Historians invariably speak of every era as a time of crisis, and the Church’s relationship with the state is never what it might be in an unfallen world. Tensions are clearly increasing in the modern Western world, and, for that matter, in many parts of the East and in Africa too. There is, as Ecclesiastes says, nothing new under the sun (Eccles.1:9). In an attempt to trap Jesus, the Pharisees raised this issue with Him, asking whether it was lawful to pay taxes to the idolatrous and pagan emperor or not (see Matt.22:15-22). Jesus’ famous response has been interpreted as something of a non-answer or as one capable of a number of flexible interpretations: ‘Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.’
In the Old Testament church and state were not identified – a king could not be a priest and a priest could not be a king, for example – but they were more closely connected than they are in the New Testament where the state worshipped itself, and where it had no interest in implementing anything like Old Testament civil law (such as that found sprinkled throughout Exodus 21-23). How, then, should we view the state in our own times?
First, there is to be an attitude of general submission. Jesus was no Zealot, seeking to raise a revolt against the authority of the Roman Empire. We are to be subject to the governing authorities, and pay our taxes (Rom.13:1-7). Even a pagan civil authority is God’s servant (or ‘deacon”) to curb what is evil and encourage what is good. This teaching in Romans is echoed in Peter’s first letter (1 Peter 2:13-17). The Roman Empire could be cruel and inconsistent. At times it gave some space to the newly expanding church and at other times it clashed with it as an unwelcome rival in the public sphere. As the Roman Empire decayed in the fourth century, Oswald Spengler pointed to its self-indulgence (life was all about bread and circuses), the loss of civic responsibility (nobody really wanted to hold public office as it had become such a burden), and the failure of nerve (nobody believed in anything worth defending). Western societies exhibit the same traits and trends today, but civil authority is still God-given authority. A man may come to your house to burgle you, and you have the right to do what you reasonably can to resist him, but if he is from the Australian Taxation Office, you must pay up.
Secondly, there are occasions where civil authority takes on God’s authority, and so must be resisted. The civil authority does not have to get everything right to remain an authority that ought generally to be obeyed. If the civil authority funds immoral practices, its authority is weakened but it may not necessarily be nullified. Yet Elijah called King Ahab to account, and John the Baptist did likewise with Herod Antipas. When Peter and John were commanded by the Sanhedrin not to speak in the name of the risen Christ, they responded: ‘We must obey God rather than men’ (Acts 5:29). At such times, stated Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Church can respond in three possible ways: it can ask the state whether its actions are legitimate; it can aid the victims of state action; or the third possibility is ‘not just to bandage the victims under the wheel, but to put a spoke in the wheel itself.’ Allegiance to God is absolute; allegiance to the state derives from that, and so is relative.
Thirdly, this means that we must be discerning. It is all too easy to string together a few biblical verses and pronounce what is claimed to be the Christian position. Jeremiah wrote to the Judean exiles in Babylon in the sixth century B.C. to ‘seek the welfare of the city’ (Jer.29:7). Joseph served as some kind of premier under Pharaoh; Daniel served under Babylonian and then Persian kings; and Nehemiah was the cup-bearer and close confidant of the king of Persia. Whatever it means exactly, Paul wrote to the Philippian church: ‘All the saints greet you, especially those of Caesar’s household’ (Phil.4:22). Calvin once cited a proverb that ‘the edicts of kings are monosyllables’. Those days, if they ever existed, are gone. There is executive, legislative, and judicial power, as well as the underestimated but threatening power of the public service. Administrative decisions or inertia can be as frustrating as parliamentary follies. Christians are, as far as possible, to be those who understand the times (1 Chron.12:32). It was not a good testimony that Charles Colson could write of how, as an unbeliever, he regarded visitors to the White House: ‘none were more compliant than the religious leaders.’
This is not a time for belligerent anarchy, nor obsequious obedience, nor naivety, but of calm confidence, courage, and discernment.