The Christian, the Church and the State: Navigating a Delicate & Dangerous Matter

The following is largely a response I gave recently to a friend regarding this topic. I hope in some measure it helps others know how to think about and make decisions regarding the issues addressed.

It is one thing for Christians to function within, as Augustine put it, “the city of God,” that is, within the Church and God’s Kingdom (the former is not to be simply equated with the latter; God’s Kingdom is a broader reality than the Church, although the Church is in God’s Kingdom) and another for them to function within the “city of Man”—part of which is expressed in “the State.” The two. the city of God and the city of Man are organically joined, and yet distinctly two different realities; they overlap, for now. According to Scripture, “The State” (Scripture does not use this term) is on its way to eternal destruction because it is in its fundamental character an expression of “the World” which “is passing away,” according to Jesus (1John 2:17). In 1John, much of the time when John refers to “world” he is not referring to the physical creation, but to sinful humanity in all its organized and unorganized life that rejects salvation in Jesus and is in rebellion against his Lordship. Yet, for now, the individual Christian and the corporate Church have their life in this physical creation shared with “the world.”

It seems to me, based on Scripture, that Jesus and the apostles, encouraged men and women who were involved in various ways and to varying degrees with the world to remain faithful to do their tasks required by, and, in the world, while also recognizing that their ultimate allegiance was to the Lord Jesus. As a result, they must be willing to suffer at the hands of unrighteous men and women. They did not teach Christians to make every decision and act an issue of, or an opportunity for pressing the most ultimate questions and matters so that they were an issue of martyrdom. The State has its own laws and methods of operation. True biblical Christianity when implemented is what is best for human flourishing. To the degree that the State recognizes this and affirms biblical truth to that degree the State will operate well, and what is best for all people will be enacted. But the State is run by people who to varying degrees and in various ways deny biblical truth and enact that which is detrimental to human flourishing.

When a Christian (and not everyone confessing to be a Christian is, and this is relevant to this whole matter) is in a situation where their working for or in the state conflicts with their biblical commitments, they must decide to what degree they can struggle to remain in that work while remaining faithful to Scripture. I quit public school teaching many years ago because I was convinced that I could not operate as a public school teacher and be faithful to my Lord. I did not then, nor do I now, believe that every Christian should have or should still do what I did. That was an issue of my conscience before God. Other Christians have their life before God, and God alone is Lord of the individual human conscience. Christians should recognize however that they are not necessarily obligated by God to remain in their work in and for the State and should therefore recognize that walking away from it is a reasonable option; jail and martyrdom are not the only way out of the dilemma. What other options they may or may not have for other work in their particular circumstances is another issue. The Christian should not expect that the civil government is going to enact biblical truth. Of course, sometimes the Christian may in their conflict with the State be merely pointing out that the State is not even being true to its own stated laws and principles. While related to the establishment of biblical truth, this is not the same thing as fighting for all that is faithful to biblical truth. In the end, the Christian has many variables to consider as they seek to function within a civil realm that in varying ways and to varying degrees is hostile to biblical Christianity. The matters are not simplistic and we need to learn to treat our fellow citizens and Christians in these matter with a charitable broad-mindedness that respects their conscience.

I do not believe that Scripture teaches that the Church as an institution or organization is to explicitly give its primary attention to the political and civic issues of the culture in which she resides. I do believe that the message that the Church proclaims in her worship, and that worship itself, is highly relevant to those political and civic issues, when it expresses what it ought to express—biblical truth. When the Church does this its worship, centered on the preaching of God’s word, prayer and the administration of the sacraments–is the means of grace through which individual Christians become equipped to live faithfully Christian lives out in the world. I believe that God calls every individual Christian to be involved in the political realm to varying degrees so that what may in fact be a “burning” issue for some Christians that involves them daily in the political and civic realm does not hold that same prominence in the lives of other Christians. This is another way of saying that individual Christians need to learn to not elevate their “hot-button” issues to a level that those issues ought not to have in the life of the whole church or with many other Christians.

I believe pastors cannot avoid addressing these matters, whether they think they can or not, because in the end they are issues that are unavoidably joined to the Triune God’s rule over his creation. But the latter point does not mean that pastors turn into political or social pundits when they preach; it means that the doctrines of the Christian faith—God, Scripture, Man, Christ, Salvation, Church and Last Things unavoidably address and answer every person’s deepest needs and longings, whether those people are in or outside the Church. All people who do not faithfully trust the Lord Jesus for their deepest needs and longings are wrongly trying to answer and meet them by ignoring and circumventing Christian doctrine, which is expressing the biblical gospel, and instead placing their confidence in what “the world” has to offer, including, but not limited to the State and its political realm. In this lifetime, all that “the world” represents and offers is to some degree alive in the Church.

I believe all this is clearly displayed in how Jesus operated within God’s covenant community while living in and under the authority of the Roman Empire, and then seen in that his crucifixion was the joint effort of both God’s covenant community and the Roman Empire; it was unavoidably a religious and political matter simultaneously. The very truth that it was testifies, among other things, to the complicated wickedness that characterizes the union between these two realms, and that, in part, is why these issues matter so much to us, why we feel their importance, and why they are not so easily understood or navigated in this lifetime.

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