American politics has a hangover. For over 1500 years, since the Roman Empire was Christianized, Christians have struggled with the being drunk on the power of a Church that was merged with State. Yet when Justice Hugo Black in the 1950s began building Jefferson’s proverbial “wall of separation between Church and State,” the party has quickly come to a halt. Now, in the rough morning after, many Christians – especially those who can remember those final years of Christendom – feel anxious about the future. They wonder, maybe we can still go back? Back when there was official prayer in schools. Back when we didn’t have to worry about being “politically correct.” Back when my Christian view was just as important, if not more important, than a non-Christian view. Maybe we can take it back? If we can just vote in strong leaders who will fight for us, the kind of strong leaders who will put in the right Supreme Court justices, maybe we can make America something of a Christian nation again? Sometimes, a hangover just makes one want to hit the bottle again.
Now, I’m not qualified to speak on constitutional legal theories over the debate on the separation of Church and State. I'm just a college pastor at a worshiping community called Journey. Instead, I do want to go to the Bible to speak into the tension that we may have between longing for the power of the past as a religious majority and living into the potential of the future as a religious minority – which will likely happen in our lifetime.
We need to first confront a text that almost seems to single-handedly serve as the battle cry for people who want to blur church and state again as much as possible. This battle cry is 2 Chronicles 7:14, “Then if my people who are called by my name will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sins and restore their land.” This election, it seemed like it was quoted at every Christian rally. Vice President Pence had it read during his swearing-in ceremony. Christians in politics, both on the Right and even the Left, love to quote this verse.
It’s crucial we note the context though. This statement is by God to King Solomon regarding the nation of Israel. The mistake many Christians make when reading the Old Testament laws, apart from usually cherry picking them, is that they interpret God’s covenant with Israel as being carried over into some covenant with America. In other words, when God gives command or promise to a religiously controlled theocratic state of ancient Israel, then that’s a command or promise for America.
But here’s the problem with that. God has no covenant with America. America is not a chosen people. There’s only one Old Testament, and there’s only one Old covenant, with only one chosen people – and that’s Israel. Besides, have you read all smiting that happens to Israel in the Old Testament? Even it was possible, you’d probably not want this arrangement.
So if this passage is taken out of context, what is a more relevant part of the Bible to guide us? Let’s go to the New Testament in the Book of Acts of the Apostles. Here we find that Christianity, which was first called “The Way”, rapidly growing in the city of Ephesus. However, not everyone is happy about it.
23 About that time there arose no little disturbance concerning the Way. 24 For a man named Demetrius, a silversmith, who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought no little business to the craftsmen. 25 These he gathered together, with the workmen in similar trades, and said, “Men, you know that from this business we have our wealth. 26 And you see and hear that not only in Ephesus but in almost all of Asia this Paul has persuaded and turned away a great many people, saying that gods made with hands are not gods. 27 And there is danger not only that this trade of ours may come into disrepute but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis may be counted as nothing, and that she may even be deposed from her magnificence, she whom all Asia and the world worship.” 28 When they heard this they were enraged and were crying out, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” 29 So the city was filled with the confusion, and they rushed together into the theater, dragging with them Gaius and Aristarchus, Macedonians who were Paul's companions in travel.
– Acts 19:23-41 English Standard Version (ESV)
Now notice what is happening here. Christianity is becoming so influential in this city that it’s putting the idol making business out of business. It’s literally overturning the very economy. But how? This is important. There’s no law being passed. No royal edict. Christians aren’t even protesting outside the Temple of Artemis trying to shame the pagans. This is all simply happening because people are becoming disciples of the way of Jesus. Without coercion, the worship of Artemis is being exchanged for worship of Jesus Christ. And without coercion, the Holy Spirit through the Church is restoring the land.
When it comes this question of Church and State, I don’t know about the state, but I think separation of Church and State is good for the Church. History shows us that when the Church is merged with the State, Christianity may have power, but it also has corruption. People may follow Christian rules, but Christ doesn’t rule in their hearts. And look where it leads: many of the most atheistic countries are almost all countries where Christianity was the official religion of the government for hundreds of years. Sweden, Norway, France, England, Germany. Their churches may be supported by taxes, but they’re mostly empty.
Yet, history also shows us that when the Church is separate from the State, sometimes even persecuted by the state, it not only survives but thrives, as it did in Ephesus. Christianity went from 12 disciples to religion of over half of the Roman Empire in less than three hundred years, all while being an illegal religion.
So in instead on trying to tear down the wall separating Church and State, may I suggest that we should instead focus on tearing down the wall separating the Church and culture. When the Church is not engaged in culture, that means whatever our current equivalent of the Temple of Artemis is, has a destructive influence over the land. Yet notice that in our reading Acts, the solution clearly isn’t running away from the culture or making an alternative “Christian” culture with a God’s Not Dead trilogy. Paul’s companions aren’t preaching in the hills when this riot happens. Where are they? They’re in the city theater. They’re in the heart of culture. The Church restores the land by following Jesus into culture.
So here’s what that means: If you’re an art major, you need to do art to the glory of God that non-Christians are impressed by it. If you’re a science major, you need to research to the glory of God that non-Christians respect it. If you’re a business major, you need to do business to the glory of God that non-Christians are inspired by your generosity and ethics.
We don’t need more Christian politicians. 92 percent of congress claims to Christian, and it doesn’t seem to be accomplishing much. We need Christians using their skills, gifts, and talents to the glory of God and the engagement of their culture.
When we all work individually in our different careers to influence culture together, people are drawn to the gospel. Even if they don’t become Christians, they will inevitably embrace some Christian principles, because politics is the downstream of culture. We will even find the laws of the land changing, but not because Christians are trying force their principles on everyone else, but because even the non-Christians in the community are persuaded by the reasonableness of Christian principles. They will see it at work in you!
How then can we move from a place where the Church is confused and anxious about culture to where the church is in some way confident to engage culture? What is our biblical inspiration for this mission? How about 2 Chronicles 7:14.
Wasn’t this out of context though? It is out of context if you apply it to America. But the gospel is good news that in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus -- a Jewish Rabbi -- God’s promise to bless the whole world through Israel comes true. The gospel brings us the blessings of relationship with God, the promise of living again with God, because the spiritual hopes of Israel are realized in Christ.
The Apostle Paul even tells us that the Church is the fulfillment of Israel in Galatians 3:29, saying, “If you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's (aka Israel’s) offspring, heirs according to promise.”
Paul says in the letter to the Romans Christ “grafts: us in with Israel, that the Church enters into a new covenant of promises that God began with Israel. So we should still quote this passage from 2 Chronicles, not at political rallies for America, but at worship for the Church!
“Then if my Church who is called by Jesus’ name will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sins and restore their land.”
We will not make America great by making non-Christians submit to some version of Christian laws, but we will make American churches great when you and I submit to the way of Jesus Christ and his law of love. When churches seek God’s face, Christ’s Kingdom, the invisible government of God, will be all around us.