A Divorced Church: The Irreconcilable Differences Between the Church and State

I believe it would be accurate to say that every generation since Jesus’ ascension has declared that it is one step closer to his return. The end of time is one of those realities that makes you wonder if we understand the conditions that must be met in order for Jesus’ return to take place. I cannot and will not claim any special expertise on the matter, but I will say, I find myself inclined to join the chorus. I do not know what exactly has triggered this shift in my mind but, it is there. I describe it is a sanctified unease as I look, listen, and live in our world. The world is changing. I guess it always had been, but I am now noticing it. The cultures of the world are changing. I should not really be surprised, they always do. For some reason I can now sense, in a more personal and visceral way, that everything is in a greater state of flux than I imagined.

One of these changes has been manifested in one of the most fundamental “rights” we cherish as citizens of the United States. I placed the word rights in quotation marks because I believe we, as a people, have been lulled into a false sense of security by a piece of paper. I do not mean to diminish what that piece of paper represents. The Constitution is a document that outlines principles and ideas set forth by those who founded this nation. The problem is that in itself this document is not capable of protecting the freedoms it enumerates. I think this is the problem we have run into. The vigilance and determination required to sustain and maintain the freedoms codified in the Constitution resides with those who pledge to uphold its ideals. When this is forgotten, the danger of becoming lulled into complacent apathy. Basically, things will take care of themselves.

Two Flawed Assumptions the Church as Held

The reason I bring this up is that I have seen a troubling shift. This shift can be seen in the erosion of two assumptions that followers of Christ have held for many years. Whether or not it is right to hold to these assumptions is not what I am addressing. We are past that point in the discussion, in my opinion. We have to now face the reality that these assumptions no longer hold.

The first assumption that has shifted is the churches insistence that the state protect its interests. For years there has been this notion that the state had a vested interested in protecting the Church. This may have been true at one time, but only because those who were involved in the political arena saw this as a worthy and personal mission. This is no longer the case. The political machine is now a truly secular institution. Its interests have become paramount to the interests of any other.

The second assumption that has been laid waste is the idea that the Church has a role to play in the social and public life of the nation. This change can be seen in the states insistence that the church stay within its four walls. That politics and religion are as incompatible as oil and water. There was a time when the minister was seen as a vital member of the civic process. Serving as a moral compass of sorts. In today’s world, there is no need for a moral compass because morality is an individual, rather than a corporate responsibility. This shift has become so pronounced it is the modus operandi of the world.

Both of these assumptions were misguided from the beginning because the church should never have aligned itself with the political sphere as closely as it did and has. Those within the church who trust the political systems of this world will one day discover the error of this choice. Just because God has established the authorities of this world does not mean that God will use these authorities to accomplish his purposes in the world. That role and prerogative belongs exclusively to the body of Christ.

The Government’s Interests

The first assumption is that the church trusted the state, the ruling authorities, to perform a function that the state really does not want to perform. Governments, by design, are intrusive and overbearing institutions. They make laws, require taxes, maintain civil order, among other functions. These are not altruistic or philanthropic efforts. The role of the state is to keep the people in line. Therefore, the assumption of the church has been that because the Founding Fathers established a safeguard for religious expression, the government would never encroach upon the church.

This idea that the state would not encroach on religion has reached critical mass. The growing consolidation of power is the normal and natural progression of political systems. The reality is that the state wants to establish it’s own religion. Some may balk at this idea, but if we consider the none religious definition of religion offered to us by sociological theory we can see this is exactly what we have before us. Let’s look at how Anthony Giddens and Philip W. Sutton describe religion in this way.

Religion as defined by sociologists has three key elements: it is a form of culture; it involves beliefs that take the form of ritualized practice; it provides a sense of purpose. Sociologists are not concerned with whether religious beliefs are true or false, but with how religions are organized, whether religious beliefs constitute sources of social solidarity or conflict, and what social forces are at work which keep religions alive or lead to their decline. —Sociology, 7th Edition (Chapter Summary)[Source]

The three components of religious expression as outlined above are:

  1. It is a form of culture
  2. It involves beliefs that take the form of ritualized practice
  3. It provides a sense of purpose

If we were to look at what happens on Capital Hill all three of these are readily talked about on the news and in the newspapers. There is a culture in Washington, D.C., that needs to be addressed and changed. During every election cycle were are encouraged to vote and send representatives and senators to impact that culture. That is what we are told.

There are also a set of beliefs. The political affiliation does not matter. The underlying belief that going to the nation’s capital and engaging in the political process will bring about change for the good of others is one of the most often cited reasons for running for public office. People just want to “make a difference.”

The final element is the sense of purpose. This if often couched in the language of duty. Politicians have a duty to stand up for their constituents. They did not run for office and become members of congress to fulfill their own agendas, but to serve the people. The truth or falsity of this claim is irrelevant. In the final analysis we looking at what is happen among a group of people who have gathered for a particular purpose.

For many people the idea of viewing the political realm of society within a religious framework is unusual and even a stretch, but the reality we are attempting to isolate is that every belief system will not allow other systems to encroach upon it. The reason that religions can be differentiated is precisely because there are differences in beliefs, presuppositions, worldviews, and ideas of the sacred and profane.

This phenomenon is not something new. There is actually a sociological concept for this, “political religion.” The basic premise is that the political machine takes on religious characteristics and functions in a similar fashion as actual religions. This idea of politics as religion has been around since the mid-1960s, first introduced and promoted by Robert Bellah, as a formal area of study.

The term political religion [sic] is based on the observation that sometimes political ideologies or political systems display features more commonly associated with religion. … A political religion often occupies the same ethical, psychological and sociological space as a traditional religion, and as a result it often displaces or co-opts existing religious organizations and beliefs. The most central marker of a political religion involves the sacralization [sic] of politics, for example an overwhelming religious feeling when serving one’s country, or the devotion towards the Founding Fathers of the United States. Although a political religion may co-opt existing religious structures or symbolism, it does not itself have any independent spiritual or theocratic elements – it is essentially secular, using religion only for political purposes, if it does not reject religious faith outright. Typically, a political religion is considered to be secular, but more radical forms of it are also Transcendental [sic]. — Political Religion, Wikipedia

The import of this is that it forces us to recognize that as time marches on the political structures take on an overt and overbearing role in society. As that role becomes more prominent it become increasingly difficult for secular/political life to allow religious expressions to spread unchecked.

Followers of Jesus must no longer assume that the states interests are best served by protecting the interests of the church. As a secular institution the state has one concern and that is protect and solidify it’s own interests.

We will now turn to the second assumption and see how it has placed the church on a slippery slope, leading to complacency.

A Boxed in Church

The second reality that the church faces today is that the state no longer desires to see her face in the public square. The removal of prayer from schools, of the Ten Commandments, of Christian religious symbols and of religious expression regarding moral issues has become the steady trend for the past sixty years. It appears that this trend may actually be picking up steam.

The divide between the public and the private has become so engrained within our culture as to appear to be divine edict. The problem with this dogma is that it is a lie. There is no such thing as public and private. We all have one life. A life that we share in varying degrees with those around us.

The church has played this game so long that we are now trapped. We have become boxed inside the four walls of our own churches because we have believed the lie that “what I believe” is individual, and only individual. The danger of this point-of-view is that it actually undermines the very nature of the church, which is corporate. I am not the church by myself. The church is the intentional gathering and community of people who live for God because of Jesus Christ.

God did not establish the church to be a group of individuals seeking their own ends. The church is a sacrificially oriented gathering, where the needs of the “other” is placed above ones own. And, most importantly, where the mission, goal, and values of God are displayed and demonstrated. This is the divine challenge issued to those who consider themselves a part of God’s kingdom.

The Church needs a Divorce

So, what does this all mean?

The church must become divorced from the world. It can no longer seek to make peace with the systems of this world. The number of irreconcilable difference between the church and state are many. The tipping point is closer than it has ever been. Proof of this can be seen in the moral landscape of the country. In the span of a decade more change has occurred than in the previous ten centuries. While some may laud this as progress, as Christian’s we must be more discerning of the tides of change. Not all change is holy and righteous.

The truth is the state has never really treated the church well. The church has merely been tolerated and used for some ulterior ends. The church must remember that our true groom is Jesus. But, we have fallen in love with another. We have been wooed by a litany of false promises and fantastical dreams. We have allowed this other lover to take advantage of us and he doesn’t really care about how we feel.

As I look at the church I sometimes feel she acts like a battered wife–unable to let go because of fear. Always making excuses for the state’s bad behavior. Trying to convince herself that the abusive spouse didn’t really mean it. They just had a bad day. They really do love them/us.

I don’t make this comparison lightly. It is a sad and unfortunate comparison, and yet more accurate than we may care to admit. If the church is going to make accomplish the purpose God has set for her, we must be free from any entanglement with the world.

My prayer is that the church would wake up from its stupor and walk away from the state. That we would return to our first love and trust in Him alone to love, protect, redeem, and wash us with his word.

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I am a disciple of Jesus Christ, husband, father, student, uncle and pastor in Columbus, Georgia. I am also an occasional blogger and growing twitter user.

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