Church and State: The Theory
We must begin with the simple review of the conflict between
church and state, which is with us yet.
A complete discussion of the relationship between church and
state is well beyond the scope of a single lesson. We may, however, make three
simple observations which govern the conduct of the Christian citizen during
The first is the recognition that the Christian citizen owes a
duty to the state. The Christian is to "render unto Caesar." It is our
responsibility to determine what we owe to the government, and then to deliver
it. Both knowing and delivering are sometimes difficult.
We are also to recognize the authority of the state, particularly
in matters which concern keeping the order of civilization. Paying taxes,
obedience to the police authorities and the other duties of a good citizen are
the normal concern of the Christian.
The Christian should recognize that belonging to the state or
nation which is well governed is something for which we should be at least
pleased, and perhaps even take some pride therein.
Remember that when the New Testament was written the
Christians were an extremely small minority. They had virtually no influence
over the government; therefore, the instructions given were for those who had
no choice in their government.
Of course, it sometimes happens that the times are not
normal. The early Christians faced a good deal of oppression, mostly from the
Jews. Occasionally the local magistrate would take a hand in this — sometimes
stopping it, sometimes enforcing it. It is important for the Christian to know
the difference between a government which is doing something we don't like and
a government which is oppressing us. How can we tell the difference?
The first principle is that of the Magna Carta: the King is not
above the law. If the governing authorities ignore their own laws to oppress
the church, the Christian must react as the Scripture commands. As we shall
see, this does not necessarily mean rebellion.
If the state thinks itself supreme in all matters of moral
judgment ("if it's legal, it's moral") then the conflict between
church and state is mortal. If the church accepts the state’s moral authority,
the church is cut off from the vine of Christ.
Particularly in the second case, the servant of Christ will
certainly suffer. This carries with it the corollary that some Christians will
not have the courage to suffer.
The question might well ask: "Just why is it that God
wants me to suffer for this?" There are at least two reasons:
First, there is the principle that God's strength is perfected in
We can easily see how the strong prevail; when we see the week prevail, we are
Second, the Christian witness is certified by suffering. If you
want to know if someone is sincere in his beliefs, see how much he will suffer
Permit me a great example. Several years ago the president
of our local University decided to remove all Christian influence from the
campus. He abolished all Christian organizations and forbade any Christian
meetings on campus. Christ was left with precisely one witness: Curly. He
didn't look like much. He weighed about 90 pounds; he had boils all over his
body; he was recovering from blindness in his right eye where the surgeons had
to drill into his skull to get at a tumor; he had epilepsy; he had had several
strokes. Each day his friends would push him to a prominent part of the campus.
Sitting in his wheelchair, unable to move, he would cry out to all who passed
by, "Jesus loves you." The president of the University could not find
a police officer with enough macho to arrest him for doing that. Ultimately the
Christian organizations were allowed back in, but in the meanwhile Curly was
By What Power
Acts 4:1-22 NASB
As they were speaking to the people, the priests and the captain of the temple guard and the Sadducees came up to them, (2) being greatly disturbed because they were
teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead. (3) And they laid hands on them and put them in jail
until the next day, for it was already evening. (4)
But many of those who had heard the message believed; and the number of the men
came to be about five thousand. (5) On the
next day, their rulers and elders and scribes were gathered together in
Jerusalem; (6) and Annas the high priest was there, and Caiaphas and John and Alexander,
and all who were of high-priestly descent. (7)
When they had placed them in the center, they began
to inquire, "By what power, or in what name, have you done
this?" (8) Then Peter, filled with the
Holy Spirit, said to them, "Rulers and elders of the people, (9) if we are on trial today for a benefit done to a
sick man, as to how this man has been made well, (10)
let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel, that by the name
of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the
dead--by this name this man stands here before
you in good health. (11) "He is the
STONE WHICH WAS REJECTED by you, THE BUILDERS, but
WHICH BECAME THE CHIEF CORNER stone. (12) "And there is salvation in no one else;
for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which
we must be saved." (13) Now as they
observed the confidence of Peter and John and understood that they were
uneducated and untrained men, they were amazed, and began
to recognize them as having been with Jesus. (14)
And seeing the man who had been healed standing with them, they had nothing to
say in reply. (15) But when they had ordered
them to leave the Council, they began to
confer with one another, (16) saying,
"What shall we do with these men? For the fact that a noteworthy miracle
has taken place through them is apparent to all who live in Jerusalem, and we
cannot deny it. (17) "But so that it
will not spread any further among the people, let us warn them to speak no
longer to any man in this name." (18)
And when they had summoned them, they commanded them not to speak or teach at
all in the name of Jesus. (19) But Peter and
John answered and said to them, "Whether it is right in the sight of God
to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge; (20) for we cannot stop speaking about what we have
seen and heard." (21) When they had
threatened them further, they let them go (finding no basis on which to punish them)
on account of the people, because they were all glorifying God for what had
happened; (22) for the man was more than
forty years old on whom this miracle of healing had been performed.
You can see the problems the authorities have here. It is
plain to all that what Peter has done is an act of kindness and charity towards
a man who is an example of long, painful suffering. If you are going to be in
conflict with authority, the starting point for the Christian is that our
actions should be those of Christ. As strange as it sounds, there are
communities in our nation which make it a crime to feed the poor. This is based
on some distorted theory that if we don't feed them they will go away. If
you're going to suffer, let it be for doing something good.
But that's not sufficient. You need to connect that good
deed with the name of Christ. It is not just that I am feeding the poor, you
see, is that I am feeding the poor at the command of Jesus Christ. It's not
just some bright idea that I came up with. This lets the authorities know that
they are not dealing with some fuzzy brained do-gooder, but a servant to Jesus
Christ. The conflict is not between us and authority, but between Christ and
This also determines our defense. We are not defending
ourselves. It is not our purpose to tell the authorities how righteous we are,
or how hungry the poor are. It is our purpose to tell them about Jesus Christ.
In the process, we will tell a lot of other people too. We need always to act
so that everyone understands that the conflict is not between us and the
authorities, but between Christ and the authorities.
This may cause a bit of grief to some. Our message is not
that we are doing good deeds, though that is exactly what we are doing. Nor is
our message that we are wonderful people and should be praised for doing our
good deeds. Our message is Jesus Christ. He is the cause of our good deeds, and
if we appear to be wonderful people it is the reflection of his glory that the
Reaction of the Authorities
The first concern of all secular authorities is this: that
you obey their authority. If you don't, they have a problem. They have tools to
solve this problem — jail, floggings, putting people to death, torture, endless
bureaucracy — but the challenge from the Christian makes these tools less than
effective. Why? It's because the Christian is willing to suffer for the cause
of Christ. Worse, the reason for this willingness is easy to explain and at the
same time lifts up Jesus Christ. Peter puts it well: just who do you think we
should obey? Should we obey you, or God? The answer, as the physicists would
say it, is intuitively obvious to the casual observer.
It goes further than that. Remember that in intercession is
always the superior who intercedes for the inferior. This is why we are
commanded to pray for those in authority over us. Paul makes it
clear why we are to do so. It is in obedience to God's will that all might be
saved — including those in authority over us. If you think about it, we are
superior to them in the eyes of Christ — who has all authority in heaven and on
Earth. We are the children of God; they are the children of men. It is
therefore fitting and proper that we should pray for them, both that they might
execute their function as they should and that they might be saved.
We need to remember just who's in charge in this universe.
Acts 4:23-31 NASB
When they had been released, they went to their own companions
and reported all that the chief priests and the elders had said to them. (24) And when they heard this,
they lifted their voices to God with one accord and said, "O Lord, it is
You who MADE THE HEAVEN AND THE EARTH AND THE SEA, AND ALL THAT IS IN THEM, (25) who by the Holy Spirit, through the mouth of our father David Your
servant, said, 'WHY DID THE GENTILES RAGE, AND THE PEOPLES DEVISE FUTILE
THINGS? (26) 'THE KINGS OF THE EARTH TOOK
THEIR STAND, AND THE RULERS WERE GATHERED TOGETHER AGAINST THE LORD AND AGAINST
HIS CHRIST.' (27) "For truly in this
city there were gathered together against Your holy servant Jesus, whom You
anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the
peoples of Israel, (28) to do whatever Your
hand and Your purpose predestined to occur. (29)
"And now, Lord, take note of their threats, and grant that Your
bond-servants may speak Your word with all confidence, (30) while You extend Your hand to heal, and signs and wonders
take place through the name of Your holy servant Jesus." (31) And when they had prayed, the place where they
had gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit
and began to speak the word of God with
The Church's Prayer
The first thing the church does is to go in prayer to God.
This is a very commendable instinct. We may learn from their prayer just how we
are to react in times when the authorities trouble us.
The church begins with praise: they acknowledge who God is. It's
a useful comparison. The local authorities think themselves supreme; it is well
to remember who the creator of heaven and Earth is.
They acknowledge God's control of events — and by implication
they acknowledge the fact that they do not know what the future will hold. How
often we forget to do this! We need to remember the Providence of God as well
as his love for us.
Next, they asked that they might be bold in speaking the word.
Notice that not asking to escape the consequences of this boldness, nor are
they asking to be relieved of the responsibility speaking, but they are asking
that they might be given the courage to do what they are commanded to do.
Finally, they ask God to deliver the signs and miracles by which
those in authority might be convinced. It seems these things are no longer done
— but we can ask.
What They Did Not Pray for
There is a most curious omission in this prayer: they did
not ask to be delivered from persecution. It's probably the first thing a
modern Christian would ask for. We want to get rid of the problem. Their
purpose was to preach the gospel, and therefore they saw the persecution as a
tool to forward that goal. Whether or not they were persecuted made no real
difference, as long as the gospel was preached boldly.
Notice also that they did not seek to reach an accommodation
with the authorities. There is no sense here of trying to make a reasonable
compromise. This is not always recommended; after all, if the dispute is about
whether or not you stand on a street corner or sit in the storefront nearby, it
may be reasonable to try to come to some accommodation. The authorities in this
instance want the apostles to shut up — and that's the one thing they're not
going to do.
Considering that these authorities are diametrically opposed
to the message of Christ, it may surprise you that the apostles do not pray for
the distraction of these authorities. Neither as individuals, nor as a
government do we see the apostles asking God to wipe out their opponents. It is
the will of God that all might be saved – including the nasty so-and-so's who
are opposed to us.
"Through the Name"
One focus the apostles had that seems to have been lost
today is the concept of "the Name of Christ." The apostles were
greatly zealous for this. We can easily see why:
The Name is the source of all authority in heaven and on Earth. Once we
understand this, the conflict with the local authorities becomes much easier to
Indeed, the apostles baptized new followers into the Name. We
follow this tradition today, perhaps not thinking about it. But it was very
important to the apostles, because it meant that the one person in the universe
who had the authority to forgive your sins was doing so as you were baptized.
Finally, it is clear that at the return of Christ every knee
shall bow in honor of the Name of Christ.
It is just possible that we have missed something here.
Perhaps in our quest to make Jesus our good buddy we have forgotten the honor,
power and glory of his Name. If you want a personal relationship with someone,
you must start with knowing who they are. Some of us don't really know who