Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Problem With Civic Religion

The United States is not a church. It is not a “new Israel.”

It is a nation, founded on high ideals and moral principles, that is highly informed and influenced by Christianity. Therefore, we can assert the American people are, culturally speaking, a “Christian people.”

This means that many of our customs, laws and ideas are rooted in the Judeo-Christian scriptures and spirituality. For all these reasons, I am a patriot. I am moved by patriotic songs and patriotic speeches.

But patriotism is not holy and the nation is not a church.

For a long time now, many American Christians have confused their patriotism with their spirituality. In most Evangelical churches, the people will stand as we bring the flag down the aisle. If we bring the cross down the aisle however, the people seem confused. Thus, some feel that honoring a cross may be idolatrous but that honoring the flag is not.

I honor the flag. I will stand when you bring it into the room. But I am not worshipping the flag. I am merely showing respect for what it represents. If we worship the state, we cannot confront the state when it is in the wrong. That makes us bad citizens. It also makes us unfaithful Christians.

As a minister of the gospel, I exercise authority in a few areas that precede and supersede the authority of the state. For example: marriage. I perform marriage ceremonies. My actions as God’s representative make a man and woman “man and wife.” This ceremonial action creates the beginnings of a family. The family then has a diverse origin. It is not an institution that derives from either nature of the state.

What the state does is “recognize” marriages. The state decides what sorts of unions are “legal,” which is to say “are recognized within the realm that the state rules.” The state cannot decide what God will recognize or what He will not recognize. So what happens when the state recognized a marriage as “legal” that God judges as “an abomination?”

Well, those who view the states authority as legitimate in that area – businesses, military, civic organizations and such like – will bow to the states decision.

But what does the church do? It depends.

If the church exists at the pleasure of the state and automatically acknowledges the authority of the state in all areas of life, it will join the various communities and organizations that submit to the states decision.

If the church understands its own origins, precedes within its proper realm of authority, supersedes the state, it will resist any laws that contradict and defy the rule of God. The church has no authority over those who do not belong to it. We should never seek to rule the state. We have tried that and it always corrupts both the church and the state.

The church does have authority over the flock of God. We proclaim, defend and teach the Bible – Old and New Testament – as the viable word of God. We insist that all followers of God order their lives by God’s law.

In short: we submit in all things that the state requires – except when its requirements are in clear violation of God’s word.

May God grant that American Christians never be forced to choose between the authority of God and that of our country. Or, if it comes to that, may we have the courage to move beyond civic religion to embrace the cross.

(To get an idea of what got me thinking along these lines, read Never Silent by Thad Barnum.)

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