Lesson 6: Powers

church and stateOne way to understand the relationship of state and church is to look at what Paul says about Principalities and Powers. We usually dismiss this, because it employs strange words that seem to speak about ancient ideas. In the first chapter of Colossians, he speaks of Christ as “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers.”

In the 21st century, we might talk about visible institutions and the invisible spirits on which they are built, for instance General Motors and economic theory, the United States and democracy, biology and science, Yale and the academic, or the Washington Nationals and athletics.

Paul does not intend to label the Powers “evil.” God declares them “good” in the Genesis creation story, because each plays an essential function. Each has a gift to contribute. However, this goodness depends on their remaining in a proper relationship with God and the other Powers.

Problems develop when any distorts this relationship and upsets the priorities of the hierarchy over which God presides. That Power can operate without taking the others into consideration, or it can force the others to submit to its domination rather than God’s. For example, General Motors can operate on a kind of profit-motive-only capitalism, science can be presented as scientism that uses the scientific method to treat every kind of human problem, democracy can depend solely on popular opinion, the academic can become a haughty intellectualism, athletics can make sports the most important thing in life. In other words, the Powers can become idols.

Notice it is Christ, not the Church, who is the “head of the body.” The Church is a Power in as much as she is an institution. And as an institution, she can base herself on a false spirit, such as Fundamentalism or any other theology that forces the other Powers to conform to its methods and positions.

One way to look at this is to see the Powers providing all sorts of knowledge in terms of information and Christ being the manifestation of Wisdom that shows how to use that knowledge. Wisdom provides the meaning and purpose that illuminates our Way. This does not mean that Wisdom supplies particular ideas or absolute laws, so much as values and direction. It teaches love and care for all God’s creation, but not particular ways to do this. For instance, the relationship of Church and State might vary depending on situation. The Apostle Paul can say that we should obey the Roman Empire, and the Prophet John call for rejecting its authority.

In I Corinthians 15: 26-28 Paul describes the salvation for which creation waits as putting all things back in order. Salvation will not be complete until “every ruler and every authority and power” recognizes God’s supremacy and its proper places.

So in the meantime, how do we determine the proper operations and relationships of the Powers? As I suggested in the beginning of this series, I think it involves continual conversation between the leadership, the tradition with special priority given to the Bible, and the community of believers. I’ll use the next three lessons to examine what I mean in the case of each one.

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