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Supplements » Freedom, The Church and The State (January 2007)
Freedom, The Church and The State by David Holloway
How should Christians relate to the State? The following is an updated and edited version of a sermon preached in 2006. Undoubtedly in 2007 there are going to be many issues relating to "religion and public life". To think clearly and respond adequately we need to have a basic understanding of the relationship between Freedom, the Church and the State (DRJH).
Freedom in the West is a supreme value. But the State, certainly in Europe, is becoming more and more intrusive. On the one hand, over the last 200 years many have come to believe that human beings should live with virtually no restraints, especially in regard to marriage, sex, human procreation and human dying. Yet, on the other hand, Parliaments and local governments are enacting laws or bringing in regulations that restrict other freedoms and even enforce compliance with immorality. Examples are the banning of Christmas celebrations and the proposed Sexual Orientation Regulations currently going through Parliament. As one social commentator has well said: "Government itself becomes unlimited when liberty itself is thought to be unlimited."
Many, and not just Christians, are worried as they see things going wrong. They are going wrong because genuine political liberalism is the fruit of the Christian gospel. As that gospel is lost, you lose the freedom that the West (and the world) so cherishes. True freedom comes from facing the truth. Jesus said: "the truth will set you free" (Jn 8.32). Many others today have so relativized "truth" that for them truth has no significant meaning and, therefore, is powerless. For such people "freedom" seems little more than the irrational gratification of immediate desires without obstruction.
The Biblical view of freedom and the State
We must start at the very beginning - with the book of Genesis, the Garden of Eden and Genesis 2 verses 15-16:
"The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. And the Lord God commanded the man, 'You are free to eat from any tree in the garden'."
Here was the primeval freedom - "you are free to eat from any tree." This reflects the fact that there are vast areas for choice and freedom in life. But there are also boundaries (verse 17):
"You must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die."
The trees are symbolic, but their message is clear. Human freedom has its limits - limits that you are free to ignore but at a price. To transgress those limits means death, later if not sooner, and spiritually and eternally as well as physically. It is as serious as that, and Adam and Eve had to learn that lesson as have all succeeding generations. The tragedy was that Adam and Eve were seduced by the devil's temptation to believe that freedom is absolute, and absolute freedom painless. When the serpent said (Genesis 3.4), "you will not surely die", they believed the serpent and not God. All hell, literally, broke out as you read in the following pages of the Bible. Adam and Eve had started a culture of sin that has affected us all.
But the Bible then tells us how God, the maker of heaven and earth, started to put things right. He chose Abraham and, through Abraham, the nation of Israel to be a special people. To this people alone he made known his true character of love and mercy as he taught them his will for the right ordering of human life. This divine will concerned the whole of life, public and private. That is evident from the first five books of the Bible, the Prophets and the Wisdom literature. These speak of matters relating to politics, law, economics, hygiene, education as well as religion. Furthermore, all Israel needed to obey God's word and will. Without that obedience the nation would suffer. But did the people consistently obey? No!
After the Exodus from Egypt and now in the promised land, you read in the book of Judges the refrain, "everyone did as he saw fit." This was licence, or freedom gone wild. However, that statement was preceded by the words: "In those days Israel had no king; [everyone did as he saw fit]" (Judges 21.25).
You then come to the book of 1 Samuel and the account of Samuel, now old, appointing his own sons as judges. They were a disaster (1 Samuel 8.4-5):
"all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah. They said to him, 'You are old, and your sons do not walk in your ways; now appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have.'"
This request, however, for a king was a sign of rebellion against God. Had the people obeyed and kept God's law under the judges, there would have been social order and a strong nation. A king would not have been needed. But they did not obey. Samuel is told by God to appoint a king, nevertheless. At the same time he is to warn the people solemnly and "let them know what the king who will reign over them will do" (verse 9). The rest of chapter 8 is then about the oppression and corruption that kingship will bring.
The demand for a king, therefore, was the result of Israelite apostasy - of the people of God rejecting and disobeying God. But God, by authorizing kingship, is making provision to control the worst results of human sinfulness. That is what government and state structures are - God's provision to curb the worst excesses of human sin and, as much possible, to encourage what is good. This is the clear teaching of the New Testament. In Romans 13 you are told in verse 1 that the political authorities "have been established by God". What is more, Romans 13 verse 4 says a ruler "is God's servant to do you good." Note five things that follow from this and are related.
First, if God establishes political leadership with political leaders being his servants, no political authority is finally sovereign. All political authorities are subordinate to God.
Secondly, political power is not the way to sort out all life's problems and life's basic problems. For that, not social order but lives needs changing. You need the gospel of Jesus Christ, who is the King of kings and whose kingdom was and is not of this world (John 18.36).
Thirdly, political authorities (or the State) alone can use force - whether the force of law or the force of arms. Romans 12 verse 19 says: "Do not take revenge, my friends, [as individuals, that is] but leave room for God's wrath." Chapter 13 then shows that God has delegated his "wrath" (or "avenging") to the State. He authorizes the State alone to use force for punishment.
Fourthly, and by contrast, the power of the Church does not come from the use of force. Here is one of the great differences between Christianity and Islam. The Christian is only to use the spiritual power of preaching, teaching the gospel, prayer and obedience - obedience to the Great Commission to evangelize and the Great Commandment to love God and then your neighbour. "The gospel … is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes" (Rom 1.16).
And, fifthly, one day all political and state power will end. The days of freedom for men and women to accept God's free forgiveness through the Cross of Christ and to receive new life by the power of the Holy Spirit will be over. Then, when Christ returns, we will see God's judgment and triumph. That final destiny is not simply for individuals, but also for the entire created order. Romans 8.21 tells us that "the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God."
Of course, this is beyond human imagination. But our imaginations are helped by thinking not just of redeemed individuals but also of a new heavens, a new earth and a holy city. We are to look forward to this holy city as a new heavenly social order. Meanwhile, as we wait, surely we ought not to ignore God's will for this temporary earthly social order that we now have to fashion. We should, therefore, be concerned with issues such as freedom and the State.
So how have Christians handled these issues over the years? This is only an outline, but the story is something like this. The first three centuries of the Church's life saw Christians as a minority. When necessary, however, they were in the Public Square and refusing to call a Roman emperor "Lord". They knew that Jesus Christ, the divine Son of God, alone is Lord. For this refusal many were martyred.
Then in the 4th century the Emperor (Constantine) became a Christian. He wanted the church to help renew the collapsing pagan society. This meant the church working with a political order it had not created. Also there were now, for people in the Roman Empire, two distinct structures of authority - the Church and the State. Working out that relationship ever since has involved bitter conflicts and is never finished. Right at the start the Church did not want doctrinal disputes settled by the Emperor. But the Emperor wanted doctrinal disputes settled somehow for the sake of political peace and good order. To that end he took some initiatives like convening the Council of Nicea.
Furthermore, there were differences between the eastern and western parts of the Roman Empire. No longer Rome but Byzantium (modern Istanbul) in the East was the seat of both the Emperor and a patriarch (an eastern "pope" or archbishop). The power of the emperor was, of course, great; so the eastern patriarch became subordinate. This "subordination" in the East has lead the Eastern Orthodox churches sometimes to be too subordinate to the State as in Russia in the 20th century. In the West, however, at Rome, now with no resident Emperor, there was only the Bishop of Rome (or "pope"). His power, therefore, became relatively great - sometimes too great. When in AD 800 a Pope created a rival emperor in the person of Charlemagne, the great schism, or separation, between the Orthodox East and the Catholic West in 1054 was almost bound to happen.
Then five centuries later came a second great separation - this time within the Western half of Christendom. This separation was the 16th century Reformation. From Constantine's time, faith commitments were often territorial as people followed the beliefs of their leaders (their kings or emperors). But at the Reformation these territorial lines of belief were not so neat and tidy. Believers on both sides of theological divides were living much more side-by-side. So when political leaders tried to force religious uniformity, as in England, the result was bloodshed and civil war. In some areas, therefore, in the 17th century too often Europe saw professing Christian fighting professing Christian.
But in England, not least from the Puritans who had suffered from the Act of Uniformity of 1662, there was pressure for religious freedom. Men like John Milton saw the need for, and helped secure, press freedom in 1694. Then came John Locke (a pupil of the Puritan John Owen) and his famous Letter of Toleration in 1689. Locke argued that the State should never enforce a particular religious belief. If, however, the ruler was a Christian, as an individual and without the force of the law he should certainly evangelize. Locke was arguing for freedom of thought and belief, not restriction of thought and belief. This toleration, too, was secured; but it was not absolute licence or freedom. In civil society, Locke argued, men committed themselves to various laws and institutions to protect their liberty. "Wherever law ends," wrote Locke, "tyranny begins." So began classical Western liberalism.
This liberalism, though, never tolerated (in terms of speech) sedition, blasphemy, obscenity or libel; or (in terms of action) sexual licence or allegiance to foreign powers. Most importantly, all was grounded in a belief in God. A great example of this liberal tradition, the US Declaration of Independence, says that "certain unalienable rights" of all people to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" are "endowed by their Creator". So lose belief in God, and before long you lose human rights. If man is not seen as made in the image of God but as a throw up of nature, there are no rights. As the 19th century atheist Nietzsche had the honesty to say, "if there is no God, everything goes." And sadly belief in God was being lost in the 19th century.
At that time the philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote his book On Liberty. He argued that not only thought, belief and speech should be free, but so should all actions, except those resulting in social harm from obvious violence or attack. It took one hundred years for Mill's ideas to gain acceptance. That was because people continued to believe that sexual immorality could still bring moral harm. Mill's acceptance, however, came in 1957 with the British Government's Wolfenden Report on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution. That Report echoed Mill's theory completely and so validated sexual licence in an unprecedented way. The rest, as they say, is history.
So we now have increased freedoms; and the State holds that it has no business either with religion or morals - Tony Blair's (or Alistair Campbell's) "we do not do God" (and they certainly do not do Christian morality). The result, however, is not the disestablishment of religion and morals, but the establishment of a new religion and a new immorality. That is because neutrality is impossible. The State in the West now controls education, the electronic media and the therapeutic services. This in turn has led to God and Christian morality having little place in our schools, universities, on the Radio or TV, or in our hospitals, surgeries and clinics. But there has to be some criteria against which problems are solved. By default (and unacknowledged), this criteria now comes from the religion of secular humanism or more precisely materialistic naturalism. And Christians have been allowing this to
happen. We have been too passive. But all is changing. Religion and basic morality are coming mainstream. For one thing, social science has now shown that marriage break-ups and sexual immorality brings measurable social harm.
For religion, a critical date was 1979 when the Ayatollah Khomeini replaced the secular rule of the Shah of Iran. The British Ambassador in Tehran at the time reportedly said that this event would rank, in the perspective of history, with the French Revolution of two centuries earlier. The Muslim resurgence world-wide that has followed certainly means that religion and basic morality are being talked about once again in Parliaments and the Public Square. For Muslims, unlike many Christians, do not say, "we must keep quiet in public about our religious and moral beliefs." They assert them without fear or embarrassment. God seems to be allowing a religion that believes in force and violence to bring judgment on the West. How important, therefore, that Christians should now speak up in public about their own religious and moral beliefs.
Jesus answer to how the individual should respond to the State and to the relationship between Church and State, is given in Mark 12. The Pharisees and Herodians were trying to trap Jesus. They asked about the rightness (or not) of paying taxes to Caesar - Mark 12.15: "Should we pay or shouldn't we?" The word for "pay", however, was the word "give". They were asking, literally, "shall we give or shall we not give" taxes (as the Authorized Version translates it)?" - as though taxes were voluntary payments! The issue was the poll-tax. The Romans levied this each year on every adult Jewish male; and it was deeply resented. It was a sign of national subjection. It also had to be paid in coins carrying the Emperor's head. This upset Jewish scruples on "images". So to help ultra-strict Jews special coins were minted without the Emperor's head. "But," verses 15-17...
"... Jesus knew their hypocrisy. 'Why are you trying to trap me?' he asked. 'Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.' They brought the coin, and he asked them, 'Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?' 'Caesar's,' they replied. Then Jesus said to them, 'Give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's.'"
Jesus knew that their scruples were not real. He knew that the denarius was in regular use in Judea and would have been in their pockets. It was. By showing Jesus the coin, these people admitted they were accepting all the benefits of Roman economic stability and political order. They, therefore, had a duty to pay the tax. So Jesus says in verse 17, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's". But Jesus' word "give" is not the simple word for "give" used earlier but a compound word meaning "give back" or "pay back what is due". The Authorized Version translates it as "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's". It is a duty. So, our first response in practical terms is to contribute to State power - for money is power. We then have a duty as Christian citizens to work for that power being used rightly and morally, as much as we can.
Our second response is to understand that on the one hand God provides fallible institutions like the State and civil government for our good. We, indeed, need Caesar (or his equivalent) in this fallen world. Some like the Zealots in Jesus' day, and many Muslims today, would deny that. They deny the legitimacy of Caesar. But that is the way to the loss of legitimate freedoms.
On the other hand, Jesus is saying "No!" to any who deny the legitimacy of God in the Public Square. This is done by those millions in the West who aggressively embrace Godless secular humanism or materialistic naturalism. It is also a "No!" to those who believe that Caesar and mere social change will solve life's basic problems. They will not. For that you need the gospel of sins forgiven and new spiritual life. Yes, when Caesar orders what God forbids or forbids what God orders, Caesar has to be disobeyed (Acts 5.29), otherwise we are to submit to the State.
And we are to pray for "Caesar" and the State. That is to be our third response - 1 Timothy 2.1-4 says:
"I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone - for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Saviour, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth."
Good social order is related to salvation. When the State restrains human sin, you have better conditions for preaching the gospel of sins forgiven and new spiritual life.
And remember, whatever you pray for you ought to work for. That is why you should make use of, and support, the Christian Institute and other Christian agencies like the Christian Medical Fellowship and the Lawyers' Christian Fellowship who are also concerned, and work, for true freedom and a more godly State.