned, systematic extermination of helpless, unborn, human life is one of the worst things going on in country today. While ending abortion will never be the church’s primary mission (and in fact, only the faithful proclamation of the gospel will see any lasting transformation in this area), neither should Christians support those who would happily see this abhorrent practice continued indefinitely. Likewise, love for our elderly neighbours should make us gravely concerned about the dangers of legal euthanasia and withhold our support from candidates who wish to make it a reality.
Beyond these essential issues of life, essential liberties and a just, functioning legal system, it can be difficult to determine precisely what other issues might be serious enough to automatically disqualify a candidate from receiving your vote. I personally see the definition of marriage as an issue of enough weight to lead me to refuse to vote for any candidate that openly supports a redefinition. I neither wish to vote in support of something that I regard as false and immoral, nor do I consider it loving towards my neighbour to support something I honestly don’t believe is in their best interest.
Likewise, if a candidate or party promotes racism (as many sadly have in recent years), I would consider it improper to give them my support. A person’s ethnicity should not make them subject to vilification or mistreatment under the law.
So you see, establishing what the fundamentals are, is useful for disqualifying a range of parties and candidates from your consideration (which itself is a helpful first step). But how do we approach other issues that remain undiscussed and pick between those parties and candidates that remain contenders for our vote?
I’ll talk more about that in part 2.
 Michael Dawes “Parliament House” (CC BY-NC 2.0) flickr.