A Divinely Pagan State? (part 4)

In this post I will explore John Howard Yoder’s third thesis in Discipleship as Political Responsibility.  [click here for part 1 , part 2 or part 3 of the series]

Thesis 3: The mandate of the state cannot involve an unlimited authority.

“Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s – Luke 20:25

The claim of the state is always “lesser-than” the unconditional claim of God.  In Jesus response in Luke 20:25, he draws the crowd into the tension between Caesar’s claims and God’s.  A coin with Caesar’s face on it was created by Caesar for Caesar’s end.  If you have it and he demands it back, give it to him.  Such a request is properly Caesar’s to make.  But it has limits.  What you shouldn’t do is give to Caesar that which is God’s.  Caesar has no right to ask for it, and if he does, you are under no obligation to give it.  One may suffer for such an act, but so be it.

We can return again to Paul’s writing in Romans 13, which is perhaps the most detailed teaching about the Christian and the state in the NT.  In Paul’s writing, he provides a list of things that we will have to make decisions about.  He mentions tax, duty, fear, and honor.  These are not things that Paul is saying properly belong to the state, but again, things that we will have to make a decision about. What do we owe to God and what do we owe to Caesar?  This is not an unimportant matter.  Giving unto Caesar that which is God’s is idolatry.

When we speak of the state we often speak of a “just state” or a “constitutional state”, and thus imply that there are limits to the violence a state is permitted to exercise.

The state does not have absolute authority to use the sword as the state sees fit.   As I write this there is massive blood-shed in Syria.  The government is cracking down on protestors with horrific brutality.  The international community looks on and declares that their acts are unjust and a violation of international law.  They are discerning best how to respond, but so far the violence goes unchecked.  If the divine mandate of the state allows the use of the sword to curtail evil, using the sword to attack peaceful protestors, innocent citizens and political dissenters is an illegitimate use of the sword, even within the divine mandate understanding of Yoder.  This speaks to the possibility that, as pagan institutions, the state can still overstep its boundaries and become unjust.

Since God has given the state a mandate which is bound by clear standards, the state has its own kind of justice, or perhaps better, legal mandate, that permits us to call the state to account, using a measurement related to its own mandate (pg. 24)

Early Christians had very little opportunity to air their grievances with the Roman Empire.  Yet, it is within the mandate of the church to address the state when it oversteps its boundaries.  Calling the state to account for unjust acts of violence against her people is rightly the role of the church, for the church alone knows the primary role the state is to serve.  How does the church respond to an unjust state?

The suffering followership of the church becomes the valid response to an unjust state, “the endurance and the faith of the saints.” – Rev. 13:10; 14:12 (pg 25)

Connecting the Dots

Thesis 1: The divine mandate of the state consists in using evil means to keep evil from getting out of hand.

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

Thesis 3: The mandate of the state cannot involve unlimited authority.

These three thesis combine to create, or allude to, the shape of the relationship between the church and state.  The state has a clear role that is limited in scope and power.  The state’s role is limited because it’s authority isn’t ultimate.  The only ultimate authority is God who is at work in the world, saving the world, through Jesus and his Holy Spirit empowered church.  The means of this salvation is the cross, which is not only the way of Jesus but the way of Jesus’ followers, individually, and Jesus’ church, collectively.   In view of this, what is the Church’s, and thus the follower of Jesus’, relationship to the state? That’s what I’ll tackle in the next post.

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