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.