The issues relating to how the Church and for that matter Christians should relate to the governing authorities date back to the time of Jesus when he was obliged to comment on paying taxes to Caesar or not. His famous response to “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” remains relevant today.
The history of the Church records various degrees of Church and state relationships:
- State persecution of the Church in its first hundred years
- The Church enjoying favor from the time of Emperor Constantine
- The dominance of the Roman Church and subservience of Princes in Europe
- The Reformation and its emphasis of faith, personal transformation and the Luther-Calvin’s “protestant ethics” which gave rise to capitalism
- The pivotal role of the Christian Pilgrims in the founding of the “New World” of North America
- The impact of the “Enlightenment” and the diminishing role of the Church in state affairs leading to the doctrine of separation of state and religion in the West
- The phenomenal growth of the Church in Latin America, Africa and some Asian countries with many secular leaders publicly professing faith
- The widening gap between creed and practice among Christians today
There are clear teachings and models on Church – State relationship in the Bible that should form the foundation in our exploration of positive relationships between the Church and the State for national progress.
In the light of the evolution of the relationship between the Church and the state over the centuries and between societies, we now look at fundamental teachings and practices to guide us from the Bible.
The Bible on Church-State Relationships
The following may be gleaned from Scripture regarding the relationship between the Church and the governing authorities to inform today’s actions.
The Old Testament Record
In the Old Testament we see 2 kinds of states in relation to GOD.
First the state of Israel, a nation founded by GOD to keep HIS principles and demonstrate HIS ideas to the world.
Second there were primarily ungodly states in which GOD,s people were living and influenced those nations for GOD.
In the state of Israel we see the effect of good and bad leaders on nations. When there were godly leaders the nation prospered and vice versa.
Leadership principles realized from the state of Israel include:
- The “King” was to make a copy of the law study it and live by it on ascension to the throne (Deuteronomy )
- The Old Testament clearly links the behaviour (sin or righteousness) of the rulers to the prosperity of the nation. The state of corruption and sin of the people which was almost always a reflection of that of the leaders also had consequences on the nation (Micah, Amos).
Examples of kings under whom Israel prospered are David, Solomon, Nehemiah, Moses.
Examples under whom Israel suffered were Rehoboam, Manasseh, Ahab
- The Bible thus gives credence to the fact that righteousness exalts a nation but sin is a reproach to every people (Proverb 14:34)
- However, often the faithfulness and righteousness of a minority or remnant turned the fortune of the nation.
- The moral law being binding on all, it was the responsibility of the prophets to guide, rebuke, exhort and encourage the King, sometimes at tremendous personal cost (eg. Jeremiah, Micaiah).
- The King or civil authorities therefore had separate but complementary role in the state. They worked together in an atmosphere of creative tension. One can think of:
- Samuel and Saul
- Nathan and David
- Elijah and Ahab
- Isaiah and Five Kings
In ungodly states GOD’S people influenced their nations so well that those nations prospered because of them.
- Joseph in Egypt
This confirms that individuals in touch with GOD can make a major difference in secular states
The New Testament Record
The New Testament’s focus on the gospel notwithstanding, we come across doctrine and practice applicable to church – state /rulers’ relationship:
- At the cost of his life John the Baptist had to tell Herod that it was wrong to take his brother’s wife
- Jesus and the apostles taught that the followers of Christ have civic responsibilities including paying of taxes
- Christians and the church are to be salt and light of the world (Matt 5:13-16) and to that end they are to be ‘transformed” by the renewal of their mind” and not to conform to the world’s standards (Rom 12:1-2)
- Even more direct, Paul enjoins Christians to expose wrong in society and that includes that of the governors
- Responsible Christian citizenship included “praying for those in authority” (Hebrew 13)
From whichever way we look at things, Christians are to engage politicians and to be actively involved in the affairs of the nation as a positive and not a negative force.
The Church and Development
In line with the above Biblical mandates, the church has played doctrinal and practical roles in bringing the world to where it is today. Modern economic systems trace their genesis to the changes in attitude, conduct and lifestyle of Christians as a result of the Reformation.
Max Weber was the first to note that what he calls the “protestant ethic” of hard work, frugality, savings and investment gave rise to “the spirit of capitalism” (Weber, 1905). In the same way the work of David Landes underscores the fact that modern economic development and technological advancement owe much to Christianity. Others have adopted the production system birthed by Christians without necessarily embracing the Christian faith.
The Meiji Empire in Japan demonstrates that with good leadership, vision, discipline and determination, other societies can succeed in adopting western Judeo-Christians’ inspired production methods successfully without becoming Christian.
The African Dilemma
The African dilemma arises from the fact that the African lives in a religious milieu. Thus the belief system of the African greatly impacts their behaviour including responses to economic incentives. African traditional religion with its unscientific world view, belief in witchcrafts and sorcery etc. does not provide the basis for the desired economic and social transformation desired.
Today Islam and Christianity claim as adherents the majority of citizens of most countries. In countries where Christianity is a major religion or has a critical mass of followers (over 15% of the population), the authenticity of their profession and relationship between the Church and State becomes a major variable in national development.
Many Africans including probably the majority of professing Christians however, are strongly influenced by traditional beliefs and therefore are not thorough in their faith. The Challenge to effective Church-State relationship is for more genuine and single minded Christians who by their transformed minds and actions bring much needed positive influence from their faith in dealing with the state.
The good news is that as in Isaiah’s day, there are the ‘7000’(Faithful minority) ‘who have not bowed down their knees to Baal’.
The Doctrine of Separation of Church and State
The Church in obedience to CHRIST cannot separate itself from involvement in affairs of the state. Depending on the particular state this may be in antagonism to the state machinery or in support of correct decisions that augur well for the good of the people of the nation. No matter which way you look at it, the church must represent Christ in the state. A formal recognition of the church by the state is not important for the church to fulfill its mandate. It is however important for the church to use its influence whether formally or informally wherever possible to fulfill the mandate of Christ. This could be at the formal organizational level, at various group levels or at an individual level.
The important thing here is not to compromise Christian principles in the course of this. This may lead to persecution and suffering both at an individual and/or group level but this cannot be compromised. The specific structure in which this takes place would vary from place to place, country to country, situation to situation etc. The proactive role of the church in positively influencing the state should go on whether the ruling authorities are accommodating or not.
The doctrine that the church and state have different spheres of operation, namely spiritual and secular is unbiblical since it takes away from the instruction to be light and salt of the earth. The state is ruled by laws which affect both Christians and Non-christians. It is therefore important for people who believe in the moral law of GOD to ensure that good laws are made and implemented. The church cannot whether at an individual or organizational level divulge itself of the responsibility of active participation in the affairs of the state.
The challenge therefore is how the church can build a relationship that would achieve the purpose of Christ in the state.
The Church and National Development
The Church ideally has three pivotal roles to play when it comes to national development
- At the individual transformational level the Church preaches the gospel of salvation through faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ; transformation comes through a combination of genuine conversion, discipleship and church discipline which insists on Christ-like conduct. At that level the Church is the divine agent in bringing people to new life, inculcating in them Christian ethics and morals and behaviors that impact society for good. It is important for the Church not to downplay the part of the gospel in transforming lives, the role of discipleship in “building up the saints” and alas, the need to use church discipline including even excommunication (expulsion) of those who do not “walk their talk” irrespective of their position in society.
- The institutional level: The church is a major institution in most countries commanding over 60% of the population in a country like Ghana. Thus the church can and must use its members and its organizational ability as other groups (political parties, professional associates etc) but positively to influence the culture of the country and the governance regime. To that end the Roman Catholic Church has often made a difference even in countries under oppressive regimes. Unlike other groups the church has a mandate to be “salt and light” of the world. While there may be problems with one political group or the other the church must be the authentic voice on issues of justice, equity, corruption etc.
- The development programme level: Finally, the church has always been an agent of development at the practical level of undertaking socio-economic programs and projects whereby the church participates in the provision of educational, health, agricultural and even infrastructural services. Increasingly some churches have gone into micro-finance, business support services, insurance, etc. Caution must however be sounded that often when the clergy directly gets involved in such business the preaching of the gospel may suffer. This is a case where it seems better to “equip the saints for the work of ministry” (Ephesians 4:11-13) in the sense of catalyzing such activities through groups and members of the church.
Whichever level one looks at, the church and the state can have a mutually beneficial relationship. We must be careful however that the church is not used as a platform to promote particular interests of an individual or group. Neither must the church use the pulpit to hit at particular individuals or groups. The promotion of Biblical principles and the glorification of CHRIST must be the main goal of the church.
Appreciating the Calling of the State and the Church
There is the need for the church and the state to be at arm’s length but mutually beneficial relationship to foster national development whereby:
- The church seeks to understand the complexities of managing a modern economy and the trade often involved in modern democracies.
- The fact that often even genuine Christians in authority are not faced always with right and wrong choices in policy but sometimes face the reality of choosing the lesser of two evils. ( This though is not applicable to personal morality)
- The need for encouragement and prayerful support of the rulers.
- The church should not seek personal benefit in relating with the state that may compromise its position as light and salt of the earth.
At the same time the church needs to realize that it has a prophetic ministry and it cannot compromise the position of the church by seeking personal benefit, and not speaking against abuse of office, corruption and misrule. The state on its part has to recognize, respect and accept that role of the church. Sad to say, sometimes some of the very leadership and some members of the church do not set good examples in these areas. The church must wake up to that and ensure church discipline is applied where necessary in such cases. Discipline must extend to all members including government functionaries most of whom attend church services regularly.
Church and State Relationship in Ghana
The Church and State Relationship in Ghana, over 50 years since independence has seen different phases:
The immediate after independence era witnessed positive church–state relationships but that ended badly with the government even arresting and attempting to incarcerate some church leaders during the First Republic. From then until the early 1980s often the church played a passive role with most of the political leaders contented to be members of a denomination though some politicians such as William Ofori Atta were also Christian leaders.
The “Revolutionary days” of the early 1980s marked a high degree of tension in church-state relationships leading even to the banning of all Christian programs on state media.
The Fourth Republican era seems to have brought an age of state-church accommodation or tolerance but without any active formal engagement except on occasions of serious national crisis as the near electoral impasse in December 2008 generated.
On the whole, there seems to be little engagement of the Christian church as a group with the government today. That may be due to the fact that the Christians are split between the major political parties though for the body of Christ that is a lame excuse for the church to abandon its prophetic and other ministries in the land. That said, individual preachers and church functionaries have voiced strong criticisms against the government on issues such as corruption, violence amongst activists and economic hardship in the country sometimes without full analysis of the context, or engagement of the political leaders.
One must add that it is not in the interest of the political elite to appear to be more concerned with their party functionaries and activist and not create a forum or avenue for constructive engagement with the Christian bodies. Besides the fact that it is good leadership to engage the church in a country where over 60% of the population profess to be Christians, such a benign neglect could be politically suicidal if the former decide to be politically proactive.
On the positive side, the churches being among the most organized and resourced groups in the country and already highly involved in the provision of education from primary schools to universities (soon there could be as many students in church established universities as state ones), health services with some churches on their way to establishing medical schools, agricultural extensions, provision of bore holes etc., they constitute a major development partner for government. Ironically the same politicians who may not have time to engage the church spend inordinate time with foreigners who make marginal to no contribution to the country with some having privileged access to even the presidency. There is therefore room for better church-state partnership in development.
Beyond the provision of projects and programs the major area of engagement and often the main source of controversy today are:
- The direction of state policy
- Treatment of certain segments of the population or discrimination on the basis of political affiliation, and
- Conduct of public office holders with particular reference to personal integrity and corruption
The church – assuming it has the capacity and commitment to study these and engage constructively – has a legitimate duty to speak on these matters. We think that the government should also like to explain the fundamental direction of state policy and not be seen to support partisanship in statecraft which could have serious consequences for national cohesion and development. For example, no one will want a situation in a country where most non-political office bearers are removed on a change of government to the extent that even a person who drives a public municipal transport must be a card bearer or activist of the party in power.
Again when it comes to issues of personal integrity and corruption it is important for the church and the state to engage to separate perception from realities. The level of corruption in the country is at a level where all well meaning nationals and well wishers have to be mobilized to combat it.
Three Suggestions for Constructive Engagement with the State
For constructive church – state engagement the following three things would be helpful.
- First the church needs to have a united front on issues that pertain to Christian principles and nation building without compromising the right of individuals to their differing opinions on various topics. This implies an attempt to look at issues of National interest from a Christian and Knowledge based point of view as a united body.
- Second the church leadership must be well informed and properly oriented. For this to be possible, it is crucial for the churches (at least at their headquarters level) to create think tank capacity on national development issues. That is not a call for the establishment of a big bureaucracy but rather having a mechanism to draw on the expertise of its members – economists, bankers, engineers, farmers, doctors, etc. on ad hoc basis or as standing committees to analyze issues as they arise, write position papers on budgets, educational and health policy or whichever issue the church leadership want to engage the state on.
To that end it is advisable to introduce leadership, management and economic development studies as part of the training of pastors. The practice elsewhere, in some nations, whereby theological education is preceded by broader education to the degree level has been a factor in better state– church engagement in those nations.
- Third, the government must be convinced that it is good for the nation and politics to constructively engage the church. While conflict among two small ethnic groups or agitation of same fanatical religious group receives immediate attention, and rightly so, it is equally important to mobilize a group which historically has contributed so significantly in sectors such as education and health and which still remains a powerful force for change and progress.
- Fourth, there is room to establish a regular forum for such engagement instead of the present practice when meetings between political leaders and church leaders take place only in times of national emergency.
The Role of AFREG Participants
In 2006 and 2009 a few Ghanaians attended at Abuja(Nigeria) and Limuru (Kenya) a forum dubbed African Forum on Religion and Government (AFREG). The purpose of AFREG I & II included equipping leaders for effective management of African countries as well as equipping and encouraging Christians called into politics to accept that as a ministry and foster better church-state partnership for development. In addition it aimed to call the Christian church to its GOD given role of helping build new leaders of integrity for a new Africa through example and transformation of its members.
At AFREG II the Ghanaian participants agreed that on return to Ghana they should approach our leaders, both spiritual and secular/political (Church Leaders and Government) to share our burden for improved church–state relationship and to catalyze a national platform for a sustainable engagement for the good of the country.
For example, on the part of the church we see a need to put in place strategies that will ensure that the creed and practice of Christians are in sync in the market place of business, commerce, public service, government etc:. It is the duty of the Church to ensure that its members live ethical and moral lives from Monday to Sunday.
It is our belief that the church and the state, especially the presidency share a common desire to fight corruption, promote good work ethic, discourage excessive conviviality and promote a paradigm shift in attitudes that will promote accelerated development of Ghana. Thus we the participants of AFREG see ourselves as God’s instruments to facilitate better and constructive Church-State relationship.
To that end we propose a conference on church-state relationship during which experts would be invited to speak on various aspects of nation building and thus encourage both to play their meaningful positive roles in the nation.
The members of the committee meeting together to help achieve the above aims include pastors from various Christian churches, Christian professionals, academicians, teachers, leaders from various non-denominational Christian groups and others.