RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN CHURCH AND STATE
Supt. Bruce N. G. Cromwell, Ph.D.
The 2015 FMC-USA General Conference directed the SCOD to research things that make for peace, the use of force or violence, and the concept of a just war. As I began to study this topic and research these issues,1 eventually resulting in a paper on capital punishment for the SCOD,2 it was suggested that the broader and yet more foundational issue which must be addressed is the relationship between the Church and the State. Such interchange is rife with challenges and opportunities. History has found the dizzying dance between the city of God and the city of humans to often have the respective partners switching the lead, or at least attempting to each guide the relationship. But the two-steps and dips and twirls and spins that Church-State relations seem to currently be engaged in have led to increased questions about what a Christian should do in our complicated and confusing political reality.
When looking at the issues facing our societies and the best ways for peoples and nations to address such societal concerns it is important to ask what the proper place and role of the Church is alongside of political entities. How much should one influence the other, or even relate to the other? The words “separation of Church and State” are frequently thrown about in such discussions, though they are often used in a manner not intended by Thomas Jefferson, the originator of the phrase.
In expressing his understanding of the intent and function of the Establishment Clause and Free Exercise Clause within the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, a clause which says in part that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” Jefferson wrote, “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.”3 This furthered Article Six of the Constitution, which already specified that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”
So, what is the proper relationship? How much should a Christian be involved in political engagement? How much should one’s faith matter when it comes to effective governance? In what ways should a follower of Jesus seek to participate in the State functions of their community, their country, their world? Does the Church have a political role in any of this?
And in a more pastoral vein, how does sin corrupt government, and politics, and Christian advocacy and involvement in the public sphere? How does the Church work to counter the effects of both individual and systemic sin? Does it seek to align with the government? To bring about change from within the government? To be content to work from the outside?
The answers may be sought in Scripture (and its interpretation), as well as reason, experience, and tradition. For our purposes we may ask how each could guide what might come to be formulated as a basic Free Methodist political thought. Within this paper I will seek to share some historic approaches to political theory, presenting a broad and yet general narrative within which a more pointed Free Methodist political theory may be developed. I am not attempting herein to present or propose a finalized theory, but rather to generate conversation toward a more coherent and articulated position.
For though I realize the temptation may be to say we don’t need to narrowly specify what Free Methodists ought to think about politics, and I do think there is great wisdom and health in the via media that Wesley and Methodism have often taken when it comes to fluidity and freedom across ecclesiastical and cultural boundaries, I am not sure given the contemporary climate of political discourse that the subject can be ignored or unaddressed.
For example, just this week4 the Rev. Jerry Falwell, Jr., President of Liberty University, argued, “Jesus said love our neighbors as ourselves but never told Caesar how to run Rome – He never said Roman soldiers should turn the other cheek in battle or that Caesar should allow all the barbarians to be Roman citizens or that Caesar should tax the rich to help the poor. That’s our job.” Barely two hours later he added to his Twitter feed a somewhat conciliatory post, saying in part, “Jesus never told Caesar he shouldn’t tax the rich to help the poor either. You can be a good Christian whether you vote conservative or liberal!”5
I agree with Falwell that one can be a good Christian, regardless of the political party with which one aligns. However, I disagree with Falwell’s implicit statement that Christian values are unnecessary for good governance. Of course, he and I would be far from the first brothers in Christ to differ when it comes to Christian interaction with governing authorities and the broader culture.
Jesus was famously dragged into such a political controversy by the Pharisees and Herodians. Anticipating that whatever answer Christ gave would create problems for Him socially, they sought to trick Him into making a dangerous statement. “So tell us what you think,” they asked, “Does the Law allow people to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”6
Unwilling to take their bait, Jesus responded with a command and question. He asked to see the coin used to pay the tax, and then He asked them whose image it bore. When they responded that it was the likeness and inscription of Caesar, He gave His famous response. “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”7 With this enigmatic answer Jesus in one fell swoop acknowledged that His followers owe ultimate allegiance to God, and yet they also have rights and responsibilities as earthly citizens. Gordan Wenhem has written that Christ refused to take a side in the fierce political debate of His day regarding taxation and simply “implied that loyalty to a pagan government was not incompatible with loyalty to God.”8
As we’ve already said, political debates on a whole range of issues continue to divide persons, even persons within the Church. Just as in Jesus’ day, we still debate what it means to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. This is where an historical overview can be helpful to focus in on an appropriate Free Methodist response.
Many traditions have offered varying interpretations of how much followers of Christ should engage with governing powers, of what it means to be faithful citizens. Yet many individual Christians are seemingly unaware of the richness of these traditions and the input they can give to persons today who struggle with doing the right thing and living the right way, wherever we may find ourselves. Church history can speak loudly still about the relationship between faith and politics. So, following the helpful framework of Five Views on the Church and Politics,9 I want to briefly explore five specific historic traditions within Christianity and how they view the relationship between Church and State. These traditions, broadly described from those most connected in relationship and intent to those least connected, are Roman Catholic, Reformed, those generally called Black Churches, Lutheran, and Anabaptist. My hope is that in seeking to understand how these sisters and brothers have addressed political thought, the Free Methodist Church might come to a greater sense of God’s leading and how we work in this world for justice and righteousness for all persons in our communities.
Roman Catholic Political Thought
The oldest of these traditions is Roman Catholicism, whose core centers on the unity and mission of the Church, with particular emphasis on the incarnation and the sacraments. God’s Son taking on human form in the incarnation of Jesus Christ highlights the dignity of humanity. And just as Christ came to earth and lived among us, so God designed all people to live in deep communion with one another, taking responsibility for the needs of each other and God’s created world. The sacraments, the second of these emphases, physically connect Christians with Christ as the center of life in the Church.10 They also provide regular rhythms which shape our perspective of Christ and Christ in us in the world.
These basic ideas help undergird some core elements of Catholic Social Teaching (CST), a tradition which articulates fundamental principles for engagement with society, including seven central themes for the Church’s posture toward the world. 11 These include: life and dignity of the human person12; the call to family, community, and participation13; rights and responsibilities14; preferential care for the poor and vulnerable15; the dignity of work and the rights of workers16; solidarity17; and care for God’s creation18.
These seven themes within CST can be summarized fairly succinctly.19 Because humans are created in the image of God, human life is sacred. All people and institutions should therefore protect human life and uphold human dignity inherent in all persons. God created humanity to live and flourish in community, beginning with the foundational relationships of marriage and family and extending outward to other forms of community. And so within our communities the rights and responsibilities we articulate should indicate and direct the way in which justice ought to govern life on earth. Of special focus is concern for the marginalized and the poor, modeled after Christ’s sacrificial love and care for the “least of these.” The dignity of work and the rights of workers give meaning to life in a fallen world by upholding central ways of participating in creation. A humility that leads to solidarity binds the members of communities together in a mutual commitment to the common good, each looking not just to their own interests but also the interests of others. And finally, the Catholic Church teaches that as we are participators in the ongoing work of creation, we need to therefore care for creation. Humans have the responsibility to be good stewards of the world God has made.
Informed by the teaching of Saint Thomas Aquinas and, through his writings, Aristotle, Catholic political thought recognizes the essentially political and social nature of human life. It highlights the responsibility of the State to cultivate the common good. This tradition, then, upholds what it sees as the God-given nature of governmental institutions and views the State through the lens of human flourishing, which has both individual and communal aspects. The logical outcome of such an approach is to encourage citizens to participate in government as a means of furthering the betterment and blessing of all people. Regarding this, the Catechism of the Catholic Church outlines three specific obligations of all Christian citizens: voting, defending one’s country, and paying taxes.20 It should be noted that duty to country extends beyond national borders to the entire world community, with the special goal of promoting peace.
In recent years the Catholic Church has been more vocal in expressing how the Church and the State should remain separate to protect religious freedom. For though the tradition has seen many ways that the two can and should work together to achieve common goals, the fact remains that the Church has a transcendent purpose only she can fill. It follows Christ and furthers the gospel. The State, having a necessary and important role, cannot meet all societal needs on its own. So Catholic political tradition holds to what is called “the principle of subsidiarity.” It says that matters are best handled by the smallest, lowest, or least centralized competent authority. Political decisions should be made at the local level if possible, rather than by a central authority. Churches, families, and community groups, this principle claims, are best equipped to perform their respective roles and meet local societal needs.
There is a certain irony in a Church that is often described with capital t “Tradition” and seen as fairly monolithic saying that smaller groups should have greater freedom to work, outside of institutional control. But such engagement in politics for those committed to the sacramental life of the Church is the tension within Catholicism. Politics by definition is about the good of the people. God cares about all people. So, people who seek to follow God must care about politics.
Reformed Political Thought
The Reformed Church tradition developed primarily from sixteenth-century Protestant Reformers such as Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin, and John Knox. This theological tradition emphasizes God’s supreme sovereignty over all things, including individual people, the Church, and the State. Nothing lies outside God’s sustaining providence, and nothing and nobody but God deserves to receive the ultimate glory God is due. This in part stems from a narrative of the creation, fall, and redemption which lies at the center of Reformed thought, a narrative that shapes how Christians understand God’s relation to the world and to humanity.
Reformed thinkers emphasize that God created the world very good, bestowing it initially with great beauty. God granted humans both the ability and the responsibility to fill the earth and multiply the good God had placed in it. But then came the fall. Because of it, all humans bear the scars of rebellion, the marks of depravity which affect everything humans touch, indeed, affect all of life. This certainly includes politics. Even a cursory glance at modern politics would seem to bear this out! However, in God’s great mercy, sinners outside of Christ are empowered to do good things through what is known as common grace. It is an unmerited gift that enables wicked people to live rightly and receive earthly, though not eternal, blessings. It enables some of the fallen to nonetheless “develop many virtues and express many truths.”21
Such right standing in this life does not equate with right standing in the next. God’s particular grace in Jesus Christ provides the only way to attain right standing before God. It is the most complete manifestation of God’s redemption in this world, allowing persons to find communion with God through Christ and His forgiveness of our sins. As already mentioned, what the Reformed tradition would call common grace is different. Common grace allows for there to be institutions such as governments which might act on behalf of the welfare of persons. So whereas complete redemption and restoration is not possible in this life and is only realized through Christ’s work on human behalf, humans still should be agents of earthly and temporal renewal, even as they long for the complete harmony, glory, and renewal that will only come in our eternity in heaven.
Government is thus a good gift from God that, along with other fundamental societal institutions such as schools, churches, families, businesses, and workforces, can be an agent of transformation. Because God instituted government, obedience to government is an expression of obedience to God. The counter of this is therefore true as well. “To despise human government is to despise the providence which set that government in place.”22 Christians are called to engage the world in all its dimensions, to spread the transforming power of the gospel into each area of life, and to let the light of Christ shine more and more brightly in society at large.
From this theological perspective, it follows that the Church can advocate explicitly for beliefs and policies in the public realm, with the recognition that success cannot be forced or guaranteed. Followers of Jesus can and should love all people in all places while fully realizing that only the cross of Christ has the power to save. Government should promote justice and the common good, but Christians should have tempered expectations of what government can and cannot do. Ultimately our hope rests in Christ.
Political Thought of the Black Church
In the middle of our spectrum stands what I will broadly call the Black Church. Unlike the other traditions I will briefly review, the Black Church is distinctly American. Transcending common denominational boundaries, this tradition is rooted in the response of African-American Christians to their tumultuous and often tragic history.
For much of the American past, whites sought to dominate all aspects of black lives, including their religious practice. Intentional or not, and with the systemic racism that is still often seen it is hard to ignore that some intentionality has existed, the marginalization of African-Americans has been a sad and ongoing legacy in this country. Out of such oppression rose the black denominations, the Black Church, creating safe spaces for African-Americans to worship freely and independently.
Because of the complexity of their history, I have placed the Black Church at the middle of this review. The historical experiences of African-Americans have indelibly shaped how they view the Church, the State, and the broader society. Having faced great oppression while also bearing distinctive and powerful witness to some liberation, the Black Church tradition is well aware of the potential benefits and yet frequent shortfalls of governmental action.
In Black Church tradition, as with other traditions that might generally be linked to Liberation Theology, at the center of the faith stands the cross. It is a reminder that we must view whatever suffering we endure in light of the One who faced the greatest suffering of all on our behalf, and who through His suffering freed us from the power of sin. With the harsh realities of life in mind, covered by the shadow of the cross, the Black Church emphasizes God’s particular heart for the marginalized, the downcast, the lost, and the least. Recognizing the sin and suffering that permeates people and institutions around the world, this tradition often seeks to speak truth to power with a prophetic voice.
It may be said, then, that the goal of the Black Church in politics and in all of life is the relentless pursuit of liberation, justice, and reconciliation. Within such a focus there is a mixed view on the role of the State. On the one hand, the Black Church emphasizes the positive and constructive role that government can play in serving justice, in seeking the good of all people, and in promoting reform and reconciliation. And yet on the other hand the Black Church is acutely aware that power can be a means of oppression, for most of the persons within this tradition have experienced such oppression in one form or another firsthand.
These racial and cultural challenges have led the Black Church to tend to view the Church and the State not so much in an individual sense but rather as communal endeavors. The eternal, abundant life that God desires for all His children is something that everyone must play a part in bringing about and realizing. So, the Church must seek holistic justice as a community within the community and serve as a voice for peace. This means calling attention to institutional wrongdoing and systemic sins, especially evidenced in racism, and seeking the transformation of social and political institutions. And yet for corporate changes to be made to address corporate sins there often must be structural adjustments. These often only happen through legislative and political means. This is where the Church acts as a voice for communal reform, calling on the State to do its part in working for the betterment of all persons.
In 1972 Larry Norman released the song The Great American Novel. My favorite line among the many powerful lyrics, lack of gender inclusivity notwithstanding, is toward the end. “You say all men are equal, all men are brothers. Then why are the rich more equal than others?”23 The Black Church has asked this question for years.
In its work to apply the leveling aspect of the gospel to the messy places of human life and associations, the Black Church advocates on behalf of the poor and marginalized with the hope that redemption and reconciliation can be accomplished by God’s grace. In this way we might say that the Black Church is less politically engaged in a comprehensive way than the Reformed or Catholic traditions, and certainly less optimistic about the role of the State. And yet, as we will now discuss, it is more active than what is found in the Lutheran and Anabaptist traditions.
In all things, the Black Church places her ultimate hope in the eternal Kingdom of God, where all things will be made right, the rough places made smooth, and where peace and justice will ultimately reign.
Lutheran Political Thought
The Lutheran tradition comes to us largely (but not exclusively) from the teachings of Martin
Luther. Some of the essential elements of Lutheranism are justification by faith alone, the reality of human sinfulness, the significance of Scripture and the sacraments, the “two-kingdom doctrine,” and human vocation.
Lutherans believe that God has chosen to rule earthly kingdoms through laws and principles that can be rightly regulated through the State. The State can effect change within society, but it cannot redeem sinful hearts. No amount of human effort can ever do that. The good that is done, then, is not done to merit salvation but rather as a response to God’s gratuitous love. This is important, for there is great danger in conflating these two systems, that which is of the world (the kingdom of creation) and that which is of God (the kingdom of redemption). If not careful, people can look to observance of the law as a means to salvation, turning God’s love into an ethical norm or a standard by which we must achieve some level of merit.
Sin entered the world at the fall, with the result that all people have sinned. The State was brought about in part because of the effects of the fall. However, according to Lutheran tradition one of the functions of the State is the God-ordained purpose of protecting its citizenry, seeking justice, and resisting and restraining evil. This means that the State may at times have a legitimate reason to use force. It further means that Christians can participate in governmental functions because the State is the means by which God governs this fallen world. Helping the State effectively punish wickedness and pursue justice is a way that followers of Christ can fulfill their call to love their neighbors.
The Church, though, stands apart from this. It is called to maintain its focus not on the temporal and limited power of social or cultural transformation but rather the gospel of redemption proclaimed through the Word declared and the sacraments administered. This is where ultimate human hope should be found. And because of this, the Lutheran Church often refrains from direct involvement in politics, focusing instead upon instruction and shaping persons to serve other persons well, out of love. The power and presence of Christ within a believer will influence and guide their activities and actions in the workplace and in society wherever one goes. No State realm can escape the influence of the gospel on the lives of Christians, marked by the Church.
This is the thrust of the two-kingdoms, or two-governments, doctrine. Luther wrote:
God has ordained the two governments: the spiritual which by the Holy Spirit under Christ makes Christians and pious people; and the secular, which restrains the unchristian and wicked so that they are obliged to keep the peace outwardly…. The laws of worldly government extend no farther than to life and property and what is external upon earth. For over the soul God can and will let no one rule but himself. Therefore, where temporal power presumes to prescribe laws for the soul, it encroaches upon God’s government and only misleads and destroys souls. We desire to make this so clear that every one shall grasp it, and that the princes and bishops may see what fools they are when they seek to coerce the people with their laws and commandments into believing one thing or another.24
The Lutheran doctrine of vocation balances the call to follow God as informed by the Church and to serve God in the realms overseen by the State. It places importance on any occupation, activity, or sphere of life. Since some of the faithful are called to share the Church’s social concerns with the world and “translate the concerns of God’s Word into arguments appropriate for civil government,”25 Christians are able both to act in partnership with non-Christians and to disagree on political matters with other believers.
Anabaptist Political Thought
If Roman Catholicism is at one end of our Church-State spectrum, the Anabaptist tradition is at the other. It arose in the sixteenth century in Switzerland. Many modern Baptist groups, a different movement than the Anabaptist tradition, have their roots in seventeenth century English Puritanism and Separatism.26 The two largest Baptist traditions that emerged from England, the General Baptists and the Particular Baptists, differed over their views of the atonement but held many things in common, including believers’ baptism, congregational independence and autonomy, and religious freedom. Both also tended to emphasize the individual. And though the earlier Anabaptist tradition certainly influenced these Baptist churches, the two traditions are quite distinct.
When in the 1500s a group of “Radical Reformers” such as Menno Simons spoke against the infant baptism characteristic of churches at the time, teaching that baptism instead ought to be reserved for adult believers, they found themselves under increasing scrutiny and persecution. Many of the early Anabaptists endured intense suffering, including even execution, because of their beliefs. As a result, much of Anabaptist teaching focused on the role of the community, both for personal preservation and for the promulgation of the gospel.
This gospel is best exemplified in the person, life, and teachings of Jesus, and is expressed most fully in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapters 5 – 7. Jesus taught quite clearly that we ought to prioritize forgiveness and extend grace, even and especially to the point of turning the other cheek when persecuted and not just praying for but loving our enemies. He personified this by rejecting the violent tendencies of the zealots, by refusing to give a defense or make a resistance at His own trial and death, and by willingly, as Matthew 20:28 and Mark 10:45 say, to give His life as a ransom for many.
Because of this compelling example in Christ, Anabaptists take a posture of nonviolence. They do not endorse the use of lethal force or coercion in any circumstance, be it by the hands of an individual or the State. This extends even to the rejection of violence for self-defense, recognizing that such a pacifist approach to life can lead to suffering and pain. But that’s okay. As Werner Packull has stated, “For Anabaptists, nonresistance was not a calculated survival strategy but a principle of Christian life and conduct; an assumed nonpolitical kingdom ethic revealed by Christ.”27
Much of what the State does in defense of its citizenry or in punishment of those who violate its laws is tainted by violence, and as such Anabaptists have an uneasy relationship with politics. It’s not that they are opposed to participating in the good that the State often does. It’s that close affiliation with the State may result in a believer having to engage in activities, particularly violent activities, which go against the Anabaptist belief and tradition. So, Anabaptist political thought strongly affirms that the Church should lead the way in modeling the actions of Jesus. This then leads many to separation from the work of the State because of its frequently coercive power and non-Christlike behavior, leading the Christian to abstain from government interaction such as serving in the military, running for public office, or taking public oaths.28
Many, but not all. Some Anabaptists make concession for some forms of political involvement, expecting that Christian presuppositions will shape all political interactions and believers will oppose violence in every form. They realize that this stance is unlikely to lead to political success, and they grapple with the fact that nonviolence could entail greater opposition. Through all these actions, they point to the witness of Jesus, who suffered and calls His followers to do the same.
Instead of looking to the government as an agent of change, Anabaptist thought emphasizes the centrality of the Church and her call to serve as an alternative community that embodies the truths of the gospel. The Church should not seek to influence the broad social and political realms as much as it should be a distinctive social ethic that prefigures the Kingdom of God in all its Christ-like particularity. Thus, the Church simply cannot engage in politics or in violence on the world’s terms. Love of God and neighbor must permeate every Christian and Church in every context. This requires a countercultural voice and a unified community that lives in light of Jesus’ radical commands.
In looking at these five traditions within Christianity and how they might inform our conversations about Free Methodism and its view of Church and State relations, some common themes emerge.
First, all stress the centrality of the Church and its witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Though the traditions may differ in how this is communicated, all share the common goal of building and living in the Kingdom of God. Anabaptists may look to the Church, set apart as a witness to the outside world, as the community of disciples and discipleship. The Reformed and Catholic traditions, on the other hand, tend to hold a broader view of the role of the Church in society, seeking to transform law and culture with the love and grace of God. Again, how the gospel is lived out may look different from one Church to another. But that all see the gospel as ultimately transformative and the core of the Christian’s identity and life is clear.
Second, each understands the importance of the State in society. Governing institutions have temporal power to further the common good. Sadly, they also can hinder and oppress. So, whereas some Churches hold the State to be an instrument of positivity and growth in civil society, each wrestle to varying degrees on how to guide, limit, or control the power and influence of the State.
Third, each tradition believes that freedom must be allowed to flourish in a civil society. But again, how this looks and operates varies. The Catholic understanding of subsidiarity allows each small group to best determine how to impact and influence those around it. It’s not that different from the Kuyperian notion of sphere sovereignty, which is based on the idea that every part of human life exists equally and directly coram Deo, “before the face of God.” Each sphere, then, is distinct and autonomous, is sovereign, and necessitates a separation from other spheres when it comes to how it chooses to best function in society. The Church and the State, in Kuyper’s notion, are by definition unrelated and separated from one another.29 Whatever the degree of overlap and influence, all traditions agree that communities of faith, families, schools, and other important civil and religious institutions play essential roles in society and deserve protection.
Fourth, each tradition expresses great concern to cultivate virtue in persons and to work toward creating a more virtuous society. How virtue is defined and accessed might vary. Is it revealed only through Scripture? Can it be perceived through the natural law? Despite these significant differences all the Church traditions we’ve explored agree that God is the source of all virtue and that virtue is essential for human flourishing.
I hope the broad-brush strokes with which I’ve attempted to paint a picture of Church and State relations has brought some direction to a conversation about what the Free Methodist Church might say. As I have limited myself to a scant overview of some historic Christian traditions, I think deeper Scriptural analysis is warranted.
For in many ways I think questions about Church and State cannot be separated from questions about eschatology and our understanding of the Kingdom of God. In Luke 17:21 Jesus clearly says that God’s Kingdom is already among us. In both Matthew 3:2 and 4:17 He says that the Kingdom of heaven is at hand. It’s here. And since Jesus speaks about the Kingdom of God with great frequency, it’s important to understand what He means by it.
My experience as a pastor has been that many Christians have made the Kingdom of heaven, or what is too often shortened to simply “heaven”, the result of a system of rewards for the faithful few. The reign of God is something that will clearly only happen in the next life, so salvation is reduced to little more than, as Brian McLaren has called it, an “evacuation plan” into another world.30
One result of this thinking is that people have principles instead of God.31 But my understanding, and indeed, the understanding of each of the traditions I’ve highlighted in this paper, is that God wants to give us God’s-self, not just good ideas and laws. It’s about a relationship, not just the rules. It’s about transformation into the likeness of Christ, every bit as much as it’s about the beginning of that process when we recognize we are justified by Christ. For salvation isn’t just forgiveness. It’s redemption and renewal.
This means we change our loyalties from power and success and money and ego to the imitation of our God, in whose Kingdom servanthood and surrender and simplicity reign. And this is where the State and the Church necessarily come into conflict with one another. The goals are different.
Last night32 President Trump gave his first State of the Union Address. I don’t recall how many times he used his catch-phrase “make America great again” or “America first.” After reminding the assembled guests of his action just months ago to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, he said, “Shortly afterwards, dozens of countries voted in the United Nations General Assembly against America’s sovereign right to make this decision. In 2016, American taxpayers generously sent those same countries more than $20 billion in aid. That is why tonight I am asking the Congress to pass legislation to help ensure American foreign-assistance dollars always serve American interests, and only go to friends of America, not enemies of America.”33
This is what the State does. It puts its own interests first. It makes sense to say such things in a State of the Union Address. But such an inward focus, highlighting our country’s power or wealth or might or greatness, can sound not just politically but even theologically appealing to many persons who view an Almighty and Omnipotent God in the same way. Vulnerability and humility are not often seen as attributes of our Sovereign Lord. The history of Christianity’s role in affirming oppression and violence in the name of its own interests and rightness and power bears this out.
I would argue that whenever we echo John the Revelator in Revelation 22:20 and say, “Come, Lord Jesus” or confess with the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 12:3 that “Jesus is Lord” we are actually announcing our commitment to an upside-down kind of world where “the last are first and the first are last.”34 If Jesus is Lord, it means that Caesar is not. If Jesus is Lord, it means that the Stock Market is not. If Jesus is Lord, it means that my career or my home or any of my earthly possession are not. If Jesus is Lord, it most certainly means that I am not.
For a first-century person in the Roman Empire the implications of such a statement were obvious. “Caesar is Lord” was the shibboleth for loyalty to Rome. The earliest Christians essentially changed their political allegiance when they welcomed Jesus as Lord and Savior instead of the Roman emperor. If nothing else, the Free Methodist Church does well to continue to proclaim that our ultimate hope is in God, not any action of any institution of the State. Our hope is in Christ and His grace freely given, not our political party and the laws passed or mandates overturned. And so, no matter what the State may do, the Church will continue to seek to be led by the Spirit of God, living and being the Body of Christ on earth.
Writing in the third century, Cyprian of Carthage first used the phrase extra Ecclesiam nulla salus, “there is no salvation outside of the Church.” Ecclesiastical and soteriological nuances aside, we believe this to be true. Salvation is not found through the State. Our life may be in it. But our eternal life is born out of the Church.
G. K. Chesterton wrote, “It is merely that when a man [sic] has found something which he prefers to life itself, he then for the first time begins to live.”35 Everyone is searching for something to surrender to, something that can give our life meaning, for Someone who can fill us with hope and with purpose in this life and into the next. The great wonder of our faith is that we can surrender to God and not lose ourselves. We deny ourselves. But in so doing we actually find our true selves, our true life. This means we can be in the world, though we are not of it. We can be formed in the Church and make a difference in the State. How we bring both realms together in the Kingdom of God among us is the challenge facing us all.
1 Resources addressing these topics seem almost limitless. I have read all or portions of several books on just war, political theory, and other topics related to church-state relations. These include Bell, Daniel M., Jr. Just War as Christian Discipleship: Recentering the Tradition in the Church rather than the State. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2009; Boyd, Gregory A. The Myth of a Christian Nation. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005; Brugger, E. Christian. Capital Punishment and Roman Catholic Moral Tradition. Notre Dame, IN: U of Notre Dame, 2014; Chalke, Steve. Radical: Exploring the Rise of Extremism and the Pathway to Peace. London: Oasis Global, 2016; Claiborne, Shane. Executing Grace. San Francisco, CA: Harper One, 2016; Gundry, Stanley N., Ed. Five Views on The Church and Politics. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015; Hamburger, Philip. Separation of Church and State. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002; Hauerwas, Stanley, and Willimon, William H. Resident Aliens: A Provocative Christian Assessment of Culture and Ministry for People Who Know that Something Is Wrong. Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1989; additionally, Hauerwas and Willimon’s Where Resident Aliens Live: Exercises for Christian Practice. Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1996; Hauerwas, Stanley. In Good Company: The Church as Polis. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame, 1995; Hendricks, Obery M., Jr. The Politics of Jesus: Rediscovering the True Revolutionary Nature of Jesus’ Teachings and How They Have Been Corrupted. New York, NY: Doubleday, 2006; Holmes, Arthur F., editor. War and Christian Ethics, 2nd edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005; Mattox, John Mark. Saint Augustine and the Theory of Just War. New York, NY: Continuum, 2006; Moss, Candida. The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom. New York, NY: Harper, 2013; Scott, James C. Domination and the Arts of Resistance. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1990; Sprinkle, Preston. Fight: A Christian Case for Nonviolence. Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2013; Volf, Miroslav. A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2011; Willimon, William H. Fear of the Other. Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 2016; Wink, Walter. Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1992; and Yoder, John Howard. The Priestly Kingdom: Social Ethics as Gospel. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame, 1984.
2 See my 2017 SCOD paper, “The Christian and the State Regarding Legitimate Defense and Punishment”.
3 Jefferson, Thomas. Jefferson’s Letter to the Danbury Baptists: The Final Letter, as Sent. The Library of Congress Information Bulletin: June 1998. The letter was originally dated January 1, 1802, barely ten years after the adoption of the First Amendment.
4 Posted on Twitter at 7:15 pm on January 25, 2018
5 Posted on Twitter at 9:38 pm on January 25, 2018
6 Matthew 22:17. Unless otherwise noted, this and all subsequent Scripture quotations will be from the Common English Bible.
7 Matthew 22:21
8 Wenhem, Gordan J., et. al, eds. New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition. Downer’s Grover, IL: InterVarsity, 1994, 933.
9 Gundry, Stanley N., and Black, Amy E. Five Views on the Church and Politics. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015.
10 Of course our Catholic friends recognize seven sacraments whereas we Free Methodists acknowledge two, though I believe an argument could be made to elevate the spiritual role of marriage… but that’s for another SCOD paper!
11 “Seven Themes of Catholic Social Teaching.” U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. http://www.usccb.org/beliefs- and-teachings/what-we-believe/catholic-social-teaching/seven-themes-of-catholic-social-teaching.cfm (accessed January 26, 2018).
12 The Catholic Church proclaims that human life is sacred and that the dignity of the human person is the foundation of a moral vision for society. Such a belief is foundational for all Catholic social teaching. And so Catholicism establishes strong guidelines for protecting the value of human life, including doctrines against things like birth control, abortion, euthanasia, and the death penalty. It also calls on societies to avoid war, arguing that nations must protect the right to life by finding increasingly effective ways to prevent conflicts and, when this fails, to resolve them by peaceful means. This first principle for engagement with society essentially argues that every person is precious, that people are more important than things, and that the measure of every institution is whether it threatens or enhances the life and dignity of the human person.
13 Expanding on the sanctity of human life, Catholicism seems the person as not only sacred but also social. Therefore a society must be organized, be it economically, politically, or however, in a way that positively affects human dignity and the capacity of individuals to grow in community. Marriage and the family are among the central social institutions that protect and model such communal life, and therefore must be supported and strengthened, not undermined. It is one way to help all persons participate in society, seeking together the common good and well-being of all, especially the poor and vulnerable.
14 Catholic social tradition teaches that human dignity can be protected and a healthy community can be achieved only if human rights are protected and responsibilities are met. This means that every person has a
fundamental right to life and a right to those things required for human decency. Along with these personal rights is the duty and responsibility to others, to our families, and to the larger society.
15 It has been said that a basic moral test for any society is how its most vulnerable members are faring. Society has always seen a division between rich and poor. Catholic social teaching points to the story of the Last Judgment in Matthew 25:31-46 and calls persons to put the needs of the poor and vulnerable first.
16 Catholic economic policy would argue that the economy must serve people, not the other way around. Work is more than a way to make a living. It is a form of continuing participation in God’s creation. If the dignity of work is to be protected, then the basic rights of workers must be respected as well. This includes the right to productive work, to decent and fair wages, to the organization and joining of unions, to private property, and to economic initiative.
17 The word “catholic” means “universal.” The very name of this tradition bespeaks that we can be one human family whatever our national, racial, ethnic, economic, and ideological differences. We are our sisters’ and brothers’ keepers, wherever they may be. And in an ever-shrinking world, loving our neighbor has global dimensions. At the core of the virtue of solidarity is the pursuit of justice and peace.
18 One way Christians show respect for the Creator is by our stewardship of creation. Within Catholic social teaching, care for the earth is a requirement of the faith. We are called to protect people and the planet, living our faith in relationship with all of God’s creation.
19 Footnotes 12-18 above give slightly more elaboration on each.
20 Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. Washington, DC: U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1997, 540, paragraph 2240. It reads, “Submission to authority and co-responsibility for the common good make it morally obligatory to pay taxes, to exercise the right to vote, and to defend one’s country.” The Catechism then quotes Romans 13:7, “Pay to all of them their dues, taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.” It also quotes Ad Diognetum 5, 5 and 10; and 6, 10 as found within the Patrologia Graeca 2, 1173 and 1176. “[Christians] reside in their own nations, but as resident aliens. They participate in all things as citizens and endure all things as foreigners…. They obey the established laws and their way of life surpasses the laws…. So noble is the position to which God has assigned them that they are not allowed to desert it.” Finally, it quotes 1 Timothy 2:2, “The Apostle exhorts us to offer prayers and thanksgiving for kings and all who exercise authority, ‘that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life, godly and respectful in every way.’”
21 Smidt, Corwin. “Principled Pluralist Perspective.” Church, State, and Public Justice: Five Views. Ed., P.C. Kemeny. Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2007, 131.
22 Steinmetz, David C. Calvin in Context. New York, NY: Oxford UP, 1995, 204-5.
23 The entire song says:
I was born and raised an orphan in a land that once was free In a land that poured its love out on the moon;
And I grew up in the shadows of your silos filled with grain, But you never helped to fill my empty spoon.
And when I was ten you murdered law with courtroom politics, And you learned to make a lie sound just like truth;
But I know you better now and I don’t fall for all your tricks, And you’ve lost the one advantage of my youth.
You kill a black man at midnight just for talking to your daughter,
Then you make his wife your mistress and you leave her without water;
And the sheet you wear upon your face is the sheet your children sleep on,
At every meal you say a prayer; you don’t believe but still you keep on.
And your money says in God we trust,
But it’s against the law to pray in school;
You say we beat the Russians to the moon,
And I say you starved your children to do it.
You are far across the ocean but the war is not your own,
And while you’re winning theirs, you’re gonna’ lose the one at home;
Do you really think the only way to bring about the peace
Is to sacrifice your children and kill all your enemies?
The politicians all make speeches while the news men all take note,
And they exaggerate the issues as they shove them down our throats;
Is it really up to them whether this country sinks or floats?
Well I wonder who would lead us if none of us would vote.
Well my phone is tapped and my lips are chapped from whispering through the fence, You know every move I make, or is that just coincidence?
Well you try to make my way of life a little less like jail,
If I promise to make tapes and slides and send them through the mail.
And your money says in God we trust,
But it’s against the law to pray in school;
You say we beat the Russians to the moon,
And I say you starved your children to do it.
You say all men are equal, all men are brothers,
Then why are the rich more equal than others?
Don’t ask me for the answer, I’ve only got one:
That a man leaves his darkness when he follows the Son.
24 As quoted in Sockness, Brent W. “Luther’s Two Kingdoms Revisited.” Journal of Religious Ethics, 2002. 20 (1): 93. 25 “Render unto Caesar… and unto God: A Lutheran View of Church and State.” A Report of the Commission on Theology and Church Relations of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod. St. Louis, MO: The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, 1995, 67.
26 For example, see Buschart, W. David. Exploring Protestant Traditions: An Invitation to Theological Hospitality. Downer’s Grove, IL; IVP Academic, 2006.
27 Packull, Werner O. “An Introduction to Anabaptist Theology,” in The Cambridge Companion to Reformation Theology, ed. David V. N. Bagchi and David Curtis Steinmetz. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004, 209.
28 See Stassen, Glen H. “Anabaptist Influence in the Origin of the Particular Baptists,” in Mennonite Quarterly Review 36, no. 4 (October 1962): 34f.
29 For more information on sphere sovereignty, see Domenico, Roy P. Encyclopedia of Modern Christian Politics. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2006, page 102.
30 McLaren, Brian. Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?: Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World. New York, NY: Jericho Books, 2013, 211.
31 I was first struck by this thought by reading Frederick Beuchner’s Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC. New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1973, 73.
32 January 30, 2018
33 http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-politics/donald-trump-state-of-the-union-2018-full- transcript-latest-immigration-fact-check-congress-a8186516.html (accessed on January 31, 2018).
34 Matthew 20:16
35 Chesterton, G.K. Wit and Wisdom of G. K. Chesterton. London: Dodd, Mead, and Co., 1911, 188.