The question is centuries old, but it continues to bubble beneath the surface of many of our political disagreements. The appropriate roles of church and state in public affairs is one of the most controversial topics in American life today. This tension is particularly intense around the issue of poverty, including its prevention and mitigation. The public’s definition of poverty itself has changed dramatically over time, making it even harder to reach consensus.
When considering poverty and its remedies, many Americans ascribe to one of three ideologies:
- The church should be solely responsible for relieving the physical and material suffering of the “deserving” poor.
- The church (or even religious institutions more broadly) has no role to play in large-scale poverty alleviation efforts.
- The problems faced as so large, governments, nonprofits, and churches must work together to address them holistically.
There is little doubt these kinds of conversations are playing out across the country as we speak. Americans in 14 states, including Texas, will vote on “Super Tuesday” – the day on which the greatest number of states vote in party primaries to determine which candidates will face off in November’s general election. Whether you’ll cast a ballot on Super Tuesday or are simply waiting to vote in November, chances are your convictions about poverty, the church, and the government will play a major role in your own political calculus. These voting decisions shouldn’t be made lightly, and we should beg the Holy Spirit to give us wisdom and guidance as we make them. However, we also have a responsibility to learn more about the world around us, learn from the perspectives of brothers and sisters in Christ that disagree with us, and take time to understand how churches, governments, and nonprofits can work together to address suffering and hardship in our communities to promote true flourishing.
REFORMED THEOLOGIANS ON CHURCH AND STATE
While some today take an “either/or'' position in the church/state debate, major Protestant figures like Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Jonathan Edwards believed the conversation required much greater nuance. They understood just governments were not enemies of the church but partners in the fight against suffering, oppression, and injustice. In fact, many worked with government authorities to develop partnerships to better meet the needs of society’s most vulnerable residents.
Luther, often described as the father of The Reformation, was not just affirming of state action when it came to poverty alleviation – he helped local governments shape their anti-poverty initiatives. The first major city Luther assisted in this way was the city of Leisnig. According to Carter Lindberg, author of Beyond Charity: Reformation Initiatives for the Poor, the 1523 order was revolutionary in a number of ways. The legislation gave to the city many responsibilities in the realm of social welfare, including the construction and maintenance and construction of public buildings like churches, schools, and hospitals as well as granaries that would store emergency reserves to be used during times of famine. The ordinance also allowed for direct cash disbursements to the poor directly from the town, another milestone in social welfare history. These cash payouts were given to individuals and families who had recently relocated to the town to help them settle in; to the jobless to help them obtain the training or employment they needed to become self-sufficient; and to orphans, the sick, the elderly, and others who were deemed worthy of public assistance. It even gave the government the ability to tax citizens to generate the revenue needed to fund these activities – a really unique characteristic for social programs at the time.
Inspired by Luther’s work, John Calvin, a French theologian, pastor, and leader in The Reformation, sought to institute similar reforms in his town of Geneva, Switzerland. When the township converted to Protestantism in 1536, the Catholic institutions in the town were removed as well as the foundations and charities they operated. To ensure that vulnerable people continued to receive the care they needed, Genevan officials established the General Hospital. Writer Glenn Sunshine notes that the hospital did not just treat the sick but handled nearly every kind of social welfare that the town provided. Geneva was considered a progressive leader at this time – the benefits it provided were significantly more generous than many of the surrounding cities. In History of the Christian Church From the 1st to the 19th Century, author Philip Schaff describes how prominent theologian John Knox praised the city for caring for the marginalized:
The material prosperity of the city was not neglected. Greater cleanliness was introduced...Calvin insisted upon the removal of filth from houses and the narrow and crooked streets...he induced the magistracy to superintend the markets, and to prevent the sale of unhealthy food...A hospital and poor-house were provided and well conducted. Efforts were made to give useful employment to every man who could work... He [Calvin] set a high and noble example of a model community.
Like Luther, Calvin was convinced the government had a role to play in poverty mitigation and prevention. While Calvin defended the right to private property, he also believed the government had the right to leverage it for the community’s well-being. Matthew Tuininga, an assistant professor at Calvin Theological Seminary, expands on Calvin’s commitment to the poor:
Commenting on Psalm 82, a psalm of prophetic judgment on unjust rulers, Calvin writes that ‘a just and well-regulated government will be distinguished for maintaining the rights of the poor and afflicted.’ The reason for this is that it is the poor and afflicted who tend to need the magistrate, not those who are rich and prosperous. Calvin suggests that if magistrates grasped this truth, ‘that they are appointed to be the guardians of the poor, and that a special part of this duty lies in resisting the wrongs which are done to them, and in repressing all unrighteous violence, perfect righteousness would become triumphant through the whole world’ (Comm. Ps 82:1-4).
Jonathan Edwards, a prominent American preacher during the First Great Awakening, believed that the government should intervene on behalf of the poor as well. In a 1732 sermon titled The Duty of Charity to the Poor, Explained and Enforced, he argued that municipalities should provide the essentials to those without estates of their own because “there should be something sure for them to depend on” and “voluntary charity in this corrupt world is an uncertain thing.” However, he seemed much more concerned about needs being met than who met them. He imagined a world where Christian charity abounded alongside just government programs, not a world in which one was sacrificed for the sake of the other.
Edwards took his views seriously. He rebuked those that felt public anti-poverty programs absolved them of their obligation to care for the poor, asserting that Christ called us to give as long as need existed. “If there are in fact persons who are so in want, as to stand in need of our charity,” he said, “then that law doth not free us from obligation to relieve them by our charity.” Even when the government did address the fundamental material needs of the poor, he wrote, “the rules of Christian charity” do not apply only to those “reduced to extremity.” Just like Luther and Calvin before him, Edwards believed in a social system in which the church and state worked together to care for those that needed assistance.
A REFLECTION FOR SUPER TUESDAY
Ultimately, the task of making wrong things right was not given to the church alone. God ordained the institution of government and has called it to work with the church to do justice and avenge those who have been wronged. Many of these wrongs are outside the purview of the church to fix. To correct unjust laws, compensate victims of historic and systemic oppression on a large scale, and address inequities in the justice, economic, and educational systems, Christians must work with and alongside lawmakers and government authorities. Today, parachurch ministries and nonprofits are also part of the conversation. Rather than reject these organizations wholesale, Christians should be willing to work with those that promote the dignity of the human beings and seek their welfare. Community partners should be selected carefully, but the right ones can provide unique insight, skill sets, and capital that augment the church’s mission to love both God and neighbor.
Maybe you don’t feel like politics are worth your time. “I just don’t find current events that interesting,” you may say. “Politics don’t really affect me or my daily life. My vote doesn’t matter anyway.” Though these beliefs are easy to internalize, we cannot let them turn our hearts toward political apathy. Some of us may be privileged enough to step out of the political fray without experiencing serious consequences, but society’s most vulnerable men, women, and children don’t have such a luxury. Their very survival often depends on systems that protect them and their families. We owe it to these neighbors to remain engaged. “In a very real sense, politics is one of the most important areas in which Christians demonstrate love to neighbor. In fact, how can Christians claim to care about others and not engage the arena that most profoundly shapes basic rights and freedoms?” writes David Closson. “Caring for the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick and lonely is important to Jesus and should be to His followers as well.” After praying for wisdom and discernment, we are to participate in the political process as ambassadors of Christ’s Kingdom and advocates for the hurting, the poor, and the marginalized.
CHURCH, STATE, OR BOTH?
Regardless of what happens on Super Tuesday—or in any other election—the mission of the church remains the same. Though Christians are called to participate in the political process and promote governments that affirm and defend the human dignity of all people, our God is at the head of the only government that will reign forever. The prophet Isaiah artfully shows us the differences between the kingdoms of man and the Kingdom of God in Isaiah 40:22-25 (NIV).
He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth,
and its people are like grasshoppers.
He stretches out the heavens like a canopy,
and spreads them out like a tent to live in.
He brings princes to naught
and reduces the rulers of this world to nothing.
No sooner are they planted,
no sooner are they sown,
no sooner do they take root in the ground,
than he blows on them and they wither,
and a whirlwind sweeps them away like chaff.
“To whom will you compare me?
Or who is my equal?” says the Holy One.
The flawed earthly governments we engage and interact with today will rise and fall, but there will be no end to the greatness of Christ’s just and righteous government (Isaiah 9:7). This same Savior leads the church today. Through churches, nonprofits, businesses, and governments, believers in the 21st Century are working on dozens of different issues and pushing back darkness in a thousand different ways. This reality alone should broaden our perspective and reframe the way we think about sharing responsibilities between entities today. God can use those who don’t follow Jesus to do “good” things that enhance human flourishing too (Philippians 1:18), and Christians should partner with them whenever possible and wise. Ultimately, however, the church—those for whom Jesus died and are now indwelled by the power of God Himself—must carry the holistic gospel forward for the good of all.
“Church or state?” asks Stephen Bauman, president and CEO of World Relief. “Both. But let's steer clear of a superficial understanding of poverty and a dualism that has paralyzed the church and crippled the Gospel for too long. The church's finest hour is at hand. Let's not squander it.”