In our passage today, we find the State at war with Jesus and his followers. This has been a major theme throughout the Book of Revelation. The question of the Church’s attitude toward the State is an important matter for all of us to consider. The Church and State are separated here in the USA, but the issue is far from settled as to what this entails. For some, the separation of Church and State means the Church should stay completely out of politics. There is a negative attitude toward Christianity from left-leaning politics. For others, the role of the Church is to influence the State by voting in the “right” politicians (understood to be Republicans) so that we can pass laws and appoint Supreme Court Justices that support the Judeo-Christian moral code, all to the end of “Taking Back America for God.” History demonstrates a mixed attitude of Christianity and the State.
Roman authorities regarded Christianity as a branch of Judaism, which stood under legal protection. A distinction was soon made under Nero (AD 64); the mere fact of a Christian profession became cause for punishment and criminal charge. Trajan’s reply to Pliny (AD 111-113) presupposes that Christianity was already viewed as criminal (also Hadrian (AD 117-138) and Antoninus Pius (AD 138-161)). Marcus Aurelius (160-180) gave renewed force to the law against strange religions and increased persecution; this extended into the reign of Commodus (AD 180-192), but he became somewhat indifferent. Always illegal, and with extreme penalties, the Christian profession involved constant peril, yet the numbers of actual martyrs is relatively small until the 3rd and 4th Centuries, when persecution was intermittently intense and sever. Refusal to join in emperor-worship was viewed as treasonable. Christians were at the margins of society and charged with ridiculous crimes. Most of the governmental persecution of Christianity in this period was incited by mob attacks (Polycarp of Smyrna in AD 156), later by emperors. Christian involvement in the State was next to nil – early Christians did not serve in the State as officials or in the military. Legally, Christianity had no right to exist, but was tolerated by many.
Things changed decisively during the reign of Constantine. In AD 312, Constantine claims to have converted to Christianity. In AD 313, he issued the edict of Milan, which suspended the view that Christian was an illegal religion. Christianity later became the official religion of the Roman Empire, which is hard to believe from reading the Book of Revelation. The Church felt protected, blessed wars, and sanctioned Christians to serve in the military. From the time of Constantine on, the Church and the State tussled back and forth in Europe as to who was in charge, but there was no question that the Empire was Christian. This was challenged after the Reformation period in the 16th Century. With the 18th Century Enlightenment came the idea of the State as secular and separate from the Church. Some nations today do not separate Church and State (e.g., Great Britain and Germany), but in the USA, we strongly affirm the separation of Church and State.
If we look back at Jesus’ attitude toward the State, we see two interesting features. First, Jesus rejected the revolutionary option of Zealots, who wanted to topple Roman oppressors by military force. Second, Jesus said his kingdom was not of this world and was put to death as an enemy of the Roman State. The Apostles Paul and Peter call Christians to submit to the governing authorities and see them as God’s agent to punish wrongdoers. Paul and Peter, however, both defied state laws and both were jailed and killed by those same Roman authorities. The view of the State in the Book of Revelation is clear, unequivocal, and highly negative. The State demands what is God’s alone – worship and total allegiance. The State is acting by invisible satanic powers and is at war with God, the lamb, and his followers. The State is portrayed in Revelation as the enemy of the Church.
Last Sunday, Pastor Dave gave another excellent sermon on the Revelation Project. There he recommended that Christians hold lightly to their political allegiances, whether Republican or Democrat. That was good advice. But what, then, is the role of Christians to the State? I do not believe in the myth that America is a Christian nation. It is religiously pluralistic. It is hard to prove from history that America was ever a Christian nation. That being said, I believe that Christians serve the State by prophetically naming and unmasking the policies and actions that mitigate against the ethics of God’s Kingdom. I believe Christians should vote on things that are for the Common Good. I do not believe that Christians should serve in the military or worry about power politics. I believe the Church serves the State best when it is truly the Church and following in the way of Jesus. What say you?