A Divinely Pagan State? (part 3)

In this post I will explore John Howard Yoder’s second thesis in Discipleship as Political Responsibility.  [click here for part 1 or part 2 of the series]

Thesis 2:  The divine mandate of the church consists in overcoming evil through the cross.

The posture of the Christian in relation to evil fits into the category of ‘following Jesus’.  This concept has become so familiar, so commonplace, so cheap, that we do not properly understand what following really means.  What it means is something completely revolutionary (pg. 21)

With that, Yoder is off and running.  The core question for followers of Jesus as it concerns the state properly begins with the question of what it means to follow Jesus.  It’s here, again, that we have to jettison our ideas or notions about what following Jesus means in order to listen to the witness of the New Testament.

The early church believed that God was at work within the church by means of Jesus Christ living on within it. (pg 21)

This is an audacious claim that seems presumptuous to our modern ear.  Do the people of my church, Metamora Mennonite Church, really believe that God is at work within our church by means of Jesus living on within it?  I’m not sure if we would say that, but Paul certainly did.  He said that he no longer lived but Christ lived in him.  He claimed that he could do all things through Jesus who gave him strength.  It wasn’t just Paul who believed this, but the entire church.

What gave them such confidence wasn’t their own abilities, goodness or will.  Rather, they also believed that the Holy Spirit was present and at work in and through their lives.   They didn’t just believe in the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, they believed in the Holy Spirit with their very lives.   Yoder’s next point is critical.

If the church believed such things about itself and testified to their reality, then the church did not view the way of the cross which the church travelled in following Jesus as some sort of extra moral achievement, something that would have been optional and commendable, but which they could have done without.  They viewed it as something that belongs to the very essence of God’s salvation plan for the world.  The cross-carrying following which the church practices, that is the continuing life of Jesus through his Spirit in the members of his body, is not an implication, something tacked on; rather it is part of his saving work. (pg 22)

This is a critical statement because it locates suffering as part of the vocation of following Jesus and, thus, a part of what the church is called to endure in the present, as the Holy Spirit continues the work of Jesus through the church.    Put another way, a church that doesn’t suffer in love for the good of the other isn’t following Jesus and the work of Jesus isn’t being accomplished in their midst (not matter how big the budget, how ‘rad’ the praise team, or how many people are in the audience congregation.)

It is self-evident, and never to be forgotten, that the cross of the church has no meaning without Jesus.  Suffering in itself does not accomplish any saving work.  But we are too reluctant to confess the other side along with the Scriptures, namely, that without the cross of the church, the cross of Christ would be emptied! (pg 22)

So when Jesus said anyone who would come after me must deny him or herself, take up their cross, and follow me he meant it.  The same thing that took Jesus into the belly of the beast on Holy Week is the same thing that takes his church into the belly of the beast today.  Namely that God be glorified as people are being saved!  It’s a disconnect the size of the grand canyon to assume that Jesus suffered to save us but we can continue his work in relative comfort.

On to the obvious question…

How do the mandates of the state and church relate to one another?

First of all, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.  This is right and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.  – 1 Timothy 2:1-4 (nrsv)

The Roman Empire didn’t save anyone or bring them to the knowledge of the truth.  God’s ultimate desire is that people be saved, which is the mandate of the church, led by Jesus and empowered by the Holy Spirit.  That means that the mandate for the state is to be found within, not above or beside, the mandate of the church.  Here, Yoder is spot on (in my opinion);

The mandate of the church, the mandate to overcome evil, is the superior mandate; the mandate of the state, that of keeping evil in check, only has meaning because the church is accomplishing its mission. (pg 23)

The salvation that is wrought through Christ and extended through His church is the ultimate overcoming of evil, not by the use of evil, but by its opposite – suffering love.   The state’s role is to make sure that the evil of humanity doesn’t have the free reign to consume itself so that God’s saving work can continue through the church.

I’ll end with this quote from Yoder;

State sponsored religions everywhere have viewed religion as support for the state – an educating, morality-teaching, consecrating power.  The Christian faith inverted this relationship and viewed the world embracing empire as merely a support system, subservient to the real work God is accomplishing in the world.

Next time around, I’ll look at Yoder’s third thesis.  Until then, JHY gives us plenty to chew on.


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