Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Christ and Caesar

This blog is really about collisions. Mainly, those between secular society and thought, and God and his church. One of the most vexing problems for Christianity has always been what to do about civil authority (i.e., politics). The New Testament does not give us a blueprint of how God's church should act as a ruling majority.

Two competing schools of thought are set forth in Why it's right for us to be on the side by pastor James L. Evans ...

and the response from pastor Gary DeMar in Why It's Wrong for the Church to be on the Sidelines.

Pastor Evans, in full ...

Years ago, priest and writer Henri Nouwen was serving as chaplain on a Dutch cruise ship making its way to Rotterdam. They were in a thick fog. Everyone was edgy and nervous as the ship crept along, virtually blind in the water. The captain was pacing back and forth, anxiously trying to get through the fog without slamming into anything.

Suddenly, in mid-pace, the captain collided with his chaplain. Pre-occupied and stressed, he cursed the chaplain and ordered him off the bridge. The chaplain, hurt and embarrassed, was about to leave when suddenly the captain turned to him.

"Wait a minute," the captain said. "Stay here. This might be the only time I really need you."

The experience became for Nouwen a parable of the modern church. He writes, "There was a time, not too long ago, when we felt like captains running our own ships, with a great sense of power and self-confidence. Now we are standing in the way. That is our lonely position: We are powerless, on the side . . . not taken very seriously when the weather is fine."

This position on the side is a source of great discomfort for many people of faith. There are those who believe that God's faithful should be captains of all reality. They believe that people of faith should be in charge.

The idea is at least as old as Constantine. You will recall him as the Roman ruler who made Christianity the official faith of the Empire. This dubious gift that Constantine provided allowed Christianity to dominate the Western world for 1,500 years.

These days, following Nouwen's parable, we are on the side. We are deposed rulers, stripped of our divine prerogatives. We have been reduced to the status of mere citizens in a body politic where one idea is regarded as good as the next. We're second stringers, benched during the big game, watching it all from the sidelines.

At least, that's how it feels.

But here's the rub. The church was never intended to rule — that's why we have never been good at it. Our true identity has to do with serving, healing souls and reconciliation. It's that old taste of power in our mouths that keeps us from embracing our proper vocation.

Being on the side is exactly where we belong. It's where we started from, and the place from which we have always done our best work. Being on the side puts us where hurting people — the rejected, the despised and the lonely — are found. On the side is where Jesus was going every time he turned to his disciples and said "Follow me."

In our culture, being on the side means second rate, second string. But that is not true from the perspective of faith. Jesus stands with us on the side and reminds us that the last shall be first, that humble servants are the ones who are truly great, that sinners get in to see God ahead of the self-righteous, and the powerful will be thrown down.

Not that any of this should come as a surprise. Jesus said repeatedly that his kingdom was not of this world. If it was not for him, what made us think it would be for us?

James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church. He can be reached at faithmatters@mindspring.com.

Now, Pastor DeMar ...

There are some Christians who take themselves out of the battle over worldviews. They believe the Bible teaches that Christians should stay above the fray of social involvement. I’ve dealt with this and many other similar arguments in Myths, Lies, and Half-Truths.1 James L. Evans, pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church, writes in an editorial that appeared in the religion section of The Decatur Daily that “The church was never intended to rule—that’s why we have never been good at it. Our true identity has to do with serving, healing souls and reconciliation. It’s that old taste of power in our mouths that keeps us from embracing our proper vocation.”2

The church as an ecclesiastical government was never intended to rule in a civil capacity. Rev. Evans confuses the church as a government with the church as a body of believers. If we follow the logic of Pastor Evans, the church is not really in the world because the church’s message is confined to the institution of the church. If a pastor preaches on the evil of despotic governments, individual Christians can nod in agreement but not take the wisdom of a pastor’s counsel beyond the doors of the church. “As long as you preach your sermons and teach your Sunday school lessons in the context of a church service and keep your views private,” secularists would argue, “we have no problem with your religion. It’s when you make your religious views public that we object and will do something about it.” Here is how one editorial writer put it: Christians can “rant and rave against humanism and feminism and any other `ism’ on Sunday, come Monday, the children belong in school.”3

Jay Bookman, writing in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, stated that “faith should be personal, not political.”4 This was the view of the Roman Empire and every despot who used the sword in defense of his divine right to rule:

“But the Jews, becoming jealous and taking along some wicked men from the market place, formed a mob and set the city in an uproar; and coming upon the house of Jason, they were seeking to bring them out to the people. And when they did not find them, they began dragging Jason and some brethren before the city authorities, shouting, ‘These men who have upset the world have come here also; and Jason has welcomed them, and they all act contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus’” (Acts 17:5–7).

Claiming there was another king other than Caesar had political implications. Christians could believe there was another king, but you couldn’t say it because other people might believe it, act on it, and, in our day, vote on it. This is exactly what despotic governments want Christians to believe. The church does its thing in its self-imposed cloistered community, while the long arm of civil government and its courts and schools do their thing. The hope of people like Rev. Evans is that if civil government ever becomes tyrannical, it will respect the jurisdiction of the church and let it continue its ministry. History is not on the side of such misguided optimism.

1. Gary DeMar, Myths, Lies, and Half-Truths: How Misreading the Bible Neutralizes Christians (Powder Springs, GA: American Vision, 2004).

2. James L. Evans, “Why it’s right for us to be on the side” (July 8, 2006):

3. Rheta Grimsley Johnson, “‘People’ vs. Fundamentalists,” The Marietta Daily Journal (September 2, 1986), 4A.

4. (May 2, 2005), A11.