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5 June 2023

What does it mean when Christians pray that our Father’s will “be done on earth as it is in heaven”? Any meaningful answer to this question must consider where the temporal rulers of this world factor into the equation.

Since tasting the favour of the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, the Church has always found the allure of the State enacting laws that align with Christian morality intoxicating, particularly when we are so assured of our moral rightness. While such a desire may appear pious and benevolent, history paints a far starker reality. When politics and religion (or the self-proclaimed lack of, a la atheism) mix, the resulting concoction is often bloody.

Bonhoeffer and the Mandates of Church and Government

The martyr of the World War II-era Dietrich Bonhoeffer knew this very well, living in a time when the German Evangelical Church (the state church of Nazi Germany) was fully co-opted into using the gospel to justify Nazi ideology. This was enabled by the Lutheran doctrine of “two kingdoms”, which describes how God works in the world through two realms—one spiritual and the other secular. Christians, being at once saints and sinners, live in both these kingdoms, yet these kingdoms function with different purposes, never interfering with the other. The “spiritual” cannot dictate secular laws, and the “secular” cannot regulate spiritual belief.

The weakness of such an absolute separation was exposed when the German Evangelical Church became both unwilling and unable to speak against the evils perpetuated by Nazi Germany. The actions of the State were too readily conceded as being part of God’s natural order, and therefore not for the Church to interfere with.

Without resorting to the other extreme of having either Church or State rule over the other, Bonhoeffer refined the “two kingdoms” doctrine by emphasizing the importance of divine commission. God has given several human institutions the mandate to function in the world as a means by which the world is preserved until the Last Day. In Ethics, a book that remains unfinished due to his unfortunate martyrdom, Bonhoeffer lists four such mandates: Work, Family, Government, and the Church. For clarity, “Government” is capitalized in this essay without the definite article to refer to the mandate, and not to any specific government in power.

For Bonhoeffer, none of these mandates stand in authority over the others (not even the Church!). Instead, reflecting the harmony of creation, they relate to each other as accountability partners, mutually holding each other accountable to function according to their divinely appointed task.

In other words, the Church, whose role is to proclaim Jesus Christ (1 Cor 1:23-24), should not interfere in politics. However, it can and should speak up when Government fails to operate according to its role, which is to restrain evil and maintain order through the sword (cf. Rom 13:1-7; 1 Pet 2:13-14).

Discerning the Present Time

This distinction between roles is important in our present context since we live in a post-Christendom world. The erosion of Christian values from the laws of the State are not inherently an attack on the Church, but more a reflection of the existing state of societal values as discerned by our elected representatives. Such a reflection is what should happen in a functioning democracy.

When Government removes a law that has been a flashpoint for fractures in society, while implementing measures to constructively engage with the issue, it fulfils its role. Government cannot be expected to proclaim Christ through the laws it makes—that is the function of the Church.

Have we been content, in years past, to let the legislation of the land proclaim the gospel on our behalf? Or worse, has our understanding of the gospel been shaped more by national policies than Scripture?

Perhaps this is how Government has held the Church accountable over our function in proclaiming Christ to the world. Each time the Singapore Parliament has mooted laws relating to controversial issues such as abortion, gambling, and most recently Section 377A of the Penal Code, the Church has found herself roused to wrestle with the issues behind such laws and faithfully proclaim what the gospel has to say in response. Yet proclamation does not equate to demanding and expecting that our voice holds more weight than the other voices in the public square.

This does not mean that the Church should wash our hands as Pilate did, nor does it mean we should endorse any steps that Government takes. The Church summons Government to fulfil its commission to restrain evil and preserve order, and laws which fail to do either of those things should be challenged, peaceably, as our Saviour has modelled for us. Jesus’ clash with the political leaders of his time culminated in his famous exchange with Pontius Pilate. This was a dialogue that was more “invitation” than “debate”—an invitation for secular power to bend the knee once more to the only source of Truth. 

Wesley and the Transformation from the Inside Out

It is thus fitting for the Church to advocate for Government to enact laws that reflect our morality, because we believe that the biblical standards of morality are what is best for society. Yet the Church cannot compel Government to do so by lobbying alone—since Government neutrally enacts laws that reflect the will of the people, the real engagement must be with the constituents. When the collective desire of the people is for a morality that reflects God, the laws of the land will also reflect that will.

This was also the perspective of John Wesley, the 18th century founder of the Methodist movement. Apart from slavery, Wesley never addressed the societal issues of his day via political engagement. Instead, he understood that real change would come when the hearts of the people are sanctified by the grace of Jesus. Turn the hearts of the people towards holiness, and they would “renounce the works of darkness” (cf. Wesley’s sermon “The Circumcision of the Heart”). The evidence speaks for itself as England experienced a revival of holiness that affected the social and political climate, creating the environment for the abolishment of slavery, among other things.

In that same vein the Church should, more than ever, proclaim the power of Jesus. We must provide a compelling vision of sexuality as God created it, in order to transform society from the inside out. Our role is not to compel Government towards undemocratic law-making (and the obvious should be stated, that lobbying government is something that any faction can do, oftentimes better than the Church). Our role is to seek the spread of Scriptural holiness in our land by the transforming encounter with the holy love of God.

Rev Benjamin Fong is a Methodist pastor currently appointed to Barker Road Methodist Church. He is married to Peace, also a Methodist pastor, and they have two children (who are Methodist but not pastors).