Editorial – Church-State Relations

Calvin BrownCalvin Brown is a former Executive Director of the Renewal Fellowship.

Jesus Christ was born in a stable because of government policy. We realize as Presbyterians that God is sovereign and nothing happens apart from his divine will but on the common level it is clear the reason Jesus was born in a stable was because, as St. Luke tells it, the government had decreed that everyone had to return to their town of origin to register for taxes. Joseph lived in Galilee but Joseph was of Bethlehem in Judea. They went there as part of government policy but there was not government planning to properly accommodate the crowds so the only place left was a stable. Jesus in utero was influenced by government policy. Shortly after his birth another government policy to eradicate all threats to the throne by killing all boy children under two years old made Jesus and his parents refugees and some years later a more open policy allowed for their return to Israel. Jesus grew up under Roman rule but government policy dictated that he did not have citizenship in the Roman Empire and so he had less protection than someone like Paul who was a citizen of the Empire. It was a mixture of politics and religion that from a human point of view finally led to Jesus' death on a cross.

Throughout the centuries there has always been an interplay between politics and religion and between the spiritual and the secular. At present, followers of Islam are burning Danish Embassies and making death threats to westerners for allowing a cartoon of their prophet Mohammed to be printed in a Danish paper. In the recent American election, it is claimed the President was elected because evangelical Christians grouped together to support him. In Canada during the recent debates, the question was asked if a similar evangelical coalition was in Canada.

Basically there have been four positions that the church has held at different times and different places in regards to church-state relations.

One was that the church and state were two entirely different (even if physically overlapping) kingdoms and that the less they had to do with one another the better. In this position some did not vote or try to influence the state in any direct way.

Another position was that the church was the voice of God and that the king or civil authority was adjoined by the church as a member of the church to serve the interests of the church and rule by church standards.

A third position was that the king or head of state was the sovereign ruler appointed by God to rule the land and the church was the religious department of state that supported the king and provided spiritual support for king and country.

The fourth position was that the church and state were equal partners within the nation with specific authority in their area of competence. In this model the civil authority had oversight of matters of state and the church over spiritual matters. The church should not meddle in politics but should give godly counsel especially in regards to values that reflected things of eternal benefit to the nation. It would encourage its members to be active in politics but there would be a distinct separation of power between church and state. This last position is the usual Reformed position and is well articulated in the Declaration of Church and State that every minister and elder in the Presbyterian Church in Canada must affirm in their ordination views. This edition of Channels helps us reflect on some of these issues. Mariano DiGangi, who was one of the chairs that prepared the Statement to Assembly introduces this document and urges us to study it as still relevant 50 years later. Peter Bush's article surveys a number of Presbyterians active in politics in our history and reviews John Moir's book that again reveals a great deal about church-state relations in our early years. Bruce Clemenger, President of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, of which the Renewal Fellowship is a member, shares insights into how evangelicals engage in the political arena, and Stephen Allen tells of some important work our denomination is currently involved in.