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  • Writer's pictureDr. Benjamin J. Williams

Church & State: How Is Christ Lord?

What are the Christian expectations for government? What does Christian doctrine assert regarding out political and social leaders?

In my mind there are three, broad, viable options for how Christians may interact with the state. (For further reading, I've written a little more in the past here.)

1) Withdrawal - The Dreher ... er, Benedict Option: Christians can view the kingdom of God as incompatible with any portion of modern society and withdraw into cloistered communities. This monastic approach survived the corruption of the Middle Ages, but did nothing to hasten its demise or assert the reign of Christ into the larger world. Evil will collapse on its own while Christian communities endure in prayerful silence. This is the ultimate separation of church and state.

2) Reformed Theocracy - The Hyper-Kuyper Option: Abraham Kuyper fans will call "theocracy" an oversimplification of Kuyper's views, but in short, one option is simply to assert the supremacy of Christ in the public arena and demand his reign be recognized over all. In this view, a rendition of Christ's doctrines are applied to every department of state and every facet of public life. Christian faith is not compulsory (hence the "reformed" part), but Christian values are the law of the land. "A free church in a free state." Unlike option one, this view comes closer to the convergence of church and state.

3) Transformation - The James K.A. Smith Hybrid-Option with No Useful Name: Smith's notion of Christian involvement would have Christianity invade and reform existing systems with the virtues and values of Christian faith. Whether a nominal distinction between church and state remains is inconsequential. As long as there is not separation of Christians and the state, the values of the gospel are hoped to win out in the end.

These three are all consistent Christian viewpoints for church-state conversations. A form of one of them is probably better than the others, but Christians can differ on them while maintaining orthodox Christian faith.

Option Four?

However, if you read Jerry Falwell Jr.'s recent interview in the Washington Post, you will have noticed he has advanced a fourth option. I do not list it above because I do not believe it is a viable Christian option. It comes nearer to being a heresy. In short, he asserts that President Trump's actions are outside the normal application of the ethic teachings of Christ, simply because of the role President Trump has. President Trump and his administration cannot be measured against the standard of Christ, because Falwell believes that public policy should not be dictated by the teachings of Jesus.

I have also heard the same perspective advanced recently by the Alabama-West Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church. They ruled: "A political action is not personal conduct when the political officer is carrying out official policy." This was their formal dismissal of a request from Methodist clergy to condemn Jeff Sessions for his execution of President Trump's border policy (read more here and read Methodist professor William Willimon's brilliant response here). The dispute over the immigration policy is actually less interesting to me than the dismissal statement itself. It essentially said that a person carrying out public policy is not personally responsible for his actions.

Both of these responses, Falwell's and the United Methodist's, seem to suggest that a veil of culpability separates public and private life, church life and state life. Can this be true?

Did Jesus Command Caesar?

I'll offer the critical paragraph from Falwell's interview in its entirety below:

It’s such a distortion of the teachings of Jesus to say that what he taught us to do personally — to love our neighbors as ourselves, help the poor — can somehow be imputed on a nation. Jesus never told Caesar how to run Rome. He went out of his way to say that’s the earthly kingdom, I’m about the heavenly kingdom and I’m here to teach you how to treat others, how to help others, but when it comes to serving your country, you render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s. It’s a distortion of the teaching of Christ to say Jesus taught love and forgiveness and therefore the United States as a nation should be loving and forgiving, and just hand over everything we have to every other part of the world. That’s not what Jesus taught. You almost have to believe that this is a theocracy to think that way, to think that public policy should be dictated by the teachings of Jesus.

Falwell argues that Jesus did not intend to dictate terms for the kingdoms of earth, and therefore the agents of those kingdoms cannot be measured against the teachings of Christ. The rule of Christ over our lives does not in fact extend into the realm of secular government. To believe otherwise, Falwell thinks, would lead to the sort of nationalized churches that early American revolutionaries intended to leave in Europe - theocracies where doctrines ruled the land.

First, as I outlined at the beginning, you do not have to believe in a theocracy to believe that public policy should be dictated by the teachings of Jesus, although that is one option. A variety of nuanced political theories exist within Christian heritage. Both the Withdrawal and Transformation points of view for example insist that Christ's law is supreme over state agenda without producing a theocracy. The Withdrawal view does so pessimistically, and the Transformation view does so optimistically. Even the Reformed Theocracy view I mention above is not a theocracy in the sense I think Falwell has in mind, with compulsory Christian faith like that of Charlemagne. Falwell's statement is an unhelpful over-simplification of nuanced Christian-political theory.

Second, I could not believe my eyes when I read: "Jesus never told Caesar how to run Rome." When Christians claim that Jesus is "King of kings and Lord of lords," they are specifically claiming that his authority supersedes all other authority, including that of Rome and all its rulers.

The premise at stake in Falwell's statement cannot be ignored. It is a more important claim an intramural dispute about whether or not Christians should support or denounce President Trump. At its core, Falwell's sentiment raises and answers one preeminent question.

Is there a person or a realm of human existence which does not fall under the rule of Christ?

Falwell seems to answer, "Yes." But I do not believe this is an orthodox Christian answer.

Whether you are strict Kuyperian or not, his assessment of Christ's Lordship is the gospel truth: "There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!" While it may be exceedingly difficult - even paradoxical - to apply Christ's teaching to state policy, failing to do so is to yield that sphere to another lord.

Two Kingdoms?

Falwell speaks of a kingdom of Earth and a kingdom of Heaven, an observation often made by our Lord. The statement even sounds a little Augustinian, speaking of a City of Man and a City of God.

Where Falwell strays is in believing that these two kingdoms are meant to exist independently of each other. Such is not the claim of Christ. He prays for God's will to be done on Earth as in Heaven (Matthew 6:10). Supreme authority belongs to Christ on Earth and in Heaven (Matthew 28:18). A government must either be beneath the authority of Christ or an enemy waiting to be made his footstool (Hebrews 1:13 10:12-13; Psalm 110:1). "The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever" (Revelation 11:15b). When Nebuchadnezzar's dreamy statue crumbled, only one kingdom and one realm of authority remained (Daniel 2:44). When Christ our Lord ascended to the throne of God, he became the Forever-King of that Forever-Kingdom.

"I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed" (Daniel 7:13-14).

Christians, from our first confession of faith, we are the people who recognize the Lordship of Christ over all. If Jesus is not Lord overall, then I suspect he is actually lord of nothing.

What of Our Government, Then?

The rulers of this age and all their subordinates are not sovereign kings. Regardless of party affiliation and current policy, all governments and all government officials are servants.

They may serve as ministers of God, "for there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God" (Romans 13:1). They may act as servants of God, doing his will in this world as best they are able (Romans 13:4).

Or, our governments may join in the rebellion of Hell against their rightful King, the Sovereign of Heaven and Earth. These lesser lords are never the consummate evil of our age, but they may serve it. "For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places" (Ephesians 6:12).

What earthly kingdoms and their governors may never be is independent in the moral war of the cosmos. "Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness" (Romans 6:16)?

Spiritually speaking, there is no Swiss neutrality with Heaven's God. There is no amoral territory, certainly not in public policy. Some policy may be better aligned with Christian faith than others. Some may be poorly defended and explained as such. Some may defy judgment altogether and confound the discernment of the sincerest believers. But never can a portion of human life exist outside of the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

President Trump may be defended as a fine Christian man enacting morally wholesome policies. President Trump may be denounced as a immoral enemy of Christ rebelling against Heaven's throne. President Trump might be an evil man enacting good policies in spite of himself, or even a good man foolishly enacting detrimental policies out of ineptitude.

What no human may ever be is outside of Christ's rule.

Ben Williams is the Preaching Minister at the Glenpool Church of Christ and a regular writer at So We Speak. Check out his new book Why We Stayed or follow him on Twitter, @Benpreachin.


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