Evangelicalism and the State

[This post is from a discussion based on a longer paper I submitted for a History of Modern Evangelicalism class in 2009 at the seminary I attended. The full paper, including the bibliography the notes are based on, can be found here in the Term Paper .]

As I grew up in a family that was Trudeau Liberal on my father’s side and Québec Séparatiste on my mother’s side I learned that where differences coexist, tensions inevitably exist.  The claims of the “two solitudes” on my life have left me with what I call a French heart and an English head.  Making life infinitely more complicated for me and every other Christian (no matter what brand) is the prior claim of the Kingdom of God on our lives.   The people of God have had to come to grips with their relationship with the created order and with their fellow man ever since Adam and Eve’s abortive sojourn in the Garden of Eden.  This post will examine how Evangelical churches may be better able to meet the challenges of the post-Christian world if it were to rediscover a biblical view of how to interact with a hostile world.

Creation Theology and Evangelical Engagement in Culture and Politics

 Where we see ourselves fitting in the biblical story has a great impact on how we deal with the world around us.  Since nobody lives independently of his or her family and social influences, it would be good to review the world-view handed down to the early Reformers.

By the time the Protestant Reformation began, the Christian Church had been engaged in a struggle for political domination over the Roman Empire for more than a millennium.  Constantine the Great had established it as a legal religion in the Roman Empire, and his successor Theodosius the Great made it the official Roman religion in 380.[1]  Even Theodosius had to bow humbly before the power of his priest, Ambrose, after the priest refused him entrance to his church following a horrendous massacre.[2]  This set a pattern of competing church/state relations that would be followed for more than 1200 years in Europe, until Luther and Zwingli ignited the Protestant Reformation.  The idea of a Christian state being the Kingdom of God on earth had a great deal of time to become deeply rooted in the church.  Not much changed in church/state relationships even during the Reformation.  Luther, Zwingli and Calvin all had to ally themselves to princes or city-states to keep their churches from being crushed by Catholic monarchs.

Evangelicalism owes much of its theology of engagement with political systems to the work and ideas of Martin Luther[3] and Martin Bucer[4] of Geneva as developed by John Calvin[5].  Since in a Reformation creational world-view political systems are not inherently bad, they can be instruments of God’s will in the world.  Luther saw the church as having persuasive power, but the princes as having coercive power.[6]  For Bucer, assuming that secular authorities are actually converted, they can be in authority over the church in secular matters, while the church hierarchy can overrule secular authorities in spiritual matters.[7]  This resulted in a setup which allowed both the religious and secular authorities to think they spoke for both church and state.  With the magistrates able to appoint pastors and other clerical authorities, the state eventually established complete control over the church wherever the church became the state-established church.  In Twentieth Century North America, Calvinist churches (Baptist, Presbyterian, and even, to a large extent, Anglican) were no longer establishment churches and learned to exercise a greater freedom from state control.  What did not change was the assumption that church and state were jointly in charge of the world, for reasons that will be explored now.

At the heart of the Bible is a story of creation, fall, redemption and restoration.  The story is not only about how a spiritual being became corrupted and must be redeemed.  Albert M. Wolters, a Reformed scholar at Redeemer University College in Ancaster, ON, is typical of this view.  He goes so far as to say that a biblical creation-centered world-view has something to say about everything in our lives, including science, technology, economics, labour, social groups and education.[8]  Based on their affinities for the work of the Apostle Paul, Lutheran and Reformed theologies understand that the fate of the entire physical world also hinges on the restoration of humanity.[9]   In Wolters’ words, “The territory in dispute, the creation of God, has been invaded by God’s adversary, Satan, who now holds creation as an occupied territory with military force.”[10]  He goes on to say that Jesus has “in principle” won victory by the “counteroffensive” of his death and resurrection, establishing “a beachhead in creation.”  Creation now awaits only the “definitive establishment of his sovereignty over all his territories” while the “mop-up operation” continues “between the soldiers of Christ and the agents of Satan.”[11]

Since every aspect of culture, including its arts, sciences and politics apparently needs to come under God’s sovereignty as intended from the beginning, the evangelical believer must convert not only individuals but the whole of society into obedience to God’s will (or law).  For Wolters, even “progressive secularization of mass media, medical ethics and public education” is part of the spiritual warfare, and must be fought by Christians.[12]  The logic is irrefutable if this interpretation of the Biblical story of creation is true.  It was logical enough that Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, John Knox and the Scottish Reformers, the English and American Puritans and their Evangelical successors have followed in its ways.[13]  This is still a mostly unquestioned world-view that causes Evangelical engagement with culture and politics to be a power struggle.

And so the struggle between church social ideals and state social ideals continues.  This struggle, carried into a nation without a sole national church, created the notion that people should have a say in their government.  If people have power in their government, then converting sufficient numbers of people should create heaven on earth.  Many try to find warrant in the scriptures for creating an Evangelical state.  For instance, John Stott suggests that Christians are dual citizens as he paraphrases Peter thus, “Peter describes the members of God’s new people on the one hand as ‘aliens and strangers in the world’ and on the other as needing to be conscientious citizens in it (1 Peter 2.77-17).”[14]  In actual fact, Peter never describes them as citizens of the Roman Empire, but calls upon them to act as though they were under its authority (as any subjugated people would be) unless that contravenes Jesus’ prior commands.  We will return to the implications of what Peter meant when we examine a biblical world-view for a Post-Christian world.

Toward a Biblical Worldview for the Church Today: Exile and Restoration

There is a theme that runs through both Old and New Testaments that relates to what a proper worldview might be for Evangelicalism in a post-Christian society.  This paper will argue later that this world-view can apply in any political or cultural situation, whether Evangelical influence is infinitesimal or ubiquitous.  This theme is one of the people of God being “exiles” from the Promised Land while sojourning in land not our own.

By the time of King Jehoiakim of Judah, the Babylonian Empire had already taken multitudes of Jews into captivity. Judah’s royal prophetic staff were beginning to prophesy that God would turn the tables on the Babylonians and return the captives.  God moved Jeremiah to write an epistle to the exiles that would change their lives.  The letter is preserved in the 29th chapter of the book of Jeremiah, and it tells them to prepare to serve the Babylonians for a very long time – 70 years!  While they were in captivity, they were to plant vineyards, build houses for their families and “pray for the peace of the city” to which Yahweh had sent them until he released them.  The books of Daniel and Esther detail how some faithful believers served in various important capacities under Babylon and its successor states.

While they did not really reform those states, they did have opportunities to attest to their primary loyalty to Yahweh.  Many of them had to brave the wrath of kings and scheming royal advisors to remain faithful to their God and his people.  In many cases, Yahweh honored those who did so by miraculous interventions.  Eventually, some of them returned to the land, though the promise of freedom from foreign oppression never really materialized.  Wise readers of the book of Daniel discern that Israel’s freedom as a Yahweh-serving state would not fully resume until the time that Messiah breaks the “image” that represents all world-ruling Gentile empires (Dan. 2:44-45).  The disturbing thing about Nebuchadnezzar’s dream is the way in which it suggests that non-believing empires are to continue to rule the entire world until Messiah breaks them to pieces.

Even when the exiles are allowed to return to their own land, they never truly regain sovereignty in the way that numerous prophecies suggest that they will.[1]  The numbers who return from Babylon are preposterously low[2].  In fact, most of the Israelites still have not bothered to return by the time of Esther.[3]  Even Paul finds at least one synagogue in almost every city he visits on his missions in the eastern Roman Empire.  Since Jerusalem’s destruction by Babylon it is doubtful that there has ever been a time when the Judean Jewish population has exceeded the dispersed Jewish population.  This state of the nation being under control of gentile powers continues (with the brief exception of the reign of the Maccabees) until they are yet again completely dispersed in 70 A.D. after a bloody and vicious Roman campaign.

If we compare Jesus’ teaching to his disciples about how to get along in the world with those of Jeremiah’s missive to the exiles in Babylon, we note that they are similar in tone.  Jeremiah tells them to “pray for the peace of the city” to which they had been exiled.  The idea of being “wise as serpents and harmless as doves” and treating everyone, regardless of race, as a neighbor fit in well with the idea of a people living in a society ruled by non-believers.  Jesus’ promise of persecutions does not suggest a people who are in control of their country.[4]  It seems probable that Peter’s epistle to the “pilgrims of the Dispersion” in northern Asia Minor was intended to remind them of Jesus’ teaching in this regard.[5]  Paul tells the Roman Christians that every Gentile believer is grafted into the promises and root-stock of Israel.[6]  When Jesus prays about his disciples he is praying about people who are “in” the world yet not “of” it.[7]  He seems to have been actively preparing his disciples to live in exile from the centers of power and influence of a world that is quintessentially against his reign.

Jesus’ teaching and the teaching of the Apostles actually prepares believers far better for the realities of living in non-believing societies than it does for ruling over nations.  Even so, it is perfectly appropriate for believers to serve in high government positions if they do so as ambassadors of an even higher power rather than as rulers in their own right.  On the other hand, as Ben Stiller, past President of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, notes, “Living in a country with a Christian heritage, we too easily assume that our government is to be particularly supportive of the Christian church over other religious views.  The New Testament gives no such indication.”[8]  This is a vision in which the church neither dominates the state nor bows to the state in anything regarding witness to Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour.

While maintaining that cultural pluralism is good for Christianity in Canada, Stiller also notes that there is a dark side in Canadian cultural pluralism.  There is a bias against Christianity in Canada today in education, the media and in government.[9]  He seems to think it can be dealt with as an issue of pluralism.  This is an optimism that overlooks the darkness in human nature. The Christian proclamation of the gospel is a prophetic voice in society, whether or not the society claims to be Christian.  Even the best-intentioned attempt to live in harmony with those who do not believe will break down in the long run.  That is because neither nominally Christian nor non-Christian leaders can long bear to hear a truly prophetic witness.  Inevitably the state tries to prevent Christians from witnessing about Jesus (especially his Lordship), and inevitably they are persecuted for resisting state control over their preaching and teaching.  This is a reality Christians must live with and be willing to both live and die for.

Conclusion: Singing the Lord’s Song in Babylon

Evangelical Christianity grew up in the shadow of a Roman church that tried to be the Kingdom of God on earth.  This leads to confusion about the respective roles of church and state in this world.  Because Evangelical history has taken place mainly in Christian states there is a sense in which the Evangelical push to reform society strongly resembles a push to reestablish a Christendom model of Christianity in whichever country it resides.  There are places, such as Canada, where the population makeup has changed in such a way as to make the imposition of Christian values and morality both unlikely and problematic.  Is there a world-view that allows Christians to function in a hostile world that also offers opportunities to serve in a democratic society?

One possible solution is to recover the biblical idea of being “exiles” from the “Promised Land.”  As taught by Peter and Paul, Gentile Christians are grafted into the tree of Israel and heirs to the promises made to Abraham.  Among those promises is “a heavenly country,” a “city” prepared by God.[10]

Such a world-view would permit Christians to both have an influence in this world as ambassadors of Jesus Christ.  It would also enable believers to not lose heart when their work in social justice or church leadership is undermined by opportunists or political animals who are only pretending to be Christians.  This world-view offers the opportunity and persecutions inherent in living a life of prophetic witness to the life of Jesus Christ within them through the Holy Spirit.

Even within the church, the prophetic witness must be allowed to flourish.  One good way of ensuring that is to bring the resources of Christian cooperation to bear both within and outside of the Church.  The best way to ensure that this happens is to reduce the reliance of our churches on hierarchical structures that control the resources and people of the church.  The gifts of administration and leadership must serve the other gifts rather than require them to be subservient to administrators.

Notwithstanding the critique that Pre-Millennialism reduces the willingness of Christians to involve themselves with the affairs of their community and nation, Jesus will return to bring true justice.  He bids us to do his will in the meantime, deferring to governments in the name of representing Jesus Christ fully to their citizens, but not to the extent of refusing to publicly decry injustice or oppression of their people by those same governments.

The best we can hope for in our present circumstances is to work and pray for the peace and justice of the land we are in now.  This will enable us to avoid the traps of both other-worldliness and a kind of jingoistic “Christian” nationalism that alienates non-believers unnecessarily.  (Because the gospel of Jesus Christ is a prophetic word that stands over and often against worldly systems and ways of being, we must acknowledge that there will be some necessary alienation at times.)

Notes for Creation Theology and Cultural Engagement:

[1] http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/14577d.htm

[2] http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/14577d.htm

[3] McGrath, 144.

[4] McGrath, 150-151.

[5] Noll, 41.  Mark Noll notes that Calvin changed the sections on civil government in different editions of his Institutes of the Christian Religion depending on whether the government was pro- or anti-Reformation.

[6] McGrath, 144.

[7] McGrath, 150-151, including the remainder of the paragraph.

[8] Wolters, 8-9.

[9] E.g. Rom. 8:19-22.

[10] Wolters, 84.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Wolters, 85.

[13] Noll, 18.

[14] Stott, Involvement, 49.

Notes for Biblical Worldview and Conclusion:

[1] Such as Isaiah. 11, Jeremiah 33 and Daniel 2:44 as a few examples among many.

[2] Ezra 2:64 claims 42, 360 returnees.

[3] Esther 3:6.  King Ahasuerus of the book of Esther is apparently identified with Xerxes (486-465 BC), the fifth in succession after Cyrus the Great, their liberator.  http://www.farsinet.com/iranbibl/kings.html

[4] e.g. John 16:1-2.  See also Rev. 6:9-11; Rev. 19:1-21; Rom. 8:18-25.

[5] Especially in 1 Peter 2:11-17

[6] Romans 11:17-24.

[7] John 17:14-16.

[8] Stiller, 152.

[9] Stiller, 169.

[10] Hebrews 11:13-16.  Note in this passage the reference to their self-description as “strangers and foreigners in the earth.”


About John Valade

I facilitate and teach in Wascana Fellowship. I have been married to Wanda since 1984. M.Div. from Briercrest Seminary, SK in 2011 and B.R.E. Canadian Bible College (now Ambrose University College) in 2000.
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