The Church, the State and Christian Citizenship
1967 Church of the Brethren Statement
The church, a community of people with supreme loyalty to Jesus Christ as Lord, is set in the midst of the world. In this world, the church fulfills its mission both as a corporate body and through its individual members.
The work of the church, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and through its power, includes (1) the proclamation of the gospel message and (2) a ministry of love to people in relation to their need. Both proclamation and ministry in the world necessitate a confronting of the great issues of public life and the affairs of government. To this end, there must be a proper definition of the relationship between church and state.
The Constitutional Relationship of Church and State in the United States
Separation of church and state means separation, not of concerns, for church and state share many of these, but of institutions. It means that the state may not become the servant of any creed or sect and that the church may not become the voice or tool of the state. This principle does not automatically resolve all constitutional problems in church-state relationships, but it does provide a basis for working at these problems. It suggests, for example, that we need not fear public activities or symbols which reflect a fundamental belief in God, provided that no specific sect is favored thereby. Moreover, it does not automatically rule out every form of limited government support to church-related institutions.
Institutional independence may be balanced by creative interaction. The state should guarantee religious liberty, protect freedom of conscience, permit dissent, and avoid all favoritism among sects. The church ministers to the state when it teaches responsible citizenship, encourages qualified members to enter public life, reminds the government of its accountability to God as sovereign, fosters public support for policies consistent with Christian humanitarian concerns and rallies opposition to policies inconsistent with such concerns. The exact forms of this interaction are in constant flux and must be evaluated case by case. It is important that church and state each observe its own proper role as they find points of cooperation in the service of humanity.
The Church’s Concern for the World
The Scriptures proclaim two principles which are profoundly relevant to the relation of the church and state: God as sovereign and God as love. The first principle holds that God is creator of and sovereign over all of life and not merely its religious dimensions. The second principle affirms that God loves the world. God has made people in God’s own image. We, in turn, as members of the church, are called to identify ourselves in all our relationships with the purpose of God who “so loved the world that he gave his only Son” to save it.” We are to love our neighbors as ourselves, that is, to seek for all people the same good life that we wish for ourselves. We are to share the loving concern of the Creator, which extends not only to people’s religious but also to their emotional, mental and physical welfare. Clearly, then, it must include concern for justice, liberty and peace for all. “Let justice roll dawn like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.” Amos 5:24.
The Christian church must constantly seek out the implications of God’s love in society and identify itself with that love. To think that the church has fulfilled its mission to the world when it has merely affirmed these principles is to oversimplify the nature of humankind and society, as well as the nature and function of the church. The meaning and application of God’s love must be sought anew in each concrete situation as the church, no less than the state, seek freedom, justice, dignity and opportunity.
As a fellowship of persons trying to find and to do the will of God in all human relationships, the church must be ready to identify the sins of society. Yet the church also stands under divine judgment and must take care to listen and be sensitive to what God is saying and doing in the world. God speaks to the church through the world, to the world through the church, and to each directly.
To carry on a faithful ministry within society, the church must be guided by two considerations: (1) the gospel command to love every person as God in Christ has loved us; (2) the fact of human sinfulness, which affects every individual and group and causes all persons and human enterprises to need the discipline and loving judgment of God.
The Church’s Attitude Toward the State
The state generally is conceived of as a particular people, in a definable geographical area, with its own history, traditions and customs, with a particular form of government, and with symbols of unity, patriotism and nationalism. The church affirms the institution of government as ordained of God (Rom. 13:1) necessary as an instrument for maintaining order, securing justice and freedom, and promoting the general welfare. The state and its citizens are under God and ultimately accountable to God as Creator, Sustainer, Sovereign Lord and Judge. The sovereignty of the state is limited by the sovereignty of God. Moreover, the policy makers of the state share the sin and fallibility of humankind, and their decisions cannot be considered infallible. While the state may demand reasonable obedience, it may not demand absolute obedience, which belongs to God.
The words, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17), must never be taken to mean that God does not care what Caesar does or leaves undone. Government policy helps to determine whether there will be war or peace, justice or injustice, depression or inflation, affluence or poverty, and similar basic conditions of life. In such issues God cares, and the church, to the degree that it has the spirit of God, also cares. Indeed, under God, both state and church are to be instruments for expressing love of neighbor.
Because of the nature of politics and human relations on the one hand, and the church’s orientation to God’s sovereignty and transcendence on the other, the church will at times find itself in conflict with the state or with large segments of the political community. The church must warn against idolatrous nationalism in foreign affairs and call people to broader horizons of concern. In relation to domestic policy the church will try to help and to protect those who have been deprived of their rightful voice and are neglected or injured in some way. Aware of their own fallibility, Christians must also encourage constructive criticism of their own positions; however, neither individuals nor the church’s deliberative bodies should allow themselves to be intimidated.
The Church’s Ministry to the State
The political arena will always need the counsel of a church which has genuine concern for the whole of humankind and has loyalties which go beyond limited groups and even beyond national interests and boundaries. The church can provide a significant ministry to the state (1) through its corporate efforts and (2) through its encouragement and backing of individual efforts of those within its membership.
Through the Church’s Corporate Efforts
The church is responsible for informing its members and other citizens concerning the moral and spiritual values inherent in the courses of action proposed or adopted by policymakers of the various divisions of government from local to international levels. It can and should invite people to consider with care the insights which our religious heritage offers on a particular problem. In such cases the church may or may not take a definite position; its main concern is to encourage discussion within a Christian context and with a Christian spirit. Since most issues of politics need clarification in regard to their moral aspects, and many are extremely complex, the church’s more frequent contribution may well lie in the approach of reasoning together and of formulating general policy statements. Yet the church must be prepared to speak on specific issues when clear moral principles are involved, irrespective of any particular political party, candidate or leader. Should the church abdicate this responsibility, there would be created a vacuum readily filled by self-seeking groups.
On occasion the church is under obligation to say, as did Martin Luther, “Here I stand. God helping me, I can do no other.” A proclamation of conviction may originate with any duly constituted group of church people — an Annual Conference, a district conference, a congregation, a commission, a study-action group. Such pronouncements should he made not as the infallible word of God, but, rather, as the considered conviction of thoughtful Christians who have a right to speak. The authority of the statement rests on the compelling ethical quality of the statement itself rather than on any claim to superhuman wisdom or majority support. When a church body has reached a consensus on which it is willing to take a stand, it is fitting for designated representatives to interpret that position to the larger community and to the government.
There are other valid and effective ways in which the church can say, “Here I stand”: through its employment practices, its ministries of inter-racial witness and reconciliation, its volunteer service program, its ministry to human suffering.
Through the Efforts of Individual Christians
The ministry of the church to the state can be made through the efforts of individuals, as well. This may be done by the written or spoken word of any Christian citizen.
In a free and open society like that in the United States today the Christian citizen will have frequent, almost daily, opportunities to bear Christian witness as current public issues and policies are discussed — at work, in civic groups, in casual contacts. The Christian should be an informed citizen, go to the polls regularly, and vote for candidates and measures which he or she considers most likely to approximate Christian standards. Christians can participate actively in the political party of their choice and exercise influence in political matters in their communities.
Some Christian citizens have the opportunity to enter public life and serve their fellow human beings in public office. The Christian as office holder can help the government to fulfill its responsibility to all its people. Public service offers a significant channel for witnessing to Christian values. During their service to fellow citizens, the Christians should receive from the church a supportive ministry of love, concern and fellowship. The Church of the Brethren encourages its members to consider seriously the call to public life as an opportunity for Christian vocation and mission.
Christians should appreciate and support the worthy functions which government performs. They should willingly obey the state in matters on which they have no contrary moral conviction. On the other hand, they should be alert to occasions when government neglects or misuses its trust from God. When they are profoundly convinced that god forbids what the state demands, it is their responsibility to express their convictions. Such expression may include disobedience of the state. This drastic step should be taken only after prayer, careful thought, and consultation with others, yet without losing due respect for the state. Christians should make known to the community their reasons for opposing the policies of the state, and demonstrate their willingness to accept the consequences. The church should respect the right of the individual to follow his or her conscience in this way and should provide a ministry of love, concern and fellowship.
God loves both the church and the state and desires that each fulfill its unique role. Although they share in common such goals as peace, freedom, justice, dignity and opportunity for all persons, each serves society according to its own special purposes, methods and criteria. Christian citizens are called to serve God and neighbor both as members of the body of Christ and as citizens of the state. As citizens we are called to oppose any encroachment by the church upon the rightful functioning of the state. As Christians whose highest commitment is to God we are called to oppose any encroachment by the state upon the divinely instituted mission of the church and its members. Christians, acting individually and corporately in the affairs of state, must be found “speaking boldly for the Lord, who bore witness to the word of his grace, granting signs and wonders to be done…” (Acts 14:3).
This statement is limited largely to basic considerations leaving to subsequent statements a consideration of the Church’s position on specific issues such as taxation of church property, government assistance to church-related health, education and welfare programs, and religious chaplaincy in government programs.
Action of 1967 Annual Conference: Report Adopted.