trying to juggle the church and the state

Yesterday here in the United States we celebrated (and from the weekend prior) its 241st birthday. I was raised Mennonite, and we more or less practiced a respectful distancing from city, county, state and federal government. When I converted to Christ, I remember at a certain point hanging a flag on our house, of course with Dad and Mom’s permission. Dad actually served in the Army in WWII and was in a tank in harm’s way in Germany. He had a truce with Mom over the issue, indeed not everyone who attends Mennonite churches, or even are members are committed pacifists. I had converted to Christ in my late teens, and had eventually left the Mennonite church under the influence of someone who had discipled me. Since then in many ways my life has returned full circle, so that even though we are not part of a Mennonite church here (there is none nearby, anyhow), I am back to believing in that interpretation, at least emphasis, which places the Sermon on the Mount in a prominent place in its teaching.

The book which turned me back toward my Anabaptist roots was ironically not written by an Anabaptist, but by the great Bible scholar, historian, and theologian, N. T. Wright, entitled, The Challenge of Jesus. While some of what he says is quite compatible and close to a Mennonite view, N. T. Wright would still hold to more of a typically Anglican, Great Tradition perspective when it comes to the church and state. Since I have tracked closely with his friend, and colleague in both scholarship and writing, Scot McKnight, and am privileged to be acquainted with another scholar and friend of Scot’s, also a professor and not least of all, pastor, Allan R. Bevere, from the latter two especially, I’ve been kept on the straight and narrow when it comes to more of a historically Anabaptist take on the church and the state.

But the problem of juggling the church and the state remains, since most Christians and churches are in some way either marked or influenced by what is called the Constantinian turn when the church and the state essentially became united. See Allan R. Bevere’s excellent and helpful book on this, The Politics of Witness. That book helps us see how the United States, in spite of the new turn of the separation of church and state, is still largely marked by a kind of symbiotic relationship of church and state, that is to say a relationship of dependence on each other to some extent, although, as Bevere shows in his book, the state ordinarily always ends up with the upper hand.

Like any good Evangelical and Protestant, although I would much prefer to say, like any good Christian, I would return again and again to the pages of scripture, and with the help of others through the Spirit, just try to see if what is taken for granted is really the case. And like any good Anabaptist would (although I’m not sure in what way I’m an Anabaptist, since for one thing, I’m not really opposed to infant baptism), I find the position of the church at large, wanting.

Instead of going further, let me give an applicational thought as to how I see the church and the state. I begin with the important, but lesser function, indeed ordained by God, the state. The state is comprised of everyone, whether they are in the faith, have any faith, or whatever faith they might have, no one is excluded. It is not in itself Christian. The church, on the other hand, is the body of Christ through the gospel, which it proclaims in word and deed: the good news that Jesus is the saving Lord and King. Who by his cross has reconciled all things in heaven and earth, the cross shorthand here for his death and resurrection.

I take it then that the state, in whatever form of government it consists of, will promote the good of all, and will force no one to comply to anything beyond what is essential to the state’s function ultimately under God. The state when it’s doing well will certainly help the church have the freedom needed to proclaim, and be a witness to the gospel. But the state will also maintain order between different peoples where conflict might naturally arise. To try to say all that the state should do here is largely an exercise in futility, given the complexity of the makeup of nations. Democracy is only one form of government in the world, and Christians and churches often live in uneasy relationships with the governments under which they live, sometimes more or less underground, since their activities are forbidden. But a certain ideal surely remains, and all nations and governments are ultimately under God’s judgment.

This is just enough to hopefully help us begin to see the difficulty for Christians in juggling the church and the state. I believe everyone in the mix of the state is necessary in a good deliberation for a good outcome for all, a tall order, indeed. The church through the gospel is also for everyone, but Jesus is the heart and soul of that body, which brings people into communion with the Triune God, and into an eternal life in the new creation in him which will never end, even past this present existence. There’s a marked difference, so that the church and the state can never be essentially one without not only diluting, but actually changing the church, so that it indeed might no longer be the church, but an empty institution which Christ has left behind.

In the end, we Christians are indeed thankful for the freedom we have in the United States. But we also do well to be wary of any arrangement with the state which might not only cause us to water down our witness, but might in some way even move us to bow the knee to another lord other than the one Lord, King Jesus.

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