Government, Church: Who’s in Charge?
It’s the dinner party conversation that is every hosts worst nightmare, but maybe it’s time we talk about it like adults. Tim Hoffman explores the unique roles of church and government.
People tend to get shifty-eyed when religion and politics are brought into the same conversation, right? But most of us can agree that despite not having the cleanest track record, the church and government both still play important roles in combating poverty and injustice. And God uses both!
In Matthew 22:21, Jesus responds to the Pharisees’ attempt to trap him into denouncing the government by saying, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” His answer shows a respect for the system of government but it also makes the listener ponder, “What belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God?”
Even here, Jesus isn’t giving us a simple yes or no answer.
Tony Campolo has said, “There is no question in my mind that God is bigger than the church and that the church will be used in God’s endeavors, but not only the church. In God’s work in the world, all principalities, all powers, all dominions, and all thrones will be used (Ephesians 1:19–23).” Governments and nations will be held accountable before God for how they cared for his Kingdom, just as we will as individual Christ-followers.
But the designation of specific roles for church and government is much more complex. To what should we hold the government accountable and what is our responsibility as Christ-followers within the church? Especially when it comes to caring for society’s most vulnerable?
According to Martin Luther, the civil government’s role is to keep outward peace in society. An expression of this is to look after its citizens’ physical and social needs. Government can create and implement policies, which can affect the lives of millions of people. Community service can come in the form of tax breaks for low- or no-income earners, subsidized meals for children, and aid to areas affected by storms, floods, disease, and other disasters.
All of this is much needed and as Christ-followers we should play an active part in engaging with the efforts of government to strengthen our city and our country. We should be model citizens by paying our taxes and exercising our right to vote and being part of nation building. And when we speak about our country, we should do so with the hope that Christ has for our country.
But as the church we also have a very unique role to play in social transformation. As Christ-followers, we’ve had our hearts transformed by the Good News.
Once we realise what Christ sacrificed for us on the cross, we suddenly become far more willing to risk life and limb to help others. I believe that this is why the church’s response has penetrated society at a much deeper level. Because the motivation behind it – when it has been pure – hasn’t been to glorify man, it’s been to glorify God.
God has given the church the mandate to care for the widow, the fatherless, the immigrant and the poor (Zechariah 7:10–11). So where does this position us as Christians? Perfectly. We as individuals are the church scattered. What are we doing to love others, in our own capacity – with our time, talents, and treasures? What are we doing as advocates for change?
I grew up as a pastor’s kid in a rural area. We lived in the parsonage next to the church building. I remember many times when there was a knock on our door by a stranger who was looking for help. Food, money, clothes, shelter. Every time they walked away either with something in their hands or details about a place nearby that could help. People came to our house because they knew they could get prompt help and without judgment.
The church can impact society on a far more personal level by loving and caring for those in need, and by providing a community where transformation and reconciliation can take place from the inside out.
We need to hold government accountable for meeting the needs of its citizens but we shouldn’t rely on it to do the unique work of the church.
Some of us may feel called to open our homes to foreigners. Some of us may feel called to take a vested interest in the lives of the people around us – our domestic workers and gardeners – and pay them at higher rates than normally accepted to help them to break out of the poverty cycle. Others may feel God drawing them to volunteer at schools or with NGOs. And others may feel the nudge to engage government by writing letters to legislature, to sign petitions, peacefully protest.
But no matter what we do to love others, we do it out of a response to God’s love – and this is where our response differs from the efforts of government and the world.
We respond in love and get involved in bringing hope and transformation – not out of a sense of guilt or obligation – but because we have been mandated by our Father to care for all that he has created and given us.
A thought to ponder:
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead
- Tim is the Mobilise and Equip Programme Manager at Common Good. Him and his wife Natasha are members of the Common Ground South Peninsula congregation.
How do you think the role of the church and the role of government should differ?
How do you think we as Christ-followers can keep the government accountable to fulfilling their role?
And how can we fulfill our role in our daily lives?