AT 09: Respectful and Subversive: Church and State, Part 3

by Nigel Wright
Originally Published in Anabaptism Today, Issue 9, June 1995

This is the third in a series that began with The Church and "God's Servant" the State and continued with The Powers and God's Providential Rule: Church and State

What is the proper relationship between church and state? In two previous articles1 we looked at the biblical understanding of the state as a concession to human sin. We noted that governments are permitted by God to function, but invariably are flawed and have a limited role in God's design. How then are people of God's kingdom to relate to earthly powers?

Even the language of "church and state" betrays assumptions that we need to question about the "holy tandem" that long has existed between these two institutions. In the age of Christendom2 there were fundamentally only two institutions in society: the church and the ruler. This itself was an advance on the days when there had been only one institution - the ruler who also was regarded as a god or priest. From the beginning Christianity has insisted that there be a dialogue between church and ruler, and this has been a stimulus towards a more open society. But we fool ourselves if we think that church and state are the only social realities with which we have to do. Church and state are two among many actors that make up modern society. One problem of the modern church is that it is a minority which still sometimes acts as though it were a majority. To understand the role of church within society I suggest the following:

1. We need to recover the distinction between the church and the world. I say "recover" because the church of Christendom assumed all people in a given territory were Christians, and wished to obscure the distinction between church and world. The church tried to co-opt the world, leveling out the demands of the faith so that Christianity became accessible to all regardless of whether or not they believed. Radical expectations of the gospel were siphoned off and kept alive in monasteries by those who had a special vocation. Yet Christian faith properly understood looks for a people to be formed upon earth who are not shaped by the world but by a coming reality which already is present: the reign of God incarnated in Jesus of Nazareth. The people of God walk to the beat of a different drum. The church which truly follows Jesus will find itself being, whether it wants to or not, a revolutionary and subversive presence.

2. The first duty of the church is to concern itself with the God revealed in Jesus the Messiah. We do not change the world by trying to change the world! The danger is that the church will allow the world to set the agenda for us, to spell out the terms in which we may be significant. Our task, instead, is to seek first God's kingdom. Humans always have a tendency towards idolatry and self-aggrandisement. The church performs a profoundly important political service when it affirms the demand of God to relate all things to him.

3. The church should recognise that the cause of Christ will never be advanced by means of worldly power. This was the error of emperor Constantine in the fourth century, and it stands in direct contrast to the way of cross and resurrection embraced by Jesus. Power is attractive, and in each generation we need to face and resist its temptations anew. We are tempted to seek worldly power in order to do godly things. Yet those who seek to bend earthly powers to their will eventually find themselves being bent. In this sense Christians are "anarchists"; we are suspicious of power and do not believe God's purposes are achieved by entering into the domination system and using it for supposedly good ends. In keeping with the mission of Jesus, the church is to remain detached from partisan power struggles, and to concern itself with truth rather than propaganda.

4. The church, as the church, should reject any form of alignment with political and governmental authorities. This is traditionally known as the "separation of church and state", and is a fundamental free church axiom. Its rationale lies in the fact that because the powers are fallen, any form of alignment of the church with them is bound to be corrupting. The powers of state inevitably seek to use religion for narrow political ends, to legitimate their own status or policies. Equally the church is tempted to pursue its ends by the illegitimate means of power, privilege and coercion. This is an unholy alliance and a wrong understanding of mission. In its own way it is a form of sectarianism, since it identifies the church with national, localised entities. The gospel, in contrast, calls into being a new humanity which transcends all earthly loyalties. Because it has faith in the crucified One and looks for the coming kingdom of God to replace the kingdoms of this world, Christianity makes an inherently unstable state religion. It is constantly calling the powers that be into question, fostering revolution in a way which does the opposite of what state religions are supposed to do.

5. Separation of church and state does not imply the separation of church from society. Christians follow the example of our Lord when we choose to engage society and live in it. We confess the lordship of Christ over all things. We are concerned to witness to the meaning of Christ for the public square and to see public affairs shaped, as much as possible, by Christian perspectives. Yet Christian influence upon the state must seek to ensure that the state remain properly secular (i.e., avoiding idolatry) and impartial in matters of religious confession (while respecting and safeguarding the place of religious faith among citizens). Christians will call the state to be committed to justice, peace and freedom. However, the state is a human enterprise not built upon faith in God. The state is an accommodation by God to human unbelief. 1n the political realm even Christians will be bound to argue for solutions and remedies which operate with what is humanly possible for a largely unbelieving society. Although shaped by their faith, Christian politicians will not necessarily have distinctively "Christian" policies to offer. There is no more a precise Christian politics than there is a Christian car maintenance. But there are Christian values and concerns which shape the way people are to relate to each other.

6. Despite its detached stance, the church seeks improvement in the social order. The church recognises the fallenness and limitations of all political powers. In this way we guard against false propaganda, delusion and false hope. We refuse to believe that final hope for humanity is found within any. human ideology or political system. Rather, hope is found in Christ. Our basic position of detachment, however, frees us to distinguish between bad and worse, between the less good and the better. These relative judgments are not to be despised. The fact that the powers are rooted in created reality and will be redeemed allows the possibility of improvement in the social order. It is the duty of all Christians to seek such improvement While the church as the church maintains a critical distance from government, this does not exclude the participation of Christian individuals in the legitimate spheres of government.

7. The church can be a major source of inspiration, values and innovation in the humanising process. Because we draw upon divine resources of faith, hope and love, Christians incarnate something new in the world. The justice, peace and freedom which are the responsibility of the state receive definition, in part, through the witness of the church. From within its own life the church is able to offer ways of relating in social organisms which may be translated to the wider community. Historically it is possible to point to the growth of free and democratic institutions in the wake of free church movements. Christians must pay attention to the fostering of their own messianic communities - not only to give glory to God, but also for the sake of their innovative potential for all humanity.

8. The political sphere is important, but no more important than any other sphere of life. The paradoxical view of the state we have developed takes seriously political affairs even while being fully aware of the fallen nature of the powers. While affirming that Christians may have a vocation in politics, we wish to resist the notion that human life can be defined by politics or that the political sphere is more significant than any of the other spheres of human life. Much political endeavour proves incapable of achieving the desired end. Christians may have a greater and longer term impact for good in many

other vocations. We resist the notion, therefore, that it is of particular importance for Christians to enter political life. We believe the purposes of God's kingdom may often be advanced more effectively in other ways.

9. In any sphere of life it is our duty to obey God when con-fronted with demands at variance with faithful discipleship. Within a fallen world system in which God is ignored, it is inevitable that certain actions are deemed necessary for preservation of the system. Christians may come under pressure to lie, conceal, misrepresent, or even to kill. Living in the world means that no Christian can avoid relative judgments or ambiguity. We live in the assurance of forgiveness and justification by. faith. However, because we live by faith in the God of resurrection and infinite possibility, no Christian is bound by the false logic of fallen systems. We need to have courage to trust God. This sometimes will lead to conscientious objection through which the Christian exercises his or her witness.

10. It is the duty of Christians to work for the reduction of all forms of violence and coercion. Christians are followers of a Messiah who rejected the use of violence in pursuit of his cause, and chose the way of the cross rather than return evil for evil. The command "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good" (Romans 12:21) must be taken as foundational to the ministry of Jesus and of all Christians. This creates a considerable tension between the Christian and a world in which violence is regarded as necessary and even on occasion praiseworthy. Utopia will elude us, but it is realistic to work of the minimising of all violence wherever possible, including the use of force by governments.

Until this summer Nigel Wright was a tutor in theology at Spurgeon's College in London. In his recent doctoral thesis he compared and contrasted the theologies of Jurgen Moltmann and John Howard Yoder. He recently moved to Manchester to be senior pastor at Altrincham Baptist Church.


1. See Anabaptism Today 6 (October 1994:9-14) and 7 (February 1995:16-20).

2. By "Christendom" I mean the era of European history beginning with Constantine in the fourth century, during which time church and state worked closely together to make all subjects in a given territory "Christian". Vestiges of Christendom still shape European society today.