Church and State

Posted on September 5, 2011 at 11:25 am,

Continuing our series looking at Wayne Grudem’s Politics According to the Bible today we’re looking at some of the arguments he makes about the relationship between church and state. This is basically taking a few sections out of his chapter on the purpose of government in order to make the post on that chapter a bit shorter. It’s not me making an excuse to write a post on antidisestablishmentarianism.

We’ve already touched on this issue a couple of times in this series. In the post about what isn’t a Christian view of politics we established that the state should not compel a particular religion, nor should it seek to exclude religion from the political sphere. We also established that Christians should value freedom of religion. In the post on what is a Christian view of politics we looked at some of what that means in practice.

In this section, Grudem looks at three specific areas where these issues come into focus for a Christian. However, he does not directly deal with the issue of having an established church, like the Church of England is in England. Which is hardly surprising, given that he’s focused entirely on issues relevant to the USA.

What about the law of Moses?

This section is fairly brief look at whether Christians should, in our political engagement, seek to apply the 613 laws God gave to Moses in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Grudem deals with this by pointing out that these laws were given in a specific context (including that Israel was supposed to be a theocracy, an arrangement which we already ruled out). However, there are certainly some principles that can be drawn out of them. For example, observing the sabbath is an issue of conscience, but the principle of having a day of rest is exceedingly good for practical reasons.

What Government Can’t Do

Here, Grudem goes back to the foundations of Christianity. He points out that, for Christians, any society’s greatest need is to hear and respond to the gospel – the message of salvation through Jesus Christ. And then goes on to point out that this is clearly something that government pays no real part in. He goes on to say that, if we want to see a transformed society that better reflects a genuinely Christian view, then that requires people who have been inwardly transformed. A nation of genuine Christians living out their faith is the only way to to change the behaviour of a nation to genuinely reflect God’s morality.

However, Grudem then points out that government does have a role to play in moral convictions and behaviours of a nation. He says that the personal conduct of a nation’s leaders, and the laws that they pass set an example that the rest of the nation is more likely to follow. As one example of this, he suggests that the reason that British Christians have radically different views on the morality of gun ownership from Christians in the State of Arizona, where he lives, is because of the gun laws in their respective countries. He doesn’t bring up any examples where the general public has clearly ignored both examples, but they would only serve to show that government example isn’t the only factor.

Church and State

Finally, Grudem looks directly at the issue of the relationship between church and state. He begins by going back to the principle established in earlier chapters (from Matthew 22:21) that establishes that there are separate spheres of church and state.

The first clear implication is that the church (as an institution) should not have control of the actions of government, and Grudem cites an example of Jesus refusing to exercise a function of government in Luke 12:13-14.

The second is that the government should not interfere with the church. Firstly, it shouldn’t prevent anybody from exercising the freedom to choose their own religious beliefs. Secondly, it has no business interfering in the internal affairs of any given church. Here, Grudem cites various examples in New Testament of church leaders being chosen by the church with no interference from the state.

The third implication Grudem draws out is that government should support and encourage churches and bona-fide religious groups in general, although he doesn’t elaborate on what he measn by “bona-fide religious groups” (is he thinking of Scientology?) He justifies this in terms of the government’s responsibility to “promote the general welfare”, and cites as examples of this the tax-exempt status of religious organisations and support for chaplains in the military and prisons.

Finally, he acknowledges that we won’t always agree about what issues are in the sphere of the church and that of the state.

So what are the implications in Britain?

Because Grudem is writing in a very different context, and because he doesn’t say anything particularly controversial, I thought I’d look at how these principles apply to the issue of the established church here in the UK. Here in the UK, we have a church (the Church of England) that is closely linked with the state. So let’s look at what that entails, and how we should view the various aspects of the arrangement.

The Queen as the Head of the Church

Under the constitution, the Queen has two distinct roles – head of the state and head of the church. In both cases, however, she is pretty much a figurehead. The business of government is carried out by the Prime Minister, the Cabinet, Parliament, and the courts. And, although her Majesty theoretically has power of veto over any law, in practice her only influence is as potential advisor to the Prime Minister. The business of the Church of England is carried out by the bishops, the clergy, and the churches – with decisions also made by General Synod, and synods in the dioceses. The monarch has the purely theoretical power of veto over these decisions as well.

The most practical implications of the monarch’s dual status is the role the church plays in coronations and royal weddings. And there the links are entirely ceremonial, rather than something that would confuse the two spheres.

Bishops in the House of Lords

The House of Lords is part of the UK Parliament, and its members are not elected, although that’s not the issue we’re looking at today. Amongst its members are twenty six senior Bishops. The house is a revising chamber – it looks at legislation that has been passed by the elected House of Commons, and scrutinises it to improve the bits that are badly written. It can delay, but not veto, legislation that it feels it cannot pass.

The impact of having Bishops in the house is, in practice, incredibly small. The last time I checked, I couldn’t find any relatively recent piece of legislation where their votes were decisive in the passage of legislation. Most of the time, they are too busy being Bishops to attend the chamber. So their presence is something that is basically symbolic, and which appears to be there to balance out the other side of establishment. It violates the principle of separation of church and state in theory, but makes no practical difference.

Appointment of Bishops

The appointment process for Archbishops and Diocesan Bishops (but not Suffragan Bishops – who serve under a Diocesan Bishop) is that a commission from the church looks at possible candidates and picks two possible candidates. These names are forwarded to the Prime Minister, when then selects one of the names to recommend to the monarch, who then forwards the name back to a church body which formally elects the bishop. Whilst it is extremely rare for the PM to choose the commission’s second-choice candidate, it has been known to happen. Therefore, this process is a clear-cut case of government interfering in the internal affairs of the church, and not Biblical.

General Synod

General Synod is the body that makes Church of England policy. It consists of three houses – the house of Bishops, the house of Clergy, and the house of Laity, all of which are elected by local synods across the nation, and it meets annually. Before its decisions can be put into practice, they have to be debated and approved by Parliament (though Parliament can only veto, not amend). Again, this is a clear cut example of the two spheres not being properly separated.

Miscellaneous Issues

There are a couple of other issues that are affected by this link.

The first is that some local church decisions are restricted in a way that doesn’t affect other churches. For example, the division of the nation into parishes, each with its own distinct CofE Church is set by law. I don’t know what the process is to change the boundaries to merge two churches, or to let a new church plant have parish boundaries of its own. But I do know that it cannot be changed by decisions made within the church. Which is, again, the state interfering in the internal affairs of the church.

The second is the issue of worship in schools. Whilst this is not, strictly speaking, anything to do with establishment, it’s a related issue. The law requires that all state schools have a daily act of worship, which must be of a broadly Christian character. In practice, this law is widely flouted (particularly in secondary schools) – acts of worship either don’t happen, or are presented as something akin to a secularised thought for the day. However, the fact that the law does exist is a clear-cut case of government jumping into the realm of the church. Furthermore, because the vast majority of teachers do not have a genuine Christian faith, when the acts of worship do take place, they often have the effect of giving kids a wrong impression of Christianity. Seeing teachers who don’t believe in Christ leading a supposedly Christian act of worship teaches them that Christianity equals hypocrisy.

Conclusions

My conclusion is that the current established status of the Church of England gives government excessive power over the internal affairs of the church, whilst giving the church some fairly nominal power over government in return. This arrangement is not in tune with Biblical teaching on the issue, so I am in favour of disestablishment.

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