Solus Christus, Sola Scriptura!
The Christian doctrine of church and state is today being reassessed in virtually every situation of conflict around the world.
As readers of DBO well know, I have been a critic of “state theology” even as I have affirmed government as a God-given institution for the common good of society. Unfortunately, we live in a day when a cacophony of ideological pragmatisms distorts the proper relation of church and state. The compromising relationship between church and state that has manifested itself throughout history is clearly visible today.
It is almost a cliché to say that the Christian Right in America has engaged in statism by its almost blind allegiance to the Bush administration. Many prominent evangelical leaders have argued that the Republican Party is the only home for conservatives and is by nature a legitimation of constitutional ideology. Others have promoted it as a political resource for spiritual change. An objective analysis of the history of the party seems to suggest that it is neither.
The majority perspective current among evangelicals is one that both blesses and legitimizes the warfare-welfare state. This should not surprise us; this has been the dominant position of the church since the Constantinian settlement either through direct support or by default. At other times, however, the church—although usually only minority groups within the church—has rejected the status quo by affirming the rule of God, which more often than not has meant a renunciation of the existing social order.
The role of the Confessing Church in Nazi Germany is a good example of a church aroused to demand “No King But Jesus!” Ironically, it was the established church in Germany that became the oppressor, reflecting the sociological propensity toward statism. As I noted in Karl Barth and the German Church Conflict,
Barth and others like him resisted peace at any price. To those who believed in accommodation with the idolatrous state he stated, in unmistakably clear terms, “No Compromise!” Thus the heart of the German church struggle lay in the confessing of Jesus Christ, for to confess Christ meant not to confess others as Christ. Witness to Jesus Christ alone meant, under the Third Reich, the denial of neo-German paganism and of the German-Christian heresy. Certainly we are in a totally different situation today, yet as we read these statements of Barth we find our own situation mirrored in them. It may be that our way forward is also to be found in them—the way of confession to Jesus Christ alone.
Barth argued that the church urgently needed a Christian ethics of politics precisely in order that believers might avoid a wrong politicization of Christianity. Whenever the church has promoted the ideology of the ruling class or legitimated a particular political cause it has found itself in ideological captivity.
A Christian ethics of politics is, therefore, needed—one that, at the very least, recognizes the limits of political structures and the sinfulness of human nature, that acknowledges the limits to what can be achieved in the sphere of politics, and that affirms the biblical injunction that Christians are to obey God rather than human authority, should that authority command what is contrary to the declared will of God:
Then Peter and the other apostles answered and said, We ought to obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29).
The ever-recurring need of the church is to discover what it means to confess the transcendent God of the Bible within the political structures of a particular place. Throughout history Christian theology has affirmed a political option beyond both tyranny and anarchy. The church can and must maintain a stubborn and restless hope for something more than what any existing socio-political order has been able to provide. At the same time it must not compromise its principles for the sake of expediency. Unqualified allegiance to Christ (solus Christus) and uncompromising devotion to biblical truth (sola scriptura) are the twin safeguards against the fury by which the exercise of political power begins to devour itself.
March 5, 2004
David Alan Black is the editor of www.daveblackonline.com. His latest book, Why I Stopped Listening to Rush: Confessions of a Recovering Neocon, will be released this year.