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Thinking Theologically about Church and State

by Lois Barrett

Lois Y. Barrett Director, is Assistant Professor of Theology and Anabaptist Studies at the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Elkhart, Indiana. She received her Ph.D. from the Graduate School of The Union Institute, in 1992. This essay was presented at the Fourth Annual Restorative Justice Conference, October 25, 1996. Used by permission of the author.


In the United States and Canada, we have often talked about the relationship of church and state in terms of the "separation of church and state." This sometimes means that the church should take out of politics, or it often means that the church and the state have separate spheres, separate tasks, and one should not try to take over the other's job. This is not really a theological concept; it's not in the Bible; and it's not what I'm going to talk about today.

Another well-used model to talk about church and state has been H. Richard Niebuhr's book Christ and Culture, read by many seminary students throughout the past 40 years. In the book, Niebuhr outlines five possible relationships between "Christ" and "culture": Christ of culture, Christ above culture, Christ against culture, Christ and culture in paradox, and, his favorite, Christ the transformer of culture. But Niebuhr's analysis is really not adequate for looking at this issue.

First, "Christ," which means "messiah," refers to a person, particularly Jesus of Nazareth, and his continuing relationship with the church. "Culture," on the other hand, is very general. It is an ongoing aspect of human society in every time and place. To compare "Christ" and "culture" is like comparing apples and organization.

Secondly, Niebuhr's analysis has no real place for the church. The primary actor is the individual Christian who must make choices concerning Christ and culture. By implication, the church is simply the collection of individual Christians. The church as a social reality, a community that affirms or dissents from culture based on its following Jesus Christ, is missing. The "Christ transforming culture" model, which does allow for both affirmation and dissent, assumes that the real arena of God's action is in the surrounding culture, not in and through the church.

Third, all but one of Niebuhr's options take for granted that Christians have a common identity with the surrounding culture, that church and culture will mutually support each other, and if there are problems in the culture, Christians are responsible to fix them. In addition, responsibility is always defined in terms of the culture, rather than in terms of covenant responsibility to God in the context of the church.

Fourth, the only non-Constantinian model, "Christ against culture"(the category in which he places Mennonites), Niebuhr claims to be flawed because, in it, Christians are said to withdraw from the world, reject any responsibility for it, and to be no longer "in the world." This model, however, is a straw figure set up to be knocked down easily. It is not possible for living human beings not to be "in the world" or to withdraw completely from "culture." Even those churches that have dissented from many aspects of the dominant culture still participate in it in many ways through sharing its language, through involvement in its economic system, through social interaction of various kinds. Then through a kind of Catch 22, such churches are often criticized for being "inconsistent." Niebuhr ignores the possibility that the most transforming activity of the church in relationship to the culture might not be to try to wield power in the dominant culture, but to demonstrate by the church's own life together the transforming and healing power of God's new community.

Rather than use Niebuhr's schema, I want to propose a different set of models for the interaction between church and state in the North American context. In order to do that, I will first look at how most people in North America view the church and what I think is a more biblical way of understanding the church.

Four models of the church

1. The first model of the church here is not really first chronologically. It dates back to the fourth century of the Christian era and is connected with the Roman emperor Constantine, under whom Christianity became established as the official religion of the Roman state. Constantine alone was not responsible for this, but he has become the reference point for talking about the establishment of the church, which we sometimes refer to as Constantinianism. The Roman Empire, which had been periodically persecuting the church and executing Christians, became instead the protector of Christianity, and it became illegal not to be a Christian. Where once Christians had refused to join the Roman army, now the Roman army accepted only Christian recruits. Several things went along with this Constantinian shift: acceptance of military service, a move from house churches to large basilicas, infant baptism (since now citizenship in the state was equivalent with membership in the church, which was no longer voluntary), a move from multiple church leadership to more authority vested in the priest and in the church hierarchy, and a shift of emphasis from awaiting God's final victory over the powers in the age to come, to primary concern about the fate of each individual's soul.

In medieval Europe, after the fall of the Roman Empire, this model continued to shape the church, although there were always some dissenting religious movements, especially in the late Middle Ages. Everyone in Europe (except Jews) was supposed to be Christian, and church attendance was mandatory at least once a year (normally on Easter). In the sixteenth century, the mainstream Reformers did not challenge this Constantinian arrangement, except that now a ruler could choose whether the established church was Catholic, Lutheran, or Reformed. The refusal of the Anabaptists to baptize infants was a political act, a rejection of the Constantinian model of the church, and an affirmation that commitment to Christ and the church should be chosen and that members should lead lives of discipleship.

The established churches were brought to North America with the European immigrants. Although official establishment did not last past the first half of the nineteenth century, a quasi-establishment of the church remained.

In this first model of the church, the church has often been defined as the building. Or the church may be defined as the pastor. One woman complained when a Mennonite mission board quit funding a missionary for that congregation, "You took away our church." In this understanding, the church serves as chaplain to society. It blesses family rites of passage. It prays at public functions. It provides moral support for the state and expects the state to give it privileges. The verb that is usually used with this understanding of the church is "go," as in "we go to church."

One of the problems with this model of the church is that it is dying in North America today. This is the model that many of the mainline churches have been working with, and it is not working very well anymore. It works today only in some homogenous ethnic communities and some small towns.

2. The second model of the church that is operating in North America is the church as voluntary association. Religious pluralism and mobility in North America demanded a different model of the church. This is, in fact, the legal status of the church in the United States and Canada. Here, the church as voluntary association in somewhat like a religious civic club. This model assumes a segmented life: the soccer club takes care of one's recreational needs; the business association takes care of one's professional needs; the church takes care of one's spiritual needs. The church is a place to mold good citizens, civil people, good people who will go out and do good things that benefit society as a whole. Relationships with government are often of the reform variety. The good people in the church are sent out to work in their particular vocation in a Christian manner. Churches of this model can be liberal or conservative, evangelical or mainline. They are interested in operating by democratic principles. They sometimes have a type of civil religion. They think that the real power lies in Washington and Ottawa. They are as much a part of the establishment as the previous model. The verb one often uses with this model of the church as voluntary association is "belong": "I belong to this church." This model of the church is also in decline.

3. The rising star in terms of models of the church is the church as spiritual filling station. Or sometimes this kind of church is described as a vendor of religious goods and services. This is the entrepreneurial megachurch that offers a wide variety of goods and services. Sometimes it can be the small specialty church that serves a narrow market of those who are not interested in megachurches. You can tell this model is the rising star because it is the one about which you hear the most jokes.

This is the church that claims to "meet my needs." The focus is on individual needs, individual self-actualization, individual sa lvation. The individual is the consumer; the church and its staff are those with a product or services to market. The verb most often used in connection with the spiritual filling station model of the church is "shop": "I shop for a church."

4. The fourth model, which I believe is more biblical and is indeed followed in some congregations is the church as holy nation. In this model, the church uses the language of peoplehood, of being a pilgrim people, strangers and aliens in the territory in which they find themselves, citizens of the reign of God. The church is not the reign of God, but points to the reign of God. It is a preview of the reign of God. To call the church "a holy nation," is to quote from 1 Peter 2:9, which itself paraphrases Exodus 19:5-6. This was the Jewish self-understanding, and the early Christian church took for itself the idea of nationhood and opened it up more radically to include Gentiles and well as Jews.

There is a lot of political language for the church in the New Testament. A frequently used word in "kingdom." The center of Jesus' message was the kingdom of God. This preaching of the kingdom, or reign, of God was continued by the early church: by Philip (Acts 8:12), Paul and Barnabas (Acts 14:22), Paul alone (19:8; 20:25), the writer of Hebrews (1:8; 12:28), James (2:5), 2 Peter (1:11), and John the Revelator (1:9; 12:10). Jesus is given the title "King" or "King of kings," and in Revelation, the saints are called "kings" as well (Rev. 1:6; 5:10). Even the title "Lord," as given to Jesus, is a political title, since in the first-century Roman Empire it was expected that one would call Caesar "lord." Even the word "church" has a political connotation. While the Greek word for "church" can mean any assembly, it often meant an assembly gathered for decision making, a town meeting. Thus the church is that gathering of the reign of God assembled to be a sign of the reign of God, to proclaim the word of God in word and deed, to make decision, and to give allegiance to their Ruler.

The New Testament also claims that, in Jesus' death and resurrection, Christ has defeated the "principalities and powers," as the King James Version translates it, or in the words of the NRSV, the "rulers and authorities." Colossians 2:9-15 claims that Christ has disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, leading them hostage in triumphal victory procession. In fact, Christ is now not only head of the church, but head of every ruler and authority (see Eph. 1:20-23). Part of the task of the church is to make known the wisdom of God to the rulers and authorities (Eph. 3:10).

Such language is a dramatic challenge to the powers, governments, authorities, and institutions of the world. These political claims for Christ and for the church as the people of God demand that people make a choice of allegiance. The "holy" people will be those who have been set apart for Christ's service. They are the people different from those around them, different because they have given their ultimate allegiance to God through Jesus as Lord.

In every cultural context, no matter how benevolent or hostile the governments and societies around it, the church is called to demonstrate an alternative culture and an alternative politics, an alternative ethics, in dialogue with the surrounding cultures. The Letter to Diognetus (possibly from the second century) describes the early church:

" For Christians are not differentiated from other people by country, language, or customs; you see, they do not live in cities of their own, or speak some strange dialect, or have some peculiar lifestyle.

...They live in both Greek and foreign cities, wherever chance has put them. They follow local customs in clothing, food, and the other aspects of life. But at the same time, they demonstrate to us the wonderful and certainly unusual form of their own citizenship.

They live in their own native lands, but as aliens; as citizens, they share all things with others; but like aliens suffer all things. Every foreign country is to them as their native country, and every native land as a foreign country."

In the Anabaptist tradition, this model has often been associated with the concept of separation from the world or more precisely, in the words of the Schleitheim confession, separation from the evil of the world. This does not mean geographical isolation from the world, or ignoring the rest of the world. It means nonconformity to the ways of the world. It means that Christians are supposed to behave differently from the standards of the dominant culture. In and of itself, this nonconformity does not mean disengagement. It simply means a different set of rules, a different way of life.

In this peoplehood model of the church, the primary verb is a form of the verb "to be": as in "We are the church." The church's relation to government.

None of these models of the church require Christians to withdraw completely from the political life of the state. But which model of the church you are living out of does make a difference in how the church relates to government.

Some Constantinian models of the church and government. The ways of relating to government can't be neatly matched with any of the first three models of he church because all three really share the same Constantinian assumptions about government.

1. Some may say the church should stay out of politics, or not attempt to influence the political process. Or the church should just ignore government. But often this is simply a philosophy of separation of spheres. In other words, the church as an organization should stay out of politics, but Christians individually should participate in government. And somehow, Christians working from this understanding of church and state usually end up supporting the status quo.

2. The word most used with regard to Christians and government is "responsibility." Responsibility often becomes the justification for compromising Christian faithfulness in relation to government. The argument usually is that our responsibility to government and neighbor has such priority that it is inevitable that one will have to get dirty and do some things that are in conflict with following Jesus. Virtually every Christian public ethic that justifies behavior that runs counter to the example and teaching of Jesus does it on the grounds of "responsibility." In many cases, the critics admit that following Jesus would mean something quite different from what they are proposing. But Jesus' example is deemed irrelevant or irresponsible. And if an action is not "responsible," then, these critics imply, one must of course not do it.

The best rejoinder to such arguments is, "Responsible to whom?" Is Christians' primary responsibility to the dominant society or to the government? Or is Christians' primary responsibility to God and to understandings of life among the people of God? If one's primary commitment and allegiance is to God, the responsibility is defined by the covenant between God and the people of God. Allegiance to God as Ruler and a commitment to following Jesus may at times require Christians to act according to understandings of responsibility that are different from those of the surrounding society. If the church does not let itself be held captive to the state, it will take most seriously its responsibilities to the reign of God, present and future.

3. Or some may say that Christians should get into government and do it right or at least, do it better than non-Christians would. This really fits the first model of the church best, because there is very little separation of church and state, and one expects that the two will generally support each other.

Church as holy nation in relation with the nations.

Let me now outline what I see as five tasks for the church as holy nation in relationship with government.

1. We need to discern the nature of the principalities and powers in our context. The powers (spiritual and material, abstract in institutions and represented by particular individuals) are not evil in and of themselves. Sometimes the powers act for good and sometimes for evil. They have been ordered by God for the purpose of doing good. But the powers tend to become idolatrous, to set themselves up as gods.

One of the tasks of the church is to discern the nature of the powers in each context in which the church finds itself. The context in which the church receives nonprofit tax status or is consulted by governments is quite different from a context in which people are being killed for their faith. The sharp, black-and-white divisions between church and government which some of the sixteenth-century Anabaptists experienced is going to be different from the experience of most North American Christians in the twentieth century.

However, we should not be too quick to think that persecution of the church is far from our experience. In this century, two Hutterite young men died from mistreatment in military prison for refusing to wear the army uniform during World War I. People were tarred and feathered for refusing to buy Liberty Bonds. In the 1970s, I was part of an intentional Christian community in which every family in the community was audited multiple times over a seven-year period. Random audits, right! I was yelled at by more than one IRS agent and told that communities like ours were terrible and should not exist. While in voluntary service in 1969, I was helping serve daily breakfast to African-American children when ci ty police detective spread false rumors about us to the suppliers who were donating food to our church-run program, and the free food stopped temporarily. Government is not always on the side of the church.

2. We need to discern the critical points of dissent from government and the culture that supports it. No state can be wholly Christian, because modern nation-states are defined by their territory, and all territorial governments are based on coercion. Most people don't have much a choice about their citizenship. When you have citizens who are not voluntary, governments have to use violence to maintain order, at least as a last resort. It is only a community following Jesus that can be completely nonviolent. The only Christian nation is the church of Jesus Christ.

So there will always be points of dissent. The task of the church is to discern the points of dissent. You don't have to dissent from everything in order to make a witness. In fact, it is necessary to dissent only at a few key points in order to make a significant impact.

The clearest point on which Mennonites over the centuries have chosen to dissent is the refusal of military service. The restorative justice movement also represents a dissent from the mainstream of the justice system. All of the justice systems of the Western world are based on Aristotle's definition of justice that each person will get what he or she deserves. Biblical justice, on the other hand, means restoring right relationships and caring for both victims and offenders.

This is why we have to keep on doing theology over and over, why we can't just settle it once and for all. Theology is the task of discerning our situation in the light of the gospel. The gospel doesn't change, but our situation changes. The church's task is to know the gospel very well and to know its context very well, and in the light of those, to discern the key issues.

3. The third task of the church is to be a model of peoplehood under the rule of God, to be that preview of the age to come. If we believe that peace is the way, then our ways should be ways of peace within the church. If we believe in justice that restores relationships, then discipline in the church should be restorative. It is not necessary for the government to approve or to adopt Christlike ways in order for the church to begin living that way now. Neither does the church need to turn over all peace and justice and social welfare concerns to the state. If the church is a holy nation, it will be doing many of those things itself. There will always be a place for church-run agencies that model peace and justice in ways that the government is not ready to do.

4. The church is not only called to be it, but to say it, and to say it publicly. A New Testament image of the church's public witness is that of "ambassadors of reconciliation" (2 Cor. 5). The church is an embassy sent to the other nations with a message. It is possible to speak to government without operating on the government's terms. Menno Simons in the sixteenth century unapologetically wrote to rulers trying to persuade them not to practice capital punishment on people they thought were heretics.

This kind of public witness is really what the New Testament means by "preaching." "Preaching" is actually a rather political word. It means "to announce" or "to proclaim publicly. It was sometimes used in a political context, as with the official runner who comes into town ahead of the rule with the message "The king is coming!" To preach, then, is to announce good news, public good news for the community.

This preaching in public is far more than attempting to influence Washington and Ottawa to enact the right legislation. The real center of power is in the reign of God and in the church as its representative. Ephesians 3:10 claims that it is through the church that the wisdom of God will be made known to the rulers and authorities. The task of announcing the reign of God will mean getting out of the four walls of the church building, out of the safe group of people who know and love each other, into the public square.

What standard of behavior do we have a right to expect of government? First, God does not have one set of rules for governments and another set of rules for everybody else. God has one will for all people. God wills that all people come to salvation, peace, and justice and enter the reign of God. At the same time, we should not expect that territorial states are going to be able to act in Christian ways, ultimately. But we can speak to government in the hope that it can move from where it is now one step closer to the will of God. Our job as a church is be ambassadors, to carry God's message to the other nations, and to do this with integrity and clear loyalty to God's nation.

5. Finally, we are called not only to be it and to say it, but to do it. What can we do together with secular governments? Where can we work together with integrity. This depends on our context and the critical points of dissent that we have discerned. The church will need to discern where it can cooperate with government faithfully without letting the church get absorbed into government. The church will need to practice being different from the state and staying connected. Or there may be times when one has to disconnect particular projects or to suffer for righteousness' sake.

All that the church is, says, and does in the public arena is to be done out of the conviction that, one day, the whole world will acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord, and even the rebellious powers will bow before Christ. So, every way in which justice and reconciliation happen in the world becomes a sign of the complete justice and reconciliation in the age to come.


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