Wise as Serpents, Gentle as Doves
WHEN Jesus confounded the Pharisees by telling them to give to Caesar what belonged to Caesar and to God what belonged to God, he paved the way for generations of Christians to debate the scope of Christian involvement in public engagement.
Just what do we mean by "public engagement"? Malaysian Christians have long been faithful in serving other communities through charitable works. These forms of service are indeed ways Christians bring the love of God to others. But broach the subject of socio-political witness, and many shy away.
As an area of discipleship, many of us struggle when it comes to the issue of Church and State. We recognize in the Lord's response to the Pharisees' famous but feeble to attempt to entrap him, that on one hand, Jesus divided the sacred from the secular. But in another sense, he united both by illustrating Christian obedience to higher authority, whether earthly or divine.
This raises questions for us: Where do our responsibilities to the state end and our obligations to the divine begin? We are, according to Jesus, obligated to obey both God and the state. But how should we navigate our relationship between two authorities? What happens when actions by the state are in conflict with what we believe as Christians? How should Christians deal with subtle oppression by the state of their rights as citizens? These require wise and biblical public engagement.
It is time for Malaysian Christians to understand the social and political implications of following Christ. We need a holistic biblical view of the relationship between church and state, and between both entities and God.
Church, state and citizens
According to the Bible, both church and state are servants of God. Both answer to the authority of God and both exist for the good of the world for which Christ died. However, government operates on natural law. The church is entrusted with the Gospel and the law of Christ.
The Bible teaches that God is the ultimate source of all governmental authority - all governing authorities which exist have been established by God acting through people. It is also God's will for citizens and governments to do justice.
If we accept that political authority stems from both the will of the people and from God, it thus follows that governments do not have the absolute right to do what they want. It also follows that citizens must play their role in keeping governments accountable so that justice is served.
As such, both church and state have distinct Godgiven roles in society, and history shows that both best serve the public interest when each respects the role and purpose of the other. From the Bible, we see that Jesus did not intend for Christians to withdraw from the public square. In fact, Jesus' own life shows that he was constantly a thorn in the side of the Pharisees, challenging their hypocrisy and status quo.
We are clear that the church as an institution must not be partisan. But how should individual Christians exercise their socio-political witness? As individuals, we first need to submit our politics to the lordship of Christ. Then, we need to be uncompromisingly biblical. Additionally, we should be grounded in the facts - in a comprehensive and accurate reading of history and of current affairs. Using all these, we can build a framework to help us make consistent, faithful and effective decisions about concrete questions: What laws, policies or actions should we support? When should we speak up?
To engage is to bear witness
Sometimes, Evangelicals are nervous about sociopolitical involvement, seeing it as a diversion from evangelism. But public square engagement is part of the sharing of the Good News. When we wisely demonstrate Kingdom values in the socio-political sphere, we bear witness to God's mission of restoring this fallen world and of reconciliation with humankind. We can open doors for others to come to know the King of Kings.
On the other hand, unwise engagement in sociopolitics can damage the advance of Kingdom values or of the Gospel. Discernment is needed in the way churches or church leaders conduct themselves with politicians or political parties. Our interests and actions should not be partisan but be based on principles and values that are in line with biblical convictions.
Let us remember that Romans 13 places divine limitations on state power. Elsewhere in the bible, God insists that all state actions conform to His standards of justice. Thus, what we should seek and support are state decisions that uphold the higher law of divine justice. Biblical principles can help us evaluate the laws, policies and actions that we should support.
If we have placed our trust in Jesus as the King of kings and Lord of lords, then we are first of all, citizens of a spiritual kingdom. While Caesar may have been a earthly king, Jesus is the King. He is the One who died for us and rose from the dead, and who deserves first place in our hearts and minds. When we make a stand for godly standards in this world, we bear witness for Him.
(Resource: Church & State - RBC Discovery Series)