The whole question of the relationship between church and secular government has a tortured history. The church has been persecuted by secular governments. The church has been the secular government. The church has been set beside the secular government as an equal partner – and as a senior partner. Then, in our context, the church has been – what? Perhaps a semi-free agent operating within the secular society but not subject to (Some of? A few? One or two?) of the rules that bind other organizations: a distinction the church shares with the press. After all, congress (the legislative branch) is not to legislate either the establishment of a religion or any prohibition of the free exercise of religion. The historical reasons for this arrangement are easy to understand. When the secular government (hereafter referred to as the ‘state’) can tell you what to believe, Who/who or what to worship and how, and where you must turn to discover meaning in your life, freedom ceases to exist. Anyone who argues otherwise is angling to take your freedom away themselves. Thus, the first amendment to the constitution of the United States, instructing the state to LEAVE RELIGION ALONE (and the fourteenth amendment placing the same restriction on the individual states) was seen as essential to preserving the American ideal of freedom.
But the line is difficult to draw or hold once drawn. Less than a hundred years after the passage of the first amendment (Reynolds v United States) the Supreme Court ruled that banning Polygamy did not constitute an infringement on the religious freedom of Mormons. In 1940 (Cantwell v Connecticut) the Supreme Court ruled that requiring a license in order to solicit (funds) for religious purposes would be a violation of religious liberty. In 1988 (Employment Division v Smith) The Supreme Court ruled in favor of a state law banning peyote despite its use in Native American religious ceremonies. Believe it or not, legal arguments have been mounted for accepting human sacrifice as a religious practice – as long as the victim is willing. We haven’t got there yet!
And, of course, there is the question of taxes. Churches remain exempt from income and sales tax and can write tax deductible receipts for donations – as long as the church in question doesn’t engage in political activities. Defining and holding that line alone is a nightmare! Or – the question of location – as in – can religious messages be delivered or religious practices carried out on public land?
All this to say – religious freedom is not absolute – and the flip side – the government only has to be hands-off until it doesn’t. Which brings me to the question at hand – the church/state relationship in the current crisis. It has all been less than uniform. Some states have maintained that churches are exempt from the orders placed on the rest of society in terms of public meetings, numbers, etc. And, some churches have carried on in spite of their states, counties, or communities mandating that they can’t. Sheriffs have issued citations to attenders at church services. Individual pastors have been arrested or called to court. Health Departments have posted crease and desist orders on church buildings. Mayors have tried to stomp on some congregation’s efforts to hold drive-in services. The federal DOJ is weighing in.
By and large, American congregations have gone out of their way to comply with guidelines and orders even in locales where they are regarded as technically exempt from those orders. But the compliance effort is beginning to wear thin. I hesitate to predict what American congregations as a whole will do if the orders persist much further into the future. What is our mandate? What is our obligation to the state? What should constitute our concern for the safety of our flocks and the larger community?
What I feel the need to say on this issue exceeds the scope of a single blog post. So, for the moment, I will try to cover a little Biblical background and ask you to stay tuned for another installment to come. If you’re not already familiar with them, please read Romans 13, Revelation 13, Acts 4 and Acts 17:24-28
Romans 13 and Revelation 13 draw an interesting set of brackets around the church/state relationship. In Romans, Paul insists that Christians ought to be subject to the state authorities as all such authority is ordained by God and functions for our good. It’s interesting that Paul wrote this under the administration of Nero and that, late in his career, after much persecution from and on the brink of execution by that same administration, as shown by Titus 3:1-2 and other passages, Paul did not change his mind. It’s also worth mentioning that Peter, John, and James (James a little less explicitly – but it’s still there?) all agree with Paul on this despite their own troubles with the government of the day. However, Revelation 13 (cast against the understanding of similar visons in the book of Daniel) portray the governments of the earth as – The Beast. If not for the pesky identification of states active AT THE TIME in Daniel, an effort could be made to cast only the government of the last generation as the Beast. But a fair consideration makes it clear that the Beast has been in operation all the while. It is, for me at least, an inescapable conclusion that the governments of this world always become the Beast in the end. It’s certainly not hard to see that concerning the administration of Nero in the Roman Empire of the first century – the state Paul said Christians living at the time should be subject to.
In between these brackets lies the insistence as per Acts 17 that God not only made the world in its physical features but that he ordained the times and habitations of all nations – read: the rise and fall of the Roman Empire and the American Experiment – and that He ordained them for a purpose, i.e. that these nations would make it easier for us all to find God – even if as groping in the dark. There is a larger and very interesting story behind that altar to the unknown God in the context of Acts 17 and this assertion! I may include it in another post as it illustrates this point. Or, you can look it up. Hint: it has to do with the Greek poet Paul quotes in the same chapter – the Quatrains of Epimenides.
And a final element – to be subject to does not imply blind obedience. In Acts chapters 4-5 and elsewhere, the Apostles are ordered by their native government to stop preaching about Jesus. They decline to obey that order insisting that they must obey God rather than men. These acts of disobedience however do not mean the Apostles were not ‘subject to’ the government in question. They willingly received any penalty said government wished to inflict – beat me, jail me, kill me if you must but I cannot but preach the things of Christ.
This is already running long but it is the briefest sketch I can draw of the Biblical background for the church/state relationship. I conclude that God has a purpose for secular states – to help us find Him – and that our being subject to the power of the state facilitates that purpose. Several other Scriptures give specific details about that process. But Satan also has plans for the governments of the earth and he empowers them for his plans – and in the end, the fallen states comprised of fallen people in the fallen world always become ensnared in Satan’s plans. The plan of God, however, is never foiled. In those instances where states lead truly, we are led to God. As states fall into Satan’s net, we are driven to God. Our being subject to the power of the state facilitates the process but that subjection does not imply absolute obedience which is reserved for God alone. Rather, we obey as far as our conscience allows and, as part of our testimony, willingly take our lumps when our conscience dictates that we can no longer obey the state. Stay tuned for more on this topic as relates to the current crisis.
Pastor and Author Terry Bailey, Senior Minister of Indian Run Christian Church