“They are not of the world, even as I am not of it” (John 17:16).
One of the problems that I see for the Church with regard to politics is the failure to grasp clearly the fundamental distinction that Jesus makes in John 17:16. The Church is in the world, but not of it. The Church is to reach the world and claim it for Christ, yet we have been rescued from the world.
Of course, this verse has been abused by the incursion of secular thinking that proposes the Jesus is saying we are to dwell in the spiritual realm and not in the physical. Time will not allow me to delve into the multitude of errors that come from this thinking. Simply put, Jesus is not telling us to escape the world as though it has nothing to offer. Instead, He is asserting that the people of God, as members of His kingdom, are to stand in distinction from the kingdom of the world. For, as John writes, “The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever” (1 John 2:17). The kingdom of God aims to redeem the world and claim it for Him. We do so neither by discarding the world, nor by imposing Christianity on it.
Missions of the Church and the State are Never the Same
It is essential to understand that the mission of the Church and the mission of a nation are never the same. The mission of the Church is to make Christ known; to proclaim Him as Lord! We do so both by loving one another and our neighbor as ourselves. This mission is one of great risk—as any study of Church history will show. That is, we do so knowing that it may cost us our freedoms, our jobs, and possibly our lives.
The mission of the nations may reflect some aspects of the Christian mission—depending on the nation and how much influence the Church has been able to have. But the mission of the nation will always transcend the mission of the Church. After all, they exist with fundamentally different goals: while the Church exists to make Christ known, the state exists to protect its people and to ensure their safety and well-being.
To put it another way: the Church’s main task is to be the means through which God brings the nations to Christ: to make known to them that there is one true Lord, one true King. The nation aims to maintain its own sovereignty and to protect its citizens at all times. There is, therefore, a fundamental tension between the Church and the nations.
Efforts to Legislate Christianity Inevitably Fail
We must also recognize that the mission of the Church is not to impose Christianity upon the state Christian. Now on the surface this might seem as something good. History, however, shows that efforts to legislate Christianity always leads to the Church’s demise. Attempts to impose Christian laws on a secular society inevitably drive people away from Christ. Os Guinness in his book The Call notes, “There is a direct and unarguable relationship between the degree of the church’s politicization in a culture and the degree of the church’s rejection by that culture” (168). This is of grave significance. Since our mission is to make God known to the nations for the purpose of their redemption, it is imperative that we do so in such a way that people come to Christ.
In other words, the Church must understand that although the imposition of Christian laws upon a nation may temporarily have good results—including the benefits to the people of God themselves who prosper from living under such laws—the net result is consistently detrimental to the mission of God’s people.
What Then Shall We Do?
How then should the people of God relate to the state? This is not an easy question. I would begin by noting that the fundamental mission of the Church is to work to change the hearts of the people. We know that if the hearts of the people are changed, then the laws of the land will change.
But honestly we shouldn’t care so much about the laws of the land. We should care primarily about the Kingdom of God. Don’t take me wrong here. It is great to live in a country where the laws are good and just. But a country with good and just laws where no one knows Christ is not better than living in a brutal dictatorship with no freedoms and a thriving Church!
Does this means that the Church is only to worry about spiritual things and leave political matters alone? By no means! Never. The Gospel does not work like this. It means that we should we focus on transforming people and not the state. The transformation of the state will happen only when the people have been transformed. To aim to transform the state without addressing the hearts of the people is to put the proverbial cart-before-the-horse. And the result in inevitable: neither is transformed. In fact, as noted earlier, the Church dies in such nations.