In the first century, Christians were persecuted because they gave higher allegiance to God than to the Roman government—there is a fundamental conflict between the affirmations “Jesus is Lord” and “Caesar is Lord.”The same conflict has appeared many other times throughout history when governments have claimed ultimate authority or divine prerogatives for themselves or their gods. Peace between Christians and the governments over them has consistently come in one of two circumstances: when the “visible church” has forsaken God in apostasy, and when the government has accepted God’s authority and made God’s law the highest law of the land.
Here in America, we have for the most part had such peace for most of our history, sometimes for the one reason and sometimes for the other. From the beginning most leaders have made at least nominal deference to the true Ruler—after all, one important rallying cry of the War of Independence was “We have no king but Christ!”—and in the early days, “nominal deference” went a lot farther than it does today. But in more recent times, minimally nominal allegiance to God has been more common, yet much of the visible Church has been willing to make peace with the state on all points in exchange for agreement on a few points.
Even those who (rightly) warn most loudly about the disappearance of true faith or appropriate preaching of the Word from “the church in America” seem to stand in grave danger of falling away for the sake of a false peace. Why?
First: In the Old Testament, a member of God’s covenant people was required to appear before God three times a year at the major festivals; any who did not was to be “cut off,” i.e. excommunicated and disinherited. And celebration of the feasts of any of the pagan gods that the former inhabitants of the land had worshiped was similarly grounds for expulsion from the covenant. Under the new and better covenant, Paul told the church at Rome, whether to treat some days as holy or to treat all days alike is a matter for the individual’s own conscience—but, as I argued last year, if any days are to be celebrated, I think the principle from the Law applies: Whose set of “holy days” or “feasts” we celebrate hints at to whom our ultimate allegiance is truly given. It should be a cause for dismay and repentance if a church goes out of its way to observe every major secular holiday (Independence Day, Memorial Day, Father’s Day, Mother’s Day, Veterans Day, and so on), but neglects almost every holiday or season of the Christian year (Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Ash Wednesday, Lent, Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter, Pentecost, Trinity, etc.).
Second: From the beginning of American history, the Church has asserted its independence from the State, and the government has traditionally accepted those claims. (The government does not tax churches, for instance, because both churches and governments are directly under God; the other example I can think of is the concept of the church as a sanctuary from the Law.) It is a worrying symptom when church events, like “any other civic event,” begin by pledging allegiance to the State, or when a church flies the government’s flag in greater honor than its own.
And third: While it is fitting for the Church to encourage reasonable obedience to the rulers God has placed over the people, as several of Paul’s epistles enjoin his readers, it’s a troubling sign when a church itself accepts without protest or even promotes a government’s accretion of improper authority to itself. If the only time a church, or a “religious leader,” “speaks truth to power” is when the message is popular with one particular political party, this is not a good sign. One of the responsibilities of the Church is what Calvinists like to call “renewal” or “redemption,” working to bring the creation (including human society and government) closer to the divine ideal; as such, the Church shouldn’t be a paragovermental organization (or, worse, a campaign organization for one party or another).
Whom do we serve? By our words and actions, whom are we serving?
- Best Books: The Institutes of the Christian Religion (shinecycle.wordpress.com)