Lesson 20: Church and State

The crossroads of Religion and PoliticsLet’s end this series by reminding ourselves there is no one biblical position on how God’s people should relate to the political state. Beyond that, the Bible offers no approved Christian relationship. Instead, we find a variety of perspectives that change according to the situation. Paul says to obey the Roman Empire; John says to have nothing to do with it.

An argument could be made that the ideal is a theocracy in which God alone rules. That is certainly the picture of the coming Kingdom of God when the Father will live among and speak directly to his people. It is also the political arrangement in the period of the judges when all men, for it was men at the time, were equal. God ruled through the Torah law and by personally calling special people to lead in emergencies. The Bible itself indicates this is an ideal not fully attainable at this time. God reluctantly allows the people to have kings that endure rather than judges who come and go. Jesus and Paul call people to live as if the kingdom were present but also feel the need to teach how they should relate to the civil powers.

Of course, the political arrangement in a large part of the Bible is monarchy where a king represents and speaks for God. Significantly, the scriptures make clear almost all of these were corrupt. It somewhat confuses the arrangement by claiming certain prophets actually spoke for God more accurately than the kings and therefore could reprimand them. The alliance between church and state that relied on the divine right of kings throughout most Christian history is infected by the same perversions.

In most of the scriptures, however, God’s people lived under the power of an empire that did not recognize their God. That presented even more complex relationships. A great deal of Christian history also features life under an emperor, although most of the time the ruler was Christian. In response, the Church itself adopted an imperial structure. Again corruption is a constant.

Hopefully, this quick review makes clear democracy presents a new situation. Everything is about freedom of the individual and this is largely defined as protection against both church and state. The First Amendment has to be read as an explication of the inalienable rights declared in the Declaration of Independence: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

It takes a lot of imagination to read this establishing the USA as a Christian nation, unless you are speaking of Christianity being the only religion around. Our forefathers and mothers could not imagine our current Muslim and Eastern religion communities. For that matter, many would have been appalled that the current Supreme Court has 5 members of the Roman Catholic Church that most of them associated with oppressive imperial powers.

We are still grappling with what it means to live in a secular democratic state. Hopefully, the series offered some thoughts for the conversation in which we need to engage.

I plan to use the book my son and I recently published, Faith, Hope, and Love in the Technological Society as the basis for the next series. If you want, you can buy it for $25 from Amazon or for $20 from the publisher, Wipf and Stock at 541-344-1528 or at orders@wipfandstock.com

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