One of the complaints leveled at those of us who dare to address social issues and still identify as Christians involves the distinction of the church from the state. The typical expression of this thought is twofold. The first is that the church depends too much on the state and government structure for its success. When the government fails, then the church is seen to have failed. Its members are grieved and dissatisfied The second area of complaint is that the church is not different enough from the world to stand out. The melding of the church with social-political causes is thought to dilute the power of the church as the wholly-other entity that it should be. Were this not done, so the argument goes, then the church would have more drawing power because it would be the proverbial shining city on a hill that draws all men to it. Rather than criticizing and engaging the world around it, the church should be open and loving to those who are in the world. After all, the complaint goes, the church is not called to judge the world; it is called to judge itself. The world is expected to be a place of corruption and evil. The church should be a place of purity and holiness.
Both of these criticisms are overly simplistic.
The Cultural Milieu
The so-called culture wars are the most interesting and relevant thing to write about. They are current events and hot topics. Church members buzz about them. Pastors are quizzed about them. Minds can be shaped and formed around them. They are impossible to dodge. Should we even want to dodge them? They offer natural teaching opportunities. The two biggest, abortion and homosexuality, are two issues where there is clarity provided from Scripture. A pastor would be irresponsible not to plainly state that both are against the will of God. At that point, whether the pastor wants to or not, he has been placed on a political “side” of the issue. We do not have the option of extracting ourselves from the cultural milieu into which we were born.
When you survey this site’s content you’ll see a good deal on homosexuality and same-sex marriage. Several of these articles were delivered as sermons and others as talks during Bible study sessions. These intersect both the secular and religious aspects of American society. Our members read that the Bible condemns homosexuality and the culture around them wants to condone homosexuality. This is a legitimate concern. The outcome affects both the Christian citizen in his civil life as well as in his religious life. What should the church’s response be? Some want to withdraw; to separate from the political realm.
Rome v. Washington
One of the distinctions that such critics seem to fail to make is in recognizing that we do not live in the Roman empire. They will appeal to biblical models that seem to steer clear of any interaction with Roman civil government. They will note that Jesus did not spend his time trying to change Roman law. Neither did Paul. At the same time, they will ignore the fact that by addressing Jewish leaders and critiquing them on their religious practices that Jesus and Paul were directly assaulting the ruling Jewish government. Israel was a theocratic state as far as its local government was concerned. Striking out at the Pharisees and Sadducees was political discourse. Confronting the Sanhedrin, the supreme governing body for Jews, was a direct assault on the government. Religion and government were tightly intertwined in Israel.
Confronting Jewish authorities could get you killed. Ultimately, it was the Jewish leadership that persuaded the Romans to crucify Jesus. Before that, John the Baptist was beheaded because he confronted Herod Antipas over a legal matter of divorce. John told Herod that it was not “lawful” for him to have Herodias as a wife since she was divorced from his half-brother, Herod Philip. (Matthew 14:1-12; Mark 6:14-29; Luke 9:7-9 cf. Leviticus 18:16 and 20:21). The danger was real. Paul himself was very nearly killed by Jewish leaders on more than one occasion.
As Jews, the average person had even less standing in the eyes of Roman officials. The Jews were a conquered people and subjects of the Roman empire. Very few were citizens and so did not receive the same treatment as Roman citizens. Jesus himself ran afoul of the Roman government in that Herod Antipas wanted to kill him. Jesus’ reply was an insult and an affront to Herod. He said, “Go tell that fox, ‘I will keep on driving out demons and healing people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal’” (Luke 13:32). Herod was called a fox, which was an unclean animal according to Jewish dietary laws. Herod tried to play the part of a pious Jew, but the divorce mentioned above, his ties to the Roman government, and the fact that he had John the Baptist beheaded were just some of his sins. Jesus is defying Antipas’ authority, insulting his Jewish side, and challenging him to “come and get me” which Herod does not do.
These observations are made simply to point out that there was not an absence of conflict with the Jewish and Roman civil authorities. Religion was often the subject of these interactions.
Missions from God
Direct political confrontations with Rome were not likely to end well, as the tale of John the Baptist tells us. The Roman government was not interested in “bottom up” reform. They maintained peace through force. This speaks to a second problem with models of Jesus and Paul as non-political reformers.
Jesus stated that he had a mission from God to “preach good news to the poor” and that he was sent to the “lost sheep of Israel” as his primary mission field. Jesus’ ministry was not one of governmental reform. He wasn’t participating in a democratic republic where citizens could advocate for change. In fact, it was rather important to his ministry that he not be heavily involved in Roman political matters. His famous saying, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s” was a way of avoiding taking sides in a political trap set for him. Had Jesus been highly confrontational with Rome, he would have been arrested and probably executed in short order. This would have interfered with his personal mission of preaching, which was a necessary part of fulfilling his concept of Messiah.
Similarly, Paul had no interest in reforming the Roman government. Some say it is because Paul thought that the end was so near at hand that such reforms would have been a waste of time. That is probably true, but the authoritarian nature of the Roman government probably had even more to do with it. Paul did use his influence within the churches to advocate for freeing slaves and improving the lot of women, but had he made a public campaign of this he would certainly have been arrested. Slavery was such a huge and vital part of the Roman system that anything remotely resembling condoning a “slave revolt” would surely have gotten Paul executed much earlier than he was. Paul had a vision for his mission work and that was to proclaim the Gospel to the Gentiles. A direct, frontal assault on Roman government was a sure way to end that mission quickly. So advocating for Roman political reform did not fit within the primary missions of either Jesus or Paul. In fact, it would be anachronistic to try to compare their political realities with our political realities.
The times, they are a changing
The New Testament came forth from the first-century world in which it was written. Its concerns and processes are not the same as they are in western democratic republics. In the authoritarian structure of the Roman empire, the vast majority of the population did not get to vote or influence public policy. In the democratic republic that is the United States, the citizens are all invited to vote and to critique government policies. We even encourage “grassroots” movements, which are inherently bottom-up movements. It would seem to be in the best interest of the citizenry for Christians to participate and influence policy.
Among the things that critics tend to overlook is that God is a supporter of good government. The nation of Israel was founded to be a just and fair society unlike any other in the Ancient Near East at the time. But even outside of Israel we find that God is interested in the affairs of government. He predicted to Abraham that his descendants would be in slavery for 400 years. Then he said, “But I will punish the nation that they serve as slaves” (Genesis 15:14). In fact, even in Genesis 9, after the flood, God gives Noah a civil ordinance: “whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed”. This was a law given to protect human life. All one needs to do is look at the prophets to see many critiques of corrupt government. God clearly has a fair form of government in mind for humanity.
One of the great advantages of the United States is that it has built into it an anti-theocratic policy. Unlike the European governments from which its earliest colonists fled, there is not an established state religion. The founders looked at history and saw wars of religion between Protestant and Catholic rulers; they looked at the Roman empire and its official sanctioning of religion and thought better of it. Because of this insight, Christians in America do not want to establish a theocracy. They do see the value of shared Christian principles – do not steal, do not murder, do not bear false witness – as do others of non-Christian religions. These are tried-and-true principles of good civil government. Even in the latest round of battles over same-sex marriage, Christians were not trying to defend a uniquely Christian concept of marriage. It was the same concept held historically throughout human history, across denominations, and across religions.
The complaint, however, is that somehow the church has been corrupted by involvement in the political process. The argument is that the church should be so “other” in contrast to the society as to make the rest of the world want to look into this “church” thing. This seems to be a withdrawal from the world. It is a form of isolationism that is naive and idealistic at best. It abandons citizenship in the country to those who would have the least interest in upholding the principles of religious liberty and would work in the opposite interests of the citizens and the church. It also seems fairly obvious that by taking a stand against or for a public policy position that the church is declaring itself starkly different from the world. It would take a rather unthinking person to not recognize such distinctions.
Some things about human behavior are obvious. One of those is that people rally better behind leadership than they do if left to their own individual fortitude. The church is clearly the place for spiritual leadership and such leadership, at times, must conflict with the civil government or political waves seeking to influence the government. In such cases, it seems only proper for the church leadership to promote the use of citizenship as a means to guiding the country in more godly directions than it might otherwise choose. This brings up a second aspect of human nature: the lust for power. People who are driven by greed, notoriety, or other unsavory desires are always on the watch for opportunities. Evil loves a vacuum. Although we are ostensibly a Christian county demographically and our leaders are overwhelmingly Christian, we all recognize that graft and corruption exist and are an ever-present problem in politics. Should Christians withdraw from that battlefront then the evil forces win by default.
The Forces of Good
So far I’ve never found a limit on where God hates evil. He hates it government, in the church, in the business, in the household, and in the private life. We can see that the objections surrounding Jesus and Paul are not good ones to argue for withdrawal from the world. It is true that the government cannot be a replacement for the church. The church must never be identified with the government. Historically, that has been problematic and led to corruption within the church. But Christians are right to be upset when their government does the wrong thing. They are right to advocate for change or redress in such matters. It is simply who we are as Americans in the 21st century. In fact, it would be irresponsible to not use your citizenship rights as a means for good. Paul wrote in Galatians 6:9-10 “Let us not become weary in dong good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.” It seems that trying to limit the damage that the behemoth of government can do is a good cause that benefits “all people.” As Americans we have even a greater responsibility. We are the wealthiest nation in the world and we exude more political and religious power than any other. To allow that blessing to be squandered away would be poor stewardship. It behooves us for our own sake and for the sake of those around the world whom we support to try to maintain a decent country.
Paul used the Roman government to his advantage every time he had a chance. It saved his life several times and his Roman citizenship provided for fair trials before Roman officials. I can’t help but think that he would use every means at his disposal to spread the word today. It also seems quite reasonable that he would be interested in a stable, peaceful and reasonably God-respecting government that was fair to its citizens. After all, he was beheaded by a crazed dictator named Nero in a political scheme to blame Christians for the burning of Rome.