Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Church and State

I am using the common term 'church and state' in a different way as a title for this post. My hope is that some will read it because of the title.

Anyway, I will not discuss 'separation of church and state', but a related matter. I hope to clarify certain debates and assertions that Christians sometimes make regarding political matters as it relates to the Bible.

First of all, we must recognize that God has ordained both government and the church. With that in mind we all know that the church and state perform different functions; otherwise, there would be no need for both. With that said, we also affirm that the church and state occupy the same moral universe. By that I mean that good is the same for both the state and the church. For example, certain commandments are propagated by both. "You shall not steal" and "You shall not murder" come to mind right away.

So it is a good thing that the state enforces these moral laws just as the church preaches against them. But there are some good things that we have found it is best for the state not to do. We do not want the state to favor one religion (even true religion) over another. At one time, governments did this and where it still occurs it is a bad thing.

We will tolerate cults and Satan-worshipers though we know they propagate evil. That is, we tolerate them until they murder, steal, etc. So it seems best to limit the government's role in restraining certain behaviors.

Lately, however, some governments have taken it upon themselves to limit things like 'hate speech' - more so in Europe and Canada than in the US though I suspect we are not far behind. Now Christians can agree that any sort of hatred of another, expressed or not, is a bad thing condemned by Jesus and the NT. But does that mean it should be illegal? And just who gets to define hate speech? Recently, in Sweden, a pastor was jailed for preaching against homosexual behavior. And this is not an isolated incident. (How odd it is that government allows outwardly immoral behavior but outlaws speech and even thought.)

The very reason for our first amendment (freedom of speech and religion) is to keep the state from persecuting the innocent and harming those who are exercising their rights however odious their speech or religion might be. It seems that even law students today have swallowed the idea that the state has the right and responsibility to hinder some speech because it may offend or even make someone feel uncomfortable. Even Jesus would be prosecuted under such a regime. He offended a crowd of thousands by telling them to eat his flesh and drink his blood.

I think most Christians would agree with me on this, but there I believe that there are also times when the state and church ought to play paradoxical roles when it comes to certain issues. One is the issue of illegal immigration. I have heard some suggest that since the Bible tells us to be kind to the alien and to help anyone who is in trouble that that means that we ought to encourage the state to not enforce the law or even to do away with the law.

Here is where we have to have a mature understanding. It is right and good for the state to protect our country (that is its main duty) while the church exercises compassion on those who may have broken the law. If a criminal came to a pastor in need of food and forgiveness, should the pastor not show mercy and try to help this poor soul? Of course he should. But does that mean that the church should try to change the law so the person will no longer be a criminal? Should we tell the state not to enforce the law because Jesus preached love and mercy? Certainly not.

There is no contradiction between the church showing mercy and the state enforcing the law. The biblical injunction to be good to aliens and strangers, in my view, has nothing to do with the government setting reasonable restrictions on immigration. That would be like prison ministries advocating the release of all prisoners on the grounds of mercy.

I like something that Martin Luther said about church and state. He wanted the government to enforce the law and the church to show mercy and to preach the gospel. While the church should not try to enforce the law neither should the state be doing what God told the church to do.

I heard something really bizarre in this past week's debate over whether to let the tax cuts expire. One commentator said that lowering tax rates on the rich was immoral and he tried to use Jesus to back him up. He noted that Jesus told the rich (actually one rich man) to sell all that he had and give to the poor. Well, it is true that Jesus said this but, He never said that the state ought to do this. Jesus just might tell you to do that very thing, but it would still be up to you to do it.

I would argue that the state is immoral when it taxes too much. The state should not greedily consume our resources or do the job of the church.

There is a modern tendency for even Christians to look to government to solve all of our social problems. This is not only a bad thing, it is idolatry. Christians must always look to God for solutions and only push the state to action when it is appropriate. It is especially inappropriate when the state, in trying to do good, accidentally does harm. It is not good intentions that are needed but wisdom to produce positive results.

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