Christ and Government?


Richard Niebuhr is well-known for his 5 possible relationships between Christ and Culture (from the book “Christ and Culture” (1951)). While these may not be a complete set of choices, but they do provide a good list of options.

Christ against Culture

-Christ above Culture

-Christ transforming Culture

-Christ and Culture in Paradox

-Christ of Culture

Culture is important, but we also need to think hard about the role of Christ and Government. It was easy in the second century to see Christ against Government. It may have been easy in the fourth century to see Christ of Government. With the growth of the concept of “Christendom”, and state (Christian) religions, the blurring of Christ and Government increased.

The faith group I am in tends to uphold the Jeffersonian ideal of a “high wall of separation” between religion and government. Not seeking to disagree with my group, but there are obvious problems. First, religion and Christ are not the same thing. Even if one holds to this ideal, it does not answer the question of the government’s relationship with Christ. Second, in many cultures, faith is integrated with all aspects of life, including governance. Is it appropriate to tell a culture that a foundational aspect of their way of life is flawed?  Third, secularism is a religion (although an unorganized religion) in that it provides answers for the key questions of life and guidance as to how to evaluate experiences and make life decisions. Therefore, removing (a) religion from governance simply replaces it with another (for practical purposes).

Some would suggest a smaller wall of separation. This would be a religiously neutral governance. Religion is not anathema within government, but no religion is placed above another. This is almost impossible to practice consistently. Secularism tends to still become the “favored religion”. This may work better than some choices (or not), but it still does provide little answer to the question of the relationship between Christ and Government for Christians. With the big wall and the small wall, there still tends to be a compartmentalization of faith in the lives of Christians.

On the other hand, some Christians aggressively believe in a theocratic ideal. Christ rules a “Christian nation”. This has been promoted by many Christians. It certainly removes the issue of compartmentalization of faith. However, it seems to seek more of an Islamic ideal for the relationship between faith and governance than a Christian ideal. This ideal has problems when Christianity is the minority faith (as it is in Islamic, Hindu, or Buddhist dominant countries). Even in countries such as the United States or Philippines where Christianity is dominant, there can be communities where other religions are dominant, such as Mormonism, Islam, or Secularism. It is easy to love the power of being the dominant religion in a community. But is one willing to accept the active or passive persecution associated with being a minority faith? Many Christians in the US want to see public prayer restored to schools, but are they willing to accept public prayers in schools where the prayers are directed to the local dominant deity (such as the Mormon Elohim or the Islamic Allah)?

Why is this important? In missions, people come from one government system into another government system. When Christ is brought over, so are attitudes about government (for good or for ill). If a missionary comes from a democratic system, should one assume that Christ loves democracy and wants to change all governments to democracy?  On the other hand, is Christ only interested in spiritual change? Does He lack concern about social injustices and corruption that are allowed (or even encouraged) by the local government. Should missionaries be active in governmental change, or just be quiet and happy as a “guest” of the host country?

How should churches relate to government. Can they love their country while opposing their nation? Should they risk losing registration or tax benefits by challenging the government?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer spent his entire adult life mulling over this question. His denomination attached itself, for the most part, to the local governance of Nazi Germany. Shouldn’t their allegiance to Christ take preeminance over their allegiance to Hitler?  But if so, how should they have demonstrated that?  American churches often closely link faith and patriotism.  Are their problems with that? Here in the Philippines, there is a fairly low wall of separation between church and state. Many evangelicals here assume that by voting evangelical Christians into political office that government will improve. But would improvement be the result? And what is the real agenda… is it seeking to improve government or to take the power away from other religious groups for themselves?

This is a rambling post. But this is something we as Christians, and ambassadors to the world must think about. What is the relationship between Christ and Government, and how should that affect what we do as individuals and as people of God?

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