Separation of Church and State

How does Christianity relate to the political?

In 1930s Germany, Lutherans followed a two-kingdom approach to Christ and culture, in which Christians are not to bring their faith into politics. This eventually led to the disaster of Nazism which led to state-sponsored eugenics and mass murders.

In South Africa, Reformed Christianity believed Christians are supposed to transform culture. An orthodox Reformed theology, invoking the views of Abraham Kuyper, created a civil religion that supported apartheid.

In Justin Taylor’s article, he states “any simplistic Christian response to politics – the claim that we shouldn’t be involved in politics, or that we should “take back our country for Jesus” – is inadequate.”

Mr. Taylor states, “In each society, time, and place, the form of political involvement has to be worked out differently, with the utmost faithfulness to the Scripture, but also the greatest sensitivity to culture, time, and place.” I completely agree with this sentiment.

I have heard one well-meaning American Christian say, ” Abortion is never good. But Christians need to remember this is not a Christian world and not all have faith, and we’re called first of all to proclaim and to live the gospel, and not to make the laws of this world. Participate and be a voice of the Lord, yes, but to “rule”? – Jesus said “My kingdom is not of this world” to Pilate, and His kingdom hasn’t changed.”

While it is true that Lord Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world,” He also prayed to the Father, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:10)

If Christians always thought that they should not make the laws of this world, they would never have succeeded in abolishing the slave trade in Great Britain as William Wilberforce did, abolishing slavery in America as the abolitionists did, or ending segregation in the civil sphere as Martin Luther King Jr did.

But of course, as we try to make the laws of this world, we may run into issues as we did with the Prohibition of the manufacture, sale, and use of alcohol, and legitimizing apartheid in South Africa. Yet, the solution to these valid problems are not to excuse ourselves from the political sphere, but to take care in how we exercise our authority.

If we fail to exercise our responsibilities and authority properly, we should make apologies and appropriate amendments, but we do not excuse ourselves from the awesome reponsibilities entirely.

What is Sin?

Sin is any motive, thought, or action construed by God to be dishonoring to Him. Sins are crimes against the authority of God, and they would be punished as harshly as treason would be by a king. Romans 6:23 states “the wages of sin is death.”

The Two Covenants

Now under the Mosaic covenant, the covenant made by God with His people after He freed them from Egyptian slavery, God created a theocracy in which “church” was the state. He gave the people the authority to enforce the death penalty against sins such as idolatry, blasphemy, breaking the Sabbath, dishonoring your parents, sexual immorality, homosexuality, adultery, incest, kidnapping, and murder.

In Jeremiah 31, the LORD promised: “I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD.”

With the death, resurrection, and ascension of Lord Jesus, the Son of God, the people of God are now under the new covenant that Jesus mediates.

“How much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God. Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant.”

(Hebrews 9:14-15)

Just as Americans were once under the Articles of Confederation before moving on to the Constitution, so too are the people of God were once under the Mosaic covenant but are now under the new covenant that Lord Jesus mediates.

Now under the new covenant, sins are still punishable by the death penalty, but now people have the option to believe in the Son to be their perfect substitute, where He died on the Cross for their sins or they may continue in their sins and eventually face due punishment from God.

A New Covenant Case Study

If we look at the apostle Paul’s case in 1 Corinthians chapters 5 and 6, we see something interesting. Effectively, Paul acts as a kind of “Moses,” in his epistles as he explains to his respective congregations the terms of the new covenant that Lord Jesus mediates.

In 1 Corinthians chapter 5, Paul relates how the Corinthian church has a case of sexual immorality, where one of the congregants has his father’s wife. Instead of calling for the death penalty as the Mosaic covenant would dictate, Paul instead sentences the man to excommunication from the local church, and rightly so.

Paul later goes on to describe how the church should relate to “the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters.” He tells the Corinthian believers not to associate with any professing Christian if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler – not even to eat with such a one. (1 Corinthians 5:11)

For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. Purge the evil person from among you.

1 Corinthians 5:12-13

In the above passage, it would appear that Paul advocates for a type of “separation of church and state.” He is making a distinction between the community of believers and the outside world. If a professing believer acts like the outside world, then they should be excommunicated from the local church so they can join the world that they are acting part of.

Later on in the same letter, Paul states the following:

“Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”

1 Corinthians 6:9-11

Here we see that actions such as sexual immorality, idolatry, adultery, homosexuality, theft, greed, and drunkenness are denounced as sins. But instead of being met with the death penalty by the community of believers, transgressors are encouraged to place their faith in Lord Jesus to be washed, sanctified, and justified in His name and by the Holy Spirit.

Given that the surrounding 1st century Roman culture at the time of Paul’s letter approved of idolatry, drunkenness, homosexuality and other forms of sexual immorality like prostitution, the state probably did not carry out penalties for all these things that are considered sins. It was into this kind of world that professing believers, who sin in the way Paul mentions, would be excommunicated.

In other words, the State at this time had laws that permitted things that God, through His Word and His church, would denounce as sin.
But note that the sins that Paul mentions do not inflict grievous physical harm to your neighbor. Idolatry, homosexuality, adultery, and theft are sins just as much as murder, abortion, and slavery are, but the former are not as life-threatening as the latter are.

They all deserve punishment by God, but the State only punishes some of them, especially the ones that threaten the safety, physical well-being and life of its citizens.

A person guilty of idolatry versus a person guilty of murder would both deserve death for their sins, yet they can find forgiveness and redemption in the blood of Jesus, but the convicted murderer would still face the death penalty while the idolater would not be punished by the State.

It is with this distinction in mind that Christians should consider how we ought to relate to our unsaved neighbors with respect to the government’s role.

The government should play a role, through appropriately defined laws, when the issue at stake involves the safety, physical well-being and life of its citzens. This would act as a form of God’s common grace towards believers and non-believers.

We should outlaw murder, slavery, segregation, and abortion because they are a severe attack against humanity. These sins are crimes because they threaten the safety, physical well-being, and life of our neighbors. While unwarranted gun violence is also sin, guns should not be banned from private usage, because they can be used to protect your neighbors and yourself. They can and should be however, be regulated as sensible as possible on the federal, state, and local level. In contrast, same-sex unions, while still sin, are not as life-threatening as abortion and unrestrained gun violence.

Government is by definition compulsory regulation. As Christians, we have to think wisely and carefully about how such regulatory power should be used. We have to consider whether a given issue warrants regulation, and if so, then how much and how so?

For any given issue, we have options of banning it altogether, regulating/permitting it, or writing no laws about it.

Abortion is the intentional destruction of a growing child in the womb.
Generally we should seek to ban any destruction of innocent life just as we already do with murder. Yet as much as we strive to make the laws rigid, absolute, unyielding, and uncompromising, we can and should tailor them to fit them as best we can to the moral complexities of life. Given that pregnancy is where the child and mother are intimately connected with each other, complications can arise where saving one will lead to the death of the other, especially in light of limited or absent medical technology.

In cases such as ectopic pregnancies, saving the life of the mother will usually lead to the death of the child because we currently lack the medical technology to protect and nourish the child at that developmental stage after separating the child from her mother.
Laws should be written that take this into account, so healthcare professionals are free to take care of their patients without fear of prosecution from excessively oppressive laws.

Unrestrained gun violence is a danger to our neighbors. There should be sensible regulations in place to minimize the loss of life from those who wish to seek to do harm to others. Banning all automatic rifles would be too extreme, but asking for things like requiring licensing exams before possession of a gun, having gun safes at homes away from the reach of young children, and other similar measures would be great.

Slavery, while an affront to humanity, was not always as life-threatening as it was during the antebellum period of America. While slavery was not great for quality of life, at least the people were alive. The slavery back in the days of the Mosaic covenant and in the days of the Roman Empire were more like indentured servitude and employees.

God allowed slavery in the Mosaic covenant, but He regulated it to prevent and minimize it from becoming excessively cruel.

The apostle Paul had commandments regarding slavery, yet he asked Philemon to receive his slave Onesimus, “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother” (Philemon 1:16). At this time, Paul wanted Philemon to think like an abolitionist not out of compulsion but out of his own accord.

In the above case, slavery was evil and commonly practiced in the Roman Empire, yet Paul wanted Philemon to choose to free his slave in spite of the legality of the institution.

Here in America, we outlawed slavery. We are not simply regulating slavery, but we banned it altogether. While it would have been nice if the slavers in the Southern States chose to free their slaves on their own accord, the issue became enough of a problem back then, that it warranted government compulsion to protect African Americans from the cruelties that came with being seen as property in the eyes of the law.

Next we have same-sex unions. Should our government outlaw or at least refuse to recognize it? If we outlaw same-sex unions, would that mean dissenters would be thrown in jail or pay a fine? Personally, I would prefer that the State just simply refuse to recognize the unions. People seeking to be married to a same-sex partner would not be punished by the law, but they would not have a formally recognized civil union.

Same-sex marriage is a sin, but it is not as threatening to life in the way that murder, abortion, gun violence, and slavery are. It is much more similar to the idolatry of Paul’s day, where it was a sin that was practiced and recognized by the ruling State. Here I believe Christians can make a pragmatic compromise and let the world act like the world.
Same-sex marriage is considered legal, but we can still share the gospel with our neighbors and by God’s grace, the Holy Spirit can then transform the desires of our neighbor’s heart where they will choose to reject same-sex marriage in pursuit of holy joy in God.

In Paul’s case, he asked Philemon to voluntarily free his slave in spite of the legality of slavery.
In our case, we can share the gospel with our neighbors and hope that they will voluntarily reject same-sex unions in spite of their legality.
It may be argued that there should not be government compulsion involved in the case of same-sex marriages.

The case might be comparable to how God hates divorce, but still permits it because of people’s hardness of heart. He allows the dissolution of a legitimate union, and perhaps we could allow as a society the formation of an illegitimate union. If God was willing to allow divorce for apparently pragmatic concerns, perhaps we could do something similar for our unbelieving neighbors.

We tried to prohibit the manufacture, sale, and use of alcohol, but that excessive regulation led to more harm than good. We now permit and regulate alcoholic beverages, but we encourage moderation and punish drunk drivers.

If we try to prohibit same-sex unions we may encounter the same problems as we did with Prohibition, so perhaps we should permit them for now and simply share the gospel with our neighbors and hope the Spirit changes the desires of their hearts so they reject the union on their own.

There should be government compulsion, however, in cases of abortion because we are talking about physical threats to the very lives of unborn children. Pro-choicers say, even if abortion is wrong, we should let mothers decide to reject that option on their own. But precisely because abortion represents such a large threat to the life of an unborn child, the government should get involved just as much as it already does in protecting its citizens from murder.

Below are my concluding thoughts:
-All sins deserve the death penalty from God
-God provided Jesus as a means for people to escape the due penalty of their sins and find forgiveness and eternal life in Him.
-Some sins, especially those that are life-threatening are punishable by the State, but some others, such as those of sexual natures, are not.
-In Paul’s day, we could see that all crimes are sins, but not all sins are crimes as in the case of idolatry for example.
-For Christians then, we should strive to make laws that protect and promote the safety, physical well-being, and life of our neighbors as we do for murder, abortion, slavery, segregation, and gun violence.
-In cases where life or quality of life is not as threatened such as availability of alcohol, contraceptives, and same-sex unions, we could make a pragmatic compromise and create laws that permit and/or regulate these in the interest of living peacefully with our unbelieving neighbors even as we seek their eternal well-being through the gospel.

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