On Church and State at Election Time

So, election time has come again, and a lot of people are pretty bummed out about it. But it raises the perennial question: How do Christians (AKA the Church) relate to the State?

There are a lot of old answers to that question. Luther (riffing on Augustine) suggested that there are two Kingdoms, the World and Heaven, and the State is only a part of one of those kingdoms (the world). Unfortunately, this leaves us wide open to the idea that we can separate our politics from what we believe. This notion also informs the (mainly American) idea that we must separate Church and State; people interpret this separation to mean that religion ought to affect our personal beliefs, but not our public actions. Obviously this is impossible.

The separation of Church and State originally meant that the State could not control religion. This was in response to national churches, like the Anglican Church, whose head was (and still is) the Queen; the idea was that politics should not influence the Faith, not that faith should not influence politics. On the other hand, theocracy (the rule of God) is not an option in nations like ours, where Christians are a minority, or even in fully Christian places (it didn’t work out so well for Calvin in Geneva).

So what’s the answer? Do we have any duty to the state?

The New Testament writers (I’m thinking Peter and Paul) told us to be subject to authorities. Paul (Romans 13) tells us to obey the authorities because they are instituted by God – just as Jesus told Pilate, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above” (John 19). Paul is talking about the God-given mandate of government, which is generally agreed to have come from Genesis 9:5-6 – government exists to limit sin and facilitate human life, so if you break the law you’re actually rebelling against God’s good purpose that is there to protect you. But what does that have to do with elections in a democracy?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer (in Ethics) identified 4 or 5 different Divine Mandates: Church, Government, Work/Culture, and Family. He said that these mandates all exist in tension with each other, each limiting the other so that no single mandate has control of all of human life, but all contribute to it. When one of these mandates exceeds its purpose, it must be reined in by the others; and the mandate of the Church is to remind the other mandates of their God-given purpose and function.  So, according to this notion, one of the functions of the Church is to hold up the government to account. But do we do this by voting? Well, that’s certainly an easy option, but not what Bonhoeffer was talking about; to him, we hold government accountable by living the Christian life. Jesus judged the authorities of his day as unjust by living justly, and his unjust death showed the lack of moral authority of the government; to Bonhoeffer, if we live as just, then by comparison we will hold the government accountable to justice.

Karl Barth (in “Church and State”; see my post on it here) came at it from a different direction, focusing specifically on what Paul was saying in Romans 13 about submitting to the authorities. He saw this submission as service: we are commanded to serve the authorities, because they are God’s representatives. But what does he mean by service? Pretty much the same thing as Bonhoeffer; if the government does something that is unjust, then we would best be serving it by respecting what it is supposed to do, and from that respect not allow it to do anything less than govern justly.

But again, what does this mean practically? How does this relate to our participation in a democracy that is not necessarily governing unjustly? Paul, Bonhoeffer and Barth were all faced with the worst, most evil rulers in history – say what you want about Harper, he’s no Hitler or Nero. What is our actual role in a democracy?

Peter’s command to be subject to the State is easier to follow, because he gives a bigger reason. Where Paul basically just says “because it’s the right thing to do”, Peter says “because it’s the right thing to do, and when people see that Christians always do the right thing, it is a witness to Christ.” (hugely paraphrased from 1 Peter 2:11-3:7). So as Christians we should take part in our democracy because it’s the right thing to do (a duty of citizenship), and by doing the right thing we give Christ a good name. But is that the only duty we have as Christians, the generic duty of all citizens? Are we called to more? How should we be involved in our country? Just as importantly, why and how shouldn’t we be involved?



5 thoughts on “On Church and State at Election Time

  1. We must pray for our rulers as individuals (but what of the power of our governments? or the form of our governments?) and do what must be done to bring them to account and live in a manner that calls all to the obedience of Christ. In some sense I would say that we are to be the kinds of citizens that create such a society that it not only brings such blessing to our culture and society as to enrich it and cause the government to necessarily do right, but we also are by this same token the very demise of our culture, society and government. The blessing that we might bring is the blessing that is the undoing of all the kingdoms of this world, but for a time they might mean the blessing of our own government (if but for a time…and then the undoing).

    • Sounds good…but what does that look like?

      One thing that I’m very thankful for in B&B is that they emphasize that we judge our government, or hold it accountable, not by preaching at it but by embodying a better Kingdom; we judge by our good actions, not by our words. Though there is a place for open criticism, but I think that it must follow from right actions.

      So practically speaking, what does that look like?

      • I’m not sure that I can speak beyond abstractions given that I don’t have a concrete immediate situation that I’m encountering at the moment (or one in mind at the moment). I know I’ve encountered such, but nothing is coming to mind right now. It would seem that obedience to the Word, but must be offered as we encounter the disobedience of our government in both of their particularities. Sorry for the abstractness, but that’s how I fly ;-).

  2. “[T]he idea was that politics should not influence the faith, not that faith should not influence politics.”

    Ah, well said, that clarified a longstanding question I’ve had about the meaning of the separation of church and state.

    Glad to see you incorporate Peter into your thinking on the relationship between the church and state. Two years ago when I took a special studies course on 1 & 2 Peter with Michael Gilmour, I developed a deep appreciation not only for those books as a whole, but also for Peter’s focus on public faith. I’m still thinking through what I learned in that course.

    In regards to your questions at the end, I don’t have any firm answer. Most of what I’ve learned is how NOT to go about be involved in one’s country as a Christian 🙂 I guess that’s partly due to reading Hunter’s “To Change the World” last semester.

    My guess is that the answer to your questions lies in first determining what it means to be a global citizen, since, it seems to me, whatever the answer is shouldn’t depend too much on what country one lives in. A global focus helps us get some universal principles from which we can derive more specific instructions for Canadian citizens.

    That’s sort of the general direction my thinking is taking on these matters, though nothing’s settled yet.

    • Very interesting point! I was thinking on a national level, but surely a Christian response should be somewhat univerally applicable. That being said, there is a lot of specificity to politics: even in parliamentary democracies, for example, Canada’s politics looks nothing like Britain’s.

      Because the writers of the NT were writing to specific people in specific contexts, they only really dealt with the issue of how to respond to a state that is persecuting you. From Constantine to now, we’re still trying to figure out how we relate to one that isn’t. So our task, then, is to draw from the specific some points that are globally or universally valid, and then reapply them to the specific….? Or perhaps to discern our own strategy by comparison and analogy to ancient Rome?

      No matter what we do, I think prayer needs to be first.

      And for those of you who are on my facebook, another Jordan has posted some excellent comments on my wall there regarding this post.

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