September 29, 2008

Monday Morning Message - At The Corner of Church and State

Little did I know just how timely this message would be. This message has been rolling around in my heart and head for several months now and on my preaching schedule since July. Imagine my surprise upon discovering that September 28th had been declared "Pulpit Freedom Sunday" by the Alliance Defense Fund. While I wholeheartedly agree with the principle and notion that the government has no right or authority to dictate what is proclaimed from the pulpits of the churches of this nation, I must disagree in point with the manner in which this is being carried out. It would seem that this was an exercise in tweaking the nose of the government. For more on this just keep reading.

All across this great land of ours, in towns very much like the one in which you live, churches sit on the corner of Church and State street. This visible expression of a salient, if inconspicuous, reality is a cogent reminder that at some point church and state do indeed intersect. What is to be the resultant relationship between the two is the lingering and nagging question? Part lesson in history, part commentary on current events, and part exposition of scripture, this message seeks to grapple with this foundational concept of freedom.

I fear that we, both religious and secular, have forgotten our heritage and have wandered into a most dangerous forest. Unless the path to clarity, the path blazed by those who have gone before, is rediscovered we may all find ourselves in places we have no desire to be.

There are four options when it comes to the relation of Church and State. They are as follows:

1. The Church is above the State, a theory held by those who claim that their ecclesiastical head is the Vicar of Christ on earth.
2. The Church is alongside the State, a theory held by the State Churches of various countries.
3. The State is above the Church, a theory held by the totalitarian governments.
4. The Church is separate from the State, championed by Baptists everywhere, and held by those governments that have written religious liberty into their fundamental laws.

As a Baptist it is of particular importance and interest to me to call to remembrance the heritage of religious freedom that is mine. I have often said that as a child I was a Baptist by convenience but as an adult I am a Baptist by conviction. Men like Thomas Helwys and John Smyth, the "George Washington" and "Thomas Jefferson" of Baptist history, along with Roger Williams, that renegade protestant who dared to found a colony upon the principle of religious freedom for all, have left a legacy we all do well to remember. These men, and many others like them, understood that genuine faith cannot be forced or denied by the state.

Thomas Helwys wrote the following into his personal confession of faith,

"That the magistrate is not by virtue of his office to meddle with religion, or matters of conscience, to force or compel men to this or that form of religion, or doctrine: but to handle only civil transgressions (Rom 13), injuries and wrongs of man against man, in murder, adultery, theft, etc., for Christ only is the king, and lawgiver of the church and conscience. James 4:12)." Article 84 of Helwys' confession of faith.

This statement seems innocuous enough to those of us who are the inheritors of the freedom of religious expression. Yet for Helwys, and others of his day, these were words to get a man killed. Indeed they ultimately cost Helwys his life as he died in prison for his views. Daring to defy the king and defend religious liberty for all, Helwys struck a flame that continues to burn to this day; a flame that is threatened by those who would unwittingly blur the lines between the role of the church and the state.

The mixing of these two institutions has a long history of being a patently bad idea. One can look to the tales in current events of persecution of Christians in Muslim and totalitarian states (Visit Voice of the Martyrs for current stories) as well as to the heinous history of Christian persecution of others (even other Christians!) in the not so distant past. Tony Campolo famously stated, "Mixing church and state is like combining ice cream and horse manure. It may not do much damage to the manure, but it's sure going to mess up the ice cream."

While this blurring of the lines is of concern on several fronts, the one that concerns me most is the apparent hijacking of faith for other purposes. In much that I see, hear, and read there is a blasphemous form of worship that is arising. I fear that in many places the worship of the One True God is being substituted by a secular religion worshiping God and Country. I know that sounds terribly un-patriotic, I assure you it is not. I am not anti-American, I'm just pro-God. I am incredibly proud to be a citizen of the USA. I am thrilled that my children have the opportunity to grow up in a nation with unparalleled freedoms. I can't think of another nation I would want to call home. However, as a Christian, my first loyalty is not to the Stars and Stripes, my first loyalty is to the one by whose stripes we are healed.

Note the following statements made by prominent politicians from both political parties. See if you discern a disturbing note in what they say.

"The ideals of the America are the hope of mankind. This light shines in the darkness and the darkness will not overcome it." George W. Bush, 2002

"This country is the last great hope of the planet." Barack Obama, 2008

"The global success of liberty is America's greatest strategic interest as well as its most compelling moral argument...In it rests our faith in the greatness of America, the last, best hope of earth." John McCain, 2002

Do you see it? If you are not a believer you may not see anything disagreeable in these statements. If you are a believer these statements should cause you to pause and consider what is being said. Each of these leaders, and many others like them, state, with clear conviction, "The United States of America is the hope of the world." I must forcefully disagree. There is but one hope of the world and it is Jesus Christ. Paul clearly states that he is "not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God unto salvation." (Romans 1:16) Salvation will not come from Washington, D.C., nor will it flow from the seats of power scattered across the state capitals of this land. Salvation will only be found, for individuals and for nations, in the person and finished work of Jesus Christ. And let me be clear, salvation certainly has to do with an eternal destination but it also has to do with our current situation. Salvation gives the believer no reason to be "so heavenly minded as to be no earthly good."

We must regain the power and influence of the early church which, though brutally persecuted, had a profound impact upon the culture in which it found itself. I challenge any and all to demonstrate from the New Testament any instance in which the church focused on getting Rome to pass laws to alleviate problems of any sort. The early church did not see the government as the solution to the problems of the day, they understood the church to be uniquely situated and uniquely called to address the brokenness in the world. A brokenness that is ultimately not one of systems but spirit.

William Estep, in his essay, Church and State, says, "Undeniably, the separation of church and state does produce a vacuum in society, or a 'naked public square.' In this fact lies the glory and the challenge of religious freedom." On one corner of that "naked public square," at the intersection of Church and State, sits the church. We, the church, are tasked with declaring a simple message to a listening and watching world, Christ died for sinners and rose again. "If the Christian faith is unequal to the task, no amount of propping up will do the job. Then with Thomas Jefferson, I would say, 'Let it fall,' but with Roger Williams and John Leland, I am convinced it will not, for I am persuaded that 'the gospel is still the power of God to salvation' for mankind and nations." (William Estep, Church and State.)

The apostle Peter, writing to a church under severe persecution by the government, gave the following instruction, "Be subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor." (1 Peter 2:13-17) May we follow these goodly and God-ly instructions by...

V - Voicing our concerns to God. In prayer we find the power and perspective to rightly interact with the world in which we live.

O - Opening our Bible and living by it. If this, or any nation, is to be a "Christian nation" it will not happen because of a declaration by those in governance over us but because of the clear conviction of lives changed by the power of God. we will be a "Christian nation" only when we are a nation of Christians.

T- Telling others. Too many believers are content to let their lives do the talking for them. While I readily agree that our walk must match our talk, there must be some talk involved. As Paul stated, "How are they to believe in Him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone telling them?" (Romans 10:14)

E- Engaging and Explaining. I have said it once and I will say it again, the "bomb throwing" tactics of engaging our culture will never produce the desired result. In fact, I question whether biblical foundation can be found for this type of "culture war." Those outside the church are keenly aware of what we are against and many bear the scars to prove it. I wonder how many know what we are for? Jesus stated, "Those who are well have no need of a doctor, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, 'I desire mercy, and not sacrifice." (Matthew 9:12-13) We spend far too much time with the "well" and not nearly enough time with those who are "sick." Something has to change. The church at the corner of Church and State must engage those who think differently, talk differently, and act differently, not to change them into people who look like, talk like, and act like us, but to change them into people who follow Jesus.

"But in your hearts regard Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect." (1 Peter 3:15-16) Does anybody want to know about the hope you have?


Sojourner said...

Ok, did you make up the VOTE acronym. If you don't mind I'm taking it to share with a few people who will benefit from it. You verbalized my own thoughts on the issue of church and state and the power of our Holy God to transcend the power of man and secular government. Worry about our relationship with God first and the rest will fall into place.

John said...

Yes, the VOTE acronym is all mine. Feel free to use it as you will.

I agree that it is relationship to God first and all else follows. I'm simply concerned that we are allowing the "all else that follows" to fall by the way-side. There seems to be an increasing disconnect in evangelical circles between our relationship with God and it's resultant impact on our relationship with our fellow-man.

Thanks again for stopping by.


Jungle Mom said...

I sent the VOTE out to several friends!