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Uneasy Neighbors – Church and State4 min read

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Discussions of what the bible says about Christianity and government often come up, and one book I oft refer to is Pilgrim’s  Uneasy Neighbors: Church and State in the New Testament.  Pilgrim writes that there are actually at least three distinct New Testament doctrines governing the Christian approach to government, not just one simplistic “all or nothing” approach (i.e. theocracy or secularism). We can view these three “stances” from either a defensive or offensive mode, but they can be summarized as Christ AND Caesar, Christ NOT Caesar, and Christ AGAINST Caesar.

The first two perspectives are pacifist, while the last can be approached as either, including a biblical justification for use of prophetic speech and non-violent resistance on the pacifist side, and use force in self-defense, policing, resistance, just war and revolution on the non-pacifist.

Here’s an excerpt:

The New Testament in general does not view the government as an autonomous human structure, but rather as an earthly institution ordered by God to enhance the welfare of the human community.

The divine intention for the state is to preserve the civil good. On the positive side, it does so when it promotes peace and justice and equality and freedom and community for its own people and among the nations of the world. On the  negative side, it does so by preserving law and order, by deterring the aggression of the powerful, and by punishing the offenders of the public good (the power of the sword, Romans 13:3-4)….

The New Testament Paradigms for Church-State Interaction

How do we view ourselves in relationship to government? From a defensive posture, we have three options according to Pilgrim.

  1. Submissive confidence (Christ and Caesar): We submit to government no matter what, though we try to influence it. We do not support resistance, protest, or revolution. God is in control, but we participate in both realms and try to influence government.
  2. Critical distancing (Christ not Caesar): We to not take part in politics (e.g. Pietism), we do not support a political party, nor seek to the overturn of the government even if it is wicked. God’s kingdom is paramount, and we don’t belong to this world.
  3. Deep resistance (Christ against Caesar): We take part in politics, but only in a prophetic, critical way. In general, we resist government oversight, which can range from ideological counter-propaganda, public resistance, protest and non-compliance to life-saving sabotage (e.g. creating faulty ammunition for war, destroying buildings or equipment).

An Offensive Paradigm for Church-State Interaction

What if we feel we need to take offensive measures with regard to our government, not just defensive? IF we take the deep resistance approach above, then our response depends on their level of corruption and our pacifist/activist position:

  1. Critical-constructive: This stance is appropriate when the powers that be are attempting to achieve justice. We stay critical, but support the government’s programs and leaders.
  2. Critical-transformative: We adopt this stance when authority errs, but can be realistically  moved to salutary change. When we think that we can change things within the current government structure.
  3. Critical-resistive: We adopt stance when the powers are responsible for demonic  injustice or idolatry and refuse to be responsible to change. Resistance can be either non-violent, or we can flee as the Israelites did, or if we have a theology that allows for sabotage or armed resistance, those may be included here.