Separation of church and state. The statement immediately brings to mind recent legal battles and the rallying cry of American liberals trying to negate the influence of the fundamentalist evangelical right wing. This notion that the Christian has no place in politics or government is embraced by some surprising groups however. While the liberals draw on Thomas Jefferson’s letter to a Massachusetts bishop to show that the church must abstain from political involvement, many conservative Christian groups draw virtually the same conclusion from a questionable interpretation of scripture. They hold that the Church is part of a different kingdom, a kingdom “not of this world”, and that its members should not take part in the political goings of their own civil governments. While this may at first seem surprising to some, the idea is prevalent among many plain groups and has been held with some consistency by groups of Christians dating back to the Reformation and before. While one can appreciate the motive behind the ideal, that of “keeping the church pure”, “separation from the world”, and living at peace with all men”, the notion that Christians should ignore such a direct route to impacting society for the good must be called into question. That said, there are many good points on both sides of the issue, and it’s certainly not an easy one to discern. Aside from the very different social responsibilities that each side requires, some of the heaviest theological and moral implications are also packed into this issue including such undying issues as the sovereignty of God and nonresistance. But in the end, how a Christian responds to this issue must not be a matter of denomination, tradition or even personal preference. Action must not be rationalized by the desire to act, neither must inaction be rationalized by disinterest. The answers await the soul who dares to seek them, in the pages of God’s Word. There we must search to find out in yet another modern day situation, “what would Jesus do?”
There are a number of reasons given by those who advocate noninvolvement in politics. The most popular seems to be the “two kingdoms” analogy. This argument is based on Christ’s statement to Pilate in John 18:36. “My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight…” The idea is carried throughout the New Testament, to be sure. Hebrews 11 tells tale after tale of the people of God who “looked for a city… whose builder and maker is God.” The NT constantly reminds the Christian that he is a “stranger and a pilgrim” in this world, and thus is not to be entangled with the affairs of this life. (II Tim. 2:4) Also tied in with these are the numerous admonitions to come apart and be separate from the world. The most famous, of course is II Cor. 6:14-18. The reasoning is that total separation from the world necessitates separation from the world system, including the corruption and abuses that so often accompany politics. Since God calls Christians out of such systems to become citizens of His kingdom, what right do we have to take part in the legal or governmental affairs of another kingdom? Christ is our King, and we are His ambassadors. If we are indeed ambassadors of heaven to a fallen world, then we have neither the need, nor the right, to participate in the political whirlwinds of that world. This is just another way to be “in the world, but not of the world”
The second step taken by the purporters of noninvolvement is to show that the Church and civil government are completely incompatible, forcing a Christian to choose between them. After all, no man can serve two masters. You either serve an earthly king, or a heavenly one. The roots of this assumed contrast lie deep in the doctrine of nonresistance, and form a critical part of that teaching. A brief summary of the doctrine of nonresistance may be in order here:
- Matt. 5:38-41. “Resist not evil” It is the Christian’s duty to allow abuses of his own rights for the cause of Christ, and resistance to evil must be on a purely spiritual level. Follow this up with the command to “Love your enemy” and there can be no reason for the Christian to fight.
- John 18:36, Matt. 26:52. “Then would my servants fight” The Christian, like Christ and his Disciples, must forego self-defense in submission to the will of God. In so doing, God’s purposes are fulfilled by “overcoming evil with good”. It can hardly be disputed that from the time of the Disciples until recently, this view has been the prevailing one in the Church as a whole. The violence of the Reformation period, coupled with the specter of previous crusades, has all but eliminated knowledge of this important Christian doctrine. In some ways, the teaching of political noninvolvement, mainly restricted to highly persecuted Anabaptist sects, seems to be a reaction to the Reformation period, where “Christians” sought to burn dissidents at the stake, often with the approval and/or assistance of local civil authorities. The line between Church and state was virtually nonexistent, and the nonresistant Anabaptists were sought out for persecution by both Catholics and Protestants, as well as their various state supporters. Before this period, however, early Church fathers taught nonresistance as a basic tenet of Christianity. After all, Christianity is a religion of peace. Historically, it has always been the blood of the martyrs, not the sword of the saints, that has maintained steady growth and purity within the body of Christ.
One of the key scriptures used to develop this type of contrast between Church and civil government is Romans 12-13. It is held that Romans chapter 12 puts forth the responsibilities of the believer in this world. As enumerated in the chapter, these include:
- be not conformed to the world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.
- Abhor evil, cling to good.
- kindly affectionate, preferring one another.
- Bless them which persecute you.
- recompense to no man evil for evil.
- live peaceably with all men.
- do good to your enemies.
All these must be characteristic of a Christian’s daily walk. Romans 13, on the other hand, outlines the duties of the civil government, which are quite different.
- a terror to evil works.
- for praise of good.
- minister of God to execute wrath, “beareth the sword”.
- collect tribute to accomplish God’s purposes.
It is drawn from these scriptures that the Christian cannot fulfill both Romans 12 and 13 when in a civil office. How can one recompense no man evil for evil, if he is called on in civil government to “bear the sword” as God’s revenger? Extended, this means that Christians cannot vote or seek to place others in a political office; because it would be immorral to ask another to do a job that one feels is wrong to do himself. In addition to the constant highlighting of this contrast, much is drawn from what is not said about the place of Christians in relation to government. Christian duties toward government are given not only in Rom. 13, but also in Peter’s epistles, Titus 3, and in Christ’s monologue on tribute. The point usually offered is that since the NT does not directly speak of Christians being politically involved, it is likely that Christians had adopted a policy of noninvolvement (several important assumptions there).
Another key to this position is reliance on the sovereignty of God to control the affairs of Government. Rom. 13 tells us that the powers that be are ordained of God. Proverbs 21:1 states, “The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord, as the rivers of water: he turneth is withersoever he will.” Since it is clear that God raises up and puts down rulers, whatever He needs accomplished by way of laws and public policy, he does not require our help to do.
The position can be summed up by saying that seperation from worldly politics is just another way of obeying the call to “come out from among them, and be ye seperate, sayeth the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing, and I will receive you.” (II Cor. 6:17)
- The Christian in Politics: “I sought for a man…to stand in the gap”
Now that the noninvolvement position is outlined, there are serious concerns with this position that must be addressed. First, let’s examine this contrast between the Church and the State. The position supporting Christian involvement in politics has never held that the Church and the State are synonymous, or even that they are to set common goals. The job of the Church is to expand Christ’s kingdom by preaching the Gospel, and to “do good to all mankind”. Natually, the role of civil government is to punish evil and praise good. But within that very goal statement lies an even deeper purpose of government: to preserve freedom. Any moral code or guideline must be preceded by the assumption that A PERSON IS FREE TO CHOOSE THE ALTERNATIVE. Without freedom of choice, a moral code becomes irrelevant. A law against what we cannot do is pointless. Similarly, government application of law (praise of good and punishment of evil) serves the purpose of protecting the freedom of some men to do good, from the freedom of other men to do evil. The government is called upon to maintain a balance, between right and wrong, freedom and responsibility. Thus, while the government is not commissioned to PERFORM the work of the Church, in order to be a valid government its actions must FACILITATE the work of the Church by protecting the rights of Christians to spread the gospel and do good.
Government is the art of compromise, and there must be some compromise for any people to live together in peace. A Christian in government will be called on at some point to compromise, but compromise involves GOOD as well as BAD. It involves a bringing up of the lowest denominator, as well as the bringing down of the highest. For example, while a Christian legislator may have to vote to send men to a war that he disagrees with, he also has the opportunity to advance peace in a host of ways. He may be forced to vote to allow evolution into schools, but also have the chance to guarantee homeschooling rights to parents. There may be times where the lesser of two evils is the only option, but bear in mind that the GREATEST evil would be ignoring the decision. A position within civil government holds both opportunity and responsibility. Thus, abdication of the responsibility to make difficult decisions that God (who does rule the affairs of Government) has brought to you, equates to negligence. James tells us, “To him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin.” With this in mind, a Christian placed by God into a position of leadership does not have the option of abdicating his responsibility. The tough choices are his to make, and burying his head in the sand will only increase his guilt. Paul tells us in I Cor. 7 “Let every man abide in the same calling wherein he was called.” Servants are specifially told to stay subject to their masters, and masters are never told to abdicate or to release their slaves, rather, they are commanded to treat them with decency and love. (Eph. 6:9) Whether we find ourselves in the position of the ruler or the ruled, we have responsibilities before God.
So just where do we find ourselves in America today? What responsibilities does the Christian have? Romans says, “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers.” Peter tells us, “Fear God, honor the king.” In that time, it was clear who the higher power was: “the king”, or Caesar. During Peter’s time, the ruthless Nero held the throne, and his word was law. The Roman Senate had long since been devoid of real power, and Nero had become an absolute dictator. There was no written law that could keep him in check, no balance of power, and no accountability to the people. Herein lies the most critical difference between the Christian’s responsibility in Nero’s Rome and the United States today. We live in America, a nation founded on Christian principles, including the belief that “all men are created equal”. Our government mirrors this belief, and is built on the assumption that all equal under the law. The only difference between the President and his cheauffer is four years and an election. Never before in the history of the world has there been such a government as ours, of the people, by the people, and for the people. In America, we, the people, are THE HIGHST POWER. Every elected official is responsible to us, and every law is subject to our scrutiny. Even our Constitution, the highest law in the land, can be revised by a convention of the people.
Anyone who is a citizen of the United States is part of the civil government, like it or not. Citizenship on Earth is a reality. Though we may by choice become citizens of a heavenly kingdom, we are still by birth citizens of an earthly realm as well. After seeing Christ on the road to Damascus, Paul still claimed Roman citizenship, and used the privileges associated with it (i.e. fair trial). Since we are certain that he did not at that time renouce his heavenly status, we must assume that Paul was claiming DUAL CITIZENSHIP. (Also note reference to “they of Caesar’s household”, Christians who probably had more rank than anyone else in the kingdom.) Citizenship comes with both priveleges and responsibilities. As stated before, the most basic responsibility of government is maintaining a balance of freedom. Key to maintianing this in our democracy is ensuring that benefits are coupled with responsibilities, taxation with representation, etc. Anyone who enjoys the benefits this nation offers, freedom, safety, public services, social security, or driving priveleges, must also take part of the responsibilities of civil government. In our country it is the cost of citizenship. Jesus’ monologue on taxes in Mark 12 tells us to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.” From the changing face of currency we can gather that this saying did not only apply to taxes. A debt is owed to any agency providing benefits. The benefits afforded by our nation come with a cost. Certainly taxes are part of the cost we pay in this country, but taxes pay for physical benefits. How do we pay for things like freedom? How do we pay for the sacrifices of lives to bring us this freedom? Andrew Jackson, in his farewell address, reminded America, “you must remember, my fellow-citizens, that eternal vigilance by the people is the price of liberty, and that you must pay the price if you wish to secure the blessing. It behooves you, therefore, to be watchful in your States as well as in the Federal Government.” Eternal vigilance is the cost of freedom. Every citizen who enjoys liberty in this country is subject to this burden, this privilege, of maintaining the liberties he enjoys. As part of this great country, we are given this responsibility by none other than God Himself. If God raises up rulers, and the people are the ultimate rulers in this nation, then one can only conclude that God brought each and every person in America to this constitutional democracy according to His purpose, and that every Christian citizen with the opportunity to effect civil change has been brought to the United States, “for such a time as this”. This quote from Mordecai harks back to the political involvement of God’s people at a critical time in the history of the Jewish nation… a great launch pad for the next point.
- God’s People in Politics: A Scriptural Precedent
Lets take a moment to examine the scriptures with relation to political involvement. It might be good to start this discussion in Hebrews 11’s “hall of faith”, where we find the people who God declared to be “looking for a city… whose builder and maker is God,” and “seekers of a heavenly country.” Clearly, the men and women mentioned in this chapter are citizens of the heavenly kingdom. Oddly enough, though, many of them were also civil rulers in an Earthly kingdom as well. Take these examples:
- Joseph became ruler over Egypt, and effectively used his office to preserve his nation and his family, and to consolidate power within the Egyptian nation. His policies resulted in the nation becoming servants to Pharoah. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that this policy later allowed the Pharoah to become a dictator who oppressed the children of Israel. Nevertheless, God had placed Joseph in this position, and he realized his responsibility to use it to the best of his ability.
- Moses, though he forsook the high office of Egyptian nobility, went on to become the executive and judicial head for an entire nation. While God provided the laws, there is no evidence that God made day to day decisions in civil disputes. This responsibility, left to Moses, eventually overwhelmed him (Ex.18:13-27), and he appointed men to judge under him. While surely God could have empowered his prophet Moses to handle the civil affairs alone, He allowed even the great Moses to take the counsel of another and appoint faithful men to handle the civil affairs of Israel.
- Samuel, Israel’s last judge, was not only placed by God to lead Israel against the Philistines, but also to assume civil responsibilities for the nation. I Sam. 7:15-17 tells us that Samuel served as the first Circuit Court of Appeals!
- David was annointed king of Israel by Samuel, when he was still a shepherd boy. This young man went on to become a warrior, yet God called him “a man after my own heart”. II Sam. 8:15 states “And David reigned over all Israel; and David executed judgment and justice unto all his people.” Again, David did not try to govern the whole nation alone, by divine authority, but sought out wise counselors and appointed officials in many offices. These people, though not directly annointed by God, were ready to leave their various occupations and take up the responsibility of directly serving a nation.
- Daniel, Shadrach, Meshack, Abednego, Esther, Nehemiah, Ezra. These rulers over secular provinces were not only used by God, but CHOSE to be used by him. It was no coincidence that Mordecai placed Esther in the running for queen of Persia. His statement to her “who knoweth whether thou art come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” is exemplary of the lives of each person listed here. These people, whose steps were directed by God, found themselves in a position of power, and believed that position to be a DIVINE MANDATE to use that power to benefit God’s people. Each one realized that God would not stoop down and manaully direct the affairs of government. Rather, God’s direction of civil government WAS THROUGH HIS PEOPLE. Daniel, placed in the evil regime of a heathen king, could have either abdicated his responsibilities in an effort to “separate” himself from this system, or perhaps simply avoided contact with the king and other rulers in an effort to remain invisible. Rather, because he proctively used the gifts and talents that God had given him, he was advanced above all the other governers in Babylon, and was able to directly influence the policies of the king. Many have speculated that the exploits of Ezra and Nehemiah would not have been possible had it not been for the work of Daniel, Esther, and the Three Hebrew Children.
- The Prophets, some of whom carried civil responsibilities (priests, scribes) sent one of the most important messages to the people of Israel when they cried out, “Bring no more vain oblations…learn to do well, seek JUDGEMENT, relieve the oppressed judge the fatherless, plead for the widow” (Is. 1:13-17) Throughout the prophets, God calls men to get involved, not pray and sacrifice, and wait for God to fix all the societal ills. The entire nation was handed the guilt for the pollutions and innocent blood shed by the rulers. Why? Because the people were responsible for their political officials. The nation had “corporate guilt” for the actions of its rulers, because the rulers represented the people, whether directly or indirectly. Surely God could have reached down and struck the evil king Manasseh from the throne and replaced him with a Godly ruler. But rather, he called on men to right the wrong, to cleanse the land. Throughout the Bible, there have been times where the people were called upon to rise up against evil rulers, even though they were the annointed of God. While David was just for not slaying Saul, Jehu was equally just in slaying the entire ruling families of Israel and Judah. God cries out against oppression, and calls on men to seek justice, even if it means opposing established authority.
There is a link in all these examples: Judgement. God calls believers to judgement, just as he did his people in the OT. In the New Testament, Christ tells us “Judge not, that ye be not judged,” perhaps one of the most oft-quoted scriptures of all time. However, the same Christ commands Christians to “judge righteous judgement” in John 7:24. Paul says in Phi. 1:9-11, “And this I pray, that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and in all JUDGEMENT.” Paul also encourages believers to judge civil matters in I Cor. 6:1-6. “Do ye not know that the saints shall judge the world? And if the world shall be judged by you, are ye unworthy to judge the smallest matters? Know ye not that we shall judge angels? How much more things that pertain to this life?” Further, Jesus condemned the pharisees in Matt. 23:23 for neglecting the “weightier matters” of judgement and mercy. In modern language, we could say the pharisees tithed, went to church regularly, spent much time in prayer, went to the “ends of the world” to preach… and yet Christ condemned them for neglecting matters of justice and mercy. In other words, MAKE A DIFFERENCE IN THE REAL WORLD. All the prayer and tithing and preaching in the world will not make a difference if believers are not willing to get their hands dirty and change society. Christian life is composed of two parts, James tells us: faith and works. in James 2:14-26, he reminds us that faith must have real life application to be of any use or substance. The “spiritual kingdom” to which we belong, must have a physical outreach. This is true by extention to a national level. A spiritual renewal as described by II Chron. 7:14 is completely unsubstantial without a cultural renovation to mirror it. In other words, if God’s people will humble themselves and pray, etc., then they will follow that repentance with ACTION, not only on a personal level, but nationally as well. As the nation experiences revival, God’s people will begin to fill public offices, whether by ascention or conversion while in office. Inexorably, public policy will change to reflect the condition of the people’s hearts. This works faster in some governments than others, but brings into sharp contrast the opportunity we have in a representative republic. Keep in mind that civil judgement and Christian activism are not mutually exclusive. A man trying to affect public policy for the good, can still hold as his goal preaching the gospel, and changing the nation from the bottom up. in fact, it is often the case that people who are willing to get involved in fighting for the good in the nitty gritty world of politics, are all the more willing to spread the good news on a personal level as well.
…Which brings us to the conclusion of the matter. Consider these calls of God to men throughout the ages:
- Mic. 6:8 ~ “He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?”
- Ez. 22:27-31~ “Her princes in the midst thereof are like wolves ravening the prey, to shed blood, and to destroy souls, to get dishonest gain. And her prophets have daubed them with untempered morter, seeing vanity, and divining lies unto them, saying, Thus saith the Lord GOD, when the LORD hath not spoken. The people of the land have used oppression, and exercised robbery, and have vexed the poor and needy: yea, they have oppressed the stranger wrongfully. And I sought for a man among them, that should make up the hedge, and stand in the gap before me for the land, that I should not destroy it: but I found none. Therefore have I poured out mine indignation upon them; I have consumed them with the fire of my wrath: their own way have I recompensed upon their heads, saith the Lord GOD.”
- Ez. 45:9 ~ “Thus saith the Lord GOD; Let it suffice you, O princes of Israel: remove violence and spoil, and execute judgment and justice, take away your exactions from my people, saith the Lord GOD.”
- Ps. 82:2-4 ~ ” How long will ye judge unjustly, and accept the persons of the wicked? Selah. Defend the poor and fatherless: do justice to the afflicted and needy. Deliver the poor and needy: rid them out of the hand of the wicked.”
- Pr. 21:3 ~ “To do justice and judgment is more acceptable to the LORD than sacrifice.”
- Gal. 6:10 ~ “As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith.”
The call is clear. Don’t let faith stop at faith! Don’t let our Spiritual kingdom go without a physical outreach! Here in America we have so many opportunities to “do good to all men,” both in private life and in the public arena. Consider the huge amount of missions and ministries that have been possible across the world because of Christian men in political office. Think of all the evils that have been struck down. What about slavery? Slavery never disappeared. It would still be in America today were it not for the brave outcries of Christian men and women who believed that ALL men are created equal by God. In America, we find ourselves in a position of authority, simply by virtue of God choosing this nation as our birthplace. Such opportunity to effect good! We must never forget, though, that “unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required.” (Luke 12:48) And much is required of Christians today. The task before us in this nation is not for the weak or fearful. We are indeed sent forth as sheep among wolves in a world that hates us. The world has been calling forever for the Christianity to leave the public arena. Nothing infuriates them more than Christian policymakers who believe in national standards based upon absolute morality. But the fact that we face such opposition should cause us to rejoice (Matthew 5:10-12). We can rejoice because in the cushy world of modern Christianity, we have found a cross. A cross not easy to bear. A cross of ridicule, and scorn, and derision from a world that is becoming increasingly hostile to any absolute morality. For the Christian to enter the political scene means that he will be opposed in a host of ways, have his name slandered, and subject all his friends and relatives to the ridicule of a cynical world. But God calls the believer to “be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Rom. 12:21) The first step is to follow the II Chron. 7:14 path to revival. We must come together as believers to humble ourselves and pray, and seek God’s face, and turn from our wickedness. Only when this is done, can we recieve grace and strength for the healing of our land. But God does not heal nations by magical rain showers or Angels in the outfield; He heals lands with His own hands and feet, the Church of Jesus Christ. Our mission, while strangers and pilgrims in this land, is to be the Light of the world, a City on a Hill. Even as Christ gives us this calling in Matthew 5:14, he follows it with an interesting command in verse 16. He tells us what light men will see in our lives. Not faith, not preaching, but concrete works. “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your GOOD WORKS, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.” May God help us to put our faith to action, and use every opportunity He gives us to change our community, our nation, and our world.