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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United States Declaration of Independence

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,

That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation upon such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are long accustomed. But [our grievances are neither light nor transient, and a list of them follows….]

We, therefore, the Representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good people of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do.

And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.

Source: Jesus Creed

United States Declaration of Independence

The United States and us fearful Christians

Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for.

….All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.

….Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.

Hebrews 11-12

July 4 is upon us, this being the holiday weekend preceding it. And if there’s one thing for sure, so many of us, and I’ll include myself, are hardly past the election fervor, caught up in a presidency which may turn out to be the most polarizing in US history, aside from Abraham Lincoln’s presidency during those tumultuous and horrific Civil War days. Hardly any of us like what is going on in US politics, many for similar reasons, others of us for different reasons, some of the concerns being the same across the board. It is a difficult time for a good number of reasons in a nation which is not only polarized, but threatening to be on the edge of being torn apart.

The question on this post is this: When push comes to shove, just where does our confidence lie? What do we think will win and save the day, and why? And just why are we so upset and fearful?

This is not meant to be a critique of the United States, but there’s no doubt there have been seismic changes in society, and that the liberal, progressives have been all but dismissive of the conservatives. And there’s no doubt that the conservatives themselves have written off the liberals. You have few moderates, who by many would be seen as wishy washy and weak kneed. As far as I’m concerned, while I do have opinions about US politics, and especially concerning issues of the day, none of that matters in comparison to the main point of this post. While those things have an important and provisional place, they are not at all on par with what now follows.

We as Christians, and especially the older generation of us, which includes myself, and I plead guilty, we have lost our focus and therefore are weak in our faith, and weary, in danger of losing heart. Oh yes, there will be some who will fight to the bitter end either for the Democratic Party, or for the Republican Party, or their version of what they think America needs, and won’t seem to have lost any heart at all. They have a lot of hope for good, and to avoid what isn’t good through the federal, state and local government. And again, it’s not like that has no value at all. But we in Jesus are actually called to something else, even while at the same time we pray and humbly participate according to our convictions for the good of the state.

Our goal is something better, something much more. It is to be a follower of Jesus in whatever culture we’re placed, to announce and live out the good news of the kingdom of God in Jesus, in the truth that Jesus is King with the hope that follows. We should be those who are commended for our faith in God, both confident and assured that God will fulfill his promises come what may. And that includes whatever we may face in coming days, years, or generations, should the Lord tarry.

We need to quit thinking and from that acting as if all depends on what is happening or not happening in Washington, D. C., as hard as that might seem to us, for some of us for different reasons. Our eyes need to become fixed on Jesus, period, who shows us the way as the pioneer and perfecter of faith, and of course, is the way. Faith, plain naked faith, and I mean the faith that is in the God revealed in Jesus, that is what we live for, and if need be, die for. While at the same time we faithfully pray for those in government, and hope for the best for the nation, and the world.

That is our calling. This is what we Christians in America should be known for. In and through Jesus.

See Andy Stanley’s compelling message, Fix Your Eyes, which inspired this post.

 

a gospel bigger than I, me, mine, and even us- the only gospel there is

When we open our Bibles, the beginnning is Genesis, for a reason, and the end is the Revelation for a reason, and everything in between counts, every book and for that matter, every line, has its reason and place in the whole.

It is daunting, and takes commitment over time, but we all need to be in the entire Bible, as challenging on many levels as that is, and read it through again and again. When we do, we’ll come to see that the story of Israel picked by God to be a blessing to the world is a central theme. And how that is fulfilled through them, but mainly in anticipation of the true fulfillment in Jesus.

While this is certainly for each person in our relationship to God, it is for every other person, as well, and for the entire world. It’s a good news in and through Jesus which affects everything and is therefore worldly in that sense, or one could say earthly. But in another sense it can’t be worldly at all since it can’t participate, except insofar as it influences the change of worldy structures. This is the case, because the difference is in and through Jesus, and God’s redemption, salvation, and kingdom come in him.

Only when Jesus returns will all things be changed, the god of this age gone; the world, the flesh and the devil being a thing of the past. But until then, we witness not only to a gospel for each individual, but a gospel which is to begin to demonstrate the alternative to what is necessarily in place, in this present evil age and world.

And so we live in the in between times when God’s grace and kingdom in Jesus is beginning to break in through the gospel into the church, and out from that into the world. As we look forward to the end of this age which will bring in the fullness of what has begun now in Jesus, when he returns.

when all seems lost (in this world)

All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.

Hebrews 11

It is hard to put one’s finger on exactly what is going on in the world, the trajectory and back and forth, ebb and flow of it all. A well written history is indeed fascinating. I remember early on finding that especially so with American history, and especially that of the United States. We really can’t be sure where that is going all the time, and it seems like inevitably a mixed bag of good and bad. There is no doubt that we hope and pray for the good of peoples and nations, naturally first of all, our own nation, but not excluding any peoples, or nations.

So it’s not like we don’t care what is happening in the world. It’s more about expectations. We as Christians believe that God is indeed Sovereign over the nations, that somehow “God is working his purpose out, as year succeeds to year.” And that Jesus is seated at the right hand of God in the place of ultimate rule and authority, somehow that rule flowing in and through the church as his Body in the world, through the gospel, from the Father by the Spirit. But what we see is at best incomplete, and at worst seems incoherent and subject to forces which begin to make all too much sense in terms which are not helpful, and even evil. As in all of life in this world, it’s not simply a matter of good and evil, since there seems to be an admixture of both as people like Abraham Lincoln knew all too well.

The answer that we in Jesus need to dwell on, which is not just for us, but for the world, has already been mentioned in this post. It is the rule of King Jesus through his body the church, a rule which is solely through the gospel, the good news in and of him. Again, there is much good that can happen since humankind is made in the image of God, albeit with undercurrents and waves of evil present. But the only sure-fire hope for the world is in Jesus through the gospel. And that gospel certainly pertains to the present life, but is also about the life to come. In fact, strangely enough, it brings something of the life to come into the present through the new creation in Jesus.

For us who believe in that hope in Jesus, which by the way means nothing less than a faith which simply anticipates and waits for the completion of God fulfilling his promises, that means we don’t settle into even the best this world has to offer. We are in a sense strangers and foreigners here, because we point to the only salvation in Jesus alone. A salvation not just in terms of the individual, though certainly about that as well, but for the entire world, and every aspect of it. A hope that seems planted in human hearts until all of that seems more or less lost. The hope for what the Bible calls shalom, which not only means justice, but goodness manifested in human flourishing along with the flourishing of all creation.

We pray for good, and against evil in the world, in the nations and governments. But our hope and expectation is in none of that. It is only in the Lord Jesus through the gospel, the good news in and about him. That is the one political reality and salvation we hold on to, both for the present world, as well as that to come. And in which we in Jesus have begun to live even now. Meant not only for us, but for the world in and through Jesus.

who sets the agenda?

Some people are excited over the new president of the United States. Others might be excited about this or that, so that their thoughts and lives end up being preoccupied with that. There are a host of factors which influence what we do, and the bottom line seems to be somehow securing some sort of happiness. Is that wrong? I think not. I believe God created us for a life that is abundant in realizing the fulfillment of our humanity, or what it means to be human. The question ends up being, just who determines that, and why does that matter?

The freedom that seems to be in vogue now is simply to fulfill whatever desires and dreams one has. A self-fulfillment which has nothing to do with any notion of truth, but everything to do with a freedom which is determined simply in how one feels, their desires. And from that people say that what is true for you, might not be true for me, in other words it may not work for me in realizing my self-fulfillment, or simply in letting me be and do what I want.

For us in Jesus there is only one who sets the agenda: God the Father through the Son by the Holy Spirit: the Triune God. Jesus is Lord, period. And all other authorities have their authority only under him, under God. What they say, and their values are not determinative for us, even if they might have legitimacy in their place.

The one who sets our agenda is the Lord, King Jesus, by his person, teaching and work, through the gospel, the good news, which really is Jesus, and is actually all throughout the Final/New Testament. That is where we find the truth for life, the true humanity fulfilled in him, and from that, real, neverending freedom. But that freedom is a byproduct. We follow and submit to God in Jesus no matter what. God is the one who sets our agenda.

the hope for 2017 and beyond

For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.

Titus 2

There is actually one ultimate hope for us and for the world, and that hope is in King Jesus, and God’s promises in him. We in Jesus await for his return, when at last all that is lacking and wrong now, will be made right and complete in the final judgment and salvation, in the new creation. Until then, it’s not like we don’t have hope in Jesus for good in this present existence. In another place we read:

Love…always hopes…

1 Corinthians 13

Hope in scripture is put in the context of faith and love. This is a hope distinct from the blessed hope when the final salvation is put into place. But it’s certainly related to that hope.

All Christian hope is solely in Jesus. It’s not like we can’t hope for the best in the institutions of this world, in governments which are appointed by God for the good of people. But the faith, hope and love which we have in Jesus, just as they are linked together as a triad, are also dependent on the gospel. We have prayerful, lesser hopes, which are still important in their place, as we pray for everyone, for governing authorities, that people might live in peace, and that we might be able to spread the gospel in that same peace. Though in this world we can expect pockets of persecution for such a stand. That hope is grounded in God’s sovereignty now over the nations, which is often hard if not impossible to trace or understand.

And so my hope for 2017 is not so much in earthly institutions, which I think are always certain to disappoint those who have high expectations for them. Instead we look to God’s promises in Jesus for ourselves, and ultimately meant for everyone else. Even for the wicked, who will repent of their ways, and bow the knee to the one Lord, King Jesus, and trust in God and God’s promises in him.

That is my one hope for 2017 and beyond. Even while we pray, hoping for other things along the way for the good of all. More of a just and righteous peace, being one of them. While we wait in the anticipation of the blessed hope when at last every good will be fully realized in and through King Jesus.