Kingdom and Monarchy
As we celebrate Victoria Day, we reflect on monarchies. How do we reconcile the message of the kingdom of God with the shortcomings of monarchy and its continued decline today?
It’s Victoria Day weekend in Canada, the unofficial start of Canadian summer, and we reflect on the concepts of monarchy and kingdom. What is the role of monarchies today? What does the Bible say about various forms of government? And as the modern notion of monarchy declines, is the idea of God’s kingdom still relevant?
What is Victoria Day?
Victoria Day celebrates the birthday of Queen Victoria, known as the “Mother of Confederation.” She was the sovereign who gave royal assent to the British North America Act of 1867, which gave birth to the Dominion of Canada. Victoria also oversaw the transition of the British monarchy into a constitutional monarchy. As such, her role as head of state was distinct to that of the Prime Minister as head of government. In our monarchy tradition, the sovereign personifies the country and is the focus of citizenship allegiance. In other words, it’s a figure that conjures great love and respect in this country, and Victoria Day is a representation of that.
Monarchy Yesterday and Today
Despite the symbolic and encouraging role of modern monarchy, it is not without controversy. Recent scandal, the notion of colonization and the desire for greater national self-determination are just some of the factors causing countries to question the idea of constitutional monarchy, particularly the British Crown. As part of this trend, if everything goes as planned, in November Barbados will become the latest in a string of countries to ditch this model in favour of a native head of state.
How do we think through this? Let’s go back in time. Think about the historical concept of monarchy, and you may find that four things come to mind. First, embedded in the very origin of the word is the idea of “government of one,” more specifically, one who is an autocrat – one person with absolute power, at times including the military, and obviating any semblance of the separation of powers we almost take for granted today.
Second, monarchies tend to be hereditary. However, believe it or not, there are elected monarchies. That was the case during the Roman Kingdom period which came before the Republic and the Empire. In that era, Roman aristocrats elected their kings. In modern times, perhaps the best-known example of an elective monarchy is the Roman Catholic Pope, who is elected by the College of Cardinals and also is the sovereign of the Vatican City State.
Third, the combination of autocracy or absolutism and their hereditary nature means that monarchies and violence are closely related. Toppling a monarchy required internal or external plotting, which most often resulted in murdering not just the king, but all of his heirs, in order to ensure no counter-claims to the throne. In other cases, members of the ruling dynasty were not killed, but were severely mutilated. They might had their thumbs and big toes cut off, to ensure that they could never again wield weapons and lead armies into combat. Or they might had their eyes removed. Not deadly, but pretty grisly nonetheless.
Finally, there is an intriguing and almost universal connection between monarchy and deity. In its mildest forms, we get the traditional “divine right of kings,” which claims God’s endorsement of a particular individual to rule as absolute king. This, by the way, is not at all endorsed by the Bible. In more extreme connections, the monarch is purported to be descendant of gods or a god himself. In fact, in modern day Japan, the Emperor is still considered a living god.
Looking at these elements, it is no surprise that monarchies have evolved significantly over time. In fact, the history and evolution of two specific monarchies have an outsized contribution to modern forms of government and modern perceptions of monarchy. The French Revolution was caused by the social inequity and injustice brought about by a centralized autocratic monarchy. In England, by contrast, the king’s need to secure consensus from feudal elites gave rise to Magna Carta, the first charter of individual rights and freedoms. Rising tensions between the Crown and what eventually became Parliament led to the English Civil War, a brief republican period, and the eventual transition to a constitutional monarchy.
Thus, these monarchies gave way to republics and parliamentary democracies, the two most common forms of government in the world today. These forms of government share some foundational elements that stand in contrast to the principles of monarchy: authority of the people through elected officials, separation of powers, and the rule of law.
Monarchies in the Bible
Does the Bible have anything to say about this? Given that the Gospel is often presented in terms of the “kingdom of God,” and Christians speak of Jesus as “King of kings,” how do we reconcile this message with the shortcomings of monarchy and its continued decline today? We’ll look at these questions on three dimensions: what does the Bible say about human monarchies, the definition of the kingdom of God, and what does the Bible say about modern forms of government.
Like many other topics, the Bible records many facts about monarchies, which doesn’t necessarily mean it endorses or prescribes them. Monarchy in the Bible shows up shortly after the flood. In Gen 12:14-15, Abram is introduced to the Pharaoh of Egypt. A large number of earthly kings are depicted in the Old Testament, and the New Testament was born more or less at the same time as the Roman Empire. Biblical records of human monarchies reinforce and coincide with what we find about monarchies in other historical documents: autocracy and absolutism, nations as heirloom, violent changes of dynasty, and divine claims about kings.
The kingdom of Israel deserves a special study. After all, they were God’s own people. How come they ended with this troublesome form of government? The short answer is envy. God has never intended for His people to have a king other than Himself. Back in Eden, everything was perfect. Even work was completely pleasant! But after the fall, sin corrupted everything, and people’s drive to supplant God brought about monarchy as a deficient version of His kingdom.
Like I said, neighbour envy caused Israel to ask for a king. This didn’t surprise God. In Deut 17:14-20 He warns that this would come, and advises the future king against the perils of trust in romance, riches or armies as his sources of satisfaction and deliverance. Instead, He advises the future king to be familiar with God’s law and to obey it. Then, when people do clamor for a king (in 1st Samuel 9) God, through his prophet Samuel, warns the people that the king will demand from them taxes, servants, warriors, and their best possessions.
The history of ancient Israel as told in the books of Kings and Chronicles is a roller coaster; an endless rags-to-riches tale. It’s telling that Israel did best when her kings did what was in God’s law and had effective checks and balances in the person of priests and prophets. In other words, not at all unlike our modern constitutional monarchies.
To be extremely clear, the Bible doesn’t prescribe much about human forms of government, and I’m not saying that it endorses constitutional monarchies or republics over other forms of government. But I do find it telling that in the period where God allowed His people to be ruled by a human king, it went best when they respected what we value in government today. This would seem to imply that God values these things too, which makes sense when you think of the high premium the Bible places on the individual rights and freedoms that modern constitutions and forms of government uphold.
Some prominent theologians, like Wayne Grudem, arrive at a similar conclusion. While not explicitly mandated, working from first principles seems to imply that the Bible favours governments that build consensus with their people, that have healthy separation of powers and strong checks and balances across them, and perhaps more importantly, that abide by an external, universal and immovable moral code that is above any individual person.
Ultimately, the real message of the Bible is that no kingdom can really be compared with the kingdom of God. It will exhibit none of the shortcomings we see in monarchy today, or any other form of government for that matter.
I love Graeme Goldsworthy’s definition of the kingdom of God: God’s people, in God’s place, under God’s rule, experiencing God’s blessings. Quite unlike self-centred monarchs, God doesn’t need to take from us; He rejoices in giving instead.
You may have valid reasons for not being a fan of monarchies past or present. However, I’d be careful not to extend that to the idea of God’s kingdom. It’s on an entirely different level altogether. In a sense it’s already here, but not quite fully yet. It stands against everything we despise in today’s governments, and will bring about everything we could ever need or desire from our rulers.
Until it comes in its whole fullness, we remain engaged in the business of legislating and governing our nations according to our individual callings. And we are free to honour those who have ruled us well.