Princeton Presbyterian Church (EPC) Sermon # 1325
Dr. Ed Pettus November 5, 2017 Jeremiah 29:1-14
(This is an extended outline, not a verbatim transcript.)
“Church and State”
Church and State
The month of November usually starts our plans and anticipation of Thanksgiving Day. I know it is one of my first thoughts as soon as fall arrives. November is also the month when we sometimes have opportunities to vote and participate in our nation’s governance. We don’t have anything pending this month, but Virginia has several offices up for vote. Political questions often bring up the question of church and state.
Other factors have been in the news that also touch on this topic. Courts have ruled that some businesses cannot deny service to customers even if the customer’s activity violates Christian commands and principles. So same sex couples have taken bakers and florists to court to demand that they service their weddings. It bids the question about how far the state can force those who are of the church to violate their religious beliefs.
There has also, for a long time, been the debate of the church’s influence in politics, public buildings, and so forth. The Ten Commandments have been taken down in some places and anything that looks like a church related activity is quickly protested if it has anything to do with the public square.
We know all these things. We want to be good citizens but more importantly we want to be faithful Christians. We know that the intend of the founders of this country was that the state could not establish a religion that all must follow, but they also believed that it was in the best interest of the state if the state had the involvement of people who feared God and lived out their faith in leadership positions. Even that has been questioned by some Senators when they claim that certain people are not fit for service in government simply because they are Christians.
Today I want to address some of the passages of scripture that inform us on our relationship to the state.
We have seen and noted many of the negative trends that have affected the tone of our nation for some time now. In recent years there has been a growing disrespect across certain sectors of the population, disrespect for authority, loss of respect for that which is sacred, loss of respect for parents, or loss of respect for right and wrong. The current NFL protest against the National Anthem is one such lack of respect.
We have become a locked society. We have to lock up churches, homes, cars, cabinets in stores – it seems like everything has to be locked up. I’ve seen restaurants that quit putting sweeteners out on the tables because customers were stealing them! No respect for property. I think it really all starts with a loss of respect for God. That’s when a nation like ours begins to crumble, little by little, generation by generation. If we can disrespect God, we can disrespect anything and anybody. Lack of respect for authorities, lack of respect of children for parents, lack of respect for history, lack of respect for education, common sense, conservatism, Christian views, and so on it goes. We see it every day as the news sensationalizes these disrespectful people. But this is really nothing new. It is about a people who don’t care about God. Don’t care about themselves our anyone else. The prophet Jeremiah talks about such people, “Were they ashamed when they committed abomination? No, they were not at all ashamed; they did not know how to blush” (6:15a). The problem today is that some people don’t care about right and wrong and don’t care that they don’t care. They don’t even know how to be embarrassed or blush over their wrongdoing.
The second half of that same verse does bring us some hope, “Therefore they shall fall among those who fall; at the time that I punish them, they shall be overthrown,” says the Lord. We know the end of the story!
There is hope, not just in the prophet’s words of hope, but also in the evidence of people who do have faith today. There are other trends that we seldom hear about. More young people coming to Christ, more people speaking out about problems, some even believe that electing Trump is a trend toward good people tired of the negative trends. We really have to do lots of digging to find these hopeful and hope filled people and events, but they are out there. My prayer is that good people of faith do not get seduced by all the bad news of sensationalized fake news that only presents what will make money or boost ratings.
Then there is the great hope of the words of prophets, the words of Jesus, the word of God throughout the Bible. There is always hope in the Word of God. There is always hope in God Himself. Hope in Jesus, hope in the Holy Spirit. Hope in the church and in believers.
Sometimes I think we will just have to suffer through the negative trends. But even that will lead us to hope all the more. “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. 2 Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. 3 Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us (Romans 5:1-5). Suffering through all this negative garbage in our society will ultimately lead us to even greater hope!
Let’s look at more passages that help us make sense of the relationship of church and state. I think that our primary relationship to the state is the Great Commission.
Matthew 28:16-20 16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17 And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted. 18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
We are commanded to take the message of the gospel and as it stands today, this sets us against he state in some liberal areas and liberal judicial settings.
In another instance Jesus calls on us to give to the state what belongs to the state, and to God what is God’s. Matthew 22:15-22 15 Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle him in his words. 16 And they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone's opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances. 17 Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” 18 But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. 20 And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” 21 They said, “Caesar's.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's.” 22 When they heard it, they marveled. And they left him and went away.
If we could spend more time here today we might come to the conclusion that Jesus’ entire message is an indictment against nations of the world, against abuse of power whether in democracy or dictatorship or anything in between. Jesus’ words confound the state and indict the state. We see it today when the state claims that discrimination laws, as they have shaped them, trump Christian religious liberty.
The Bible also teaches us to be subject to authorities and institutions.
1 Peter 2:13-17 13 Be subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. 15 For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. 16 Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God.17 Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.
Romans 13:1-7 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God's wrath but also for the sake of conscience. 6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. 7 Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.
Paul indicates that God is at work shaping governments and leaders and we are to obey those in power for the good of society when those governments do what is right.
Yet, there is a place when we are called to disobey authorities and that comes when those authorities do not act or govern in accordance with God’s word, God’s justice, or God’s authority. In
Today we heard the reading from Jeremiah 29, a letter written to the exiles who were driven into Babylon, living under a state that was not friendly to God’s people. The state did not share their beliefs or traditions or scripture or worship or God. And Jeremiah tells them, here is what the Lord wants you to in your current situation, in your exile.
Look at verse 5,
5 “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. 6 Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease.”
Live here; live were you are. Make the best of the situation. Build homes, build families, don’t decrease in your numbers. God calls us to make our lives here, reaching out to people and proclaiming the gospel – to make disciples and teach them everything Jesus taught, that is, to fulfill the Great Commission.
Then in verse 7 we read,
7 But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.
We are called on to seek the peace, seek the good, seek the welfare of the city. Now there have been a lot of strategies to make America a better place. There is a huge movement in a part of the Christian world to get Christians into political positions. The conversation is about getting America back to God. This strategy is to get involved in the political process, to get Christians in office and in places of power so that we can seek the welfare of the city. We believe that the best way to live is to hold fast to Christian values, to live by the book, and so this is one strategy to seek out the welfare of the city and to live faithfully in the state.
Jesus seems to take a strategy that dealt with people one on one. Love God and neighbor. Love one another. Love your enemies. Jesus deals with people more than he deals with systems political or otherwise. Now, granted, Jesus did not live in a time or place of democracies like the United States. But there were some similarities in his time, like taxes! Jesus’ strategy seems more in line with living in peace with the government, whatever it might be, at least insofar as that government does not try to force us to disobey God. Another strategy might be to simply deal with people by making disciples and we seek the welfare of the city by bringing more people into the kingdom of God. Less on the politics, more on relationships.
Strategies differ from person to person. Some feel called to serve inside politics. Others may be called to serve in other ways for the betterment of society. But all are called to represent Jesus Christ, to avoid being conformed to the ways of the world or being seduced by the power and money involved in the political realm.
One final thought on the biblical perspective is to remember our place in this world and in the kingdom of God. We live is something of a dual citizenship. Our citizenship is ultimately in heaven. Philippians 3:20-21 20 But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself. This important observation should also play a heavy role in our understanding of the relationship between church and state.
Strategies of Hope
What then are our strategies of hope? I’ve already mentioned two, those who seek political means and those who seek relationship means.
I would suggest that a minimum requirement in our context as a free republic I to pray, share the gospel, and vote. We might think about a maximum as prayer, sharing the gospel, and running for public office. Taking into consideration all the texts we have explored we at least seek to live peaceably, render unto Caesar and God what is due to each, pray, share the gospel, and vote. How do we make changes in the situation of our time? Some seek national revival. Some seek renewal in the church. Some seek one individual at a time. Some seek political solutions. Those outside the church appeal to humanism. Some have given up. We cannot give up, because there is always hope. We know how the story of God’s book ends and how eternity plays out. Let me offer you one last text to ponder on the issues of church and state.
Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart. 2 But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God's word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone's conscience in the sight of God. 3 And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. 4 In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. 5 For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus' sake. 6 For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 4:1-6).
First, do not lose heart! Second, don’t tamper with God’s word. Third, proclaim Jesus Christ which will let light shine out of darkness. People of good faith will disagree on strategies about how to relate to the state, but we might all agree that the word gives us options and even more, hope for tomorrow. Amen.