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What about Church and State?

June 29, 2008

Romans 13:1-7

Today, we continue our series Questions Raised by the Writings of the Apostle Paul. On this Sunday before Independence Day, it only stands to reason that we would consider the question of the relationship between the church and state. I invite you to turn with me to Paul’s letter to the Romans, Chapter 13. I want to read the first seven verses. Hear now the Word of God.

Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience.
This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants who give their full time to governing. Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes; pay taxes, if revenue, revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.

This is the Word of God for the people of God.

I remember when President Jimmy Carter, then candidate Jimmy Carter, was running for president. He said that he was a “born-again Christian.” The Washington press corps nearly went nuts, trying to figure out what that phrase meant. They were absolutely baffled, befuddled, and amused that this peanut farmer from Georgia would dare speak so publicly about his faith and beliefs. That seems now like a long time ago. God-talk has come into the public forum. People now speak openly about God and religion, about any subject, and almost on any occasion.

We see religious God-talk in the media. You only have to listen to people like Rush Limbaugh or watch programs like The Larry King Show, The O’Reilly Factor, or even The Colbert Report to see that religion has come into the public forum. Scripture passages such as John 3:16 appear in the end zone at football games. Professional football players huddle for prayer before or after a game. All kinds of news magazines and television channels carry religious God-talk. People are not only talking about religion freely, but it seems as if people are also required to speak about religion on almost every occasion.

We are certainly one of the most religious nations, maybe the most religiously diverse nation on the planet, which presents to us a real issue. How can we live as Christians, as those who have a commitment to Christ, and also live as American citizens with a commitment to our country? How can we be loyal to both our faith and our country? How do we interpret separation of church and state? We certainly want to make our faith relevant to all of the political issues, especially moral issues. We want to have conversation about religion, but we do not want to drag religious faith through the mud of political campaigns. How do we give religion its due without promoting what might be called a civil religion, confusing religion and nationalism?

We need to think clearly about this issue as Christian people. I must tell you that I believe we have two kingdoms: the kingdom of this world and the kingdom of God. As Christians, our primary allegiance is to the kingdom of God. As citizens, we also have responsibilities, as our Scripture today informs us.

I heard a story about a rancher in Idaho who raised sheep. One day, a fellow wearing a coat and tie showed up at his ranch. This man asked, “If I can tell you exactly how many sheep you have, will you give me one of them?”

The rancher thought that it would be impossible for this man to tell him exactly how many sheep he had, so he answered, “OK. You tell me exactly how many I have, and I’ll give you one.”

The man answered, “You have 1,758 sheep.”

The rancher was astounded. That was exactly how many sheep he had. He told the man in the coat and tie, “You can have one of my sheep.”

The man had seen pictures of Jesus carrying a sheep on his shoulder, so he picked up an animal and put it on his shoulders, holding its legs on each side.

The rancher then asked, “Before you go, if I can tell you what your job is, would you give back my animal?”

The man thought, There is no way this man knows what I do for a living. He agreed to the proposal, “OK, you tell me what I do for a living, and I’ll return the animal to you.”

“You work for the government.”

The man exclaimed, “That’s exactly right! How did you know that?”

“Well, if you’ll put down my Shetland sheepdog, I’ll tell you.”

The truth is that we have lost a lot of respect for government officials, for political figures. You only have to look at the election returns in our own county, our own district, to see that we have turned out some incumbents.

We need to think about what the Scripture tells us about the relationship between church and state. Remember, please, that in the Jewish mindset, this relationship was a very important issue. The Jews had a vivid memory that went back generations. Every year, they celebrated the Passover as a way of remembering a time when they were in bondage as slaves in Egypt, a time when they lived under tyranny. They remembered that God had liberated them and delivered them from bondage. They became a loose confederation of tribes living in the Land of Promise after years of wandering. They cried out to Samuel, asking for a monarch, for a king. God did not want them to have a king. God told Samuel that their cries for a king were not a rejection of Samuel but a rejection of God’s sovereignty. He instructed Samuel to give them what they wanted.

The first king, Saul, was a very charismatic leader. He was also very sick, very suspicious. We might even say that he had some sort of bi-polar disorder. Then David, the best of the lot, ruled. He, too, had flaws. Next came Solomon, who was wise in so many ways, but unwise in his choice of a wife. He had a thousand wives. Solomon put heavy burdens on his people, taxing them beyond reason.

Then the monarchy divided, split, between north and south. A few good kings reigned, but most “did evil in the sight of the Lord,” the Scripture says. Finally, the people were sent into exile in Babylon, where they lived again in a kind of tyranny. After a period of freedom, the Greeks invaded under Alexander the Great, bringing still more tyranny. Following a time of self-rule that went badly, the Romans invaded the land. At the time of Jesus, the people of Israel were living in land occupied by this foreign army. Everything we read in the New Testament happens against this background of Roman occupation in the land of Israel. We see this tension in the ministry of Jesus, but we also see it in the letters of Paul.

Paul was indebted to the Romans. Because he lived in Tarsus, which had been designated a free city, Paul was considered a Roman citizen. Paul could never have traveled the way he did if the Romans had not been such skilled builders. They had constructed a series of roads throughout the Roman Empire. Paul was able to travel in relative safety because of his Roman citizenship. Even when his life was threatened, he appealed to that citizenship, which gave him refuge. Paul was also indebted to the Roman Empire for the Greek language, which became the language used by the common person throughout the empire. Everywhere Paul went and in all of his letters, he used this language, known as Koininia Greek.

A treaty called the Pax Romana, meaning “Peace of Rome,” guaranteed religious tolerance, regardless of beliefs as long those beliefs were not imposed on others. The emperor started imposing his “divine right,” as he called it, on the people and wanted people to declare that Caesar was lord, not Jesus. Because of that issue, Christianity came into conflict with the Roman Empire.

In the year 49 A.D., Claudius expelled all Jews from the city of Rome because a riot had occurred. This exclusion impacted the church in Rome. One particular church in Rome had both Gentile Christians and Jewish Christians. Those Jewish Christians also had to move out of town. The next emperor, Nero, seemed to be a good leader at first. His decision to allow all Jewish people to return created a problem within the church. The Gentile Christians had been operating without the Jewish Christians, and now the church was trying to combine these two groups. It was against that backdrop that Paul wrote his important letter to the Romans, probably about 57 A.D. and probably from Ephesus.

In Chapter 13, Paul writes about the emperor in a favorable way. Remember that Paul was indebted to the Roman Empire. Nero seemed to be a good emperor, but he turned out to be just the opposite.

In this letter, Paul discussed three characteristics about the relationship between the Christian church and the state government. First, God is sovereign. God is in charge. He says that the reason we have government at all is because God is sovereign. Second, these governmental leaders are regarded as servants of God. Third, Christians are to be obedient to those government leaders simply because they receive their authority from God. In doing so, the Christians are obedient to God. It is there that we find the rub. It is there that people have trouble with this passage.

Romans 13 and a section in I Peter seem to endorse the state government – in this case the emperor of Rome. The Scriptures state that we are to be obedient, even if we suffer. These passages were never intended to endorse tyrants and dictators. They do not endorse Stalin or Lenin or Hitler or Mussolini. They do not endorse Mugabe in Zimbabwe right now. We must never think that the letter was an endorsement of tyrannical leadership. As Christians living in this country, we must understand that we are to be obedient to a government composed of leaders who recognize the sovereignty of God, who recognize their servant role. That is the scriptural background.

The Bible offers some great examples of civil disobedience. Take for example, Daniel who was told not to pray in his accustomed manner. He was told to bow down to an idol. Daniel made the decision to continue praying to His God, believing that God, not Nebuchadnezzar, was sovereign. For disobeying that law, Nebuchadnezzar had him thrown in the lion’s den. Peter and John had been preaching and teaching in Jerusalem. When brought before the Sanhedrin and told not to speak or preach about Jesus anymore, their answer was, “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God” (Acts 4:19). Of course, their decision was to obey God.

Nero became a large problem for the ancient church. His way of urban renewal was simply to burn all the slums of Rome in 64 A.D. He himself probably did not set the fire, but he more than likely ordered it. Such an outcry by the Roman citizens arose that Nero did what was most convenient; he blamed the Christians. His response set off the worst persecution of Christians to that point in ancient time.

The separation of the church and state in this country is a concept that originated during Colonial times. The colony of Georgia was actually populated by a man named Oglethorpe, who was charged with the responsibility of emptying the prisons of Britain and bringing those prisoners to the colonies. Georgia basically consisted of prisoners. My wife is from Georgia. She and her family have always said they were not prisoners; they were prison guards. Other people from Georgia have made that same claim. I have never heard anyone claim that they actually descended from those prisoners.

South Carolina was a business enterprise. The eight lord proprietors allowed anyone who could turn a profit into this colony. Because the proprietors did not care what others believed, Charleston now has a diversity of churches and worship centers. One of the earliest synagogues in the United States is located in Charleston. The Scot Presbyterian Church, the French Huguenot Church, and the Circular Congregational Church all came. As long as the settlers could make a profit, they were welcomed to South Carolina.

This was not the case in other colonies such as the Massachusetts Bay Colony and Plymouth Colony. The Puritans and Pilgrims, the primary settlers, insisted that other colonists adopt their religious practices. Catholics inhabited Maryland, especially in the Baltimore area, with Quakers going to Pennsylvania. In the area known as the Dutch Reformed area, the New Netherlands, which became New York and New Jersey, the Dutch Reformed Church became the official church. All other religious practices were outlawed.

A protest called the Flushing Remonstrance occurred at what is now the Queens area of New York. People signed a petition saying it was not right that their way of belief had been outlawed. These petitioners were promptly imprisoned. This country lacked a uniform freedom of religion. Numerous groups came here because of their desire to have freedom of religion. Once they arrived, however, they wanted everyone else to adopt their way in many places. One exception was in Pennsylvania. William Penn welcomed anyone of any faith. Another was Rhode Island, where Rogers Williams, a Baptist pastor, welcomed everyone.

At the beginning, a real awareness existed on the part of the people we call Founding Fathers and Mothers to open this country to freedom of religion. Early in his presidency, George Washington received a correspondence from a synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island. They were concerned about whether or not they would have religious freedom. Washington responded to them and said, “All possess alike liberty of conscience and the immunities of citizenship.” He went on to say the United States had no room for religious bigotry.

Baptists had a great influence in all of this. A pastor named Isaac Backus, who, early in 1773 before the Revolution, said that only by religious freedom can any country hope to have any degree of happiness, can any country hope to have the blessings of God. Roger Williams first used the term “a hedge of separation” in reference the separation between “the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world.” Thomas Jefferson adopted that language when he wrote to a group of Baptists in Danbury, Connecticut, concerned that the Congregationalists in that area were going to deny them their religious liberty. In his letter, Jefferson used the term “a wall of separation between church and state.” That phrase has been used now in Supreme Court decisions, in legislative law. It has become the way we talk about this relationship between church and state.

Very early on, Baptists were among those who carried the banner for separation of church and state. In fact, our own Baptist Faith and Message – amended three times, though the language at this point has never changed – affirms that every person should have freedom, not only freedom of religion but also freedom of conscience.

Lately, we have seen a shift. We might even call it an erosion. Consider two pastors of the same church. In 1920, George Truett, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, Texas, spoke at the Southern Baptist Convention in Washington, D.C. On that occasion, he said that Baptists have a consistent record concerning liberty of religion throughout their long and eventful history. They have never been a party to promote the oppression of conscience. They have forever been champions of liberty, both religious and civil. Our fundamental essential principles have made Baptist people the unyielding protagonists of religious liberty, not only for themselves but for everybody else.

Sixty years later, the pastor of the very same church, W.A. Criswell, being interviewed by CBS Evening News, said, “I believe this notion of separation of church and state was the figment of some infidel’s imagination.” The infidels he was referring to are Roger Williams and Thomas Jefferson.

We have moved away from the separation of church and state. A book I read while in seminary – one every seminarian and every thinking Christian should read – is Christ and Culture, by Reinhold Niebuhr. He writes about five ways of thinking about the relationship between church and state for a Christian. First, we can think of Christ as being against culture, rejecting culture. We might think of the Amish people’s withdrawal from things of the world, their lack of involvement, as an example. Second, we might think of the exact opposite, viewing Christ as part of culture. It is adopting whatever the culture throws at you into personal faith, without distinction, without discernment. The third view – that Christ is above culture – is a kind of theological arrogance. We think we know better than anybody else and adopt a “holier than thou” attitude. The Pharisees possessed that attitude. We might take the fourth approach – that of Christ and culture in paradox. We often find ourselves making decisions about whether the Ten Commandments can be here or here, making decisions about what can be on a license place, making decisions about who can pray and where they can pray. I love what Senator Sam Irvin said, “Prayer will always be in public schools as long as students have algebra tests.” He is right.

The fifth choice, the one Niebuhr endorses, involves Christ transforming culture. How can we, as Christian people, be agents of transformation in the culture in which we live? I want to suggest several ways. First, we must acknowledge our own limited perspective. Pascal said, “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from a religious conviction.” That is true. Some of the great atrocities of this world have been committed in the name of religion. Think about the Spanish Inquisition. Think about some of the events happening in the world right now. Let me just say that fundamentalism, in whatever form, seems to be always dangerous, regardless of whether it is Islamic fundamentalism, Jewish fundamentalism, or Christian fundamentalism. Basically fundamentalism is putting blinders on and saying, “The way I see it is the only way.” This approach disregards the perspective of other people.

A second way we can transform culture is to remember that we need to respect even those who disagree with us. We are not always going to agree with others, but we can always be respectful. Let me tell you just about our own denomination. Jesse Jackson and Jesse Helms are both Baptists. Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton are both Southern Baptists. Barbara Jordon and Bill Moyers are both Southern Baptists. Walter Rauschenbusch and Billy Graham are both Baptists. Martin Luther King and Lester Maddox are both Baptists. A lot of diversity exists, even among Baptists. Many differences of opinion are evident. We do not have to agree, but we do have to be respectful.

Third, never diminish your Christian witness by demeaning other people. Screaming outlandish diatribes never helped anyone. Speak the truth in love. Speak your conviction, but speak it in love.

Fourth, do not fall into the trap of civil religion. I can wave a flag as enthusiastically as anybody. I love our country, but nationalism is idolatry. We do not need to buy into that. Our faith is in God alone. Every single one of us certainly has a duty to our country, but we must never forget that God is sovereign.

I will never forget the day I came over an overpass on Interstate 75 and looked down into an Iowa cornfield. When I saw an Islamic mosque, I was shocked. I reflected, If I went to Saudi Arabia, I would have a hard time finding a Baptist church. Only in the United States of America, can you find an Islamic mosque in an Iowa cornfield. That is what “liberty and justice for all” means. That is what religious liberty means. It may grate on us. It may be abrasive to us, but that is what religious liberty is.

Fifth, the pulpit is not a political platform. The church is not a place for political rallies. It is certainly fine to be involved. Run for office if you feel led to do so. Campaign for your candidate. By all means, vote. In church, we come to honor the Lord Jesus Christ. We come as people of diversity who do not all think the same or vote the same. We all come to honor Christ.

Sixth, five years after Paul wrote the book of Romans, he was in prison. Three or four years after that, he was beheaded. The persecutions and terrible suffering under Nero were almost beyond imagination. It is why the book of Revelation called Rome “the beast.” The Empire acted beastly toward Christians. Thousands of people gathered in the coliseum and watched as tigers and lions chased Christians sewn up inside the skins of animals and dragged around the arena. Finally, the Christian was cut loose, leaving the big cat to maul that skin and the Christian inside.

For pleasure, some of the emperors ordered for the Christians to be tarred and crucified along both sides of the highway into Rome. As the emperors rode into Rome at night, runners went ahead, igniting those crosses and lighting the way into the city. During that time of suffering, people gathered beneath the city streets in a network of tunnels called catacombs. There they prayed that the Roman Empire would be transformed. It took a while, but God did transform the Roman Empire. The single most important thing we can do as a church to transform the state is to pray. The single most powerful thing we can do is pray. God transformed the Roman Empire. He can do it again. He can transform the United States of America.

Do you know Christ Jesus? Have you accepted him as the Lord of your life? That is where the Christian walk begins, where discernment about the relationship between church and state begins. We simply want to follow Jesus and honor him with our lives. If you have never made that decision, we invite you to do so.

© 2008 Kirk H. Neely

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