As I’ve been using in previous posts the terms church, state and politics, I think it prudent to define what I mean by them. Each of these terms is loaded with implications, thus their interpretations myriad. Unfortunately, most people these days receive their working definitions, and certainly their opinions, directly from the media, the entertainment industry, or even the not-so-subtle socially-engineered messages woven into public events like the fairly recent Super Bowl. So I realize I can’t assume when I use a word a certain way, I’m connecting with the reader. Besides all of that, I need to sharpen my own focus by defining to myself what exactly I mean!
Wow. I’m starting with the most difficult of the three to define. Broadly-speaking, when I use the term church, especially in reference to the state, I’m referring to those who subscribe to a traditional interpretation of Christianity. I generally don’t include Roman Catholicism in my definition. I feel there are major doctrinal and historical differences between the non-Roman and Roman positions. These differences are wide enough, in my opinion, that when I write I will distinctly point out if I am referring to Roman Catholicism as opposed to collectively lumping together Protestant, Free Church or Orthodox expressions of faith as the church.
Personally, I prefer a more biblical definition. In this sense the church is not an organization, a social movement or even an ethos, but a spiritual community comprised of believers in salvation through Jesus Christ. But if I’m using church in this sense, it will be either readily apparent or specified.
I use the term state to refer to the whole system of governance. Any type of government, regardless of its form or influence, is a physical expression of the abstract “state.” This includes everything from a monarchy, aristocracy and polity (or republic), to a dictatorship, oligarchy, and democracy (or mob rule). By the way, Aristotle in his Politics states these six, along with variations of them, are the only types of government. And the latter three are simply the negative inverses of the former three.
The state is a neutral term. That is, by itself it implies neither good nor bad governance. Context defines the form in which the state manifests itself, and its efficiency or lack thereof.
Political scientists make a sharp distinction between the state and the government. I acknowledge they are different terms and caution does need to be exercised when using them interchangeably.
My use of the term politics is typically in reference to the maneuverings and machinations that occur in relation to government, especially in relation to government policy. Politics can also refer to an individual or party’s particular views on governance. Politics is largely understood—for better or worse—through categories or labels, i.e. liberal, conservative, libertarian, left, right, republican, democrat, independent, Jeffersonian, Whig, Federalist, etc. (please pardon my largely “American” examples).
What is the Relation Between the Three?
I believe the Bible teaches that the church and the state are dichotomous: separate entities that exist in historical parallel. Religion and government, along with economic systems, are the three constants in human history. At times the relationship between the church and the state has been nearly symbiotic. In other eras in certain settings, the two have clearly stood in direct opposition to one another.
In some cases the church has bowed to the state and done its bidding to varying degrees. At other times the church has resisted the state’s infringement upon its domain—and suffered the consequences. And, on the rarest of occasions, the state has allowed the church the freedom to exercise itself in society as it desires. At any rate, the state does affect the church, and the church the state.
Jesus expressed both the dichotomy and the relationship simply yet with timeless profundity when He said, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21).
The ongoing debate is determining what exactly does belong to Caesar verses what belongs to God. And after an individual makes that determination (for we all do in one way or another, even if it lacks a “spiritual” connotation), what then are the consequences of those decisions? This is what I explore when I write about issues pertaining to church and state.
Thus remains politics. Where does it come in? Everywhere! I can’t very well discuss issues of the state without it being political. So all this is what I mean when I encourage dialogue about religion and politics.