church and state
The Twenty-Third Sunday After Trinity
Isaiah 64, Psalm 33, Philippians 3:17-21, St. Matthew 22:15-22
Where We Stand
For a time in the 12th century, Thomas Becket wore two rings. King Henry II made his closest chum and long-time partner in drinking, hunting and other manly pursuits Chancellor of England.
Henry was merely formalizing a relationship already in place. The chancellor was the king’s top counselor, and Thomas already filled that role. Henry valued his shrewdness, a quality he needed especially in his jousting with the church.
The king wanted to fill the royal coffers so he could prosecute a war in France to take back territories the English crown had once held. He derived all of his revenues from taxes on landowners. The church held vast expanses of land but the bishops refused to pay taxes. Church property, they said, was exempt.
Henry tapped Thomas to advise him in his wrangling with the obstinate bishops. And then, from the royal perspective, a most propitious thing happened: The Archbishop of Canterbury died. In a flash of inspiration, the king determined to see his crony Thomas installed in the top church post in the realm.
Thomas got his second ring and the king got his man at the head of the church in England. No one could thwart Henry’s desires now.
A conflict of interest? Exponentially. Thomas was now the highest-ranking servant in the realms of both God and king, church and state. And ere long, all hell broke loose o’er England.
When it did, the strangest thing happened. The archbishop got religion. He fell to his knees and prayed . . . and he saw his duty clearly. His first loyalty must be to God. He soon collided with the king, and Henry trumped up a charge of embezzlement against Thomas, who in his role of chancellor had been overseer of the royal treasury.
In the end, the king grumbled loudly, and perhaps drunkenly, in the presence of four of his barons that he would be better off with Thomas dead. They fulfilled that royal wish . . . and Henry closed this sad chapter by stripping them of their estates. Each of them died in a monastery, impoverished.
This nasty business in medieval England differs only in the particulars from other dalliances involving civil and ecclesiastical authorities. The state always wins. It wins because sinful men love the things of the kingdom of man more than those of the kingdom of God.
We heard of such as these in our reading this morning from Philippians, the ones “whose end is destruction, whose god is their belly, and whose glory is their shame – who set their mind on earthly things” (3:19).
St. Paul contrasts these enemies of the cross of Christ with Christians: “For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ . . .” (3:20).
Yet still today, some insist that the cure for our ills is a merger of church and state. God is not numbered among them.
As far back as Mt. Sinai He weighed in on the matter. Even in a nation that bowed to Him as their King, God instituted a divided hierarchy. He installed His prophet Moses at the head of the civil administration and Moses’ brother Aaron as high priest over the religious authority.
In that theocracy, the division was far less crisp than in 21st-century America, but it was real and it was God-ordained.
In our gospel lesson for today, we hear our Lord Jesus enunciating this principle in response to another of the Pharisees’ tedious attempts to trip him up. This time, they go in cahoots with the Herodians, who represent the civil government, and pose the question about paying taxes to Caesar.
Zealous Jews maintained that using Roman coins, which bore the image of Caesar, who claimed to be a god, amounted to idolatry. Will Jesus denounce Caesar to uphold Jewish law, inflaming the Herodians and inviting a charge of treason? Or will He deny that law to appease the Herodians and their Roman masters and arouse pious Jews to assail Him?
Either way, He indicts Himself. At last they have set the perfect trap. He will not wriggle free this time.
“And He said to them, ‘Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’”
Oh. He has confounded them again.
When our Lord returns, we will have a pure theocracy without tension between loving God and loving our neighbor. Our perfected faith in our Creator will inform all decisions regarding life in community. We will not even conceive of treating our fellow subjects in a way that does not honor our King.
Until that glorious day, we must have a secular government alongside the church to co-exist in the kingdom of man. We live cheek-by-jowl with non-Christians who do not subscribe to our code. The body politic must have a structure to administer and adjudicate our civil affairs. And so, “Render to Caesar . . . render to God . . .”
In our present circumstances, of course, keeping our balance with one foot in each realm grows more difficult by the day. The kingdom of man appears to be bulldozing the kingdom of God off of our shores. The moral decay we see around us causes us to weep.
And we have an enemy and this enemy does not rest. He plays dirty, you say? No news there. He plays dirty to tempt us to adopt his rules, to set our minds on earthly things and take our eye off of the realm of our eternal citizenship. The temptation to engage with him on his ground tugs at us relentlessly.
I confess I found myself succumbing to it. I was parsing out every item in the news and fretting over each new sign of rot. I had allowed the enemy to make me a captive of my grievances and the stimulation I received from entertaining them. Had I replaced the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John with those of Greta, Bill, Megyn and Sean?
So I turned off the news and turned to the Scriptures to understand the temper of the times. And I saw anew : God is sovereign over time and tide, history and philosophy, men and governments. As the psalmist sang, better is one day in His courts than a thousand elsewhere (84:10).
Because He is above all things, God is worthy of worship. And because He is our King, His courts are our battleground. We must take our stand in the precincts of our all-powerful Sovereign, under His protection, and not on the foreign soil of the secularists.
We have tried the latter strategy. We need not look back so far as the 12th century to see the error of trying to merge church and state. Late in the 20th century we saw the Moral Majority and likeminded groups bid to make a political party their vehicle for instilling a renewed biblical ethic in the nation.
They leapt into the arms of secular conservatives – many of whom can be found in church – and congregations marched in lockstep to the polls in return for a pile of promises — such as an end to abortion. Well . . . it has been 44 years since the Supreme Court’s monstrous Roe v. Wade decision. Do you see an end in sight?
Politics is the art of compromise. The secularists – those rooted in the shifting values of this age – tack more nimbly on the sea of politics than do Christians whose consciences are bound by the cords of God’s everlasting, unalterable truth.
Our national moral malaise is a matter not of bad politics but of bad faith. Our materialism – the word describes setting our minds on earthly things – has left us prey to the predations of our enemy. A government that opposes God’s law is not the root of a godless culture but the fruit of it.
Our enemy the devil knows that the kingdom of man is passing away and on this shifting sand he is making his last stand. Desperate, he fights ferociously. And he makes pawns of non-Christian rulers, who inhabit the delusion that their pathetic victories are durable when in fact they are constructed of wisps of smoke.
Can he prevail? In the end, no, but look at the short-term damage he has wrought. He has induced a nation built on a foundation of Christian ideals to re-interpret or even abandon our fundamental religious text, the Bible. And if we have no recourse to divine truth, we can hardly stand on a man-made foundation constructed upon it called the Constitution.
The truth of both the kingdom of God and the kingdom of man is now an open question, subject to debate at every turn and to revision at the whim of the majority in the heat of the moment. We answer to no authority outside of us, greater than ourselves, established in either an eternal divine perfection or an original national ethos.
In neither realm do we as a nation look to the ideals that saved us and sustained us. In their place we allow our ever-evolving appetites and ambitions to govern us. We are “children, tossed to and fro and carried about on every wind of doctrine” (Ephesians 4:14). In more prosaic language, “We are the change we seek.”
When the enemy has corroded our trust in our holy writ and the law contained within it, he has in the same flick of his wrist crushed the national law code that was built upon it. The Ten Commandments still hang in the chamber of the Supreme Court . . . but only until someone figures out what to replace them with to cover up that faded spot on the wall.
The enemy is “more cunning than any beast of the field” (Genesis 3:1) and he does not abandon a strategy that has served him well from his beginning. When he undercuts a citizen’s commitment to transcendence — to locating his significance and purpose in something outside himself, more powerful than himself, more worthy than himself — he empties him as well of devotion to a shared community ethos.
One who has lost his faith in God will soon find himself incapable of allegiance to the once-Christian state.
We are becoming what C. S. Lewis called “men without chests.” The chest is the place where the thoughts that descend from the mind and the yearnings that well up from the gut find synthesis in things like love for God and love for country.
Men without chests look up worshipfully to their speculations they think so high and noble and simultaneously bow down to their base cravings which they contend make them “only human” . . . and seem to have no conception of how twisted and absurd they look.
The enemy knows the creature’s need for order and structure. He tempted Adam and Eve and got them evicted from the garden God gave them. Outside it, they and their offspring to this day have wandered, trying to set our own boundaries and impose our own order.
Israel would pay no heed to God’s prophets and God used their enemies to afflict them, to herd them into bondage outside the land He gave them, under the rule of godless men. Today, our enemy pushes the lie that we do not need the church God mandated in any institutional sense. Each is free to speak to God according to his own understanding without human oversight and correction.
The God-ordained structure called the church crumbles and the enemy roams at will among those who amble hither and yon without the discipline that gives cohesion. And those who find no need for the walls of the church have determined that the state can draw the lines of our morality according to our national consensus. By the time they awaken to the grim reality that the consensus does not exist, we will have anarchy.
The Christian citizen sees both church and state tumbling down and he wants to seize the weapon nearest at hand and engage the enemy on the spot. The enemy sees our distress and urges us to take up his carnal weapons and to engage on his soil. He knows that a Christian is a citizen and a Christian citizen is subject to the governing authorities.
If the enemy can make us hate the ones we must obey, he can undermine our citizenship both on earth and in heaven . . . for in loathing our national leaders rather than praying for them we rebel against our rulers in both kingdoms.
Our enemy would have us forget that we contend not against flesh and blood but “spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). And from the prince of the power of the air a smug smile descends to blanket our land.
He has no power in the kingdom of God on high, the church triumphant, but he roams to and fro upon the earth, kicking over garbage bins on his playground, the secular sphere. The contested territory is the church militant, where God has given His people for a brief season the privilege of contesting for our faith, of winning more souls to His cause.
Where then do we take our stand? In the kingdom of heaven on this earth. On the victory that the One who ushered in that kingdom has already won. On the promise of His return in glory to make all things new. This is our turf.
Our weapon is not politics but evangelism and discipleship. We fight with the “sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (6:17). This is how the kingdom of God advances.
How is He with us? In the word He has given and the sacraments He has commanded – in baptism for the remission of sins; in Holy Communion, where we partake of the consecrated bread and wine according to His promise that He will be in us and we in Him.
He has equipped us with all the spiritual gifts needed to form ourselves into His church. But we must be careful to define our mission in His terms and not our own. Our weapon is not politics but evangelism and discipleship — but those are only weapons.
The main thing is worship.
And worship is where we make our stand. If we do not worship in spirit and in truth – meaning in the power of the Holy Spirit and the truth of the Living Word – we will have nothing of value to say to the pagans we evangelize or to the immature Christians we disciple.
In worship we receive God’s grace by God’s appointed means; in worship we renew our covenant commitment to our Lord and Savior; in worship we ascend into the heavenly places to join our voices to those of angels and departed saints in choruses of praise to God; in worship we find our foretaste of glory divine.
In worship, we celebrate not what we will do . . . but what God has done.
This is where the war to end all wars will be won. We will prevail with Him by standing our ground with Him where we meet with Him – at His table in His church. When the people of God render to God the worship due God, He will claim His victory and we will have our reward, the glory of His eternal presence. Amen.
The Fourth Sunday After the Epiphany
Deuteronomy 4:5-13, 32-40, Psalm 66, Romans 13:1-7, St. Matthew 8:1-13
Law and Order
Deputy Barney Fife is leaning forward in his most earnest posture, resting his hands on the desk of Sheriff Andy Taylor. Barney is explaining to his boss the deplorable state of laxity into which their jail administration has fallen and the need to tighten things up.
Behind Barney in one of the two cells in the Mayberry jail we see Otis, the town drunk. Otis is, of course, a regular guest – and that, in Barney’s estimation, is precisely the problem.
He wants permission to begin a crackdown by administering a sobriety test to Otis – like they do in the big-city jails. Andy points out that sobriety tests are ordinarily given at the time of arrest:
“You should’ve given it to him when you brought him in last night.”
“Ah, Andy,” says Barney, “you know I couldn’t have given Otis a sobriety test last night.”
“He was too drunk.”
Barney perseveres until Andy allows him to give Otis an “alertness” test. He orders Otis out of the cell, whereupon Otis reaches through the bars and removes the key from a hook on the wall and lets himself out. Otis, by the way, is my all-time favorite town drunk because he always wears a suit and tie.
Barney motions for him to sit in a chair. First comes the verbal alertness test. Barney tells Otis to say, “Peter Piper picked a peck of . . .” He keeps trying until Otis says, “You mean, Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers”?
Then comes the dexterity test. Barney demonstrates by extending both arms, bringing his hands together in front of his face and touching the tips of his index fingers. Otis complies, but with Barney leaning forward in front of him his fingers meet at the deputy’s nose. Oh, well.
Last comes the endurance test. Deputy Beanpole commands Otis to stand up and hop on one foot, then the other, as Barney does the same. Before long, Otis has to grab Barney to prop him up and then set him down on the chair, flat wore out.
The sheriff tells Otis to go home. Then he tells the bedraggled Barney he should submit his test to the FBI. “You could call it the ‘Barney Fife Peter Piper Nose Pinching Test.’”
Oh, for the good ol’ days. Funny thing about the law, though; it’s easier to laugh at it when we take it seriously, and that’s not always the case.
We can be certain that God takes it seriously. We have read this morning from Romans 13: “whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves.”
Beginning in the Garden of Eden, God has imposed law on His people. That first legal code was fairly basic. God told Adam:
“Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:16-17).
At the outset, Adam and Eve needed no law beyond that one about what they could and could not eat. If Adam and Eve had rendered to God the love, trust and obedience due Him, they would have lived forever in a state of grace, unencumbered by any further laws.
They would have lived forever in a state of innocence – the innocence that was lost at the fall.
Laws define for us the good and the evil, the right and the wrong. They enshrine a code of morality – and morality is precisely the knowledge God reserved to Himself. The tree that bore the forbidden fruit was the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Of that fruit, Adam and Eve were not to partake.
If they had shown God the gratitude they owed Him for their creation, they would have loved, trusted and obeyed Him perfectly. What they should and should not do – moral choices — would not have been a matter of their discernment but of God’s command.
Had they obeyed, they would never have faced a question of right and wrong. What God says goes – period. They would have lived forever in a state of innocence. Their disobedience introduced sin into the creation, and where there is sin there must be law.
Our God is a God of order, and when Adam and Eve sinned they brought about the circumstances in which we live, in which only law can produce order. You remember “Law & Order.” Jack McCoy, the crusading prosecutor, is society’s avenger. His cases are fraught with moral ambiguities: It’s the law, but is it justice?
The executive producer of the series once said, “The first part of the show (the cop part) is a legal mystery; the second part (the lawyer part) is a moral mystery.”
Our hero Jack, a non-practicing Catholic who is twice-divorced, drinks Scotch, rides a motorcycle, has affairs with comely assistant prosecutors, finds flimsy pretexts on which to charge people when the original charges won’t stick and charges innocent folks to scare them into testifying against the bad guys.
In one episode, the Russian mob has been raining down mayhem, including killing an assistant district attorney. The mob’s lawyers have leaked information so witnesses could be intimidated. When the mobsters plant a bomb in the basement at police headquarters, Jack has had all he can stand.
He tells his boss, DA Adam Schiff, he’s going to send out the police to haul in his suspects. Adam tells him he doesn’t have enough evidence to arrest them:
Adam: I see. You’re planning to violate three; no, five amendments to the Constitution.
Jack: It’s time someone talked to Mr. Volsky in a language he understands.
Adam: And what language is that?
Jack: Adam, unless you order me not to do it . . .
Adam: I’m ordering you! (He walks out.)
Jack: (to his assisting prosecutor) Hand me that stack of arrest warrants.
Having blown up habeas corpus, he proceeds to string together appeals to higher and higher courts to keep the suspects cooling their heels in the pokey.
Jack McCoy is no Barney Fife. The more nervous we become about order the more serious we become about law. And the more conflicted
We’re at a far remove from a theocracy these days, but we can learn something from the theocracy God reinstituted when He ushered His covenant people Israel out of Egypt and formed them into a nation – a nation of sinners and a nation of laws.
God divided the religious and civil functions in the nation. He appointed Moses the administrator and judge. You’ll recall from Exodus that the burden of judging soon bore so heavily on him that he took the advice of his father-in-law Jethro and established lower courts to hear minor disputes. Only the major cases made their way up to him.
And God assigned Moses’ brother Aaron the role of high priest; he ran the church, the sacrificial system by which the people entered into the presence of their Lord.
So in the theocracy, Moses as prophet certainly operated in a religious capacity in delivering God’s judgments to the nation but we see a separation of sacramental and secular, of church and state. It points us forward to a time when men who don’t know the God of Israel will make and enforce the laws.
In a theocracy – rule by God – sin and crime are synonymous. In a monarchy – rule by one, whether he be called caesar or king or emperor or czar – and especially in a realm in which the monarch doesn’t know Israel’s God, church and state must run on different tracks.
A sin may not be a crime, as with fornication and adultery and homosexuality in our day; a crime may not be a sin, as with disobeying the authorities when they command you to disobey God.
That was the case in the first century, when Rome ruled the world, including the people of God in Palestine. Caesar put his face on the coins to remind everyone who was in charge. Israel could worship Yahweh if they first worshiped Caesar, something their commandments forbade.
Still, when God put on flesh and stepped into this world He taught His people, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17). The next sentence is, “And they marveled at Him.”
Little wonder. Jesus had commanded them to support this government which was oppressing them . . . to honor the separation of church and state even when state is bludgeoning church. And in our passage from Romans Paul is expanding on that instruction.
He’s teaching that civil law is necessary to godly order and in consequence Christian citizens must obey their governing authorities. It is, after all, God above who appoints those who enact and enforce our laws below.
Are their exceptions? Of course there are. For today, we’ll leave it at this: When the authorities tell you to sin, follow Peter in Acts 5 and obey God and not man.
What thoughts must have tumbled through Paul’s head as, sitting in Corinth in southern Greece, he wrote these words to the church in Rome?
The Roman authorities saw Christians as a subset of the Jews, and thus officially protected in the practice of their faith . . . but things were not nearly that simple. Paul must have pondered long and hard the ramifications of his teaching.
The Christian is a “new man” who has entered a “new era” and is even now reigning with Christ in the spiritual realm. Is he thus immune from the laws of man? Does freedom in Christ mean exemption from civil rule?
“And be not conformed to this world,” those Roman church members had read in the previous chapter of this epistle. Did that mean they could ignore its laws?
The attitude of the authorities no doubt cost Paul some sleep as well. They might have tolerated Judaism and with it Christianity as a Jewish cult – but they didn’t have to like either one, and they didn’t. Even before Jesus began His earthly ministry, back in the year A.D. 18, the emperor Tiberius had run the Jews out of Rome.
In Roman eyes the whole lot of them were practitioners of “a disgusting Oriental superstition” (F. F. Bruce).
Before the apostle wrote this letter, the historian Suetonius reports, the emperor Claudius “expelled the Jews from Rome because they were constantly rioting at the instigation of Chrestus.” That name is a Romanized version of the Greek “Christos.” We see that in this case the Romans made no distinction between Christian and Jew.
When the Romans did regard Christians as a group apart, they associated them with their founder, He on whose cross was inscribed, “King of the Jews.” These Christians were ones who followed an outlaw — tried, convicted and executed under Roman law as a challenger to the sovereignty of Caesar. The historian Tacitus wrote that they “fomented subversion throughout the world.”
With the political winds swirling, we can be sure Paul picked his words most judiciously. “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities . . . whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves.”
Paul sets out a high view of the authority of the state, higher than any before him, higher than Socrates and Plato and Aristotle. The overarching principle, again, is order. “Without justice,” St. Augustine would ask, “what are kingdoms but great gangs of robbers?”
Paul’s colleague in apostleship, Peter, sounds the same note. We find in 1 Peter 2:
“Therefore submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, whether to the king as supreme, or to governors, as to those who are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men — as free, yet not using liberty as a cloak for vice, but as bondservants of God. Honor all people. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king” (13-17).
The apostles agree. At an early date, their teaching on this subject flowed from an established tradition, which began with our Lord Himself.
Not many years after Paul wrote his letter to Rome, Rome burned. The emperor Nero, turning blame away from himself, laid it on the Christians. The Romans accused them of incest and cannibalism, and branded them “enemies of the human race.”
In the persecutions that followed, the authorities whose rights they had defended martyred both of these great saints. Paul and Peter would want us to take from their teaching first and foremost, I think, the idea that our God of order wants order in His creation and decrees that His people seek it whenever possible.
And that His people should obey every human law that does not contradict God’s law so that if the day should come when we must stand against the state to be true to our Lord we will have a record of faithfulness to stand on. Our children may see that day.
In a democracy – rule by the people – the governing authorities derive their mandate not from God or king but from the people. When the people believe their government is ignoring their will, the bonds that hold us together begin to fray.
For eight years we had a president who, many believe, exceeded his authority time and again. When the people’s elected representatives would not enact his desires he overrode them by use of the executive order. In some instances, the result was a refusal to enforce some of our laws.
Now, for a little over a week, we have a man in that office who appears to many bent on pursuing an imperial presidency of his own. This very different group of citizens mistrusts him as vigorously as others did his predecessor. They have taken to the streets – mostly peacefully, to this point. The pot is simmering.
For democracy – rule by the people – the danger is that large numbers of the people, regardless of their politics, abandon trust in their government’s will or ability to enforce law and order and decide to impose their own version. This danger is grave indeed.
I’ve run out of TV shows to sprinkle in as illustrations. I quit watching them when they ceased to be plot-driven and began devoting more and more time to the personal lives of the characters.
We knew enough about Jack McCoy, the son of a cop, to understand the passions that fueled his crusade for justice. We didn’t need to know about his son’s addiction, his daughter’s pregnancy and all the lurid details of his own malleable morality.
Our fictional guardians of law and order grow ever more conflicted in a post-Christian culture in which right and wrong, good and bad, true and false grow ever more frayed and confused.
Where does that leave us who cling to our religion? Our Lord came the first time to save those who could not save themselves. He will come the second time to govern those who cannot govern themselves. Even those of us who are saved cannot rule our passions, not while we reside in this sinful flesh.
The reign of justice will commence only upon His return. The last government on earth, like the first, will be a theocracy. But when it comes, there will be no sin, and no penalty for sin, for we will all have known its horror and its horrific price – a price that has been paid.
Unlike Adam and Eve, we will wish nothing more ardently than to leave that terrible knowledge of good and evil to God. Obedience will suit us to a faretheewell.
In the meantime, we continue to pray for our leaders and to submit to them . . . unless and until they command us to disobey God, before whom we bow yesterday, today and tomorrow. Amen.