AT 08: The Powers and God's Providential Rule: Church and State, Part 2

by Nigel Wright
Originally Published in Anabaptism Today, Issue 8, February 1995

This is the second in a series that began with The Church and "God's Servant" the State and ended with Respectful and Subversive: Church and State, Part 3

In the first of three articles on church and state, we looked at evidence from both the Bible and the early church. I argued that the state essentially is a concession to human sin, that it is necessary, and that the radical way of Jesus should lead Christians to a certain level of detachment from the ways of worldly power.

We now have the more difficult task of developing a constructive theology of church and state. Colin Gunton once wrote that the church, through the centuries, has made some wrong choices in its relationship to the state. "The church - though it never lacked voices urging otherwise - has acquiesced in crusade and inquisition which deny the values for which Jesus died: fighting the battles of God in the way his mode of victory forbids... We still live in the aftermath of that historical disaster, as in a land polluted long ago by some nuclear accident."

A departure from authentic Christianity

The disaster of which Gunton speaks is the Constantinian reversal in the fortunes of the church, that watershed in the fourth century when emperor Constantine and the Roman imperial government embraced Christianity as a state religion. I take the view that Constantine represents a huge departure from authentic Christianity. From that time on Christianity was pressed into service to provide a religious justification for the exercise of power. By speaking of a "land polluted", Gunton means the church we have received is profoundly defective, polluted by Constantinianism, and stands in need of extensive reform. Gunton goes on to argue that we will not understand correctly the nature of the church unless we first develop a satisfactory theology of the church.

Anabaptists represent a movement of church renewal and restoration. The idea of the true church, of course, is familiar to all branches of Christianity - and often has been used to excommunicate others. Roman Catholics locate the true church around the bishop who is in communion with Rome; Protestants find it where Word and sacrament are rightly preached and administered; radicals find it where two or three come together in the name of Christ.

Traditionally radicals have argued that there is a New Testament pattern of the church we are called to imitate. I don't dissent from that, but do wish to argue at a deeper level. The church must be rooted in the trinitarian God; it must be an agent of God's mission to the world, and it must pursue that mission in continuity with and in imitation of the messianic activity of Jesus Christ now continued among us by the Holy Spirit.

The church is rooted in the being of God because God himself is communion. Through the Son and by the Spirit, believers are drawn into the communion of God's own being and become partakers of the divine nature. God comes to us in the word which is preached, offering participation in his being through faith. The church, therefore, is communion or fellowship. It is made up of those who have been gathered into communion, not of those embraced by an ecclesiastical system or by rituals alone.

God is dynamic, ever moving outwards to embrace the world. To he gathered into God's being is to become part of this mission. The church is a messianic community, sharing the earthly mission of the Messiah. How Christ - the incarnation of God - went about his mission is how we go about ours: "As the Father sent me, so t send you". Jesus pursued his mission by mercy, compassion, identification with outcasts, preaching, healing, liberating, and nonviolence. He incarnated the Word and gathered a community of friends in order to extend the mission through them. His mission came to fullest expression in the self-sacrifice of the cross. When we imitate Christ, fulfilling his mission in his way, we become the messianic community. Only in this way can the church he the agent of God's redemption. The tragedy of Constantine is that, at this point, the church forsook this vocation for another.

Redemption through the church, not the state

Traditional theology has located the state within the "order of preservation" - a temporary expedient which God ordains or allows because of sin; the state is a means of restraining chaos while the world waits to be redeemed. This is a doctrine of a limited state: the state dues not belong to the "order of redemption". It cannot he the means of redemption, which instead is focused in God's activity through the church.

Jesus was crucified by the state. Crucifixion, in the first century, was the form of execution reserved for political offenders and insurrectionists--and this is how the state perceived Jesus. No faith which has the cross at its heart can take a naive attitude towards political authorities. Just as all human sin is revealed at the cross, so the idolatry of human social and political structures also is revealed. The Christian faith is an eschatological faith: it envisages a future that questions the present. This element of future hope makes the Christian faith profoundly revolutionary because it calls the present order into question in the light of a better order which is to come. The Christian faith is a religion of transcendence: it locates the meaning of the world in a God who both embraces the world and lives apart from it. All human realities are relativised in the light of the transcendent Lord, and ultimate reality is due only to him. In the view of these convictions, I argue six propositions about the state:

1. The state is a secular entity. By this I mean that it belongs to this world and to this age. To be secular is not the same as being pagan. I use "secular" to mean "without any pretensions to divinity or ultimate importance". The gospel itself is a secularising power, since it unmasks as a lie the idolatrous pretence of created things. Paul said rulers are "God's servants to do you good" - not objects of ultimate devotion as in totalitarian systems. We today are used to the idea of "civil service", but when Paul spoke of the state as a servant it was unheard of - except perhaps in the history of Israel. What Paul is doing is secularising the state, robbing it of its pretensions to divinity and self-importance. He shows the state as the limited and functional earthly entity that it is.

2. The state is permitted rather than ordained. The best government is direct rule from God, as experienced by Cain when there was a perfect balance of justice and compassion. The best government is what God willed for Israel before they desired to be like the nations and have a king rule over them. God gave king Saul to the people because they were unwilling or unable to accept what God really wanted them to have. Kingship - which intrinsically involved domination and exploitation - was God's permissive ordinance, and it remained a flawed instrument (see 1 Samuel 8:11-22). After Constantine, the church read Romans 13 as legitimising the authority of the government. Yet this was not Paul's original intention (though he is giving the state some kind of legitimation). Rather, he is counselling believers against revolution on the grounds that the powers come under God's providential rule. As in the case of king Saul, however, this is an ambiguous legitimation which questions at the same time that it permits.

3. Each state is a unique configuration. Any actual state is rooted in the human capacity for organisation, and takes form under the conditions of sin and fall from such potential. States may vary in form and are capable of reconfiguration. Because sub-structures that give rise to the state are created entities, they are capable of redemption and reconciliation. But the particular configurations we call states will cease to exist when the kingdom of God comes in its fulness and we enjoy the direct rule of God.

4. Despite their God-given role, all systems of human government are flawed. All systems of government, however stable and peaceful in the present, have their origin in violence and the lust for power - and ultimately are maintained by violence. "The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them," Jesus said, "... But you are not to he like that. Instead, the greatest among you should he like the youngest, and the one who rules like one who serves" (Luke 22:25-26). At party conference time, the agenda is always masked in moral rhetoric; underneath is the naked struggle for power and dominance. The contrast between the way of the world and the way of Christ becomes clear in Jesus' words, "you are not to he like that". Reinhold Niebuhr, in his book Moral Man and Immoral Society, argued that human societies are always less moral than the people who compose them. There is a multiplication of fallenness when it comes to structures as opposed to persons. But in Christ the powers are to be redeemed, restored to their rightful place, and integrated into the communion of all things with their Creator. Here, then, is the paradox: To stress the createdness of the powers at the expense of their fallenness might lead us to fall prey to them. To stress their fallenness at the expense of their createdness might lead us to negate the good they can do. It is only in maintaining the paradox that we judge with sound judgement.

5. The limited, temporal role of the state involves the maintenance of ,justice, peace and freedom. The state needs to he reminded of the role assigned to it by God: to reward the good and punish the evil-doer. God orders the state to provide the structure within which humans may live out their lives peacefully, freely and fairly. However, because it is a fallen structure itself, it will only ever deliver a kind of justice, peace, and freedom. Only God can bring about the full reality.

6. In matters of religion the state is called to be impartial. A referee at a football match is impartial as regards to the sides, but not neutral as regards the rules. The role of the state regarding religion is to provide the framework within which religious faiths might argue and persuade. The duty of the state before God is to maintain religious liberty. Faith in Christ cannot he coerced; it comes though personal response to the gospel. Constantinianism created a hybrid of Christianity and coercive power which denied the freedom of God and the freedom of humanity. Breaking out of the shackles of this inheritance is something we have yet to complete, To argue for state impartiality towards religion is not the same as arguing for indifference. Religious traditions and living faiths play a hugely important rule in any society, shaping lives and fostering personal and civic virtues.

Nigel Wright is a Baptist minister and a tutor in theology at Spurgeon's College in London. He is the author of several hooks, including The Fair Face of Evil and The Radical Kingdom.