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Pulse
6 November 2023

According to an article published in 2022 in Politico, most Republicans support the declaration of the United States as a Christian nation. ‘Christian nationalism,’ write Stella Rouse and Shibley Telhami, ‘a belief that the United States was founded as a white, Christian nation and that there is no separation between church and state, is gaining steam on the right.’

According to the authors, in the run up to the 2022 midterm elections, Doug Mastriano, the Republican nominee for governor in Pennsylvania declared that American is a Christian nation, and insisted that the separation of church and state is a ‘myth’.

The authors also reported that the Georgian hard-liner, Republican Marjorie Taylor Greene, had echoed this conviction: ‘We need to be a party of nationalism and I’m a Christian, and I say it proudly, we should be Christian Nationalists.’

The article also alluded that Florida Governor Ron DeSantis – who has thrown his hat into the ring in the current U.S. presidential race – ‘seems to be flirting with Christian nationalist rhetoric, as well.’

In Singapore, the separation between politics and religion is clearly articulated in the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act (MRHA), which was recently revised and updated. In 2013, I commented on how Christians should view the MRHA in an article published in Church & Society (https://ethosinstitute.sg/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/Religion-and-Politics-in-Singapore_A-Christian-Perspective.pdf).

The separation of church and state does not imply that religion has no place in the public square. Neither does it suggest Christians or Christian organisations (such as the National Council of Churches of Singapore) should not be involved in the conversations about issues that affect society.

However, Christian public engagement must be done with full recognition of the fact that Christians inhabit a society that is paradoxically at once religiously plural and also secular.

In the case of Singapore, about 80 percent of the population are adherents of or are affiliated to a religion. According to the Singapore Census 2020, 20 percent of Singaporeans had no religious affiliation. The State has taken a secular approach (procedural secularism) in an effort to be fair to all Singaporeans, both the religious and the non-religious.

What is the best way to understand the relationship between the church and the state in this period between the two advents of Christ?

In recent years, theologians such as Jonathan Leeman and David VanDrunen have given considerable focus in their writings to the Noahic covenant. They believe that this covenant, which God established after the Deluge and which is still in force today, will enable Christians to best envision what the relationship between the church and the state looks like – especially the role of the government.

The postdiluvian Noahic covenant, which theologian O. Palmer Robertson describes as the ‘covenant of preservation’, has to do with God’s promise to sustain the world by imposing a minimal social order.

As Robertson explains, ‘the covenant with Noah binds together God’s purposes in creation with his purposes in redemption. Noah, his seed, and all creation benefit from this gracious relationship.’ But, more crucially, the Noahic covenant ‘provides the foundation for the world-wide proclamation of the gospel.’

We shall briefly explore the meaning of the Noahic covenant and its significance and relevance to how Christians should think about church-state relationship and the role of the government.

THE NOAHIC COVENANT

Genesis 7 describes the great flood which God sent as a punishment for the inhabitants of the earth for their sin and wickedness.

The flood was so widespread that it destroyed all living things: ‘[God] blotted out every living thing that was upon the face of the ground, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the air; they were blotted out from the earth’ (Genesis 7:23a). Only Noah and his household, together with the animals that gathered in the ark were spared (7:23b).

After the water had receded, Noah built an altar and offered burnt offerings, whereupon Yahweh promised that he would never again ‘strike down every living creature’ as he has done in the flood. Instead, he would bless the world, now cleansed of wickedness, with his providential care and protection (Genesis 8:21b-22).

Genesis 9:8-17 describes the Noahic covenant. It has several important features.

Firstly, it is an unconditional covenant. Secondly, it is a universal covenant in that it was not just made to Noah and his descendants but to ‘every living creature’ and to the earth in general (Genesis 9:8-10). And thirdly, it was sealed with a visible sign – the rainbow.

The postdiluvian Noahic covenant is a covenant of common grace where God re-establishes a stable world environment and natural order for his creatures. By this covenant, God creates the conditions in which all fallen human beings live under the divine providential care and protection without discrimination.

In other words, as a covenant of common grace, the Noahic covenant provides the conditions which allows human history to continue to unfold. As such, this covenant is not directly related to human salvation or the eschatological kingdom of God.

The Old Testament scholar, Bruce Waltke, describes God’s providence and protection in the covenant of common grace in this way:

His unconditional covenant takes into account the universal and inevitable reality of human sinfulness. This earth will not be torn down until it is ultimately consumed by fire, whereupon it will be replaced by a new cosmos (2 Peter 3:10-13). God’s providential preservation of all life throughout the span of human life until the final eschaton is known as God’s ‘common grace’ – the Creator’s indiscriminate goodwill by which ‘he causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends the rain on the righteous and the unrighteous’ (Matt 5:45).

 

One of the provisions that God has put in place for the maintenance of social order is the state. As a realm in the political kingdom, the state, it must be emphasised, is not an institution of God’s special grace but of his common grace. The duty of the state is to deliver justice, protect citizens under its care, provide for societal wellbeing, and ensure the freedom of worship.

As a covenant of common grace, the postdiluvian Noahic covenant will endure until the Parousia, ensuring a stable environment for the human race. But it also provides the necessary conditions for God’s redemption plan to unfold, and for the Gospel to be preached throughout the world.

Andrew Walker explains the relationship between the Noahic covenant and God’s redemptive purpose thus:

The Noahic covenant provides the stage, as it were, on which the story of redemption unfolds. The world is a platform for the covenantal drama to unfold and for society to continue. Without the Noahic covenant, Christ would have no world to come into, which means that an incarnational anticipation is built into the preservative function of the Noahic covenant. The Noahic covenant, therefore, has only an indirect redemptive purpose.

 

THE ROLE OF GOVERNMENT

The Noahic covenant, which is still very much in force today, suggests that a distinction must be made between the church and the state. It corrects the vision of some Christians of a ‘Christian nation’ or a ‘Christian state’ which requires this distinction to be blurred or obliterated altogether.

The state, as we have seen, is an institution brought into being by God’s common grace. It has a specific, if temporal, role to play, which is to achieve the goals of the covenant of common grace. These goals, as mentioned above, are to maintain the sufficient conditions for human beings to flourish and for history to continue to unfold.

It must be clarified at this point that the Noahic covenant does not formally institute civil government, much less a particular kind of government. But it clearly authorises it.

To enable it to fulfil its purpose under the Noahic covenant to maintain the conditions which makes human flourishing possible, the state is given the responsibility to enforce justice. This justice is based on the principle of proportionate retribution that is premised on Genesis 9:6 (‘Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in his own image’).

Although the state has the right to enforce the law and punish perpetrators of crime, it is not given the task of criminalising wrong belief. The only exception is when that belief and practice cause harm to others. As Jonathan Leeman explains:

The God of the Bible gives governments authority to prosecute crimes against human beings, not the authority to prosecute crimes against himself. As long as people remain unharmed, false religion should be tolerated publicly and privately. This is the call to free exercise.

 

This clarification of the limits set to the role of the state under the postdiluvian Noahic covenant is important. It addresses the transgressions that have marred the history of the Church when it was wedded too closely to the state, such as the state’s execution of heretics at the behest of the church in medieval Europe and in Calvin’s Geneva.

To put this differently, the state must allow religious liberty, and must recognise it as a form of freedom that its citizens have the right to exercise. This right is enshrined in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, which states that:

Everyone has the right of freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

 

The state under the Noahic covenant is purposed to order society such that its members can participate in the common life, not a common religion. As VanDrunen puts it: ‘God established the Noahic covenant with the entire human race and gave no religious qualification for participation in its blessings and activities.’

As I mentioned above, the religious freedom that the Noahic covenant requires the state to allow Christians (and members of other faith communities) to participate in public conversations. It allows Christians to speak as Christians, bringing the richness of the Judeo-Christian tradition to bear on societal issues.

More significantly, it allows the Church to do her work of ‘declaring the praises of [God] who has called [her] out of darkness into his marvellous light’ (1 Peter 2:9). It allows Christians to fulfil the Great Commission, to ‘go and make disciples of all nations’ (Matthew 28:16-20).


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor at Trinity Theological College (Singapore) and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.