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The Two Kingdoms: A Christian Perspective on Church and State in Singapore

October 2015 Feature Article

From the “culture wars” and heated debates over casinos, abortion, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) issues, to evangelistic efforts and charitable works, many wonder what the proper relationship between religion and state should be.

Aggressive secularists argue that Christians should not “impose” our religion on others in a multi-religious society like Singapore and “keep religion separate from politics”. Some Christians think that we should not be concerned about “politics”, but should focus on “preaching the Gospel”. Others think that we should be deeply concerned about laws like Section 377A of the Penal Code which criminalises sodomy.

How should Christians understand the relationship between Church and State?

It is well-known that Jesus did not come as a political Messiah to establish an earthly kingdom. As then-Minister for National Development S. Dhanabalan once said, “one of the reasons why Jesus Christ disillusioned the Jews of His time was… that He refused to become a political leader to help the Jews throw off the Roman yoke. And He was interested in changing individuals, not the society directly, but change society by changing individuals.”[1]

Nevertheless, we can learn much about the roles of Church and State in Jesus’ response when the Pharisees asked whether they ought to pay taxes to Caesar. Referring to the image of Caesar on a denarius, Jesus replied them, “render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22:21, KJV)

During the Protestant Reformation, German reformer Martin Luther saw in Jesus’ profound statement a distinction between Two Kingdoms which God has ordained: first, the Kingdom of God (the Church) which He rules through His Gospel and, second, the Kingdom of the World (the State) which He rules through His Law.

This became known as the Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms, the basis for much of our modern understanding of the Separation of Church and State.

The Doctrine emphasises that the Church should focus on preaching the Gospel for the salvation of all. As a result, it is not the role of the Church to govern matters of life and property, which are matters for the State.

On the other hand, the State should devote its full time to governing temporal matters, as servants sent by God “to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right” (1 Peter 2:14ff). Just as the Church should respect the political independence of the State, the State should also respect the autonomy of the Church in its religious affairs. For example, the State has no right to dictate how the Church should preach the Gospel, choose its clergy, or conduct itself in worship.

The Protestant emphasis on justification by faith led to a third principle – freedom of religion – which is now recognised as a fundamental human right. Since faith is the work of the Holy Spirit and “a free work, to which no man can or should be forced”, human authority should not try to coerce religious belief.

Because human authority is delegated by God, there are limits to human government. Hence, if any human authority commands things that are contrary to God’s Laws, we should “obey God rather than men”, as the apostles did when the Sanhedrin commanded them to stop preaching in Jesus’ name (Acts 5:29ff). In a modern context, Christians should exercise conscientious objection by refusing to participate in abortions or same-sex marriages, even when threatened with punishment.

The final principle is that of vocation (i.e. God’s calling). Implicit in Jesus’ teaching to “render unto Caesar” and “render unto God” is a call to discipleship; if the denarius belonged to Caesar because it bore his image, then we ought to render ourselves to God because we bear His image (cf. Genesis 1:27)! It is a call to love Him with all our heart, soul, mind and strength (Mark 12:29).

Thus, each of us is called to live out the Gospel in full wherever God has called us, whether as pastors, politicians, teachers, doctors, lawyers, or any other vocation. Given that disciples of Jesus Christ are ‘in’ but not ‘of’ the world (John 17:6-19), we cannot ignore political developments around us. Instead, a faithful preaching of the Gospel will always minister holistically to people at all levels of their being, i.e. heart, soul, mind and strength (emotionally, spiritually, intellectually and physically).

Taken holistically, the Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms has several important implications for the Church in Singapore.

Firstly, the Church and pastors should always focus on preaching the full counsel of the Gospel both in season and out of season, including on “controversial issues” such as the sanctity of human life from conception and the sanctity of marriage, and to equip believers for every good work (2 Timothy 3:17). We should never compromise our calling to speak the truth in love, however politically-incorrect certain parts of the Gospel may be for the season.

Secondly, while it is not the vocation of pastors to advocate for political causes, it falls to individual Christians to minister the Gospel at our workplaces, schools or in the public square where God has placed us. Furthermore, in a democratic society like Singapore, each individual Christian can and should exercise his or her rights to freedom of speech and religion to speak truth to power.

Thirdly, in the midst of an increasingly complicated world, we should remember that politics is not salvation. While a godless world has to rely on human politics to build its Tower of Babel – its own idea of utopia here on earth – we look to Christ our true salvation, whose kingdom “is not of this world” but “from another place” (John 18:36).

Ultimately, as citizens of Two Kingdoms and “aliens” in this world, we know that God’s kingdom is both here and not yet. Meanwhile, we are each called to remain faithful with all that God has entrusted to us as we look to the day that Jesus will return as King to manifest His kingdom in full.


Darius-Lee-202x300

Darius Lee is a lawyer in private practice and a member of the Global Young Reformers Network Steering Committee of the Lutheran World Federation. Darius holds religious freedom, marriage and the sanctity of human life in high regard, and has defended these important values and rights on various platforms. He has written about his journey of discipleship and passion for matters of justice and righteousness in his book, ‘Like a Fire in My Bones: A Journey of Discipleship’.

 


Notes:

[1] Maintenance of Religious Harmony Bill, Singapore Parliament Reports (23 February 1990) at col. 1170

Preserving religious peace in multi-religious Singapore

What is your assessment of the position of the Singapore Government concerning the relationship between religion and politics?

THE SINGAPORE GOVERNMENT’S position on the relationship between religion and politics is delineated in the Maintenance of Religious Harmony White Paper (MRHWP) published on Dec 26, 1989. This document is the precursor to the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act (MRHA) that came into effect on March 31, 1992.

The MRHWP was issued in the wake of the rise of religiosity in Singapore and worldwide in the 1980s. Locally, a number of incidents involving Hindus, Muslims and Christians necessitated the document. During that period, there were a number of complaints about the aggressive and insensitive evangelistic methods of some Christians.

One of the main catalysts for the MRHA is the arrest of the Roman Catholic Vincent Cheng and his associates for forming a political pressure group with the view of subverting the existing social and political system in Singapore (the so-called Marxist conspiracy).

The basic concern behind the MRHA is clearly articulated by Senior Minister S. Jayakumar in a recent interview with The Straits Times: “Increased religiosity itself is not a problem. I see no harm in religious groups being active and trying to get more followers to increase their numbers. But it is what they do and how they go about it in our multi-racial and multi-religious society that is extremely important.” (ST, July 25, 2009).

The introduction of the MRHA was deemed necessary for the preservation of peaceful relations between religious groups and the prevention of an undesirable alliance between religion and politics.

A thorough analysis of the model adopted by the MRHWP is obvious beyond the scope of this brief article. In what follows, I will discuss the broad issues that are raised in the document from a Christian perspective.

The MRHWP proposes the rigorous separation of religion and politics as a means to ensure the peaceful co-existence of the different faith communities in Singapore (para 13, 14). The document cautions religious leaders or members of religious groups against using religion to promote a particular political party or cause. It also prohibits politicians from using the church, mosque or temple to mobilise support for their political campaigns. The document further advises religious leaders to express their views cautiously.

Archbishops, muftis, abbots and pastors should not use their religious authority to mobilise opposition against the Government and its policies. Paragraph22 expresses the essence of the MRHWP when it states that “Members of religious groups may, of course, participate in the democratic political process as individual citizens. They may campaign for or against the Government or any political party. But they must not do so as leaders of their religious constituency.”

It is clear from this that the MRHWP’s understanding of the separation of religion and politics is qualified and nuanced. The document admits that the model of the relationship between religion and politics it proposes is “a matter of convention” (para 24), and that in reality no such separation is possible: “It is neither possible nor desirable to compartmentalise completely the minds of voters into secular and religious halves, and ensure that only the secular mind influences his voting behaviour.” (para 24).

In his 2009 National Day Rally Speech, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong reiterated this point when he acknowledged that it is “natural” for religious people to approach a national issue from their religious perspective. The raison d’être for the “working rules” (para 27) presented in the MRHWP is the preservation of religious peace in multi-religious Singapore. The document offers what social philosophers would call an instrumental rationale for the separation of religion and politics.

The MRHWP does not contradict or nullify the Singapore Constitution that unequivocally states that “Every person has the right to profess and practise his religion and to propagate it.” This is affirmed recently by PM Lee. In a Straits Times article entitled, “Public debate must be secular, in public interest”, it was reported that PM Lee said that “religious groups are free to propagate their teachings on social and moral issues”. Furthermore, the Singapore Government acknowledges the important contributions that religions have made to public life, and encourages them to continue to do so (para 6). The model adopted by the MRHWP also does not preclude the cooperation between religious communities and the state, and such collaborations have a long history in our society.

Finally, the Government has consistently welcomed the contributions of the different faith communities in public debate on issues that affect the larger society. The National Council of Churches of Singapore has issued statements, submitted papers and participated in numerous discussions with representatives from the Government and religious groups on several issues.
The model presented by the MRHWP is consistent with the doctrine of the separation of Church and State that acknowledges that God has given each institution its specific role to play in society. This understanding is based on Romans 13, which teaches that the State has divine sanction to punish evildoers, and maintain civic order in society. The Church, on the other hand, is called to be God’s prophetic witness in the world. A clear distinction between the two institutions is therefore underscored: the Church is not the government, and the pulpit is not parliament. This, however, does not imply that Christians are not responsible for the social and political life of the society to which they belong. But given the social and political realities, these responsibilities must be discharged in a particular way.

The MRHWP, in my view, provides a balanced and helpful guide to the relationship between religion and politics in a pluralistic democracy like Singapore. Thus, although clarifications on some points must indeed be sought and nuances explored, Christians in my view should have no difficulties endorsing the broad principles enshrined in it.


Dr Roland Chia


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. This article was first published in the Methodist Message.