Saturday, September 8, 2007

Church and state: four theses

Another tangent! In response to Dan's current post, Understandings of Power (why Christians should avoid being in the government).

Thesis 1:
There is no such thing as "the Church" in the abstract.


"The Church" consists of concrete entities (though these entities also have a spiritual dimension to them). Human beings, in all their fleshliness, make up the Church. Buildings, bank accounts, organizational hierarchies — these things also are inescapably a component of "the Church", however much we may deplore it.

Thesis 2:
A human being is a human being, whether inside or outside of the Church.


In my younger, more idealistic days, I took 2Co. 5:17 at face value:  "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come."1

Bitter experience has taught me that St. Paul here articulates an ideal, rather than a reality. Christians do not cease to be human beings when they are converted. We are fundamentally the same as human beings outside of the Church, not fundamentally different from, pace Paul's bold assertion.

Thesis 3:
The line dividing good from evil runs through the midst of every human being:  Christian and non-Christian alike.


Here I am of course alluding to Solzhenitsyn's famous statement:
If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.
Christians are fully human beings. Though they are Spirit-filled, they remain fallen. From the same source comes both blessing and curse. It ought not to be so — but it is so.

Non-Christians are human beings fundamentally like us. Though they are depraved, non-Christians too are created in God's image.

Thus Solzhenitsyn is right:  the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being, Christian and non-Christian alike.

Thesis 4:
Because the Church is a human institution, it commits acts both good and evil. The same is true of the secular state.


Dan asserts that it is intrinsic to government to crucify people. The Church also crucifies people, but crucifixion is extrinsic to the Church.

Dan asserts that it is intrinsic to the Church to benefit people. I hope Dan will concede that the secular state also benefits people — roads, hospitals, schools, donations of aid to other nations, etc. — but Dan dares to maintain that such benefits are extrinsic to the secular state.

Dan asserts that Christians ought not to work for the secular government. This cuts rather close to the bone for me, because I am in fact an employee of the Government of Canada.

Dan's (extreme, ideological) position leaves me rather breathless. I'm not offended by it, because I am unable to take it seriously. But I thought I would offer some theses to counter Dan's theses, to provide a rational foundation for my contrary convictions. Hence the four theses above.

Both the Church and the state crucify people; both the Church and the state benefit people. How can any Christian seriously maintain this intrinsic/extrinsic distinction, when both institutions serve up both good and evil in large proportions?

I use the word "institution" of the Church advisedly. The Church always establishes its own set of power relations, based on property, money, popularity, good looks, charisma, eloquence, musical talent, academic credentials, etc. Every social institution has its pecking order, based on considerations worthy and unworthy. The Church is no exception.

Such a pecking order exists at both the formal (organizational hierarchy) and informal (social hierarchy) levels, and the two pecking orders never correspond exactly.

Why isn't the Church an exception to the general rule? Because there is no "Church" in the abstract — spiritual and elevated above the things of this earth. The Church consists of concrete entities:  human beings plus buildings, cash, pianos, etc.

The state, as a human institution, is simultaneously both good and evil. So too, the Church, which is likewise a human institution.

Brothers and sisters, it ought not to be so. But it is:  and we must live in the real world. We must build our lives on a foundation of reality — not some abstraction that exists only in the pages of St. Paul's Spirit-fueled epistles.

In the eschaton, yes. Here and now? Regrettably — no.


Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~

1Unless otherwise indicated, scripture is quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.

14 comments:

Anonymous said...

I can see your point, and I think it is an important one. Almost every one seems to be speaking of a church that simply does not exist and have never existed. Two questions, though:

1) I think the New Testament church-concept refers to concrete groups of people, gathering around Jesus. To me, there is no "church" regarded as a single entity, a universal organisation. There are only churches. If this is the case, there is a real possibility that crucifixion for example is extrinsic to some churches.

2) Christians has always been thinking in terms of "true" and "false" churches. Some entities that goes under the name of "church" simply doesn´t make it in God´s eyes.

I think your criticism against Dan might be fair, maybe he is making the church to some abstract idealistic notion. But I think one could meet this criticism through my two thesis above.

Dany said...

Hey Stephen, I followed this debate over at Dan's and it was great -I also work for a government-.

I've tried to respond here: http://donotfreeze.blogspot.com/2007/09/raft-and-sinking-ship.html

I'd love to hear what you think.

Cliff Martin said...

Stephen writes, There is no such thing as "the Church" in the abstract. The Church" consists of concrete entities ...

Anon writes, I think the New Testament church-concept refers to concrete groups of people, gathering around Jesus. To me, there is no "church" regarded as a single entity, a universal organisation.

While I agree that there is often confusion in this area, and a blurring of the lines of distinction, I do understand the following scriptures to be speaking of a mystical, universal church.

Matthew 16:18
Galatians 1:13
Ephesians 1:22-23
Ephesians 3:10
Ephesians 5:23-32
Colossians 1:18, 24
Hebrews 12:23

I do not see how the use of “church” in these passages could be referring to concrete local assemblies. Help me out, please.

Jamie said...

Stephen: Ordinarily, I might tend to agree that the Church consists of concrete entities, but in this case, I am strongly inclined to disagree with you. It is true that the Church uses concrete entities, but why do you suggest that these concrete entities are the essence of the Church?

You say, I use the word "institution" of the Church advisedly. The Church always establishes its own set of power relations, based on property, money, popularity, good looks, charisma, eloquence, musical talent, academic credentials, etc. Every social institution has its pecking order, based on considerations worthy and unworthy. The Church is no exception.

This is true, of course. But why do you assume these characteristics are intrinsic to the idea of the Church?

Anonymous said...

Cliff Martin: I believe every conviction will have troubles with some verses (since there are different views even in the bible), so this might not solve the issue, but below is my try.

Ekklesia, when considered as "one", should be understood as a process that will only be made complete in the coming rule of God where every believer shall be gathered into an assemblied people of God (Rev). God is, through God´s spirit, assembling people around Jesus, and in that sense, there is only one church. But church happens never in the abstract, but on definite places with real people.

Also: Mt 16:18. should be read together with Mt 18:15-20 where a concrete entity is a must - read.

Gal 1:13 should be read in the light of Gal 1:2 and Acts 8:3.

As to Ephesians, how would it be impossible to think that "church" here should be read as referring to the local church? See also 1 Kor 12:27 (written to the corinthian church)

As to Hebr, I think this is an eschatological vision. It is "present", but only through the Spirit.

You might also have included 1 Tim 3:15, Acts 9:31.

To sum up: I think the church is a process, but that it is always expressed locally, in a material, visible way. There can be no such thing as an invisible church or The Church, regarded as an institution./Jonas Lundström (www.alternativ.info.se)

Stephen (aka Q) said...

• All:
All of you seem to be struggling with Thesis 1, There is no such thing as "the Church" in the abstract. I probably shouldn't have spoken in such absolute terms, but Jonas is on the right track in understanding my point:

The church … is always expressed locally, in a material, visible way.

Re the church universal — Cliff lists some relevant verses. For example, "Christ is the head of the church, his body" (Eph. 5:23). This clearly refers to the "catholic" or universal Church, rather than any one local assembly.

I did say that the Church has a spiritual dimension to it. Hebrews says we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. I understand the verse mystically: the departed saints are witnessing our deeds as we carry the work of the Church forward today. I suspect the verse could be interpreted in other, relatively mundane ways; but I've never seen any reason to doubt the mystical interpretation.

I agree, then, that "the Church" does exist in some mystical and universal manner. However, thesis 1 was written in the context of an ongoing disagreement I'm having with Dan.

Dan maintains that the Church practises cruciform love, and does not play power games. At one point I responded, "Oh really? When has such a Church ever existed?"

There is such a thing as the church invisible, and I'm sure it is perfect in every respect. But that's not the Church we're in contact with day to day.

The only Church that is present to us in any tangible way is the church visible: divided into denominations; made up of true believers and other participants whose salvation is doubtful; and in which people make bad decisions, let their egos run away with them, pursue agendas that have nothing to do with the Kingdom, and all too frequently commit terrible sins that bring Christ into disrepute.

It's a very cynical perspective, I know. But I emphasize it because Dan seeks to drive a wedge between the Church as an institution suitable for Christian participation, and the secular state as an institution unsuitable for Christian participation.

Dan wants to define the state as an institution that is evil at its core; therefore Christians should not be employees of the state. Then he wants to define the Church as an institution that is as pure as the driven snow at its core; hence it is the proper place for Christian service.

Whereas I insist that no such Church exists or has ever existed, anywhere. Dan's depiction of "the Church" is an abstraction: ideal, not real.

Likewise, Dan's description of the state is a gross caricature that bears no resemblance to the institution as it actually exists in the world. I refuse to debate the question, whether Christians should be employees of the state on these grounds.

Stephen (aka Q) said...

• Anon:

I am largely in agreement with the distinction you make, that some local churches come closer to the Kingdom ideal than others.

I had said essentially that to Dan at one point: that there might be a remnant of the Church, or a particular group of Christians, who in fact practice his ideal of cruciform love. It's the extreme dichotomy between Church and state that I object to — seemingly admitting of no distinctions either within the Church or within the state.

One word of caution: I assume you're not thinking of denominations here. I don't accept that some denominations are true Christians while others are false. Denominations are just institutional structures, and do not determine who is getting things right.

Cliff Martin said...

I see what you are saying now, Stephen, and I think I would come down on the same side of this with you.
~ Cliff

dan said...

Stephen,

I'm a little surprised by some of your comments here because, even when you disagree with people, you usually do a fairly accurate job of present their positions. Unfortunately, in this case, you're overlooking a few things and left me feeling a little misrepresented.

First, I did provide multiple concrete examples of the Church, as I describe it. Naturally, you latched onto the Acts 2 example (as it has a long history of being contested, marginalised, and "explained-away"), but then you neglected all the other examples. I'm not talking about an ideal that has never been, I'm talking about a type of Church that has always existed amongst various people in various places over the last two thousand years (although it is not usually the type of Church that is mentioned in the history books).

Second, I also provide at least one very concrete example of why I see the State as intrinsically corrupt -- but then you decided to blow me off, saying "sorry, don't believe you" (isn't this like shoving your fingers in your ears and yelling, "I can't hear you"?). Needless to say, I found your response more than a little surprising and it caused me to wonder who exactly is living in an "ideal" world and refusing to confront concrete reality. To refuse, without exploration or any second thought, the possibility of the scenario that I describe, well, that sounds a lot like, yep, you guessed it, ideology.

Third, I've never had a problem admitting to distinctions within both the Church and the State, but I think the positive elements within the State operate "against the grain" of the State project, just as the negative elements within the Church operate "against the grain" of the body of Christ. There is always a remnant within the Church, and there are always prophets within the world (like Balaam, for example) but I will, once again, hearken back to what I believe is intrinsic and extrinsic to these institutions.

Anyway, I've added a follow-up post to all of this on my blog. I'll try to get to your theses in more detail at some point soon-ish. Also, if I'm just pissing you off with all of this, I don't mind dropping the topic out of respect to you.

Grace and peace.

Stephen (aka Q) said...

Naturally, you latched onto the Acts 2 example (as it has a long history of being contested, marginalised, and "explained-away").

I didn't dismiss the Acts account out of prejudice. I pointed out that Paul's epistles depict a church that is ridden with conflict: competing Gospels, pseudo-apostles, and folks (Christians) who would have happily murdered Paul because they were offended by his message. Thus the rosy account in Acts is at best a half truth.

… then you neglected all the other examples. I'm not talking about an ideal that has never been, I'm talking about a type of Church that has always existed.

Except it didn't exist already in Paul's day, in the 50s CE. Having made that point, I don't think there's anything to learn from your other examples.

I think we can both agree that there are always pockets of Christians who are relatively faithful to Christ's example, while the rest of the Church is relatively misguided, if not downright evil.

You and I don't really disagree on the data; the problem is, your conclusions fly in the face of the data.

We both agree that there can be pockets of faithfulness, and we are both quite critical of other elements within the Church. But then you suddenly shift ground and start talking about the Church as the institution that practises cruciform love and doesn't exert power over others. It's an indefensible position, since we both know that the Church is always playing power games.

I also provide at least one very concrete example of why I see the State as intrinsically corrupt -- but then you decided to blow me off, saying "sorry, don't believe you".

Your accusation, that the Government of Canada knowingly funded genocide, is incredible. But even if it turned out to be true, the conclusion you draw from it goes way beyond the evidence.

The Church has tortured and murdered people it labeled heretics; it has blocked advancement in human (scientific) knowledge; priests have sexually abused children; etc., etc. But still you say it is intrinsic to the Church to practise cruciform love.

But if the Government of Canada knowingly supports genocide somewhere in the world, then you feel justified in concluding that the state is utterly corrupt, beyond redemption, and you assert that no Christian should be found in its employ.

Why this sweeping condemnation of the state, but not of the Church? That is ideology, not a conclusion that follows naturally from the data.

I think the positive elements within the State operate "against the grain" of the State project, just as the negative elements within the Church operate "against the grain" of the body of Christ.

In your original argument, you used the words "extrinsic" and "intrinsic". It is precisely as I reported in my post: therefore I haven't misrepresented you.

On what grounds do you defend such a distinction? I see two human institutions, both dishing up a modest serving of good and a super-sized serving of evil. Clearly it is intrinsic to both institutions to commit deeds of both kinds. That's the conclusion that follows from the data.

So I won't tolerate you whitewashing the Church ("it is intrinsic to the Church to practise cruciform love") and simultaneously issuing a blanket condemnation of the state (its sole function is to crucify whole populations).

If I'm just pissing you off with all of this, I don't mind dropping the topic out of respect to you.

You can certainly see that I've lost patience with your extreme ideology.

I don't care whether you drop the topic — that's beside the point. I want you to rethink your unjustified conclusions.

I am perfectly happy to let you serve God as you see fit. You, on the other hand, are telling me that the work I do is unfit for a Christian: that I am part of an organization that (unlike the Church) is intrinsically evil, that its sole function is to crucify whole populations.

I want you to let me serve God in the place that God has led me to. If you insist on passing judgement on another man's servant; if you insist that I work for a genocidal government, then please, don't grant me your respect.

You would do better to put Foucault aside — because your ideology comes from him, not from the Bible or from a clear vision of how things actually work in this fallen world. Build a worldview that is grounded in reality, not this unjustified distortion of the facts that you're currently defending.

Anonymous said...

(Please feel free to ignore this post if it breaks the conversation Stephen - Dan).
Stephen: You seem to be implying that christians can and sometimes should be in government positions. I question this for several reason:

-Thesis 2 and 3: To me, this seems to be a lutheran theology that does not correspond to the teaching of the NT. We are not "simul justus et peccator", if we believe the bible. For sure, we always have more to learn, and we are always marked by the fall, but someone that has been converted and has received God´s spirit is walking on the right path, in the right direction (mostly), and this makes a visible difference in one´s deeds and choices. If we are not fundamentally different than the non-believers, if God´s love and the Messiah´s victory has not made us new, I question the true of the New Testament and the resurrection of Jesus! (By the way, I think you misinterpret 2 Kor 5. "There is a new creation for the one who is in the Messiah", or something, is a better translation.)

-What about Jesus teaching and example? Shouldn´t christians be taught to obey every instruction of Jesus (Mt 28), even the ones speaking about forgiveness, power and non-resistance? Shouldn´t we follow Jesus path of not ruling, bur serving, of suffering, of giving away our resources etc? Or does Jesus example and teaching just apply in a very limited "private sphere"? If yes, should we obey other Masters in other spheres? /Jonas Lundström

Stephen (aka Q) said...

Jonas:
Please feel free to ignore this post if it breaks the conversation Stephen - Dan.

Instead, led me apologize to my readers for the fact that this thread has degenerated into a narrowly personal dispute. Obviously I am more angry than I was aware of when I wrote the post. I hope the personal element doesn't detract from the analysis I offered: I think it is a valid point of view that Christians need to contemplate.

Stephen: You seem to be implying that christians can and sometimes should be in government positions.

I don't presume to tell Christians where or how they should serve God. I serve God through the work I do for the Government of Canada.

Thesis 2 and 3: To me, this seems to be a lutheran theology that does not correspond to the teaching of the NT. … If we are not fundamentally different than the non-believers, if God´s love and the Messiah's victory has not made us new, I question the true of the New Testament and the resurrection of Jesus!

I'm glad you've come in to argue this position. I expected someone would do so in response to my post, and it really is something that ought to be said.

Speaking in the abstract, I agree with you. Christians ought to be fundamentally different from "worldly" people. There ought to be a perceptible difference; evidence that the power that raised Jesus from the dead is at work to transform us, conforming us to the image of God.

I also agree that if we don't see any such thing, it calls the truth of the NT into question. When I became disillusioned with 2Co. 5:17 (I was quoting the English Standard Version, btw), it plunged me into a real crisis of faith.

It isn't evolution that troubles me, or the theodicy problem. It's the lack of a decisive difference between Christians and non-Christians. But I simply don't see a difference, except perhaps a very subtle one.

I have developed a theology that reflects what the empirical evidence tells me. Christians are in the process of redemption, but not yet redeemed. Non-Christians are fleshly yet created in the image of God. This constitutes a theological apologetic for the sad reality I experience day to day: that Christians are indistinguishable from non-Christians.

But your perspective also needs to be heard, because it is also good theology, grounded in the NT texts. As often, I think the NT tries to have it both ways — both your position and mine are grounded in the texts.

Shouldn't christians be taught to obey every instruction of Jesus (Mt 28), even the ones speaking about forgiveness, power and non-resistance? Shouldn´t we follow Jesus path of not ruling, bur serving, of suffering, of giving away our resources etc?

Absolutely, yes! And I can see why a Christian might have qualms about working as a police officer and using physical force against vulnerable elements of the population.

But in my position, I am arranging for funding transfers from Health Canada to aboriginal communities, who are free to use the money in accordance with community priorities. I will not concede that this makes me complicit in the "crucifixion" of aboriginals living on Vancouver's streets, or whatever other crimes against humanity the Government of Canada stands accused of.

Anonymous said...

Ok, I see. I have no intention or ability to argue about the appropriateness (is that a word in english? english is my second language, so please forgive me) of your work. I thought you were making a more universal case for christians in all kinds of power-position, like being police, soldier, president etc. I have less problems with working for the state in some other instances and in a way I do it myself.

It would be interesting to hear what texts you point to supporting your "almost the same"-position regarding church-world.

For me, my doubts about this lack of visible difference has led me the other way than you. Today I question most of the systems we call "church", and I question the christianity of most people bearing the name of Christ. Including my own, sometimes. Instead I look to radical groups like Bruderhof, New Monasticism, neo-anabaptists, christian anarchists, some monastics etc when I think of true churches and look for true christians. Historically, I look to groups of radical reformation to trace the work of the Spirit. I think the dominations and established churches belongs to a corrupt system, Babel, and that we should emerge from them... ;)

In this way, I can keep my trust in the message of the Messiah and his apostles and at the same time avoid living in some fluffy world of great ideas and utopias. /Jonas Lundström

Stephen (aka Q) said...

Thanks, Jonas. I appreciate your contribution to this dialogue. You have expressed yourself very clearly in your second language!