I don’t know about you, but I have been watching the Republican and Democratic debates in New Hampshire. I must admit it sounds just like all the other political rhetoric that I’ve heard in previous years leading up to the presidential election. Nevertheless as Christians we should be engaged at some level with the politics of our country; since governments have been ordained by God — they aren’t separate abstract entities divorced from the kingdom of Christ, rather they have an instrumental function relative to accomplishing God’s purposes.
While in seminary I took a class called “Church And Culture” taught by Dr. Paul Metzger. Basically the class entailed us working through Metzger’s Ph.D. dissertation on Karl Barth’s engagement of the sacred and secular — at that point it hadn’t been published, but since then it has and can be purchased on Amazon.com. Anyway, I think Barth as mediated through Metzger offers a timely word for how the church should relate to the political machine we are all subjected to at the moment. The following will be a lengthy quote from Metzger’s dissertation on Barth:
. . .Thus, as stated above, the church should resist any temptation to attempt to impose its will on the state. Now why is this? The reason is that when the church demands privileges and an audience in the secular sphere it forgets its own vocation and that of the state as well, thereby abandoning its freedom in the process. “Whenever the church has entered the political arena to fight for its claim to be given public recognition, it has always been a church which has failed to understand the special purpose of the state,an impenitent, spiritually unfree church.”
Now if the Church were to demand that the state accept its Word, would not the church in effect displace the state? If so, how could the church continue to serve God and the state in a nonpartisan way? Its word would then be bound, not free. Only as a church remains a spiritual institution will it have secular, political responsibilities, namely, those of exemplifying the ideals of the kingdom to the state and proclaiming God’s Word of the kingdom to the state. However, the reverse is not the case. If the church functions as a secular institution, it will forfeit its responsibilities in a sacred sphere.
The church must call on the state to listen to its Word, the Word of the kingdom, since the message of the kingdom concerns the state. But it must not demand that the state listen. The church must not use force, the instrument of the state, imposing its message on its hearers, but must seek to persuade its addressees of the need to receive its message through reasoned argument alone in the event of Christian proclamation, appealing to the state to take to heart its word rather than compelling the state to do so. The church must not demand but discuss, not presume upon but reason, appealing to the state to take its claims to heart, claims not about the centrality of the church, but about the centrality of the kingdom which both church and state are parts. Now if in God’s providential workings the state bestows on the church certain benefits and rights, even taking the church’s message to heart, the church must not come to expect such benefits, rights, and respect as irrevocable, permanent privileges, which must be preserved at all costs, but rather as gifts from God’s hand, gifts which may last but for a season. (Paul Louis Metzger, “The Word of Christ And The World of Culture: Toward a Synthesis Of the Sacred and Secular in the Theology of Karl Barth,”[dissertation form] 225-227 )
There are a couple things I want to highlight: 1) notice the relationship that Barth places between the church and the state, i.e. they are both part of the Kingdom of Christ. The effect this has is to create a noncompetitive relationship between the Church and the State; i.e. it avoids the typical we/they siege mentality that we currently see with evangelicals and politics. 2) Nevertheless there is still distinction between The Church and State, the distinction being that the Church has access to revelation which it witnesses to the state. I see this as very significant and pertinent relative to the way that evangelicals, i.e. the political right, has collapsed and politicized the Gospel in its engagement of the state — the consequence being that the state believes the Gospel to be the sum total of various ethical concerns versus the real Gospel which is a person, Jesus Christ. As Metzger notes with Barth, in this case, the case of the American church today, she has ceased being the church; and in this sense has robbed the state of being who God intends for her to be relative to her instrumentality and proclamation of His Word.