Rethinking Church's Relationship To State

Throughout much of the history of the Church, the Church has just followed society hook, line and sinker. From the time of Jesus until 313 AD the Church had an on and off again relationship with the State. On again meaning that the State was persecuting and killing them; off again, meaning that the State would leave them alone despite Christianity still being illegal.

In 313, that all changed. Constantine issued the edict of Milan making it legal to be a Christian. Throughout the 4th century, laws were passed until Christianity became the State religion and all other religions were made illegal, and, with that, a dark era for the Church was initiated. Instead of loving the lost, some Christians started persecuting the lost and, in the worse cases, killing them. As if you should die if you don't agree with what we believe. When given the power of the State, Christians throughout history have shown that they often behave no better and sometimes worse than those who don't know God.

No longer was the Church viewed by Christians as a kingdom without borders, colonies of God’s kingdom here on earth, ambassadors not of this world who live in the truth of God's otherworldly kingdom bringing its beauty into our world; Christians began to confuse the State with God’s kingdom, melding the two, and the State and the Church had an affair while Christ waited for His Bride to come back home. It wasn’t until recently, that this hold of the State on the Church and the lust of the Church to control the State has waned.

Stanley Hauerwas shares this watershed moment by telling a story of his childhood in Greenville, South Carolina. On one Sunday night in the summer of 1963, as Hauerwas writes:
In defiance of the state’s time-honored blue laws, the Fox Theater opened on Sunday. Seven of us—regular attenders of the Methodist Youth Fellowship at Buncombe Street Church—made a pact to enter the front door of the church, be seen, then quietly slip out the back door and join John Wayne at the Fox…On that night, Greenville, South Carolina—the last pocket of resistance to secularity in the Western world—served notice that it would no longer be a prop for the church. There would be no more free passes for the church, no more free rides. The Fox Theater went head to head with the church over who would provide the world view for the young. That night in 1963, the Fox Theater won the opening skirmish (Resident Aliens by Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon, 15-16).
And the church has been reeling ever since. We seem to be finding our legs these days. We are not in cahoots with the State any more. We understand that our culture is not Christian or God honoring. There is now a great divide between the Church and the world. The seductive siren call of popularity, power, law, and control never fit well with the call of Christ to be a self-sacrificing servant to others, to love our enemies, and to go the extra mile even when we don't want to go the first. The State no longer wants us. The world no longer wants us, and we should be comfortable not wanting what they have instead of conforming to what they want us to be. Jesus never meant for His Church to wield the power of the State nor worry about being accepted and popular. We are to be an irresistible alternative from the world for those who seek God.

Instead of being the bride of Christ throughout the centuries, the Church has been dating Themis, the Greek goddess of Law. And the breakup has been tough. During this fifteen century affair, the Church forgot its purpose and how to function. Thankfully, there have been faithful remnants and glimmers of God's Kingdom that we can look to in relearning our role as the Bride of Christ in a post-Christian society. But since breaking up with Themis, the Church has gone through a deep depression, tried dating around, but now we’re finally getting back to Jesus. And dating Jesus doesn’t look like the way the Church has been since the time of Constantine, but it’s the way that Jesus has designed us to be. We're learning how to love again. We're learning how to passionately follow God again. We’re learning to fully live in grace and truth. These are good times to be following Jesus.

And the same thing that happened to the church over the centuries may be true in our own personal lives. We might be listening to the siren call of false god of America, Hollywood, Sports, or to any of the other idols of our culture that should never be listened to above the voice of God. We might have hardened to God like Playdoh hardens, but, like Playdoh, it’s never too late. God is the master heart shaper, and, as long as we have life left in us, he can pour the water on us and shape our heart again if we are willing.

Now, more than ever, many are awakening to the idea that America isn't exactly a Christian nation. It's baffling to me that this wasn't already self-evident with our nation's stance on abortion, attitude toward the poor, aggressive military action around the world, and many other issues. But now, it is ingrained in our laws that homosexuality is just as valid as heterosexuality. Maybe we, the church, the body of Jesus, have been going about it all wrong for the last few decades. We have been obsessing with how to make our nation more Christian, which leads to us putting law forward instead of love, and in focusing on the State and what it should do, we have neglected how we can be better Christians - better followers of Jesus in our everyday lives and together as the church. We have a dangerous and terrible tendency to focus on others who we can't change rather than ourselves who we can.

Our government is not, despite the rhetoric of Ronald Reagan, the "shining city on a hill." We are not "the hope of the earth" (as Mitt Romney said in the presidential debate, October 22, 2012., but a sentiment also said by Teddy Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln). Nor are we "the one indispensable nation" (as Barack Obama said in that same presidential debate). Our nation is not the salt of the earth or the light of the world. Those are prideful misappropriations of phrases that are reserved for the kingdom of God. The local church is the city on a hill, the salt of the earth, and the light of the world. The local church is the answer for the problems of the world, and yet we neglect the bride of Christ time and time again for all the whimsical allures of the world. And I think things are crumbling around us because I don’t even know if the church believes in our special place anymore.

I hope that we can give up fighting the cultural battles of our day on a political level because they have already been lost and have hurt the cause of the gospel. But that doesn’t change what is right or wrong; it just changes our approach. The Bible gives us no hint that Jesus was concerned about changing the laws in the Roman Empire. Instead, we see him establishing an alternative kingdom where he is the King. Let’s follow suit. Instead of attempting to change American laws, let's focus on changing our lives to be more like what God wants them to be and shower our community and the world with the love of God. We can't make a nation Christian through legislation. But that shouldn’t bother us. We live as citizens in God’s kingdom under the authority of a perfect King. This is the one indispensable nation. The foot we put forward shouldn’t be homosexuality is a sin, although if people ask, they do deserve and honest, biblical answer. But we should be focused on working through our local churches to win the hearts of people to Jesus. We must set an example of kingdom living that is irresistible to those seeking God. Through that, our nation will have more Christians.

James described true spirituality as loving orphans and widows while keeping ourselves unstained from the world (James 1:27), Jesus described true spirituality as loving God and loving our neighbors (Matthew 22:36-40). Paul taught us that the pinnacle of the spiritual life is love (1 Corinthians 13:13). John taught us that if we don't love our brothers and sisters, then we don't love God (1 John 4:20).We don't have to agree with people to love them. And that is true religion. That is the positive message and life that we must focus on and live for.

But here is the truth that we must realize, we never let our State or the world dictate to us what is right and wrong. Society dictates morality in a secular state. But we operate differently. We allow God to dictate to us what is right or wrong. That is why, historically, dictators have always attacked the church, whether that was in early Communist China, Soviet Russia, or Nazi Germany. We, followers of Jesus, are like herding cats. The faithful cannot be manipulated. Our nation may be hardened to the will of God, but we don't have to follow suit. We must always remain faithful to our understanding of God’s word in Scripture.

No matter what the State says, our beliefs hold true. We don't conform to the world; we allow God to transform us. The Church and the State were never meant to be bedmates. Our state is secular; it's not Christian. It can allow gay marriage. That is not our domain. We don’t even need to invest our energy opposing it in the legislative arena. Our domain is here: The church, the kingdom of God. And I think Christians have spent a lot of energy and effort trying to fix the State while we have let the church crumble. Our priorities and energy have been misdirected.

The church was always meant to be countercultural. That should be evident now. We shouldn't spend our time being overly concerned with the State because we can't control it. But you know who we can control? Ourselves. We can strive to be more loving. We can strive to help the poor. We can strive to bring peace into our circle of relationships. We can strive to stand on truth and exude grace. We can be humble and full of forgiveness. All too often we get hung up on the wrong things and miss out on working on our own spiritual lives. We get distracted, preventing ourselves from drawing closer to God and learning to listen to the Holy Spirit.

Let us take this moment in history and allow it to spur us all closer to Jesus. Let it not cause us to be disillusioned but to regain focus. Let us strive to be the church filled with people in community with one another. People who seek to live in the kingdom of God here on earth as it is in heaven. Let us focus on ourselves and our sin rather than the sin of others. Let us revel in the grace of God and live in such a way that others want to join us in giving glory to our Father in heaven. This is the time for the church to be the church and live up to its calling to be the hope of the word. The time is now.

When we confuse the role of the Church with the Government

Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good?  But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled,  but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect,  having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.  For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil. 1 Peter 3:13-17 (ESV)

The more anti-Christ our society gets, the more suffering for being faithful to God and suffering for doing good in His name will happen. But we shouldn’t focus on the suffering but on the doing good. And when we do good, Peter tells us to have a reason for the hope that is in us. Yet we share that hope not with dogmatic signs like the corner preachers at the university who are telling everyone they are going to hell -- not like the Westboro Baptist Church protesting funerals of gays and others. No! We share the reason for our hope with gentleness and respect. We aren’t jerks about it. We don’t have to force them to believe, but we should gently and respectfully give them the reason that we believe. But that doesn’t happen unless, as Jesus taught, our good works are seen to give God glory (Matthew 5:13-16).

And I think we may lose this perspective.

Mainly because we have lost an understanding of the importance of church in many Christian communities along with misappropriating our role to the government. This is due in part to bad theology in some circles that think that America must be a Christian nation. The New Israel as some proclaim. But for my whole life, our nation has said that getting abortions is okay. Our nation has been militarily attacking people every year that I have been alive, except for my early President Carter years, and, for most of those years, I have absolutely no idea why. Our nation says that gay marriage is just the same as the marriage of two Christian people. Our society says that it is unrealistic to teach abstinence. On and on, our society teaches things contrary to the teachings of our faith – these are just some of the big ones - yet we sometimes do some illogical gymnastics to pretend that our nation is Christian. And then this causes us to try to force nonChristians to live by Christian laws. That isn’t our place. We have something much more important to do.

Instead, I think we are called to be countercultural and something different. We are called to be the church. The community that God wants to transform society through. But not through the use of the state. Instead, we are to do it through transformed hearts. We are called to live in such a way together that people will ask for the reason for the hope that in us. And when we suffer for doing good, we’re called to be there for each other.

I look back to the early monasteries for inspiration. Don't think of what the monastery has become, but realize what its original intention was. This was explained in the Celtic Way of Evangelism by George Hunter. The Catholic Church was trying to convert Europe and the pagan people through getting them to accept certain doctrines as true. Doctrine is important, but that isn’t how Europe was won to the Lord. The Catholic Church was failing at converting pagan Europe using this method. But there was a revival that had occur in Ireland. Those people had become zealous for the Lord. And they took a different approach at being missionaries to the pagan cultures of Europe. A group of them would move together and live outside of the community they wanted to reach for Jesus. They would establish a monastery and start living out the Christian life together in community. It wasn't about evangelism as we have come to know it; it was about being real Christians living life together. Sharing their joys and sorrows. Helping each other with their needs. Sounds an awful lot like the Acts 2 church. As a result of their life together, the communities they were living outside of saw God's love and were eventually included into their communities. Before long, the people in the community they were trying to reach were also living out the Christian life. They would realize this and decide they were also Christians. Their approach recognized that Christianity was a lifestyle to be lived rather than a set of belief statements to be acknowledged.

The greatest evangelistic tool Christians have is to just be real, authentic Christians living life together. There is no apologetic trick or evangelistic method that will create real Christians outside of us being real Christians.

And do you see the difference here from the way Christianity is often lived out in America? Instead of just setting the example of what society should be like through our life together in the church, Christians are trying to get their way in the public sphere. Trying to use the force of the state to make others live up to Christian standards. And this never leaves a good impression on the lost. So we may be able to successfully legislate morality if that is our goal, but, in doing that, in having that secular victory, we will find that we push people away from Jesus. Instead of living lives that people want to wonder about, we instead live lives that repulse people. Instead of giving a gentle and respectful reason for the hope in us, we leverage our clout to force people to live like us.

What if instead of trying to transform society through legislation we allowed God to transform us into healthy churches filled with love for one another and those around us?

Hugged By A Leper

Photo shared courtesy of Jon Bennett.

This is a guest post from my friend Jon Bennett.

Being overwhelmed and shaken both emotionally and spiritually would be an understatement in describing the day I was privileged to experience. Have you ever been hugged by a leper? I thought leprosy had been eradicated. I found out differently today. Sam and I, along with Sonny and SK, drove into Nimba County, Liberia. We had some follow up at a college that we had installed a bigger water system and wanted to explore the area.

The previous trip at the same college I had met a man selling goods that had the after effects of Leprosy. Like most other family men, he was working hard to earn money to support his family. I knew there were Liberians that had been afflicted with Leprosy, but until today didn't realize there is an active colony. In his pushing forward kind of tone, Sam asks 'want to go check it out?' The decision was made to go immediately. And honestly, I was excited. Really, isn't that what we're supposed to be doing...loving the least? Can't imagine a more destitute and 'least' scenario than suffering from Leprosy in a 4th world country.
It only took about a 15 minute drive to reach the area. But, Sam always looking for great Liberian art noticed a small shop off the road selling wood carvings. It happened to be a shop owned and operated by men suffering from Leprosy.

First off, regardless of affliction or disease they were selling some of the best hand woven baskets I've seen. Add in the fact that the artisans were missing most of their fingers, the craftsmanship was astounding! As we spent time looking at their products, we had great conversations and all of us enjoyed the bartering going on. Liberians are legendary in bartering. Add in the fact Sam Wrisley may be the American-Liberian Heavyweight Champ, it was an epic battle of wits. One thing I love about Sam is he treats everyone the same...and these guys loved it! Sam has a gift of knowing people. These guys wanted to be treated normal and they got it. I'm so thankful to be part Hope 2 Liberia and to learn from Sam.

As the smoke cleared and the deals were made, we rounded up the products and loaded the car. One of the carvers came to me and graciously handed me two carvings as a gift. The sentiment was amazing. First reaction I had was to give him a hug. No thought. Just action. The surprising part...he hugged me harder than I've ever been hugged in my life! As we stood there embraced, all I kept thinking about was 'when was the last time he's been hugged?' He let me go and I looked up at his smiling face and he tells me this...'people think I'm a bad man because my hands are crippled.' Boy, are they all wrong.

Never underestimate the significance of a kind word. A smile. A wave. A hug. Share God's love any chance you get. This is a man that most have forgotten. He knew the significance of sharing love. He truly rocked my soul and because of him I'm better for it.

If you would like to join with Hope 2 Liberia in their ministry, head on over to their website.

If you would like to see a virtual tour of a mission trip to Liberia, here is one I made in 2012.