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Living Spiritually in an Arguing World

What if I strongly disagree with the views of someone else who professes to be a Christian?



  What Do Our Neighbors Believe?  

CHRISTIANITY Islam | Judaism
What is the view of the relationship between religion and politics?

by Kendra Hotz

Christian views of the relationship between church and state have evolved over time in response to dramatic changes in the political order. We can identify three such changes. The first occurred when the Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and the religion changed from being an illegal and persecuted sect to being the official religion of state. The second dramatic shift happened in the West when the collapse of the Roman Empire led to the loss of a strong, centralized government and the emergence of feudalism in its place. The third dramatic change came with the emergence of modern democratic states.

Under the Christianized Roman Empire, Christians tended to operate with a theocratic view of the relationship between church and state. Theocracy means that the law of the state is an expression of the law of God. Eastern Orthodox Christians, for instance, would have insisted that the Emperor was the vicar of God on earth, responsible for ordering society according to the divine will. Matters of the political order and matters of spiritual concern were often fused.

In medieval Europe, especially after the collapse of the Roman Empire there, the pope often took on strong political leadership. On Christmas day in the year 800, the pope crowned Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor. This act implied that political power flowed from the pope to political authorities. The move also inflamed the rivalry between East and West because there was already a Roman Emperor reigning in the East, and just as there can be only one God, Eastern Christians insisted, so there can only be one emperor, one vicar of God on earth.

By the time of the Protestant Reformations, independent nation states had begun to develop in Europe, and the possibility of a unified, theocratic empire had long faded. The emerging Protestant movements often depended upon the protection of heads of state who wished to establish power independent of the papacy. Luther’s reformation in Germany, for instance, depended heavily on the support of the German princes.

Luther developed a theory of the relationship between church and state that is often described as the “two kingdoms” model. His model drew heavily on a theory articulated centuries earlier by Augustine, who had argued that God had established “two cities,” an earthly city and a heavenly city. The earthly city is the realm of politics and civil concerns. The heavenly city is the true home of Christians who travel through the earthly city only as pilgrims.

The two cities would co-exist throughout history until at last God established an everlasting kingdom on earth that vanquished the earthly city. The question of how Christians should relate to the earthly city they travel through as pilgrims remained open to debate. Luther proposed that Christians may inhabit both realms simultaneously. God has provided the political order so that human sinfulness will not be given free reign. The civil order restrains our worst sinful impulses. Christians may participate in the state insofar as advancing its causes does not conflict with their Christian obligations.

Another group, known as the Radical Reformers, shared the two kingdoms model with Luther but disagreed with his view that Christians may legitimately participate in matters of state. According to the Radical Reformers, Christians are called out of the worldly kingdom and should not participate in its affairs. A citizen of the Kingdom of God must renounce citizenship in worldly kingdoms and the conflicting loyalties that go with it. Christians should not swear oaths, serve in the military, or hold political office. Christians should not serve as judges or magistrates or exercise any kind of political power. Christians may attempt to influence the state by serving as witnesses to Christ’s call to non-violence, but they may not become internally enmeshed in its structures and institutions.

John Calvin, a second generation Protestant Reformer, offered a different way of thinking about the relationship between church and state. Calvin argued that the state existed not simply to restrain evil, but also to promote social welfare and righteousness. Accordingly, governments ought to provide not only police and military forces, but also agencies that promote health, education, and the arts. He rejected the idea that there are two separate kingdoms and instead insisted that both the church and the state exist to serve God’s purposes.

In sixteenth century Geneva this model took on a theocratic form, but later Calvinists have advanced models of the state in which the state exists to serve the good without becoming an arm of the church. On the Calvinist model, political office is a vocation, a calling. As such, Christians who are called to serve in government posts may do so in order to pursue policies that restrain evil and promote righteousness.

Copyright ©2006 Kendra Hotz


Kendra G. Hotz serves as Adjunct Professor of Theology at Memphis Theological Seminary. She formerly taught at Calvin College. Hotz is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and coauthor (with Matthew T. Mathews) of Shaping the Christian Life: Worship and the Religious Affections (2006) and coauthor of Transforming Care: A Christian Vision of Nursing Practice (2005).

Excerpts from What Do Our Neighbors Believe?: Questions and Answers on Judaism, Christianity and Islam by Howard Greenstein, Kendra Hotz, and John Kaltner are used by permission from Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky. The book will be available for purchase in December 2006.


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