After considering Yoder’s 4 thesis considering what the Bible has to say about the relationship between the church and state, we turn our attention to a different question; How much, if any, of this is applicable to us today?
The challenge, of course, is that much has changed socially and politicaly since the time of the Roman Empire. In roughly 300 years from the time of Jesus death and resurrection, Christianity was the official religion of the Roman Empire. Since that time, various forms of Christendom have thrived throughout Europe and the West (and subsequently declined). This led to the rise of Christian nation states or Christian Empires. So what, if anything, does the New Testament teaching about church and state have to say today? Yoder’s response;
The question is not whether we are still living in the world of 65 C.E., nor whether the world and the church are still basically the same as back then. The question is whether the many changes that have occurred since then lead us to conclude that the New Testament teaching is not valid for us. (pg 34)
Some proceed as if to merely point out that things have changed means that nothing the New Testament has to say on the matter is relevant for today. They then seek to replace the New Testament ethic regarding church state relations with something more palatable for the day (and their particular agendas). For Roman Catholicism in the Middle Ages these new guidelines were simply the norms of the Roman Empire. For the Reformation the concepts of divine governmental authority cleared the way for Christian participation by those who were “called” to such vocations. The power of the state in the hands of Christians was seen as a good and right thing (with the notable exception of Anabaptists). In our day, the concepts of “freedom” and “democracy” demands our full support as these are God-given, inalienable rights, protected by God’s government, God’s nation, and so on.
These solutions have one thing in common: All have been used by Christians to free themselves from biblical guidelines for understanding the relationship between church and world, and in one way or another all have been adopted in order to use non-Christian norms to guide and justify the behavior of Christians. (pg. 34)
When Biblical norms have been removed, contemporary political and social theory fills the void. This leaves Christians, individually and collectively, with little guidance from the Scriptures as to how to navigate this relationship. In a sense, Christians tend to go with the flow, get with the times, or any other hokey slogan you can think of. In Jesus’ terms, I would say it leads to a whole bunch of people trying to save their lives the world’s way, while life God’s way slips through their fingers.
Yoder raises three questions as we come to terms with what to do with the changes between Jesus’ day and ours.
The first question to ask is how we should evaluate the changes in the situation of the church since apostolic times.
This leads to a more specific question; “Was it progress when the Roman state became Christian in the Fourth century?” The church started as a small, persecuted minority on the margins of the Empire. As it grew, and especially following Constantine, the church moved to the center of power. Thus by the 4th century the church and state had become the Holy Roman Empire with Popes and Kings ruling the world together. This was an important change for the church. But, was it a good change? Those more comfortable within Christendom laud the change as good, if not great. Others, like the monastics that sprung up at that time, didn’t see it in quite the same way.
The first thing to be clear about is that the New Testament contains no expectation of such “progress”; that is, there is no expectation that there would be a basic change, one to be evaluated as positive, in the relationship between the church and the world. Of course the state can change its stance on things; the state can follow through on its mandate (Romans 13) or it can make itself into a false god (Rev 13); but whichever it does it is still pagan.
This seems to be Yoder’s argument: On its best day and its worse day, the state is still the same pagan state. It will never be otherwise. The days of a theocracy are long gone. No attempts to “Christianize” the state will effect such a change. At the same time, there is no instruction to the church that they seek such political progress for the sake of expanding the Kingdom of God. The New Testament is at ease with the relationship between church and state as Yoder has characterized it. In actuality, the position of the New Testament seems to be that things will continue to grow worse for the church.
How one evaluates whether changes over time are positive or negative has to do with how one views the vocation of the church. It can be argued that the church’s movement to the center of political power is an example of “things growing worse” for the church. As the church gets in bed with the state, the church is also pressured to conform to the values and methods of the state. Convinced that the exercise of state power is the best way to affect change, the church lets go of its primary vocation, which is, in reality, the best way (God’s way) to affect lasting change. As Tony Campollo is fond of saying; Combining the church and state is like mixing horse manure and ice cream. It doesn’t change one, but it destroys the other. (paraphrased) The church is the ice cream.
The best way to evaluate the change in the church’s situation over time is to ask if said changes have enhanced and supported the church’s vocation of living out God’s priorities and values in the world? If you can answer “yes” to that question than the change is positive. More times than not, however, Christians who hold political office in America vow to not let their faith dictate public policy, in keeping with JFK’s understanding of the absolute separation of church and state. (see post 1 in the series for a link to the speech).
To see how the relationship between church and state played out in the enlightenment, and how the issue of authority in the church is impacted by that, consider this paragraph by Yoder on the beginning of the Anabaptist movement in Zurich, Switzerland.
The birth hour for the Anabaptist movement struck in Zurich in October 1523, when the reformer Ulrich Zwingli handed over the question of whether or not do dispense with the unbiblical practice of the mass to the city council in Zurich. Zwingli could do that only because he, along with the other reformers and with the Middle Ages, believed that those in the city council were not only Christians, but were Christians worthy of special honor who were specially led by God. This is where Simon Stumpf and Conrad Grebel cried out, “Stop!” In their view, the Scriptures alone remain the authority, even for the external life of the church, even if the state calls itself Christian. If the mass is unbiblical, then government officials, even if they are Christians, especially if they are Christians, have no right to retain it. …The right to exist for the Anabaptists emerged from their basic refusal to accept any authority, even if it claims to be Christian, along side or above the Bible. The Anabaptists responded with a clear NO to the idea that the situation can change so much that the New Testament is no longer a valid authority, and to the idea that the state can in fact be Christian. [emphasis added] (pg. 36)
What’s at stake in the discussion between the relationship between church and state is the very authority under which the church discerns and lives out its God-given mandate (or vocation) in the world. The question of progress is rightly determined by how any change over time enhances or detracts from the church’s ability to live faithfully to its call. In that light, from my vantage point, it’s hard to argue that the church’s mission has been enhanced by getting in bed with state power. In many ways we have lost our prophetic voice over fear that if we speak to the abuses of state power that our tax-exempt status will be revoked because we are too political. That is but one example of how the state keeps the church under it’s wing, not to protect it, but to keep it from flying (and thus causing the state a whole lot of trouble).
[I will deal with the second and third questions in subsequent posts.]