Aired on April 10, 2010
Narration by Anonymous
CHURCH AND STATE: The Duty of Dissent
We have said that the separation of church and state does not mean the Church’s blind obedience to the State. This is a hard saying for those who are critical of leaders and members of the Church speaking up against State policy. Some think this is being too political, and not in keeping with the submission enjoined by Romans 13.
Is there biblical justification for dissent?
The same passage which is often invoked for Christians to submit to the State, Romans 13:1-7, already gives us a very important clue. It is true that God gave the rulers of this world authority. But it is clear that authority was given to rulers so they can be a ‘terror to bad conduct.’ They are to ‘punish those who do wrong and praise those who do right’ as the Apostle Peter said. Elsewhere in the Scriptures, rulers are called to uphold justice, look after the weak and poor in society, and not to abuse their powers.
But it is clear that authority was given to rulers so they can be a ‘terror to bad conduct.’ They are to ‘punish those who do wrong and praise those who do right’ as the Apostle Peter said. Elsewhere in the Scriptures, rulers are called to uphold justice, look after the weak and poor in society, and not to abuse their powers.
What happens then when the State does not measure up to these expectations? The Church is called to be a prophet. It is to speak up when what the government does is clearly against God’s Word. The same Roman Empire which Paul told Christians to obey was the same one which John denounced in Revelation as a Beast for persecuting believers. Any earthly authority runs the risk of deteriorating from God’s servant to God’s enemy. Christians must be prepared to name and resist any such attempt to usurp God’s absolute authority.
The rise of Nazism in Germany was supported by the almost unconditional obedience of the German Church. But when it became clear that the Nazis were engaged in the monstrous project of annihilating the Jews, Christians like Dietrich Bonhoffer dissented and paid with their lives. Yet we can say that their dissent was legitimate. In the Barmen Declaration, which these dissenting Christians adopted, they made it clear that the State was acting against what God expected it to do. For instance, they renounced Nazi totalitarianism for two reasons. First, Nazism contradicted the God-given role of the State to provide order and justice in a fallen world. Second, it stood against the ultimate dominion of Christ over the lives of all.
We may not be in a similar crisis as the Confessing Church in Germany in the 1930s. Indeed, we enjoy a freedom of religious belief and practice unheard of in their day. What remains timeless is the duty to speak out when the rulers of this world do wrong and violate God’s mandate or them. Ultimately, they are accountable to God when he comes again to judge the nations.
(Some parts of this editorial were inspired by a presentation given by Dr. Noli Mendoza at the recent ATS Theoforum. Dr. Mendoza is a friend and fellow of ISACC.)