Two Foundational Principles for Navigating Church and State
Underneath the questions facing evangelicals during the 2016 presidential election, there is a more fundamental question that is often assumed or overlooked, but is actually critical to acting wisely as Christians in America: what hath the gospel of Jesus have to do with politics? How should we think about the relationship between church and state?
Old Glory and the Old, Old Story
About four years ago, Christianity Today ran an article about whether churches should display the American flag in their sanctuary. For decades this was a normal practice for many church denominations—a mark of one’s commitment to God and country. It is less common today, as people are wary of conflating the cause of Christ with the cause of ‘Murica, and all the more so as we find the aims of God and country increasingly at odds. Russell Moore, President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Church, tells the story of one pastor
who wanted to do away with the flag, but didn’t want to be seen as un-American, so he devised a plan to secret the flag away in the middle of a Saturday night, hoping the congregation just wouldn’t notice the next day. This game of “Rapture the Flag” didn’t work, of course. By dawn’s early light, they saw that the flag was not there. And that’s when the metaphorical bombs started bursting in air.
It’s a ridiculous story, but it illustrates the question at hand: what does the gospel to do with politics?
On the one hand the church is not an American institution. God promised Abraham descendants from all nations; Jesus sent his disciples to preach the gospel to all nations; and when he returns there will be, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, people “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Rev. 7:9; see also Gen. 17:4; Matt. 28:18-20).
Nor can we honestly say that America is a Christian nation. While the vision and values upon which this country was founded were certainly influenced by a Judeo-Christian worldview, that doesn’t mean our founding father were all Christians. They simply weren’t. And the kind of revisionist history that attempts to “baptize the dead” and claim unorthodox historical heroes for Team Jesus is not only embarrassing, it does more harm than good.
Moreover, there is the simple fact that you cannot claim to have religious freedom and be a Christian nation at the same time. We need to be honest about that. The historical influence of Christianity has been good for our country, but the vision has always been one of plurality and religious freedom—our first amendment right.
And yet, as followers of Christ who are also citizens of this nation, we are Christians and Americans at the same time. Citizens who enjoy the rights and protections and freedoms afforded by our country, and who bear certain civic obligations in return: jury duty, paying taxes, voting. Some of us make our livelihood in public service, holding office or serving in the military; some of our private sector work largely deals with government contracts. Many of us are “proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free.” We can sing “God Bless the USA” in our sleep. We love our country; we’ve had family and friends die for our country. And many of us are worried about the direction of our country—the kind of world we’re leaving for our children.
More than that, being a good Christian actually means being a good citizen. The apostle Paul tells us in Romans 13:1-2: “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. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.” As much as we might be tempted to completely disengage from politics and separate ourselves from the world, that option is neither possible nor biblical.
So how do we navigate the tension between church and state? How do we engage politically without resorting to religious coercion on one side (imposing the expressions of our faith on those who don’t share it), or religious compromise on the other (forsaking, or being forced to forsake, our unique message and kingdom commitments for public acceptance and political expedience)?
A Message for Christians in Exile
In 1 Peter 2:13-18, the apostle Peter offers us sage wisdom for living as God’s people in a fallen world. Read more…
There is perhaps no story more formative to the identity of ancient Israel, and therefore to the identity of Jesus and his church, than the story of Exodus.
That’s a bold claim. But as we’ll see—Exodus lives up to it.
Through its account of how God saved Israel from slavery in Egypt and made them into his special covenant people, this book provides the foundational answer to many of life’s most important questions: Who is God? What has he done? How can we know him? Who are we? Why are we here? What does he ask of us? How shall we live?
Moreover, this book provides the context and categories for understanding the even greater act of salvation accomplished by God’s Son, Jesus, on the cross. There is an exodus-shape to the New Testament’s portrait of Jesus and his saving work, and also of the church’s identity and mission in him. As it’s been described,
The motif of the exodus . . . is one of the unifying images of the Bible. . . . No other [Old Testament] motif is as crucial to understand. No other event is so basic to the fabric of both Testaments. Our concepts of deliverance and atonement, of God dwelling with his people, of God taking a people for himself and so forth have their roots in this complex of events.
The story of Exodus is not just Israel’s story; it’s God’s story, Jesus’ story, and therefore our story. So join us this year at Westgate as we enter into this story to behold our salvation and the glory of God.
 L. Ryken, J. C. Wilhoit, T. Longman III, eds, “Exodus, New Exodus,” in Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (Downers Grove: IVP, 1998), 253.
A NEW SERIES ON THE BOOK OF JOB
We didn’t exactly plan to have a fifth child. When we found out we were pregnant, we were surprised but excited.
Nor did we plan to bury that child before we ever had a chance to meet her. But that’s what happened. We lost our Ruby Kate after 18 weeks of pregnancy.
The picture to the right is a family portrait of sorts. It was a housewarming gift from Carissa’s sister and her husband during their visit last week. The birds in the trees represent me, Carissa, and our four children: Joshua, Moriah, Eva, and Chloe. The three birds flying away are the ones we lost to heaven—Ruby, and two other babies between Joshua and Moriah.
Our story of loss is just one story among millions. Stories of grief, pain, and the sorrow so common to this fallen world. The loss of a job when the company decides to downsize. The loss of our health as we get older, or of a loved one when cancer strikes. The loss of our dignity when we’re discriminated because of the color of our skin. The loss of our innocence when someone takes advantage of us.
But as Christians, there is another, often deeply troubling layer to our loss: we believe in a good, loving, and powerful God who sovereignly rules the universe. A God who promises good to his people, who numbers our hairs and doesn’t let a sparrow fall to the ground apart from his plan (Matt. 10:29-30).
And so when we experience suffering and pain, it inevitably drives us to ask honest questions about our situation, but ultimately about our God. Why me? Why Ruby? Why would God let this happen to anyone, let alone his people? Why doesn’t he answer? Where is God when the world falls apart?
Oh, that I knew where I might find him,
that I might come even to his seat!
I would lay my case before him
and fill my mouth with arguments.
I would know what he would answer me
and understand what he would say to me. (Job 23:3-5)
The book of Job resonates with both the suffering we experience and the searching questions it generates. It’s the story of one man’s devastating loss and the struggle to make sense of God in the midst of it.
In fact, we can summarize the message of the book in a series of five questions. These are not always the questions we ask when faced with pain and loss. But they are the questions God wants us to ask, questions that he actually seeks to answer through this book.
“Does Job fear God for no reason?” (1:9). In other words, do we only love God because of what we get out of it? This is the Accuser’s question about what motivates our righteousness.
“Why did I not die at birth?” (3:11). Wouldn’t it be better to have never lived than to face such misery? This is the question of raw pain and lament.
“Who that was innocent ever perished?” (4:7). That is to ask, can the righteous suffer? This question explores the cause of suffering and the assumptions we make about the suffering of others.
“Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty?” (40:2) In other words, is God righteous when the righteous suffer? This question cuts to the heart of the matter, whether God can be in the right while his children experience wrongs.
“Who is it this that hides counsel without knowledge?” (42:3). In other words, is there mercy for those who speak like fools? Is there any recourse when we make wrong assumptions and wrong assertions about the character of God?
Over the next five weeks at Westgate we’ll explore each of these questions as we walk through the overarching message of Job, with its overarching question: Where is God when the world falls apart? And in it, I believe we will find the hope and perspective we need to trust God amid this fallen world.
I hope you can join us.
August 7: The God of Suffering (Job 1-2)
August 14: The Voice of Suffering (Job 3)
August 21: The Cause of Suffering (Job 11-13)
August 28: The Wisdom of Suffering (Job 38:1-40:2)
September 4: The Vindication of Suffering (Job 42)
If you’ve ever heard me talk about how the gospel fuels perseverance in suffering, you’ve probably heard me tell the story of my friends, Steve and Jen, and their daughter, Amelia. I’ve written about Amelia three times on this blog (here, here, and here), and shared her story in a couple of my sermons (here and here).
Amelia is now with Jesus. She completed her race last week. And what a race she ran. She was an inspiration of courage and love to everyone who met her. And her parents have taught me more about the power of Christ to hold us through suffering than anyone I’ve ever known.
They have also taught me about hope. Hope in Christ. Hope in God’s new creation. It’s a lesson we’ve learned in our own loss and heartbreak, and one that everyone must learn as we live out our days in a fallen world. This world is not the way it’s supposed to be. Suffering was not part of the design. Our world is broken through ages of rebellion against God, and that brokenness shows itself in all sorts of ways, including disability and death. And yet Christ broke the power of sin and promises a new creation when he returns—a new creation where everything sad will come untrue. Where sin, sickness, and death will be no more, and all who belong to Christ will enjoy the unmediated presence of God forever. A new creation that has already broken into this fallen world and is changing lives like Steve and Jen, and like mine. This is the hope of Christ. Through his resurrection, we have hope that death does not get the final word. Jesus does.
This past week Steve shared these reflections about his daughter (June 26):
Amelia is beauty seen but her body betrays her. The imprint of God dances upon her face as the sun peaks over the ash tree to the north. Consider the lilies- how they are dressed with a touch of creative genius . . . And now, see this face, this doll- with wires and tubes- surrounded by machines and monitors where one fixates on numbers that flux and buttons that flash-demanding to be coddled. . . See this face- for in it one sees heaven kiss earth- one sees a warrior following in the steps of her king Jesus- she is clothed in more glorious splendor than lilies and grass and birds.
See this face- feel the heart skip a beat and grieve at loss but in a deeper joy knowing that this face- this doll with wires and tubes- leaves an indelible mark of glory on any life she touches. For upon this face- the imprint of God dances, the love of God grips, the grace of God reminds us that Amelia’s best days, our best days, will be seated at the banqueting table where we are face to face with Jesus- God Himself- who warriored on earth to heal all things completely.
This is hope. This is courage. This is love.
As I was reading through the condolences on Facebook a couple days ago, one of them struck me as particularly appropriate: “Well done, good and faithful Amelia.” Well done, indeed. To God be the glory.
O LORD, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear?
Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save?
Why do you make me see iniquity, and why do you idly look at wrong?
Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise.
As we wrap our minds and hearts around this weekend’s tragedy in Orlando—the murderous rampage of an Islamic terrorist targeting the LGBT community—we’re shocked by the magnitude of callous hatred, devastated by the sweeping loss of life, and reminded yet again that this world is severely and sickeningly broken.
Moreover, we confess that at times like this we wonder where you are and why this happened. This is not how your world is supposed to work. Human life is precious to you—every soul made in your image. Our hearts break at the thought of cries for help going unanswered amid the attack. We mourn with the families and friends whose lives have been forever changed through such wanton violence. And we join their cry, “How long, O Lord?”
How long will violence go unanswered?
How long will fear and hatred rule our culture?
How long until you bring an end rebellion and sin on this earth?
We know that moments like this are not times for explanations, but first and foremost for grief and mourning. And so raise our voice in lament over this tragedy.
And yet we know that even when it doesn’t feel like it, you do hear our prayers. You do see the violence committed on earth. And you have promised to act. The day will come when you will bring the ungodly to justice and wipe every tear from our eyes. A day when mourning will cease and death will be no more. And we have confidence in that day because you have already acted to establish justice, conquer death, and offer mercy through the life, death, and resurrection of your eternal Son, Jesus Christ.
In Christ there is hope, and in that hope we pray:
WE PRAY for the victims and their families, those for whom this is not some distant news story, but a personally crushing blow. We ask that you hold them in their grief, and comfort them in their loss, anger, and devastation. Fill them with a comfort that can only come from your Son.
WE PRAY for justice for the perpetrators. Not only for the gunman, who now awaits your divine judgment, but for the culture of death that radical jihadist Islam has fueled in this world. Would you open blind eyes to the evil of this corrupt and corrupting system. For those who are attracted to the idea of worshiping god through murder and hate, would you convict them of sin and open their eyes to the truth, forgiveness, and new life of Christ.
WE PRAY for those in the LGBT community, upon whom a shroud of fear has now descended through this weekend’s tragedy. No person deserves to live in fear of their life being taken, especially because of something like sexual orientation. Would you remind each person that they are fearfully and wonderfully made, precious in your sight, and loved by their Creator. Would you work in our world to bring about changes that protect and honor the dignity of all human life, regardless of ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, developmental ability, or age. Would you help those in the LGBT community to look to you for strength and security, and not to what this world can offer. Guard their lives and guide their steps to a love and security that nothing in this world can take away—the love and security of new life in Christ.
WE PRAY that our churches would be places of safety and love for the LGBT community, and that our Christian witness would be one of hope and not hatred. May we not let our differences of conviction about sexuality and marriage allow us to tolerate hatred or withhold dignity and respect. May we stand united against hatred and terror, and work together for the protection and preservation of all human life, even as we continue to hold out the life-changing message of the gospel.
WE PRAY, finally, that our Lord Jesus Christ would come again. We long for the day when Christ himself will “will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4). Come Lord Jesus.
In Christ’s powerful name, Amen.
The Centrality of Scripture in the Life of the Church
A new series at Westgate Church.
If you’ve been around Westgate Church at all, it’s probably obvious that the Bible plays a central role in virtually everything we do. The value we want to ascribe to Scripture is reflective of New England’s early Puritan heritage, which J. I. Packer summarizes like this:
To the Puritan the Bible was in truth the most precious possession that this world affords. His deepest conviction was that reverence for God means reverence for Scripture, and serving God means obeying Scripture. To his mind, therefore, no greater insult could be offered to the Creator than to neglect his written word; and, conversely, there could be no truer act of homage to him than to prize it and pore over it, and then to live out and give out its teaching.
For this reason, our Sunday morning worship centers on the preaching of the Word. We usually work our way through whole books of the Bible during a series, and the goal of every sermon is to say what the biblical passage is saying—nothing more, nothing less. Even the songs we sing and the prayers we pray emphasize the same message as the passage being preached.
We also teach the Bible during our Sunday School classes. We discuss it during our Home Groups and men’s and women’s Bible studies. It’s the centerpiece of our discipleship relationships and any pastoral counsel we give. Even our by-laws emphasize the authority and centrality of the Bible for everything from what we believe to how we operate and what kind of people we hire. The Bible is central to the life of Westgate Church.
Why Prioritize the Scriptures?
If this is the case, it’s worthwhile every now and then to stop and ask, why? Why does it play such a central role in who we are and what we do? What should we believe about the Bible? What does it tell us about itself? Is it true? Is it still relevant today? How should it impact our lives, relationships, and ministries? And what’s at stake if we neglect it, replace it, or subject it to some other authority in our life and ministry?
The apostle Peter tells us that what we have in the Bible is “something more sure”—a witness to who God is and what he has done that is more reliable than even Peter’s own eye witness testimony of Jesus (2 Pet. 1:19). This is because “no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried alone by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet. 1:20-21).
Join us during the month of June as we explore together “something more sure”—the centrality of Scripture in the life of the church.
- June 5: An Inspired Word (2 Pet. 1:16-21)
- June 12: A Reliable Word (Psalm 19)
- June 19: An Authoritative Word (Acts 17:1-15)
- June 26: A Final Word (2 Tim. 3:10-4:5)
Learn more about Westgate Church.
- J.I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1990), 98.
It’s not uncommon for a pastor to realize how much he needs a sermon in the process of writing it (or at least it shouldn’t be). I finished writing this Easter sermon on Thursday of last week, and found out how deeply I needed it on Good Friday when we discovered our baby had died in the womb.
There is real hope in the resurrection of Jesus. It’s not necessarily the hope we’re looking for, but it is the hope we need. And there is something strangely healing in proclaiming that hope just days after such a crushing loss.
If you’re interested, you can listen to or download the sermon here (audio and notes).
Because Jesus is risen, everything will be made new.