Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.”John 18:36
Our ever changing societal climate has been drastically altered by the providence of God through the COVID-19 virus, quarantines, division among the ‘races’, rioting, the swelling tide of liberalism, the rise of Critical Race Theory – which includes Black Lives Matter and it’s more liberal (as though that was possible) wing of antisemitism. In this ever changing climate, we ought to continually be attentive to the exposure of our idols that is taking place. We’ve looked at this rather extensively, but reflection upon our own hearts through the exposure that comes via trials, judgments, etc., whether individually, nationally, or ecclesial, is indeed one of their chief purposes. On a broader scale than those exposures highlighted in the link above, there are more, which are continually having the light of God’s providence shined upon them.
One of these exposures concerns the relationship between Church and State*, particularly within the realm of Christendom. While defining Christendom is a little involved, perhaps it can best be summarized as the geographical realm into which Christianity (at least in name) has pervaded a society’s culture. However, it is not to be equated with Christianity, despite the valiant efforts of many. Historically, the development of Christendom dates back to Constantine, and has existed in various shapes and forms along a spectrum reaching it’s end point when the State and Church intertwine indistinguishably. The ideology behind Christendom is much older than Constantine, however. This, known as sacralism, finds its origins in societies which truly do combine worship and society, church and state. The clearest scriptural example of this is the Old Testament Nation of Israel. However, within our context of Christendom, the clearest example is the Roman Empire, or what is sometimes called the Holy Roman Empire wherein popes and emperors volleyed for supremacy.
By the State, of course, we simply mean the governing body of a particular geographic area, whether it be local municipality, city, county, state, or the federal government (at least as how things are normally structured in the United States). By church, we ought to begin our definition where Scripture does as the ecclesia**, or simply the gathering of God’s people in the name of Christ through Spiritual fellowship for mutual edification unto the glory of God. Unfortunately in our modern context, or Christendom, Church has come to mean the organized, institutional religion comprised of a variety of denominations (regardless of their orthodoxy) typically represented with buildings devoted to religious purposes and business names with church in the title. When I speak of Church and State together, it is this latter emphasis that I have in mind; sadly, this view has become so pervasive that the former Scriptural view has become all but lost.
I understand the issue that I’m about to address is sensitive and emotionally charged, mostly because it is grounded in our close-to-the-vest traditions, which are then used as a lens for reading Scripture. I also understand that many faithful brothers have been trying to conscientiously work through the unprecedented events of our day, but nevertheless this issue needs to be addressed because it has serious implications for where we have been, where we are, and where we need to go as the people of God. Additionally, it has recently become a point of contention among so-called leaders on the landscape of ‘Big Eva’ and may very well become the pressing issue of our day.
Remarkably, this relationship between Church and State has become exposed with the widespread quarantines and shutdowns of public gatherings. God in His divine wisdom and majesty, working through His own mystery of providence has exposed the depths of this adulterous affair between Church and State that has its roots intertwined into the very fabric of evangelicalism. As we know, in the U.S., the majority of churches (here we are referring to the common understanding as a building or property expressly devoted to religious gatherings) closed as a response to the directives handed down by the State in the name of public safety and the goal of promoting the common good. The fact that the majority of churches (businesses – a connection never made in Scripture) closed their churches (buildings – a connection never made in Scripture) reveals not only an unbiblical confusion in identifying what a church is, along with an unhealthy reliance upon a ‘church’ building, but a fundamental misunderstanding of the relationship between Church and State.
First, let me say up front that the State in its proper sphere cannot regulate the gathering of God’s people. Here I want to repeat the clear distinction between the gathering of God’s people, properly the ecclesia, and what we call Church in our Christendom culture today. This is simply God’s people gathering together in the name of Christ; call it church if you like. It is outside the authority of any governing body to take interest, control, or otherwise dictate how the people of God gather. This is clearly supported from Scripture and seen experientially in history. A simple word from Christ summarizes this point succinctly, “Jesus said to them, ‘Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ And they marveled at him.” Mark 12:17 Without diving into discussions on various sphere’s and kingdoms, suffice to say there is a clear distinction that is made between the State, of which each of us are citizens and the gathering of Gods people. Historically, this is perhaps best summarized in the familiar quotation from the Donatist Controversy, “What hath the Emperor to do with the church?” Despite the recent overwhelming misuse and abuse of such passages as Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2:13-14, any capitulation, any agreement, to the State’s requests (demands) to regulate the people of God gathering, is a recognition of illegitimate authority and is simply unscriptural (in some cases – perhaps even those in which we find ourselves today, would be sinful).
Second, the State actually can regulate Church meetings. Here, I again want to make a distinction, as this refers to what we have come to call church in our modern context of Christendom. This includes the building/property owned by a church – which is required by the State to abide by building, fire, and occupational codes, the church with the name filed and recognized by the State as a business, the 501(c)(3) non-profit organization registered as such with the State***, the church with the corporate bank account so designated by the State, and the church with the big budget that is overseen by the State to ensure that no monetary gain is made.
Here is where the nuance in understanding the meaning of church is necessary and needs repeated for the sake of clarity.
When we say that the State cannot regulate the gathering of God’s people, we mean “where two or three are gathered in the name of Christ.” Matt. 18:20 This gathering is clearly NOT under the authority of the State to regulate, interfere with, or otherwise ban. Should the State ever attempt to overstep it’s bounds and regulate this assembly, as has been the case throughout history, believers have two options: resist or flee the persecution, both are viable.
However, when we say that the State can regulate churches, we mean the building that sits on the corner of Main Street. This ‘church’ occupies a public space, defers paying taxes on the property (who DOES pay them?), can be and is essentially treated like any other business. Indeed, they are considered businesses by the government (see below). All of those things mentioned above, and there are others, essentially registers a ‘church’ with the State and places her in compliance with the codes and requirements that the State imposes. If you think this is not true, exceed the local fire-occupancy code or build an addition without a building permit or violate the IRS terms for a non-profit. (Furthermore, guess what additional State regulations are coming: Title VII, LGBTQ, and BLM)
These requirements imposed by the State could very well include mandatory closure in the event of a pandemic, for the safety and health of the public. Granted, some authorities may view a church building as any other publicly occupied space or business that needs to be regulated by masks, limited by social distancing, or otherwise governed by quarantine rules while other authorities may indeed have ulterior motives and see this as an opportunity to oppress and discriminate against local churches and yes, some have gone so far as too limit any gatherings of believers regardless of their locations. Nevertheless, when a church registers with the state and takes upon themselves the ownership of property and the model of a business they have to take the bad with the good. This is the danger of Christendom. Yes, a church may seem to have reached legitimacy or as having arrived with the ownership of a temple-like structure and freshly minted name and yes, they may be an attractive option in the local community, but they also must be willing to accept the consequences that may come. These distinctions may seem pedantic, but they’re not. The exposure of this relationship, particularly in the United States, has been a long time coming. With the erosion of Christendom in the West, the ‘Church’ has rolled over to find herself in bed with an abuser with whom she never should have flirted to begin with. This is in fact the definition of being unequally yoked. The era of confusion and persecution that we are heading into demands wisdom. It demands understanding the times, and knowing what to do (I Chronicles 12:32). It requires a reassessment of what Scripture says concerning not only our personal lives, but the Church relationship with the State. In this time, may we view God’s providential dealings as an opportunity to reevaluate the nature of our Christian gatherings.
Then I heard another voice from heaven saying, “Come out of her, my people, lest you take part in her sins, lest you share in her plagues; for her sins are heaped high as heaven, and God has remembered her iniquities. Revelation 18:4-5*I do not think that the phrase Church and State is helpful and may in fact be confusing. Rather, perhaps the more Scriptural relationship might be termed the Kingdom of Christ and the Kingdom of the World, or even Augustine’s the City of God and the City of Man. However, for the sake of familiarity, this phrase is being used.
** For more on the Scriptural use of ecclesia, see the Doctrinal Index tab above.
*** Reminder, churches do not have to officially file for 501(c)(3), they are recognized as non-profits automatically because they are churches as long as they meet IRS requirements: https://www.irs.gov/charities-non-profits/churches-integrated-auxiliaries-and-conventions-or-associations-of-churches However, if you have to refer to IRS Publication 1828 to meet with believers, then this is exactly the issue I’m addressing above.
****If you think that this is overblown, may I encourage you to historically research Christendom, church/state relations, and the concept of sacralism. Leonard Verduin’s book The Reformers and Their Stepchildren is a great place to start. More recently, research churches that have received loans from the federal government during the COVID pandemic as part of the Small Business Paycheck Protection Program. https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2020/business/sba-ppp-data/