SEPARATION OF CHURCH AND STATE
There was a time about 10-12 years ago when I would hear someone mention “separation of church and state” and my blood pressure started to rise. I would think to myself, “How could anyone be so ignorant as to not understand the context of Thomas Jefferson’s intent when he wrote that phrase in a letter to a church that thought another church was going to be the official church of the nation?” Did I really think that way? Yes. Was I really that arrogant that I would smugly look down on liberals who spouted separation as if they were Untermensch. Sadly, yes. So what has changed?
The change came the way so many changes have come to me. By spending time trying to better understand the nature and character of Jesus Christ and being humbled every time I realize how far away I have wandered from the example he set for me and for all of us. I have been guilty of excessive pride on many occasions and it hurts to be humbled, especially when you have been humbled as many times as I have been. But it is with the humility that a heart is opened to transformation and the work of the Holy Spirit. I am being transformed, probably not as quickly as God would like, but I am being transformed.
So what does this have to do with the separation of church and state?
The attempt to force a marriage of church and state in America could be one of the biggest and most damaging mistakes in the history of the Christian church. I think that we Christians in the United States have deluded ourselves and that we are in violation of the nature of the Gospel of Christ. The church has been misled to believe that we are called to save the culture. Do we honestly think that God is pleased just because his name is mentioned on our money and monuments? Look out you heathens. You took prayer out of schools. God is really angry now. We behave as if our country is headed straight to Hell if we quit putting the label of God on everything because of political pressures.
The political freedoms that we Christians have enjoyed in this country are really a type of bondage. They have trapped us in a false sense of security and have given us a false belief that in order to affect real change in our culture we have to adapt to the political way of getting things done. Except for a remnant of revolutionary Christians the mainstream of Christianity in America has rejected Jesus Christ’s methods of change. We have accepted the notion that through politics and the election of “Christian” leaders who can exhort power and influence over people we can affect change that pleases God. This does nothing more than marginalize Christianity and leads us to believe that we can overcome the evil in our land with a vote. Can any of us honestly say that we have been successful in changing our culture for the better by adapting to the political methods of the world? I don’t think that the ballot box is what God had in mind as a way for us to confront the evil in this world.
I believe that many American Christians have been deceived into believing that God has blessed us because we claim to “trust” him on our currency. Similarly we seem to think he curses those nations that don’t “trust” in him. Do we really believe that because we call ourselves “a Christian nation” that we are blessed? The children of Israel were God’s chosen people and if my recollection of the Old Testament is correct, they were punished quite harshly more than once, yet they were “blessed” by God as his chosen people. We need to realize that our secular country that sometimes throws in a little bit of God in the mix won’t escape judgment. The political agenda of our country and the plan that God has for the church don’t mix. Why has that gone unnoticed by the church?
Is the United States “blessed” because we have material abundance? Some Christians may think so but I am not getting into prosperity gospel here. Will the United States cease to be blessed if we stop using the generic name of “God” on our money and monuments? What kind of God in Christ do we really have? We need to consider how God deals with kingdoms of Earth and how he deals separately with his church. If we apply the Word of God properly we see that God always used earthly kingdoms to suppress evil and carry out judgment on nations who became corrupt. These earthly kingdoms are agents of God’s wrath (Romans 13:4). But we should also consider how God always turns around and judges that nation for its own sin and corruption. In the 8th century B.C. God used Assyria as the rod of his wrath and then he punished Assyria and held her responsible for her actions and her sin.
The Children of Israel in the Old Testament and the Christian church of the New Testament are supposed to be set apart and operate under a different set of rules than the rest of the world. We are to be citizens of the Kingdom of God and he is jealous for our allegiance. Throughout the Old Testament when Israel would stray away from God he would eventually bring punishment on them and when they repented he would restore them. All God ever wanted was a relationship with his people. God still wants a relationship with his people. We are his people through the blood of Jesus Christ we have a personal, intimate relationship with the Creator of the Universe.
Jesus is our Lord. Not Caesar. Not the president. Not any other ruler on Earth. If Caesar wants you to pay taxes and obey the laws of the land, then do so. “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21). In other words let the governments have the worldly things it claims but give to God what belongs to him: your spirit, soul, and body. We need to put our energy into things that are eternal rather than worrying about the political systems and causes that will not last into eternity. There is a finite amount of time left for these political systems and their effectiveness for change. We should concentrate our efforts on those things that will last into eternity.
The church needs to distance itself from the endless cycle of partisan politics, corruption and worldly violence. Our work should be to engage the injustice in the world in ways that do not violate the principles of God’s Kingdom and do not cater to the ungodly political processes. Doing the work of God in all things should be first and foremost on our minds. Forget about the glory of Rome and Caesar. Yes, it is alright to honor Caesar but fear only God (1 Peter 2:13-17). Pray for our government and its leaders but we shouldn’t worry about seeking for ourselves power which can enslave us. It will take your heart captive and sow evil where pride, arrogance and all forms of hatred hide (Titus 3:1-7). We must fully engage our lives in an effort to end injustice in the world using the example of Jesus Christ. We need to realize that Jesus Christ is the only candidate worthy of our time and efforts in campaigning.
With that in mind, how silly is it to talk about “our country” using language reserved for the church? Our “country” and every other nation on earth have really only been instituted by God for the purpose of executing his wrath. God “bless” America? I won’t go so far as to agree with the awful words of Jeremiah Wright who said, “God damn America”, but in reality the true blessings of God are reserved for his church not a secular earthly kingdom. Could you imagine the apostle Paul and his friends saying “God bless Rome?” There is a certain absurdity that most Christians can’t seem to comprehend in statements that take such pride in earthly kingdoms.
As I write this the economy is stable but weak, having “recovered” from a dismal period several years ago. Leadership of our country has failed and there are culture wars boiling up across the United States. Are we as Christians prepared to say that the only way to save our culture and economy is to vote “God” back into the every day language of our country? We live in a pagan culture and efforts to “Christianize” that culture by worldly methods will only produce a pagan “Christian” culture that can talk of religious things and make healthy profits off of religious stuff. In reality, that is what we have been doing in our country for a very long time. Is that because we believe times are different now than they were when Jesus walked the Earth? Oh no! We better get out the vote and help fix this mess! Maybe on the other hand it is time that we give up the rights we are supposed to exercise and rely only on the wealth of riches and the security we have in Jesus Christ. If Christians lose political power, as if we really have any, what is the worst that can happen?
Of course we could exercise those rights and vote and feel good about ourselves knowing that we still have our rights and even though gay couples can now marry, our rights as Christians have not been infringed upon. And by the way, I have some very good friends who are gay and married. While I believe homosexuality is outside of God’s plan for his creation, I am not going to condemn those friends or anyone else who exercise their rights. After all, how does it hurt us if we truly do trust in God for our salvation? Does it really doesn’t matter if we stick a picket sign in the face of a pregnant teenager telling her she is going to hell instead of realizing that she really needs someone to take her in and help her?
It is so easy to be a cultural Christian and believe that we can advance the Kingdom of God through politics. Let’s elect good Christian leaders and pass “God-friendly” legislation to do the work of Christ so we don’t have to get our hands dirty actually working with people who have real physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual needs. Hey, let government take care of it, as long as the money still says we trust in God. If we actually take Jesus seriously we may have to talk to some of these people. We might be asked to love them and through that love affect real change in their lives.
Government and laws can only suppress evil for a season. Laws don’t save people. Instead they only provoke the sinful nature of man. For those who do not know Christ the laws are needed to maintain some sense of order. We are not called to invoke laws that suppress evil. We are called to overcome evil. Why then is the church so fond of getting involved with politics and electing government leaders who rule by legislation designed by human wisdom and who enforce their will by the wisdom of military leaders and politicians? Are we too blind to realize that these same government leaders of our earthly kingdom, with whom we are infatuated are the same ones who will rise up against Christ on that last day?
In the last couple of weeks before you join the game of partisan politics, think about whether or not your vote really matters and where is Christ in it all. How did Christ engage the worldly systems of his day? I think the answer is much more clear than we would like it to be and therefore much less comfortable to we Christians in our “blessed” country. We have grown entirely too accustomed to our life in Corinth. What Paul said to the original Corinthians still applies to us today, “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18).
There are real problems facing America today. How will the church respond? Will we trust in Jesus Christ and his example? Will we trust in the way of winning that happens by dying? Will we trust in a battle plan that calls for everyone to lay down their arms and fight with love? Will we accept God’s plan that we operate in a way contrary to the world?
Or will we call it foolishness and forfeit our inheritance?
The church in America may have an opportunity soon. Will the church be ready? For many I do not think so. Many will be shocked when the scales fall from their eyes and they can see nothing but the blinding light of the truth of Jesus Christ in the midst of suffering. I believe that the church will undergo a radical transformation when that time comes and we will finally understand what true freedom feels like. We will no longer be in bondage to the world.
“And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country– a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.” Hebrews 11:13-16