Rethinking the “Church / State” Divide

One of the most difficult things Christians must do in life is to reason answers to our questions from God’s word. We must do this because we must navigate various challenges in life that Scripture does not directly comment on.

In observing what many geopolitical commentators have referred to as “our obvious trajectory towards conflict”, I have been deeply troubled, even as far back as 2018, by what I felt was the very real possibility that Christians could be once again faced with the question of how we will respond to violent people doing evil things. I saw potential flash-points both domestically and internationally. Since I lived abroad in Asia when I first started noticing this, I recognized Taiwan as a key flash-point for conflict between China and the West. I read geopolitical commentary from George Friedman about arms races and political tensions in Eastern Europe that suggested multiple flash-points between Russia and the West. And I have long suspected that the yawning ideological divides in the U.S. are shaping up to produce a second Civil War. So at any point any of these flash-points could light up and Christians would once again have to answer how we should respond to violent people doing evil things. Do we pick up guns and return violence for violence? Or do we pick another way? What does Jesus say we should do?

So I plunged myself into studying the three dominant views: “pacifism”, “just war theory”, and “crusader theory”. My political upbringing was somewhere center-right of the “just war theory”. So I have always held the view that Christians must take up the just-defense of the helpless and use violence to stop tyrants. The whole view always seemed so noble in to me. But I also recognized the obvious conflict between this and what Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount.

And this brings me to my topic for this post: I believe we have made a vital mistake in supposing some kind of divide between our “faith” and “political” life. We define ourselves as “religiously Christian” and “politically conservative”. But I think this fundamentally misunderstands Jesus’ most essential gospel claims. Jesus never claimed to be a religious leader. He does not suggest that people look to him for their religious life alongside others for their political, social, and philosophical life. Jesus demands the whole person and their whole life because he presents himself to us as our God and King. He demands that we submit our whole self to him. And as our God he, and he alone has the right to levy this demand on us.

The Gospel is very political. I think this point is very misunderstood today because we have adopted the premise that we can “separate Church from the State”. In other words, we think that there are separate “political” and “religious” spheres, each with their own rules or principles. But God doesn’t seem to look at things this way. The gospel makes many claims on political issues and demands our loyalty on all these matters. Jesus defines how we treat our enemies. He defines how we understand our sexuality, our marriages, and our family life. He defines how we understand the right use of our money, how we conduct our businesses, and how we treat our neighbors. Who should take care of the poor? Who has authority to raise children in the way that they should go? How should we deal with sinners and evil people? Jesus speaks to all of these issues and much, much more. He never hesitates to speak across spheres and make economic, social, philosophical, civil, or religious demands on our lives because he is Lord over all.

So we cannot simply pick Jesus as our “religious flavor” alongside “conservatism” as our political flavor. Jesus simply isn’t someone that we “add” to the other categories of our life; he is actually the one that defines those categories for us. To be Christian means to follow Christ in all of our philosophy, politics, social, and religious views. And this is what I think many Christians today have forgotten: Jesus is the only one who has the right to demand our all because he alone is worthy to receive all glory, honor, and praise!

And I think this point dramatically affects the answers we give to the questions I posed on the outset of this post: how do Christians respond to violent people doing evil things? If we suppose that Jesus’ teachings are limited to specific spheres of our life, we might conclude that when he says “do not resist and evil person”, but “love your enemy”, he is speaking to our “personal” or “religious” sphere of life. We might conclude that he does not have in mind how we respond to “strategic”, “military”, or “political” enemies. I believe Jesus comprehensively defines our whole identity, and he radically redefined how Christians understand and fight even war itself.

To fight war in the way that this world fights it is to lose the real war that we are fighting because it is to become like the world. We must become like Jesus, and so we must fight the way that Jesus fights through the cross.

I think we need to challenge this way of thinking that divides life into different spheres and then attempts to assign Jesus’ various teachings to their relevant spheres. Instead, we should view all of Jesus’ teachings as relevant to every sphere of life and look to him to lead our whole self into the fullness of life that is found when we abide in the love of God.

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