Government, Society and the Church

In his epistle to the Christians in Rome, the apostle Paul instructs his readers to submit to the governing authorities. ‘Let every person be subject to the governing authorities’, he writes, because ‘there is no authority except from God and those that exist have been instituted by God’ (Romans 13:1-2).

These words have become the basis for the Christian understanding of the state or civil government. They can be said to be the locus classicus of the biblical foundation for any reflection on the relationship between the church and the state and between religion and politics.

This Pauline passage roughly delineates the specific role of the state or government. Essentially, this role has to do with the upholding of justice, the protection of the people under its jurisdiction from physical harm and other depredations and the maintenance of public order.

While the scope of the state’s responsibility may appear at first glance to be rather wide, the Christian view in fact delimits the government’s reach in significant ways.

Theologians have therefore described the role of the state as a subsidiary. In maintaining public order, the government provides the necessary support to nongovernmental bodies, agencies and spheres of authority and afford them the requisite freedoms to fulfil their specific roles.

As Robert George puts it: ‘Governmental respect for individual freedom and the autonomy of nongovernmental spheres of authority is, then, a requirement of political morality. Government must not try to run people’s lives or usurp the roles and responsibilities of families, religious bodies, and other character-and-culture-forming authoritative communities’.

In his celebrated Lectures on Calvinism, Abraham Kuyper – the neo-Calvinist theologian and former Prime Minister of the Netherlands (1901-1905) – makes the distinction between state (or government) and society and their respective sovereignties.

According to Kuyper, state and society differ in at least three significant ways. Firstly, unlike the state, which is a single sphere, society is a collection of small spheres: ‘the family, the business, science, art and so forth’.

Secondly, unlike the unity of the state, which is ‘mechanical’, the unity of society is ‘organic’ and spontaneous – arising, Kuyper would go so far as to argue, from the order of creation itself. And thirdly, according to Kuyper, God delegates sovereignty to each of these social spheres individually and in such a way that every form of social life is sovereign within its own domains.

In concert with a number of modern theologians – from both the Roman Catholic and Protestant traditions – Kuyper is broadly advocating the idea of ‘limited government’. The government, he writes, ‘may never become an octopus’ but must always ‘honour and maintain every form of life which grows independently in its own sacred autonomy’.

This does not mean, of course, that the state has no role at all to play in relation to these social spheres. As the maintainer of public order, the state can and must serve as adjudicator should a dispute arise between the different communities in society.

‘Whenever different spheres clash’, Kupyer writes, the state is to ‘compel mutual regard for the boundary-lines of each’. In addition, the state should also ‘defend individuals and the weak ones, in those spheres, against the abuse of power of the rest’.

This view has important implications on how we should understand the relationship between the state (government) and the Church (or any faith community for that matter), which is one of the social spheres in society.

The government, according to this view, must allow the Church to exercise sovereignty over its own domain. In other words, the State should let the Church be the Church. This is the position of significant theological voices in the last century and in ours, including Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas.

The nature of the Church as the community of the redeemed and its role in society and vis-à-vis the State must therefore be clarified.

The Church is the called-out people of God who have been reconciled to him through faith in Jesus Christ. Her mission is to proclaim the Good News that God’s salvation can be found in Jesus Christ, God’s incarnate Son. This means that the mission of the Church is fundamentally spiritual in nature, although it also has profound political and social ramifications.

As Carl Henry explains: ‘The Church’s mission in the world is spiritual. Its influence on the political order, therefore, must be registered indirectly as a by-product of spiritual concerns’.

It is, however, very important that we do not interpret this approach as advocating a kind of dualism or compartmentalisation that would eventually result in the privatisation of religion. What Henry and others are highlighting is to do with the distinction between the primary and secondary concerns of the Church, based on the kind of community it is.

Thus, while Henry is absolutely clear that ‘preaching and discipling constitute the church’s primary responsibility in the world’, he is equally clear about the Church’s political and social responsibilities.

The Church, according to Henry, must ‘encourage individual members to fulfil their political duties as a spiritual responsibility’, and ‘call rulers, even pagan rulers, to maintain order and justice [and] criticise those who violate, misapply, or refuse to enforce the law’.

But here again, it must be pointed out that the Church does this by being herself, namely, a prophetic community that embodies the justice and the love of God. The Church does not try to become what she is not, namely, the State. Nor does she seek to exercise the powers that do not belong to her, but are properly those of the State alone.

Thus Henry adds that although the Church must take a keen interest in the welfare of society and the common good, she must not get directly involved in what he calls practical politics. Neither must she ‘use the mechanism of the government to legally impose upon society at large her theological commitments’. Henry thus discourages the Church from engaging in any kind of ‘confrontational activism that promotes Christian legislation and a Christian state’.

The Church, while sovereign over her own domain, seeks to exert influence in the society of which she is a part not as a political party, but as the humble witness of her incarnate Lord that is always compelled to speak the truth in love.

In being true to the kind of community that she is and in fulfilling the mission given to her by God, the Church must also recognise the authority of the state or government that God has instituted. She must respect it and accord it the requisite freedom to fulfil its God-given role as the upholder of justice and the maintainer of public peace.

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