The relationship between Church, Christians and State

(Joel Norris) #41

Yes, you have misunderstood me, but perhaps you are getting closer. Maybe providing some illustrations will help.

I have authority to compel my child to engage, at least outwardly, in household worship. I do not have authority to compel another child to do so. In years long past it was understood that the master had the authority to compel his servants to engage in household worship as well, but of course he would have no authority to compel the servants of another. So how do we classify our subordinates in the workplace? Are they our servants whom we can compel to worship or not? Even if one is the owner of the business, will he not quickly get in legal trouble if he compels employees to prayer and Bible study? Could that the fact that he faces legal consequences be an indicator that his employees are, in fact, the servants of another, that is, the State?

In years long past, it was understood that the business owner could dispose of his property and his labor as he wished, but that the servant was acting according to the direction of the master. So if the master directed the servant to bake a cake that the master would later bring to a party held by the master’s friend to celebrate his new lover after he abandoned his wife, would we say that the servant sinned by merely baking a cake over which he could not control the use? And if the government can tell a baker to bake a cake for the celebration of sexual sin under legal threat of confiscating his business, could that fact be an indicator that the government rather than the baker is the true owner of the business and that the baker is actually a servant?

Of course, one shortcoming of my illustration is that servants can seek out a different master, but we under the domain of the U.S. government cannot do so.

Perhaps you would say I am rationalizing the avoidance of risk of consequences. But I do think there is something very different about authority in our current society compared to that of centuries past. Here we putatively own businesses, but the State is very directive in how we engage with employees and customers. So do some of us have the authority of a master, or are we all just servants of the State?

(Joseph Bayly) #42

I don’t think so. The king or emperor always had ultimate authority over his subjects. Subordinate authorities have lesser delegated authority. If the state claims ultimate authority and backs it up with the sword, yes, you are the slave. But that doesn’t remove all authority from you. You are also still a boss.

More importantly, even the ultimate authority of the emperor is overridden by the authority of God. This flows out in two different applicational directions. First, interposition, when necessary (read the Doctrine of the Lesser Magistrate for a primer). Second, even if the state is not involved, figuring out what the positive command to love your neighbor does and does not compel you to do vs allow you to do vs forbid you from doing. This is largely driven by wisdom and conscience.

(Joel Norris) #43

Yes, that’s true, but that is not what I had in mind.

What I mean is different now is that authority is much more divided, diffuse, and impersonal. Instead of a king or emperor, the sovereign in our polity is the incoherent mass of the voting public, all 200+ million of them. The lesser magistrates from the President, Congress, and Supreme Court all the way down (not to mention parallel structures among the states) have delegated authority, but of a very mixed kind that allows them to take certain actions and not others, all according to a vast number of laws and regulations. It is rare that any magistrate has full authority over those under him or is under full authority to those above him, but instead an astounding (to our ancestors) amount of bureaucracy and policy constrains how he directs his subordinates and is directed by his superiors. This, I assert, is something that truly is new under the sun since it is something that never before occurred in history prior to a hundred or so years ago.

My purpose in developing the framework I laid out in my previous comment is so that I could wisely and in good conscience apply Q. 129 from the WLC.

(Daniel Meyer) #44

Joel, understanding your thesis better I still disagree with it. Isn’t this a sentiment that times were better in the old days?

Do not say, “Why is it that the former days were better than these?” For it is not from wisdom that you ask about this. - Ecclesiastes 7:10

In the past…

Daniel could carry out his tasks as he saw fit while receiving unquestioned obedience from his subordinates…until his treacherous subordinates tricked the king into forbidding him from praying to God on pain of death (which would certainly have resulted in his martyrdom if God hadn’t worked a miracle). Are the consequences we face from the bureaucrats worse than a den of lions?

Sanballat the Horonite, Tobiah the Ammonite, and Geshem the Arab didn’t have a procedures manual, yet they never stopped insinuating and threatening (Nehemiah 2; 4; 6); and without God’s help they certainly would have destroyed the remnant that had returned to Judah–in the time of Ezra wicked men had already succeeded in stopping the rebuilding of the temple for a period of several years (Ezra 4).

Was it a comfort for the prophets from Abel to Zechariah that at least when they were martyred their murderers didn’t have a policy manual?

Peter and John didn’t face an array of bureaucrats with a policy manual, but rather the Sanhedrin with a bare command not to speak anymore in Jesus’ name. They could surely have complained bitterly that power was so personal and arbitrary in their day; but instead they continued to do their duty (which must have looked like folly to some!) and trusted God to take care of them.

We have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood in our striving against sin, and we have not attained to our fathers. Rather than the significant difference between us and our fathers being the character of the opposition we face in our day, is it not that our fathers saw the wicked arrayed against them and yet did the faithful thing, while we remain on the threshold?


(b3k) #45

@Joel may correct me, but I think his point was not that things used to be uniformly better in the former days. Rather, some things were simpler.

This is similar to what I was trying to ask in this post a couple weeks ago.

It’s difficult to live in a righteous manner regarding the modern bureaucratic state, not because of special persecution, but because it’s harder to figure out who we’re supposed to obey in which ways or areas.

(Daniel Meyer) #46

Ok, but even in this wasn’t the feudalism of the Middle Ages a tangle of authorities with complex and overlapping and disputed boundaries?

If all we’re saying is it takes work to navigate today’s complex network of authorities I won’t argue with that; but that’s a difficulty we share with brothers from other times in history – we’re not unique.

(Joel Norris) #47

This is a historically inaccurate understanding. In the Middle Ages there were territorial wars between kings and disputes over the temporal power of the Church, but the essence of feudalism was the relationship between lord and vassal. Everyone up to the emperor or pope was personally under the authority of someone else, at least nominally. Our current political and societal structure is something new to history.


Not only is it less clear who Caesar is, it is less clear what is paying taxes to Caesar and what is offering a pinch of incense to Caesar. Consider the case of the Christian baker. Out of religious conviction, he does not want to bake a cake that he thinks will celebrate sexual sin. The magistrate then condemns him for his refusal, but specifically not because of the baker’s religious conviction. Instead, the baker is punished for his alleged bias against the customer. Essentially, the baker is ordered to bake the cake because baking a cake is considered to be of no religious significance. Although the baker may see it as offering a pinch to Caesar, the magistrate sees it as obstinate refusal to pay taxes. It is as if a golden statue were set up in Babylon and people were ordered to bow down, and when Daniel’s friends refused because they wouldn’t worship an idol they were told it wasn’t about worshiping an idol at all but instead they were ordered to participate along with everyone else in group calisthenics.

(Michael Collins) #48

“The terrible danger of our time consists in the fact that ours is a “cut flower” civilization.

-Elton Trueblood, The Predicament of Modern Man