What Should Christians Know About Church & State?

There are a few basic things Christians must be aware of if they are to negotiate the political battlefield with any hope of effectiveness. What follows are a few of my own realizations. I share them in the hope that they might be of some help to others in the formation of their approach to all things political.

What are the Church & State?

The Church (ekklesia) is quite literally an assembly of the “called out” disciples of Jesus Christ. The idea of a spiritual community as an assembly is found throughout Sacred Scripture, including the Old Testament. The Church is founded and built by Christ Himself, at least in part on the testimony of faithful witnesses to His life, teachings, suffering, death, resurrection and ascension. The primary witness being that He is indeed the Christ and Son of God, as Peter confessed. (Matthew 16:13-20) As a spiritual community with authority over spiritual matters, the Church is a manifestation of the kingdom of God in the hearts, minds and lives of all of its members. (Luke 17:20-21) As such, it is a “kingdom” wherein Christ alone governs the affairs of its members, since they form His mystical Body at work in the world. (1 Corinthians 12:27) As His mystical Body, we are to be “salt” and “light”. (Matthew 5:13-16) This would include being an example to the surrounding culture and a moral voice to the State regarding morality, ethics, etc. It is important to note that while Christians certainly live in the various cultures, societies and States of the world, they are also “not of the world”. (John 17:16) That is, Christians do not always live by the social or cultural norms of any given nation, but instead live by higher principles, which are often in conflict with the world around them. The Church, as a spiritual kingdom, lives by the laws of the Kingdom of God, which its members are always in anticipation of seeing manifest on the earth at any moment. (Revelation 22:12) However, as a spiritual community its members are still subject to the laws of temporal governments. (Romans 13:1; 1 Peter 2:17) 

The church recognizes the legitimacy of government as having been established by God for a specific purpose. This does not mean governments always meet their intended purpose, or that some forms of government are not hostile to the divine purpose of government, but that all governments only exist by the permission of God and are all ultimately subject to Him and His judgment. Therefore, the State is a temporal community (or kingdom) which exists to govern the temporal affairs of Man. More to the point, the State is the organized will of any given people group, whereby they govern community affairs. That State, if organic, will serve the unique needs of that people and manifest a character that is also unique to that people. Sometimes the form of government within a State will be inorganic, as in such political movements as Communism, which does not emerge organically within the ethnic communities it ultimately oppresses but is revolutionary (a disruption in the natural order and organized will) and usually imposed by foreign elements acting on the grievances of a disaffected few. 

Everything God does has the characteristic of order, as Aquinas wrote in his Summa Theologiae in the section on government and politics. Temporal government handling temporal affairs is a logical part of God's desired order until His kingdom on earth is realized. Aquinas goes on to explain, using Augustine's De civitate Dei, that in a healthy government, just men are those who should rule, since they would do so out of sincere concern for the well-being of others. This means that a healthy State will render equal justice to everyone. Abraham Kuyper said much the same in his essay Calvinism: Source and Stronghold of Our Constitutional Liberties, writing that one of the powers of the State is that it protects the individual, supporting my contention. If and when a State fails to protect the individual through equal justice, the State begins the decline into despotism and loses a measure of authority commensurate to the injustice it perpetrates on its citizens. I am not speaking here of equality of outcome, but equality of opportunity, protection under the law and standing in all matters pertaining to the individuals rights, duties and property. This does not mean the State must have a democratic form of government, as this equal justice can be had in most forms of government, including absolute monarchy. We often think of liberty as being an exclusively American ideal, when it is not. In fact, I would suggest that the American concept of liberty is deeply flawed and lends itself to degeneracy and sin. Pope Leo XIII said as much in his papal encyclical Libertas. He wrote that many of those who pursue liberty become de facto liberals, mistaking liberty for license to sin. Thus, they follow in the footsteps of Satan and say, “I refuse to serve.” 

Christian theology, as it is the exposition of the infallible revealed will of God found in Sacred Scripture, is of vast importance to navigating the political world, since politics has profound social, cultural, moral and spiritual impact, and governments only have their authority through the divine Author of Sacred Scripture. Governments have no power over us that is not granted by God. (John 19:11) Understanding the proper role of government and the limit of its authority is important to the distinction of the two kingdoms-the Church and the State. It is important to recognize the conflict that will always be present between the two. While some might say there is no conflict between Church and State, I think we have to consider this more carefully. There are indeed conflicts, since it is the nature of all States to expand their power, including into areas the State has no divinely granted authority in which to operate. So, theology informs us of what those areas are, what the proper role of the State is, our responsibilities to the State, how we best support the State, as well as when and how we should resist the State when it seeks to usurp the authority of the kingdom of God (the Church). (Acts 5:29) 

The modern secular State militates against the Church and the Christian worldview. This is so because the secular State has a set of pseudo-theological principles of its own which it seeks to impose upon the citizenry via public education, television and film, news media and social media. Thus, we have the conflict of two distinct realms of authority, and only one of which has spiritual authority to advance a theological agenda. If Christians are unaware of what they believe and why they believe it, they can easily fall prey to the theological secularism of the modern State. It begins when the Christian realizes that we are in a spiritual war. (Ephesians 6:12-18) The various forces arrayed against the Christian are mentioned in Paul's epistle to the Ephesians in strictly political terms. This is interesting since we are to obey the rulers, yet we see them here portrayed as the forces we do battle with. There are spiritual forces at work behind the State, and those forces most often seek to influence the State to the destruction of Christians and, more generally, to humanity as a whole. This is yet another reason why theology is important for understanding and interacting with the State. We must be aware of our Adversary and discern when the State is acting under his influence. Romans 13:1-7 Paul writes a bit regarding the Christian's duty to the State. He notes in verse one that the governing authorities are established by God and rule only through His authority. The State is established by God and is therefore subject to Him. It is not an equal authority, but a temporal one with limited scope. In Romans 13:2 we are told that those who rebel against this authority will bring judgment upon themselves. This judgment will be in the form of retribution by the State, as verses three and four point out. 

If indeed the government is just, then its laws and punishments will generally be just as well, reflecting the justice of the Lord God. Romans 13:5 mentions obedience as a matter of conscience. A well-formed conscience is one that is bound to the principles of the gospel. As one of these principles is that Christians are to be an example to the world, abstaining from violating the law is a basic tenet. We do not drive faster than the speed limit, we do not steal, etc. But this commandment to obey the government is not just with regard to negatives (what you should not do), but also the positives (what you should do). Paul mentions in Romans 13:6 that we are to pay our taxes. Many Christians refer to taxes as theft, but Paul clearly does not agree. Tertullian wrote in his treatise On Idolatry, commenting on Christ's words found in Matthew 22:21, that we are to certainly render to the State what belongs to the State (money/taxes) and to God what belongs to God (yourself). 

Furthermore, we are to render honor to the State and the governing authorities (Romans 13:7). We honor them best by praying for them. Prayer for the stability of the State, for the governmental leaders and representatives to have wisdom and pursue what is good are what is expected of all Christians. The early Christians, even in the midst of persecutions, offered prayers for the emperor and did their best to reason with him by writing various defenses of the Christian faith, attempting to clear up misconceptions they had regarding the Church. They did not rebel against the State. The concept of rebellion, as in organized revolution, is really at the root of most modern secular States, including the United States, which was born in a bloody rebellion against the English monarchy. Interestingly, if we examine Augustine's Just War Theory, we find that the American Revolution does not fit the defined parameters for a just resistance. And biblically speaking, the American Revolution and Communist Revolution in Russia are equally sinful and condemned by the Apostle Paul. 

Two Kingdoms

While some point to Augustine's De civitate Dei, as well as the writings of Martin Luther as developing the Two Kingdoms theory, I think it can be generally found in the corpus of the Church Fathers as well, at least as an underlying principle guiding their approach to the State. Essentially, the theory is that there are two separate kingdoms, one spiritual and one temporal. The Church is, of course, the spiritual, while the State is the temporal. I agree with Luther, in that the State has no authority over the Church and the Church should not grow too close to the State. It is the place of the Church to help people grow spiritually into a holy, righteous people. This is ultimately a help to the State as it forms the conscience of those within the walls of the Church, orienting them toward the good and making them good citizens as a consequence. For Luther, the Church and State (the two kingdoms) have complementary roles. This set his theory apart from Augustine's theory of the Two Kingdoms, which stated they are actually in constant conflict, referring to the State as the “earthly city”, which is controlled by the worldly and sinful. My personal position on the Two Kingdoms is as follows: I take a position closer to Augustine's. It is the nature of the State, as it is a human operated institution, to move toward sin and away of the will of God. We have no guarantee that the State will be populated with men and women of wisdom, justice and faith. To the contrary, the modern secular State has proven to be almost completely opposed to those things. In some cases, Christians are once more the target of the State, seeking to force upon believers' actions that violate the conscience and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Therefore, I believe that the secular State is often an enemy of faith and most often in rebellion to God. This is because our world is ruled by Satan. (1 John 5:19) Therefore, the Church should never foster too close a relationship with the secular State. We are called out of the world, and therefore away from the machinations of the secular State, since it represents things to which a Christian can never assent nor allow themselves to be associated with. (John 17:14-16) The Church is an “embassy”, as it were, of the Kingdom of God in the midst of a world controlled by the Adversary. As such, it has the responsibility to be salt and light, as I mentioned previously. (Matthew 5:13-16) We are to obey Paul's admonition to obey the State, only in so far as the laws and mandates of the State do not violate our conscience or the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We are to obey God first, not men. If State authorities demand something of us that is not in keeping with these two strongholds of faith (conscience and the gospel), we have the duty before God to resist. (Acts 5:29) 

Public Office & Military Service

I agree with the Church Fathers who taught that Christians should not hold public office in a secular or pagan State, nor serve in the military, though I grant these may be permissible in a Christian State. Both of these secular State vocations require at some level a compromise of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In some cases, it demands outright violation of God's Word, which is high handed sin and places one in danger of God's wrath as well as, depending on the specific violation, placing one outside the Body of Christ. For example, as a soldier you must swear an oath to the Constitution, the President of the United States and your leadership in the military. This oath requires obedience. If one is deployed to combat, you may encounter Christians who are in the military for the perceived enemy. There is no sense in which we can claim to be one body, nor to love our neighbor, if we are willing to kill them for a political or economic agenda that you have extremely limited knowledge of and cannot attest that it is a good or just cause, such that killing fellow believers is somehow justifiable. Being a politician is no better, since, for example, you will be privy to information that must be kept secret from the people, but which, if they had knowledge of, would certainly justifiably anger them and affect change for the good of all. Politicians are also frequently pressured to sign legislation based on party loyalty, the promise of financial support for pet projects, etc., that contribute to a decline in public morals and a healthy culture. 

Love of Neighbor 

Love of neighbor is commanded by Christ as one of the conditions by which people know we are His disciples. (Mark 12:31; John 13:35) We love our neighbor best when we seek their highest good, whether spiritual or temporal, even as Christ sought and continues to seek their highest good. This is done first by being an example of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in our attitudes and actions. This implies that we share the gospel with them by both word and deed, hoping to bring them to a relationship with the Savior. Second, we love them by praying for them, even if they hate or despise us. (1 Timothy 2:1; Matthew 5:44) Third, we love them by advancing all that is good and holy. This is where the sociopolitical comes into the equation. While I do not think Christians should hold office or serve in the military of a secular State, I do not advocate for absolute non-participation. As previously mentioned, the spiritual warfare we are all engaged in demands we recognize the diabolic forces behind the State, encouraging it to acts of evil. Therefore, one of the areas of warfare we should engage is that of legislation and voting. We love our neighbors by voting for candidates who will advance morality and goodness, contributing to the health of the culture. In a secular State, this often requires voters to make a choice between the lesser of two bad candidates or proposed legislation. A good example is the abortion issue. In most states, the state legislatures have compromised on the Pro-Life issue, offering legislation that permits abortion up to a certain number of weeks into the pregnancy. While such legislation is far from ideal, voting for the candidate who advances it, or voting for that legislation as opposed to allowing abortion on demand to continue, a pragmatic approach is necessary, if that approach does not violate the individual Christian's conscience. 

Immigration & Civic Issues

While it is true many nations have people fleeing them due to legitimate persecution, the vast majority of immigrants into Western European nations and the United States are immigrating solely for economic purposes. As Christians we certainly have compassion for the poor and should do what we can to help them. However, our primary responsibility on a national level is to our fellow citizens. Love absolutely discriminates. When we permit unfettered immigration into our country, this has damaging ripple effects. Welfare is stretched to the breaking point due to non-citizens, for whom the welfare system was never intended, and who begin to drain resources. The same applies to low-income housing, childcare and public-school funds. We also have to take into account the great number of criminals who enter the nation and do damage to our neighbors. Thus, we cannot permit illegal or even high levels of immigration without violating the commandment to love our neighbor. 

Foreign Aid

With regard to international relations, we love our neighbor best by advancing policies in trade, finance, aid and other expenditures that do not add to a national debt, subtract from the welfare of our poorer citizens, permit enemy nations to grow, or in any other way undermine the highest good of the nation. In our current political milieu this would mean the vast majority of foreign aid would have to cease, and many trade policies would have to be made equitable or ended altogether (in the case of China, for example). Foreign aid is not an evil in and of itself, since it can be used to help the poor in underdeveloped nations, and we are expected to help the poor as disciples of Jesus Christ. (Matthew 25:35) However, funds rarely make it to that level and are often used to line the pockets of criminal politicians and such charity should begin right here in our own nation. 

War & Resistance

War is an unfortunate reality in this world and has been since the earliest records of human history. And while Augustine advanced a Just War theory, and many Christians in various denominations have embraced it throughout history, I have yet to come to a firm conclusion regarding the issue. I know I firmly discourage Christians from joining the military of a secular State for reasons I have previously mentioned, and so I cannot say in good conscience that I believe war, in the modern sense, is “just”. Sacred Scripture provides examples of God commanding the Israelites to wage war on various peoples, I freely admit. (Samuel 15:3; Joshua 4:13) However, I see no indication that God is speaking to modern politicians, many of whom demonstrate they despise Him and His Word, commanding them to go to war for a just cause. Beyond that, it is always the case that the reasons we are given to justify a war are either half-truths or outright lies. Rarely do we ever get told the entire truth of the situation. Sometimes this is legitimately for national security, but as the history of the 20th century has shown, far more often we have been lied to in order to abuse our sense of patriotism. In my current thinking, patriotism is merely seeking the highest good for my country. 

I do not want to give the impression that I am a pacifist, or that I eschew all use of force. I do not. However, I have come to the conclusion that as war is often built on lies, and criminal punishments (which include the death penalty) are sometimes found to have been used to murder the innocent, violence in the hands of the State should always be viewed with serious skepticism, though they are granted that authority by God. This does not, however, guarantee a just use of that power. Sometimes the highest good is to refuse the dictates of those in power when they are clearly a violation of the gospel. This transcends the issue of war and applies to civil disobedience as well. (Acts 5:29) When the State seeks to impose laws or mandates on us that violate our conscience or the gospel, we have the duty before God, who is the higher authority to resist. This resistance is not to the authority of the State per se, but to a specific action or legislation of the State which does not seek the highest good of the citizens or assure equal justice. It is essential that in the course of such civil disobedience that the Christian do his best to follow all the laws he can and not use the occasion as a license to violate laws unnecessarily.