AT 07: The Church and "God's Servant" the State, Part 1

by Nigel Wright
Originally Published in Anabaptism Today, Issue 7, October 1994

First in a series that continued with The Powers and God's Providential Rule: Church and State and Respectful and Subversive: Church and State

If you go to the bible for guidance on how God's people should relate to the state, you find a range of possible strategies - some of which seem to he in tension with others. At the time of Ahab and Jezebel, for instance, Elijah came into conflict with a state in rebellion against God. Elijah was part of a faithful remnant which would not obey a corrupt government and bow the knee to Baal. Yet at the same time Obadiah, also faithful to Yahweh, was a top official in the civil service of the apostate king and queen. Obadiah used his position to protect a hundred prophets of Yahweh. Authors of this biblical story regarded both moral stances as acceptable: Elijah speaking from outside the system and Obadiah acting on the inside.

This paradoxical response of God's people to corrupt government reflects some of the ambiguity with which people of the Old Testament regarded the state. The early history of Israel tells of God liberating his people from oppression in Egypt, yet liberation was not an end in itself. The people were set free for the service of God in the Promised Land, and were to come under his direct rule. They were to be distinguished from the nations by their covenant relationship with Yahweh. So Israel in this early period was not a state; nor was she without social institutions or occasional charismatic leaders in the form of judges.

The state as concession to human sin

From these early experiences came the notion that the state is something God's people should suspect. Yahweh's kingship excluded rather than included human kingship! God understood Israel's later request for a king to be a rejection of himself as king (1 Sam. 8:7), even though he eventually gave Israel a king. Indeed, the period of the monarchy overall must he regarded as a period of judgement, throughout which faults of the system became glaringly obvious. Identification of the people of God with a state was never wholly comfortable, and there are hints of conscious distinction between the two. The spirit and accomplishment of Solomon was a reversal of Sinai. The institutional state, like certain other human conditions such as divorce and slavery, was a concession to human "hardness of heart". The prophets reinforced this, accepting the state as God-given but denying it the right to take the place of God.

Israel came to a new stage of relationship with the state during exile. It is significant that this period of Israel's history, in which Israel no longer existed as a separate state, was one of great spiritual fertility. Exiles in Babylon had to come to terms with living as a religious minority within a pagan state. Jeremiah told them to "seek the peace and prosperity of the city" in which they were exiled (Jer. 29:7). The book of Daniel is a fascinating analysis of the extreme dangers and unique opportunities of serving an imperial state. God's people were to witness to the living God in the midst of an idolatrous state.

The exiles were aware of the "beastly" character of empire, and yet chose both to serve and to challenge it in the name of the Lord. They were able to influence the state's policies and to benefit the people of God by their secular career positions. All the same, there was at this stage of Israel's history a deliberate debunking and mockery of Babylon's imperial gods, as evidenced by Isaiah 46 and 47. It is perhaps this period of Israel's history more than any other that has a direct correlation with our own position as those who are "in the world but not of the world".

Jesus and the apostolic church

The central fact of New Testament attitudes toward government is that Jesus Christ was crucified by the state. The creedal clause which affirms that Jesus "suffered under Pontius Pilate" must be a continual cautionary note about too optimistic a view of the state. Once more we find in the New Testament that the saving purposes of God are happening outside and in spite of the power structures of the state. Luke 3:1-3 is a striking example: the word of the Lord bypasses the strong and the mighty, and comes instead to John the Baptist. Once more the idea of a people being formed on the basis of their allegiance to God comes to the fore. God advances his purpose through the faith community which responds to his word.

We can draw insight from a number of New Testament passages:

Luke 4:5-8. Jesus faces a strong temptation to fulfil his messianic ambition through worldly power as politician or revolutionary. The devil claims that the authority and splendour of the world's kingdoms "has been given" to him - without mentioning who gave it. Jesus does not contest or confirm the devil's claim.

John 18:36. Here is a confrontation between two different kinds of kingdom and power. Pilate represents worldly power, Jesus the reign of God. Jesus' kingdom is "not of this world", not because it is reserved to an otherworldly, spiritual sphere, but because it does not use methods of this world (revolution or coercive violence).

Mark 12:13-17. People often quote this as a proof-text to validate the state: God has his realm, Caesar has his, and both make their legitimate demands. Yet Jesus' reply is not so straightforward. He exposes the degree to which Israel has bought into Roman rule: Pharisees and Herodians possess coins which bear Caesar's idolatrous imprint. Israel has become a nation like the other nations, with "no king but Caesar" (John 19:15).

Romans 13:1-7. Many Christians regard this as a pivotal passage for debates on the role of the state, and use it to legitimise government. God ordained the state to punish evildoers, and Christians should obey. Yet the context in which Paul set this teaching is that of following the way of love in relation to one's enemies. The Roman state, which persecutes the church, is one of those enemies. Christians, however, should not rebel but should imitate Christ in relation to the state. There is a kind of legitimation of the state here, in the sense that God permits the powers and overrules them. Yet God's highest will for humanity is his own reign; the state is an expression of human inability to bear God's reign.

Revelation 13. This chapter acts as the counterpoint to Romans 13. The author refers to Rome in its persecution of the saints, and reveals the beastly character of human power systems. In accordance with the nature of apocalyptic literature, the author describes here the potential nature of all human power. All governments have it within them to be idolatrous and to oppose the good; Rome just happened to be the dominant power at that time.

This brief biblical survey leads me to conclude that we cannot simply regard the state as one more part of God's created order. Rather, we must see the state as a configuration of powers under the conditions of fall and sin. The Bible almost universally sees the state in negative and threatening terms, although particular rulers may be regarded in a warmer light. A biblical theology of the state must be a "minimalist" doctrine, ascribing to the state a necessary but limited role - and only ambiguous legitimation.

Diverse perspectives in the early church

What have Christians throughout history made of the relation of church and state in the light of the biblical material? Broad traditions emerged early in church history, and we can associate them with names of prominent early churchmen:

1) The option of Eusebius

Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 265-c.339) was the church historian who chronicled legalisation of Christianity within the Roman Empire. He acted as political theorist of the new relationship between church and state following the "conversion" of emperor Constantine and the Edict of Milan in A.D. 313. Constantine became the champion of Christians, and subsequent emperors systematically persecuted dissenters.

This "Constantinian shift" appeared to represent the triumph of Christianity. Eusebius' task was to give expression to this imperial theology and to legitimise the rule of the emperor as God's chosen. Eusebius called Constantine the "thirteenth apostle" and spoke of him in almost messianic terms. Christianisation of the empire brought with it the principle of territoriality: the empire was Christian, and all that lay beyond its boundaries was barbarian. To fight for the empire was to fight for Christ. Christ was thus reduced to the status of a tribal god, and propagation of the gospel came to be identified with imperial conquests of empire.

The Eusebian option continued through the centuries, perhaps most clearly in Byzantine religion. It also appears in the Protestant notion of the godly prince, and in the idea of the divine right of kings familiar in English history. This is full-blooded Constantinianism - the identification of God's cause with particular nations or dynasties. It is the political philosophy which lay behind the Crusades and the imperial extension of so-called Christian nations. Problems with this option, though, are obvious. It reverses Christ's saying that his kingdom is not of this world. We can ask whether Constantine represented the victory of Christianity over the world or of the world over Christianity. Christianity became the religion of the status quo, justifying the power of the powerful, cutting out dissent and nonconformity.

2) The option of Augustine

Augustine (354-430) was Bishop of Hippo in North Africa and an outstanding theologian. In A.D. 410 Alaric the Hun sacked Rome, inciting some pagans to say this was judgement of the gods for Rome having embraced Christianity. Augustine sought to refute this argument by saying that what really mattered was the heavenly city. There are two cities, he said, distinguished by radically different loves: love of the world and love of God. Augustine characterised the earthly city in negative terms: the state was a band of robbers, not the noble enterprise Eusebius described. Nevertheless Augustine justified the mixed church of his day, stressing universality at the expense of purity. A negative view of the state did not prevent him from calling upon its aid in confronting the Donatists, an African dissident group that broke relations with the Roman Catholic church and advocated rigorous church discipline. He justified the use of state coercion as a form of church discipline; dissidents were to be compelled to come into the Catholic church. Subsequent theology found it possible to develop Augustine's thought in different directions, and I suggest at least three sub-options of his position:

2a. The Lutheran view. This is a "two-kingdom" doctrine: the church and state are two different spheres, one characterised by grace and the other by law. Both are necessary in the struggle against evil. The Christian may share in good conscience in either sphere, and operates in each according to appropriate standards. For instance, as a private person vengeance is forbidden. As a magistrate, however, the same person must exact vengeance. Both actions, though different in their spheres, are loving actions. The church persuades with the Word, the state coerces with the sword.

2b. The Puritan view. Characteristic of Calvin and his followers, this position is unwilling to divide too sharply between the worldly and the churchly spheres. Christ is Lord of all and his authority applies in both realms. The church dues right when it seeks to use powers of the state to further righteousness. The magistrate should act to ensure conformity in matters of religion, and to cut out dissent. This is the historical position of Zwingli s Zurich, Calvin's Geneva, the Church of Scotland, the Church of England, and - perhaps surprisingly - the bulk of English Separatists.

2c. The Free Church view. This is an outgrowth of Puritanism, which adopts the above basic attitude to the state as a power ordained by God for preservation of order. The Christian may serve in government in good conscience, with one significant exception: the area of conscience and religious conviction is beyond the authority of the state. The state is to confine itself to earthly, worldly matters and is not to meddle in areas of conscience. The classic Free Church view rejects any kind of established religion. The state is rightly a secular entity whose task is to hold open freedoms which enable people to make up their own mind in matters of religion. This is the viewpoint pioneered by Baptists in England and is at the basis of the American Constitution, the first article of which guarantees separation of church and state.

3) The option of Tertullian

Tertullian (c. 160-c.215) was a brilliant advocate of Christian faith in North Africa, who late in life joined the charismatic movement called Montanism. Tertullian saw the church as a counterculture, and Christians were to separate themselves. Christ had rejected an earthly kingdom, and Tertullian saw secular powers as not merely alien, but hostile to God. Nonviolence was essential to Christian discipleship, and the church stood as a challenge to politics. The church had withdrawn from politics in order to be a community of love without compromise with power.

Tertullian represents what is called "sectarianism" in sociological terms. Christians are not to desire or compromise with worldly power. Their value to the world consists in being different from it. Sometimes this approach is described as "withdrawal", but it may he better to call it "detachment". We see this tradition both in monastic movements and in some mediaeval renewal movements, which were attempts at radical faithfulness to the way of Christ. Above all we find Tertullian's way of detachment in the sixteenth-century Anabaptists. A new appreciation of the radical way of Jesus led to a deeper perception of the gulf between the way of Christ and worldly power.

Making hard choices and embracing paradox

While the Anabaptists were aware of the fallenness of the state and distanced themselves from it, they also recognised that the state is necessary. A sinful world requires the use of force; rulers are "God's servants". Cyrus, the pagan king, was even described once in Scripture as God's "anointed" (Isaiah 45:1). Anabaptists knew the nonviolent way of Jesus cannot he applied directly to unregenerate society. What we have in the Anabaptists, therefore, is an ambiguous legitimation of the state. The state is necessary because humans rejected God. God permits and providentially orders the state, and we should accept its necessity. That does not mean disciples of Christ settle for second best: they should live as those who have not rejected God, conscious that this sets them apart from the world.

Most of us will have difficulty accepting the more negative view of the state contained in the work of Tertullian. Nonetheless, I want to develop this basic position in my second article. I believe Tertullian's radical stance is the position closest to the biblical witness (especially to the witness of Jesus), and it gives us a highly realistic basis on which to view the political realm. That said, perhaps we need to recognise that over this issue, as in other areas of Christian belief, it is impossible to state the truth without a degree of paradox. A realistic theology of the state, therefore, may need to incorporate elements of the Augustinian tradition.

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