Hubris and Humility

What started as a short article turned into something else…

Preface

I was approached a little while back and asked if I would like to try writing a short article for a local Christian website. Among the topics offered was the following: ‘Should the church be involved in politics – why and where do we draw the line?’ This was an interesting question as both a PolSci student and a Christian, so I took it up and began researching.

After having done my research, I set about writing it with great gusto. I gave the question as comprehensive a treatment as I could while being careful to provide explanations for why I thought the line should be drawn here or there in this or that particular case. And so, the essay was written.

Unfortunately it turned out to be about 8.2k words, which is a lot longer than the 500~1k words requested. At 2/3 the length of my thesis, it probably wouldn’t see the light of day due to its excessive length. Still, it seemed like a pity to just discard what I thought was a pretty decent academic essay, so I’ve decided to post it here. Perhaps some might find it of interest.

As you read it, do remember its context in that it was originally written for an expected audience of Christians, so at times it seems to assume the reader is a Christian. Aside from that, the essay may be briefly summarized (for those who understand the jargon and terminology) as adopting a cautious position against the transformationalist perspective/Liberation/Dominion theology and leaning in favour of a quieter and traditional Augustianian/Lutheran Two Kingdom’s direction. Finally, I claim no authority in essay – spiritual or otherwise. All opinions in the following essay are offered in humility and this is merely posted for the prayerful consideration, contemplation and reflection of others interested in such topics.

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Introduction

To attempt to tackle this question of whether the church should be involved in politics – and if so, the extent to which it should be – within a short single essay is clearly a challenge. Indeed, voluminous volumes of both ink and blood has been spilt over these issues since Augustine of Hippo first outlined his political theology in the fourth century. As such, the importance of this issue for Christian consideration cannot be overstated, particularly in the present society which Singaporean Christians live within. Naturally, the views put forth in this essay are solely that of the author. In addition, those who find their interest piqued may refer to the book referenced frequently in this essay – Church and Society: Singapore Context – which serves as a highly accessible primer to the literature surrounding this issue from a local perspective.[1]

To begin with, the modern secular State – as understood by most Singaporeans – is a relatively recent invention: Given the desirability of having one’s rule being perceived as divinely favoured or mandated, religion and politics were often inextricably intertwined for much of human history.[2] Changes brought about by secularization could thus be reasonably expected to result in some friction until a model for better relationships is developed between organized religious bodies and the modern State.[3]

It is unnecessary, however, to belabor this point given the presence of a more pressing problem: Words such as ‘church’,’ involve’ and ‘politics’ are ascribed a multitude of meanings. Known as polysemy within the field of linguistics, this problem may be briefly illustrated as such: The word ‘church’ may conjure images of an individual Christian as a member of their local Church, but it may also be used in reference to an unspecified local church in general. Finally, it may be understood by others as referring to the collective group of churches within a country regardless of the existence of a National Church. Similarly, ‘politics’ may mean ‘political life’ to one individual, ‘political activities’ to another, anything involving the State or government to a third and any combination of these meanings to a fourth. Careful definitions are thus necessary to provide the boundaries for understanding what is espoused within this essay.

The essay thus proceeds as follows: Beginning with an understanding of the ‘church’ as individual Christians, three understandings of ‘involvement in politics’ are considered: Whether Christians should participate in political activities such as social activism, whether Christians should participate in political activities such as voting, and whether Christians should run for public office. The second section in turn uses the word ‘church’ in broad reference to local churches and considers three understandings of ‘involvement in politics’: Whether pressure tactics should be used to influence government deliberations on policy legislation, whether churches should recommend candidates for their congregants to vote for, and the possibility of achieving a ‘Christian State’ in Singapore. Finally, the third section outlines some suggestions for churches with regards to necessary participation in the political life of the city before the essay concludes.

Section I: The Individual Christian and Politics

Should Christians participate in political activities like social activism?

Although it may seem strange to consider social activism as being potentially political in nature, both the terms ‘social activism’ and ‘political activities’ are extremely broad. As a result, possible overlapping may occur whereby an individual volunteers for a social cause which is supported or championed by a political party or undertakes awareness-raising campaigns for a politically salient issue.

As Christians, the service to, and love of, one’s neighbour is sometimes more easily accomplished through cooperation with others. Quite wryly, Luther noted that ‘God does not need our good works, but our neighbour does.’[4] To the extent, then, that the conscience of an individual lays upon them a burden to serve others in a specific capacity, the Christian should first carefully consider the means to which they seek to achieve these ends. More often than not, there already exists a plethora of social causes which attempt to address some aspects of existing social issues that provide ample opportunities for the individual to contribute. Should they feel compelled by God to undertake such activism for a particular social cause, their service of love to those in need should be fortified by joy in the Lord and humility of the Lord. With such a disposition, they need not suffer any qualms over possible political affiliations to their cause or anxiety over the inevitable difficulties that tend to arise through their service.

Should Christians participate in political activities such as voting?

Some types of activities are more explicitly political in nature and voting is no exception. As explained in Romans 13, Christians have a general duty to submit to the governing authorities who have been ordained by God. Although there may be exceptions to this rule which are later elaborated upon, the act of voting itself is not particularly problematic for the Christian who recognizes that it is a fulfillment of their civil duty as required by State Law in accordance with the submission mentioned earlier. Moreover, voting is but one of many ways by which Christians can seek the welfare and flourishing of their city through their participation in its shared political life: Through voting for the political party or leader which they believe would be best for governing the country, they increase the probability of these candidates being elected for the benefit of the country and those within it. On such matters, then, voting is of little trouble to the Christian conscience.

It is, however, important for the Christian to be diligent and thorough in their acquisition of knowledge regarding key political issues. Indeed, the multi-faceted nature of these issues lends itself to no clear directions for Christians to act on, but the following should serve as a useful principle in this regard: Through discerning the nature of issues which inform them and making a sincere effort to be informed, Christians can better arrive at an informed position for themselves and vote accordingly for the candidate which best represents their interests across a multitude of issues. The Christian can make reference to their moral compass on issues of morality, for example, while matters of policy should be based on a deep and balanced understanding of the policy along with the implications of alternative policies being proposed. Through doing so, Christians can avoid being confused as to where their stance is for the dizzying array of issues that voters are asked to consider during each election.

Should Christians run for public office?

There exists no Biblical injunction against Christians in public office; indeed, some who followed God in the Old Testament were themselves governors or kings. The late Dr. Tay Eng Soon – a Christian not unfamiliar with politics and public office – suggested one possible motivation for Christians to enter politics:[5]

So should Christians get into politics? Yes, they should and must do so as individuals. If they don’t the vacuum will be filled by others. And if the wrong types get in, Christians only have themselves to blame. But I’m not saying that they should enter politics in order to represent their church or to create a ‘Christian government’. They go into power which is temporal to run things, to make sure things are just, there is fair play and that miscarriages of justice are a minimum.[6]

This underlying logic of ‘if the right people do not have power, it is inevitable that the wrong people will gain power” is a common refrain even in secular discussions of politics as candidates seek to point out real or perceived faults in their rivals. In the context of faith-based discussions, however, it may lead to a certain sense of superiority which this author wishes to briefly address in a slight digression.

At present, this author believes that there exist a good many non-Christians in positions of power and responsibility within our society whom Christians trust to make the right decisions regardless of their faith. In matters of law, we trust non-Christian judges to make balanced and just judgments to the best of their ability and knowledge without making reference to their faith. Similarly, we trust police officers to discharge their duties of policing their duties with professionalism regardless of their faith or lack thereof. Even Dr. Tay Eng Soon was careful to note that Christians were not inherently superior on the basis of their faith for serving in politics:

Against this problem of distribution, responsibilities and obeying the law, you have human nature – selfish, deceitful, prone to envy; and I dare say Christians are not immune from this.[7]

Having addressed this possible point of contention, a quote from Luther is instrumental in elaboration of how these public offices can be used as means to the end of loving non-Christians:

…So the question is irrelevant in that context and must instead be asked in connection with the other group [the Unchristian]: can a Christian use be made of it with regard to them? This is [370:] where the second part [of what I have said] applies, the one that says that you owe the Sword your service and support, by whatever means are available to you, be it with your body, goods, honour or soul. For this is a work of which you yourself have no need, but your neighbour and the whole world most certainly do. And therefore if you see that there is a lack of hangmen, court officials, judges, lords or princes, and you find that you have the necessary skills, then you should offer your services and seek office, so that authority, which is so greatly needed, will never come to be held in contempt, become powerless, or perish. The world cannot get by without it.

How does this resolve the difficulty? In this way: all such actions would be devoted wholly to the service of others; they would benefit only your neighbour and not you or your possessions and honour. You would not be aiming at revenge [for yourself], at repaying evil with evil, but rather at the good of your neighbours, the preservation, protection, and peace of others…For you attend to yourself and what is yours in one way, and to your neighbour and what is his in another. As to you and yours, you keep to the Gospel and suffer injustice as a true Christian. But where the next man and what is his are concerned, you act in accordance with the [command to] love and you tolerate no injustice against him. And that is not prohibited by the Gospel; on the contrary the Gospel commands it elsewhere [cf Romans 13:4].[8]

The Christian, then, ought not to seek public office because they do not trust the judgment, morality or capabilities of their non-Christians counterparts. Neither should the Christian engage in politics for the sake of vainglorious pursuits; instead, they should first perceive if there is a need which they can competently meet and offer their services accordingly. Coupled with a firm and clear conviction that attaining such public office allows them to better serve their neighbours or constituents with humility, the Christian can run for public office with a pure conscience and discharge their duties – if successfully elected – with love instead of favouritism.

Section II: The Church and Politics

Churches, Pressure Tactics and Government Deliberations

Although the public expression of Christian support or opposition to the State’s actions or policies may seem attractive to churches, such a course of action is fraught with danger. Firstly, an unwanted precedence may be set by which other religious or societal groups undertake such actions for causes which the Christian community perceives to be antithetical to its beliefs. It would then be hypocritical for the Church to declaim such actions on the basis of secularism when it is no stranger to mobilizing its members as a show of force and in turn rendering any denouncements made devoid of moral authority. Neither would it be beneficial for the Church to project a hostile image of itself towards both the State and society through its hasty tendency to resort to public pressure as noted by Dr. Tay Eng Soon:

Having said that, I acknowledge that the church has views in the areas of morality, ethics and justice. The question is how the church should make these views known to the political leaders and yet not get embroiled in partisan politics. I think it should avoid public posturing or forming pressure groups. To do so is to participate in partisan politics and this invites counter-blows and is unproductive.[9]

Similarly, he noted the potential for inter-religious rivalries to develop if churches sought to capitalize on their political capital for the sake of furthering their own agendas:

While the church in Singapore is small and in the minority, these ideas [of creating a Christian State or Government] may not enter our heads; but if you are in the majority, the temptation is there. This is the same temptation that other religions have when their numbers become large. It usually spells trouble for people of other faiths.

We now look at the situation where Christians are a minority living in a multi-religious society. I think it is even more unwise for the church to get involved in politics in the sense I’ve described because it is bound to result in rivalry. Politicians are men of this world with a quest for power. It is not beyond their calculation that if they have a 50-50 change of losing when allied with one religious group, they will ally themselves with another larger group. Any religious group which gets into politics is inviting this response. It is better to keep our political parties separate from all religious organisations and vice versa.[10] [emphasis added]

This does not mean that churches have no means of expressing their valid views, but it does encourage churches to carefully consider the consequences of their choices before undertaking some of these options. Some suggestions as to how churches may go about expressing said views in a less problematic and confrontational manner are found in Section III.

Church Recommendation or Endorsement of Political Candidates

While the recommendation by Singapore churches of who their congregants should vote for is unheard of, the same is not as true in other states.[11] One possible justification that could be offered in support of such actions would be to appeal to the Church’s role as a spiritual ‘watchdog’ of sorts: By informing their congregants of the moral fiber – or failings – of each political candidate or party, churches may aid their congregants in making a more informed decision as to who would be a more ‘morally upright’ political candidate or party to vote for. As a result, their congregants may be better able to make a decision than if the church had decided to refrain from such discussions.

This, however, presents two dangerous problems. The first is the tendency for such recommendations to become biased – whether unconsciously or consciously – in favour of the priest, pastor or preacher’s political inclinations. The former may stem from simple prioritization of one’s time: It is much less work to do in-depth research into the political candidate or party which the individual endorsing prefers than for that same individual to provide an impartial assessment of all candidates or parties. As a result, the information presented to the congregation – along with the individual’s recommendations or endorsement – may be primarily limited to the individual’s research about their favoured candidate. The latter may be illustrated with reference to unwanted precedence: In speaking of whether it was right for princes to depose a tyrant, Luther opined that it would set a dangerous precedence if such an action was to be considered just:

…Moreover, such conduct has a bad result or sets a bad example. If it is called right to murder or drive out tyrants, the thing grows and it becomes a common sign of self-will to call men tyrants who are not tyrants, and even to kill them if the mob takes a notion to do so. This the Roman histories show us. They killed many a fine emperor only because they did not like him or he did not do what they wanted…[12]

In much the same way, allowing a leader of the church to point out the moral failings of a candidate or party may open the possibility of future unfair judgments based on the individual’s subjective likes and dislikes. As a result, these recommendations or endorsements made with the weight of the leader’s office – or even that of the church – may amount to an individual’s use (and possible abuse) of the spiritual authority vested in them to unduly sway the thoughts of their flock.

Therein lies, as well, the second problem: The likely conflation of the politics of morality with the politics of policy.  In other words, the character of an individual does not suddenly grant them competency in a technical field: A kind-hearted individual may desire to be a surgeon, but most would prefer not to be operated upon by that same individual if they had not undergone proper medical training. Similarly, a candidate who – whether accurately or inaccurately – is perceived to be morally upright may not formulate the best economic policies for the nation if they lacked even a basic grasp of economic theory. Unfortunately, there may arise a tendency for some to conflate an individual or party’s perceived moral character with their likely competency in unrelated fields by the following logic: “If this individual is morally good, it is unlikely that they would make a bad official if elected. Therefore, their competency matters less, or not at all, because they are morally good.” Subsequently, unqualified or underqualified individuals may be elected on the basis of their perceived morality as opposed to their perceived experience or acumen which they bring to the Government. Such an outcome is unlikely to be beneficial for either the ruler or the ruled.

This is not to say that morally repugnant individuals deserve to be elected based on their competency alone as every individual has undoubtedly a different way of weighing an individual’s morality and ability. Instead, this author wishes to caution against possible conflation of an individual (or party’s) perceived character and their competency: While the decisions of most private individuals are unlikely to impact their nation, the same cannot be said of elected officials who may head national ministries. As such, the poorly-considered actions of a few may have untold – and unfortunate – repercussions for the many.

Indeed, even in the unlikely scenario that some actions were taken by the State that were seen as inimical to the Church’s interests, churches rushing to rally their congregations around those they favour would do well to remember Luther’s warnings on hasty changing of governments:

…To change rulers and improve rulers are two things as far apart as heaven and earth; changing may be easy, improving is doubtful and risky. Why? Because it is not in our will or power but only in the will and hand of God. The mad mob, however, does not ask so much how things can become better, but only that things may be changed; then if things are worse, they will want something still different. Thus they get bumble-bees for flies, and at last they get hornets for bumble-bees…

Therefore, I advise everyone who would act in this matter with a good conscience and do what is right, that he be satisfied with the worldly rulers and make no attack upon them… If war or strife arise against your overlord, leave the fighting and striving to those who want it; for, as has been said, if God does not hold back the crowd, we cannot hold them; but if you would do what is right and have a secure conscience, let your harness and arms lie, and do not fight against your lord or tyrant; rather suffer everything that can happen to you. The crowd which does the fighting, will find its judge.[13]

To summarize, Christians may go to church for a variety of reasons: To worship God, hear His Word, encourage their brethren, serve others in love, or to have their souls ministered unto. It is this author’s opinion that the hearing of which candidates the priest, pastor or preacher supports is not, and should not be, one of the reasons for which they enter the Lord’s House. Care should thus be taken that the pulpit is used for the soul’s cultivation instead of becoming a platform for propaganda propagation or political persuasion.

On Achieving a ‘Christian State’ as the Ends

Among the many meanings this term may refer to, two are pertinent for our discussion: A State which consists primarily, if not only, of Christians, or a State ruled by Biblical laws and precepts. The former might more accurately be referred to as a ‘Christian Nation’ while the latter would likely seem desirable if the former was achieved. A more worrying train of Dominion thought might consider the latter as a prelude – or means – to the former, but the flaws of this will be discussed later.

Given the slightly different nature of the term’s twin definitions, it is necessary to tease out these nuances in the context of this essay’s topic. Individual evangelism and discipleship as a Christian fulfillment of the Great Commission is generally unproblematic and laudable for the Christian living out their faith, even as some intentions and approaches may be more genuine than others:

I have many friends who became Christians as adults. They didn’t become Christians because of techniques. It was the personal, loyal friendship, the willingness to be with that person in moments of grief or trouble without ulterior motives. Sometimes people do that because they want to ‘christianize’ the person. But evangelism is witnessing by the way one lives rather than with theological arguments.[14]

Whether churches can, or should, seek to achieve of the first definition of a ‘Christian State’ – that of a ‘Christian Nation’ – in Singapore is beyond this essay’s scope. Instead, it is more important to recognize potential difficulties that are likely arise when churches seek to be involved in politics for the sake of achieving the second definition – that of a nation ruled by Christian laws and precepts – if the ‘Christian Nation’ did not exist.

Luther perhaps put it best when he considered the problems of such an endeavour: Writing in On Secular Authority, he argued that the Christian does not need to fear either secular law or its associated punishments as their obedience to the law of the Gospel would ensure they broke no secular laws.[15] For this reason, some then proposed the abolishment of all needless secular laws and seek a rule based solely on Biblical laws and precepts. Luther’s rebuttal to this in turn points to the difficulties of Christian imposition of Biblical laws and precepts in societies where different faiths coexist:

…But before you rule the world in the Christian and Gospel manner, be sure to fill it with true Christians. And that you will never do, because the world and the many are unchristian and will remain so, whether they are made up of baptized and nominal Christians or not. But Christians, as the saying goes, are few and far between, and the world will not tolerate a Christian government ruling over one land or a great multitude, let alone over the whole world…[16]

Once more, the former definition of a ‘Christian State’ is seen as a minimum requirement if one sought the latter. Luther’s remarks – that of the problems differentiating devout adherents of the faith from nominal Christians – likewise raises the potential of intra-Christian disagreements over laws: Even if such a ‘Christian Nation’ were to be achieved, different levels of fervency between Christians may result in different understandings of which Biblical laws and precepts are acceptable as State legislation. The remarkable diversity of Christian denominations based on differing interpretations, emphasis and traditions suggests that such an outcome is not entirely impossible.

At this point, one may be tempted to veer into some strains of Dominionism and seek to use the State’s coercive power for conversion of its citizens. However, such a course of action would be an exercise in futility as Luther notes:

Each must decide at his own peril what he is to believe, and must see to it that he believes rightly. Other people cannot go to heaven or hell on my behalf, or open or close [the gates to either] for me. And just as little can they believe or not believe on my behalf, or force my faith or unbelief. How he believes is a matter for each individual’s conscience, and this does not diminish [the authority of] secular governments. They ought therefore to content themselves with attending to their own business, and allow people to believe what they can, and what they want, and they must use no coercion in this matter against anyone.

Faith is free, and no one can be compelled to believe. More precisely, so far from being something secular authority ought to create and enforce, faith is something that God works in the spirit. Hence that common saying which also occurs in Augustine: no one can or ought to be forced to believe anything against his will.

Those blind and wretched people do not realize what a pointless and impossible thing they are attempting. However strict their orders, and however much they rage, they cannot force people to do more than obey by word and [outward] deed; they cannot compel the heart, even if they were to tear themselves apart trying. There is truth in the saying: Thought is free. What is the effect of their trying to force people to believe in their hearts? All they achieve is to force people with weak consciences to lie, to perjure themselves, saying one thing while in their hearts they believe another.[17] [emphasis added]

Despite expanding much political and social capital, the “Christian State” which tries to forcefully convert non-Christians for the sake of their souls would likely accomplish precious little given that true faith cannot be forced. However, one might argue that these ham-fisted attempts are unlikely to materialize and that a lighter approach may still prove the benefits of a Christian State: By using State coercion against what are perceived to be heresies by virtue of them not being the ‘correct faith’, individuals are not compelled to believe the ‘correct faith’ but still guarded against counterfeit faiths. As a result, it is reasonable to expect a higher likelihood of them converting to the ‘correct faith’ in time as deceptive alternatives are marginalized or outlawed. Would this not present a compelling reason for churches to become involved in politics?

The words of Luther are once again illuminative in this regard as he argues that God’s Word, instead of the State’s coercive power, should be used to combat heresies:

But you will again object that secular authority does not compel belief; it merely, by use of outward means, prevents people from being led astray by false doctrine. How else could heretics be restrained? The answer is: it is for bishops to do that; that task has been assigned to them and not rulers. The use of force can never prevent heresy. Preventing it requires a different sort of skill; this is not a battle that can be fought with the sword. This is where God’s Word must fight. And if that does not win, then secular power can certainly not succeed either, even if it were to fill the world with blood

…What clever princes they are! They mean to drive out heresy, but cannot attack it except with something that gives it new vigour, bringing themselves under suspicion and justifying the heretics. My friend, if you want to drive out heresy, then you must first hit on a way of uprooting it from the heart, and breaking its hold on the will. And you will not do that by using force; you will merely strengthen it. What point is there in reinforcing heresy in hearts, even if you do weaken it outwardly by shutting up people’s mouths or forcing them to pretend?[18] [emphasis added]

In a similar manner, churches would be ill-advised to involve themselves in politics for the sake gaining access to the State’s coercive mechanisms and using it for explicit or implicit compulsion of belief. Lest one consider these outcomes as amusing fantasies alien to modern societies, Dr. Tay Eng Soon, writing in 1989, recognized the prevalence of this thinking in some sectors of American society and offered his opinion on the wisdom of such an approach:

Colson highlights some of the wrong thinking going on at present: to save America and bring it back to its original glory, the strategy according to wrong-minded Christians is to get as many Christians as possible into Senate and Congress; best of all is to get a Born Again Christian as President. These people will form a Christian government and make the country Christian. That is a very tempting but naïve thought. It is similar to the third temptation put to Jesus by the devil (Matthew 4:8-10). In the run-up to the last presidential election, various candidates put themselves up along those lines. One of them was Pat Robertson. I have met him and he is a fine man. He was persuaded by his followers to run. This kind of thinking is what Colson describes as triumphalism, the dominion spirit, the desire to impose your values and make a country a Christian country by political power. Jesus never asked his disciples to set up a Kingdom of God. Any Christian or church which believes that is on our agenda is in danger of blasphemy. I think the only person who can set up the Kingdom of God on earth is Jesus Christ when he comes back.[19]

Even if churches come to conclude that the benefits of political involvement outweigh any and all costs incurred, it would be prudent for them to prayerfully reflect on whether the ends they work towards are attainable and in accordance with the Lord’s will.

Section III: Suggested Limits for Church Participation in Politics

“Should then,” readers may ask, “the Church shun all political participation, and indeed, interaction with the State to the best of its ability?” This is hardly the case, as will be made apparent: The careful explanations of earlier sections were offered in hopes of curtailing the worst excesses that may result from church involvements in politics. In contrast, three suggestions for church interactions and involvement with different spheres of politics are provided in this section for the reader’s consideration.

Church Interactions with the Politics of State Authority

In recognition that all authority has been ordained by God, Romans 13 exhorts the Christian to obey and submit to the authorities above them.[20] Indeed, Choong Chee Pang provides an apt illustration from the Gospel of John:

In John 19, Pontius Pilate boasted of his authority, “Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?” The response of Jesus was interesting. “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above,” he said. Jesus wanted to remind Pontius Pilate that he was a man under authority and in this case the ultimate one, ie, the authority of God.[21]

This, however, might not constitute complete obedience to every authority as Choong Chee Pang briefly explores in his section. [22] In specific matters of spirituality where the State’s obligations or decrees were in clear contradiction with the Bible, it was suggested that Christians follow the courageous actions of the Apostles and obey God rather than man:

However, when the decrees or actions of the state clearly conflict with the revealed Word of God, the Christian response is clear. We must obey God rather than man. When Caesar claims divine honours, Christians must answer with an emphatic ‘No’. But as one scholar has rightly said, Christians will voice their ‘No’ to Caesar’s unauthorised demands more effectively if they have shown themselves readily to say ‘Yes’ to his legitimate claims.[23]

With particularly piercing insight, Augustine of Hippo explains how early Christians resolved such difficulties:

Consider, now, those who are above you… Let them enjoin nothing against anyone who is above themselves, and let them be obeyed… So, then, if the emperor commands one thing and God another, what do you think? Pay me tribute; submit yourself to me in obedience. Right. Not in the temple of an idol, though: He forbids it in the temple of an idol. Who forbids it? A greater power. Excuse me, then: you threaten prison, He threatens hell.

Julian was an unbelieving emperor: an apostate, a wicked man, an idolater. Christian soldiers served the unbelieving emperor. When they came to the cause of Christ, they acknowledge Him alone Who is in heaven. If at any time the emperor said to them, ‘Worship idols’, or ‘Offer incense’, they put God before him. But whenever he said to them, ‘Form a line of battle’, or ‘March against this people or that’, they obeyed at once. They distinguished their eternal Lord from their temporal lord; yet, for the sake of their eternal Lord, they were obedient to their temporal lord also.[24]

Dyson’s summary of Augustine’s thought is similarly illuminative:

If the emperor commands us to worship false gods, we must decline to obey; not, however, because we do not acknowledge his authority, but because both we and he are bound to acknowledge an authority higher than his…

The Christian’s behaviour in both giving and withholding obedience to the State and its officials is governed by no other principle than his allegiance to God. Both obedience and refusal arise out of an obligation which is not political, but religious.[25]

Save such unlikely and extraordinary circumstances, however, Christians – and churches, by extension – have ample grounds to respect the State’s authority and ensure their full cooperation with it: What is due unto Caesar, rendered unto Caesar; what is due unto God, rendered unto God.

Church Involvement with the Politics Surrounding Controversial Issues

Few would disagree that the Church, as a member of society in a democratic system, has a duty – if not a right – to voice its opinions where discussions of morality are concerned:

3. Democracy implies participation and responsibility

This is self evident [sic], even if it is only to use the vote wisely, to ensure good government, just laws, justice and a peaceful environment for people and the work of the Gospel. We should avail ourselves of the opportunities given to provide views and feedback to the government, especially when invited, and to do so constructively and candidly.[26]

Instead, a more pertinent question for consideration would be the appropriate approach for voicing these opinions. Bobby Sng helpfully notes that a clear public position may be necessary in some situations:

5. Alert to issues that, directly or indirectly, impinge on the Christian conscience

Part of our calling is to work towards the kind of society God delights in: caring, just and righteous. As and when there are matters that give rise to concern, we must be prepared to voice them. In this regard, three points may be made. First of all, this may not necessarily be done through the institutional church. There is a lot that laypeople can do by playing their roles as concerned citizens and operating through community organizations. Secondly, where the church needs to present a body of views, it may be better to do so by direct representation to relevant bodies. The glare of public attention in a multi-faith society may not always be to our advantage. Thirdly, in matters where a clear moral or spiritual principle is at stake, the Christian community must be prepared to take a visible public stand.[27]

In general agreement, Dr. Tay Eng Soon recommends the use of private channels in discussions with the State’s authorities as opposed to Church involvement in politics for the sake of voicing these views:

…The best guarantee for religious freedom is that politics and the state be kept secular.

Having said that, I acknowledge that the church has views in the areas of morality, ethics and justice. The question is how the church should make these views known to the political leaders and yet not get embroiled in partisan politics. I think it should avoid public posturing or forming pressure groups. To do so is to participate in partisan politics and this invites counter-blows and is unproductive. Rather, it should convey its views quietly and calmly through private channels. The political leaders are waiting to hear people’s views. And if these leaders are basically moral and just, they will listen. There are channels and they have been used.[28]

As such, it is this author’s opinion that churches should always use such private channels of communication with the government as a first resort. It is not as if the Singaporean State has been reluctant to discuss such matters with religious bodies. Instead, the State has shown its ready willingness to engage churches on these matters through private dialogue for the benefit of all involved.[29] Where an absolute and undeniable need to issue public statements based on doctrine or dogma is perceived to exist, adoption of a humble – as opposed to triumphalistic – tone would present the Church community in a more favourable light without comprise to its beliefs. Most pertinently, perhaps, churches should be prepared to suffer events that come – even if they do not turn out as hoped for – instead of rushing to marshal its resources and engage in unproductive tactics of pressure. As Dr. Tay Eng Soon noted, much work still remains for the Church to preach the Gospel, minister unto its own members and serve the needs of Society’s downtrodden.[30] These roles of the church are unlikely to change even as events come and go, but much more benefit would likely be gained through the Church’s application of its vast resources to these ends.

Church Involvement with the Politics of Society

Finally, the Church should take pains to conduct themselves in society with humility and gentleness in accordance with the exhortation to have a ready answer tempered with gentleness and respect.[31] While this does not imply explicit or implicit compromises in the key tenets of the faith, it does suggest that churches remain wary of hubris and triumphalism:

7. Take a good and honest look at ourselves

Part of the task of proclaiming God’s excellencies is to take a good look at ourselves. We can be so concerned for numerical growth that we fail to see shortcomings in our midst. We need to ask ourselves basic questions: Are we looking for numbers at the expense of quality? Is there a spirit of triumphalism and arrogance? Are we satisfied with the imbalanced growth? Are we alive to the dangers of divisions in our midst? Is our management of church affairs biblical and ethical?

These are not pleasant questions but they must be faced squarely if the church is to be a sign of God’s excellence.[32] [emphasis added]

Indeed, the right to speak is not equal to the right of being heard or of having one’s words considered: An individual may have the right to speak their mind about how they think a bridge should be built, for example, but this does not guarantee that their opinions are to be heard – or considered after being heard – in matters of engineering and construction. In much the same way, Dr. Tay Eng Soon noted how the sin of pride is often insidious in nature:

I think that as Christians and church leaders we often need to remember that though the Word of God is infallible[,] we are fallible. The temptation is to say that because God is almighty, we His followers have a right to go into everything and to be listened to by others. That is pride.[33]

Lest one consider this to be a superficial matter, Augustine of Hippo reminds us that “It was pride that changed angels into devils; it is humility that makes men as angels.” Even the Christian monks of old – the Desert Fathers – recognized the importance of having the right attitude in one’s interactions with others: “Abba Agathon said, “If a man of wrath were to raise the dead, he would not be accepted by any man.””[34] For all the good which the Church has done and will continue to do as a reflection of God’s love, adopting an attitude of arrogance and superiority would – at the very least – cause society to wonder whether the Jesus that Christians and the Church speak so often about – and attempt to emulate – had a similar attitude of pride. If then the Christ which we know is different, it behooves both the Christian and the Church to consider where this pride may have originated from and what testimonies might be preached by our attitudes.

To conclude this section, a paraphrased quote from Francis de Sales is instructive: “Nothing so strong as gentleness; nothing so gentle as true strength.” Despite the fluid vagaries of society and its politics, the Church finds its strength in the anchor of Christ. As such, reflecting not just Christ’s love – through her works – but His lowliness of spirit and meekness – through her attitude of humility and gentleness – would likely point others towards the source of her strength in Christ far more than any pretentious or ostentatious displays of triumphalism.

Conclusion

For the general Christian in society, there is little that can be added beyond the common encouragement of Romans 12 to live in peace as far as possible with others. In political matters of morality, they should not be – or feel – compelled to act or vote against their conscience, but they too would do well to remember both Galatians 2:11-15 and the plurality of moral compasses held by their non-Christian compatriots when interacting with them. Likewise, if Christians in public service believe that all authority has been established by God, they would benefit from remembering their God-ordained responsibility to care for all under their charge regardless of every individual’s faith or lack thereof:

A person in government is responsible for and to the whole society. And that society has Christians and non-Christians. You cannot say that because I am a Christian, my agenda is to serve the church. A person who blurs this distinction between the temporal and the ecclesiastical can do a disservice both to his church and to his constituency.[35]

How should such Christians act after they are aware of these responsibilities? Through having the correct attitude of humility, as Luther offers:

First, then, he must look to his subjects and see to it that he is rightly disposed towards them. That is, he must direct all his efforts towards being of use and service to them. He is not to think: the land and the people are mine; I shall do as I please. But rather: I belong to the people and to the land; I ought to do what is advantageous for them. I am not to see how I can lord it over them, but how they may be protected and defended, and enjoy the blessings of peace. He is to set Christ before his eyes and tell himself: here is Christ, the greatest of princes, and yet he came to serve me. He did not set about getting power, wealth and honour from me; he considered only my neediness, and used all his efforts to secure power, wealth and honour for me through him and in him. And I shall do the same. I shall not seek my own advantage at my subjects’ hands, but theirs, and I will serve them in my office, protect them, listen to them, defend them, and govern only for their benefit, not for mine. A prince should therefore dispense with his might and superiority, as far as his heart and mind are concerned, and attend to the needs of subjects as if they were his own. [388:] for this is what Christ has done for us, and these are the real works of Christian love.[36]

Coupled with the right intentions, Augustine suggest that those who discharge their duties with humility and mercy are likely to find lasting joy in God:

For neither do we say that certain Christian emperors were therefore happy because they ruled a long time, or, dying a peaceful death, left their sons to succeed them in the empire, or subdued the enemies of the republic, or were able both to guard against and to suppress the attempt of hostile citizens rising against them….But we say that they are happy if they rule justly; if they are not lifted up amid the praises of those who pay them sublime honours, and the obsequiousness of those who salute them with an excessive humility, but remember that they are men; if they make their power the handmaid of His majesty by using it for the greatest possible extension of His worship; if they fear, love, worship God; if more than their own they love that kingdom in which they are not afraid to have partners; if they are slow to punish, ready to pardon; if they apply that punishment as necessary to government and defence of the republic, and not in order to gratify their own enmity; if they grant pardon, not that iniquity may go unpunished, but with the hope that the transgressor may amend his ways; if they compensate with the lenity of mercy and the liberality of benevolence for whatever severity they may be compelled to decree; if their luxury is as much restrained as it might have been unrestrained; if they prefer to govern depraved desires rather than any nation whatever; and if they do all these things, not through ardent desire of empty glory, but through love of eternal felicity, not neglecting to offer to the true God, who is their God, for their sins, the sacrifices of humility, contrition, and prayer. Such Christian emperors, we say, are happy in the present time by hope, and are destined to be so in the enjoyment of the reality itself, when that which we wait for shall have arrived.[37]

Insofar as the individual Christian – as a member of the Church – is guided by these intentions and dispositions throughout their involvement in politics and with the State, they are likely to present a commendable testimony that in turn encourages others to glorify God.

Finally, churches should be mindful of the temptation to coerce State action in a particular manner: To the extent that the Church should not become an arm of the State (which occurred in Nazi Germany),[38] the State too should not become an arm of the Church. Neither should the Church seek to become or supplant the State as this would be both pointless and counter-productive. During his ministry on Earth, Jesus did not force the unwilling or beg the apathetic but called those who were willing to follow. Similarly, while the Church has a duty to preach to those who would hear and disciple those are willing to learn, true faith cannot be coerced out of – or forced into – an unwilling heart: “Even Christ Himself did not try to convert the two thieves on the Cross; He waited until one of them turned to Him.”[39] To those who would wish to continue down such a course of action, they would do well to remember Luther’s warnings against princes that ruled through fear and tyranny:

…If there is heresy, then let it be overcome by God’s Word; that is how it should be. But if you go about drawing the sword on every occasion, then beware of someone coming along who will tell you to put your sword away, and not in God’s name either.[40]

The Church’s breaching of the secular wall protecting the Church from the State and the State from the Church may very well set a precedence for future State capture by other interest groups that hold views less favourable to – and for – the faith. While this might still occur even without the Church’s action in this regard, it would be no small irony – and indeed, a monumental tragedy – if this outcome was brought about by misguided delusions of grandeur.

Many Christians, when asked as to why the Christian God seems to be a rule-loving God, would point to the need for order and explain how these rules are intended for our benefit. Absent these ordinances, both society and the soul’s flourishing would be difficult, if not impossible, amid the disorder caused by sin. In much the same way, formal laws and informal norms set by the State to curtail religious influence in politics and the politicization of religion encourage social stability and order within the present plural society. Through working within this orderly environment, then, let not the Church seek to jeopardize what has been created, for the loss of such order would no doubt be a great cost borne by both the Church and those it professes to love. May the Church instead adopt an attitude of humility and focus on its service to both God and others as befits its divine calling and purpose as the nation’s salt and light.

Nothing that we despise in other men is inherently absent from ourselves. We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or don’t do, and more in light of what they suffer. – Dietrich Bonhoeffer

8250 words.

Endnotes

[1] A theory or doctrine frequently referred to within this literature is that of Luther’s Two Kingdoms, and the unfamiliar may find a serviceable explanation provided by Francis Lee in Francis C. H. Lee, “The Two Kingdoms – Some Thoughts on Church and State,” in Church and Society: Singapore Context, ed. Bobby Sng (Graduates’ Christian Fellowship, 1989), 18–21. Another diagrammatic introduction which elucidates differing Church-State relationships may also be found in Bobby Sng, “Church and Society: Contemporary Trends,” in Church and Society: Singapore Context, ed. Bobby Sng (Graduates’ Christian Fellowship, 1989), 53–58.

[2] Historical examples of this include both Western conceptions of ‘right to rule’ and the Chinese ‘Mandate of Heaven. To the best of this author’s knowledge and abilities, quotations made within this essay have been contextualized to the present society despite their origins in vastly different societies.

[3] Churches in Singapore are no stranger to such contestations with the State. Some examples include Marxist fears (and the Catholic Church) following Singapore’s independence to the Aware Saga and the State’s introduction of casinos. More notable events in the recent public consciousness include church resistance in matters of LGBTQ+ issues and the appropriateness of allowing the band Watain to perform in Singapore. See also Terence Chong, “Filling the Moral Void: The Christian Right in Singapore,” Journal of Contemporary Asia 41, no. 4 (November 2011): 566–83, https://doi.org/10.1080/00472336.2011.610614; Peter T. C. Chang, “Singapore’s Cultural Experimentation: Gay Rights, Stem Cells, Casinos and the Evangelical Response,” Religion, State and Society 40, no. 2 (June 1, 2012): 192–211, https://doi.org/10.1080/09637494.2012.677775; Benjamin H. Detenber et al., “Rights Versus Morality: Online Debate About Decriminalization of Gay Sex in Singapore,” Journal of Homosexuality 61, no. 9 (September 2, 2014): 1313–33, https://doi.org/10.1080/00918369.2014.926769; Sam Han, “Wear White: The Mediatized Politics of Religious Anti-LGBT Activism in Singapore,” Nordic Journal of Religion and Society 31, no. 1 (2018): 41–57, https://doi.org/10.18262/issn.1890-7008-2018-01-03.

[4] Gustaf Wingren, Luther On Vocation (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg, 1957), 10.

[5] Dr. Tay Eng Soon made numerous contributions as the Senior Minister of State for Education to building Singapore’s polytechnic and technical education pathways during his time in office while being consistently active in Barker Road Methodist Church (BRMC). See Cheryl Sim, “Tay Eng Soon,” in Singapore Infopedia (National Library Board, 2016), http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/infopedia/articles/SIP_667_2005-01-11.html.

[6] Tay Eng Soon, “Religion and Politics in the Singapore Context,” in Church and Society: Singapore Context, ed. Bobby Sng (Graduates’ Christian Fellowship, 1989), 72.

[7] Soon, 71.

[8] Martin Luther, “On Secular Authority,” in Luther and Calvin on Secular Authority, ed. and trans. Harro Hopfl, Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 15.

[9] Soon, “Religion and Politics in the Singapore Context,” 76.

[10] Soon, 75–76.

[11] Joe Torres, “Church Groups Endorse Candidates for Philippine Elections,” UCA News, March 28, 2019, https://www.ucanews.com/news/church-groups-endorse-candidates-for-philippine-elections/84838; Ayomide O. Tayo, “Who Is the Nigerian Church Supporting in the 2019 Presidential Election?,” Pulse Nigeria, December 18, 2018, https://www.pulse.ng/news/politics/who-is-the-nigerian-church-supporting-in-the-2019-presidential-election/rzsxdqj; Rodney Muhumuza, “In Nigeria’s Tight Election, Christian Vote Is Seen as Key,” AP News, February 18, 2019, https://www.apnews.com/1d79dff0e8ff401fabd323a51ad58348.

[12] Martin Luther, “Whether Soldiers, Too, Can Be Saved,” trans. Charles M. Jacobs (Martin Luther Heritage Foundation, 1526), 7, https://www.checkluther.com/wp-content/uploads/1526-Whether-Soldiers-Too-Can-Be-Saved.pdf.

[13] Luther, 10.

[14] Soon, “Religion and Politics in the Singapore Context,” 77.

[15] Luther, “On Secular Authority,” 11.

[16] Luther, 11.

[17] Luther, 25–26.

[18] Luther, 30–31.

[19] Soon, “Religion and Politics in the Singapore Context,” 75.

[20] See also 1 Peter 2:11-17.

[21] Chong Chee Pang, “Church and Society: A Biblical Perspective,” in Church and Society: Singapore Context, ed. Bobby Sng (Graduates’ Christian Fellowship, 1989), 34.

[22] Pang, 35–37.

[23] Pang, 37.

[24] R.W Dyson, “The Political Theology of St Augustine of Hippo,” in Normative Theories of Society and Government in Five Medieval Thinkers, vol. 21, Mediaeval Studies (The Edwin Mellen Press, 2003), 44–45.

[25] Dyson, 44–45.

[26] C. H. Lee, “The Two Kingdoms – Some Thoughts on Church and State,” 28.

[27] Bobby Sng, “Proclaiming God’s Excellencies,” in Church and Society: Singapore Context, ed. Bobby Sng (Graduates’ Christian Fellowship, 1989), 12.

[28] Soon, “Religion and Politics in the Singapore Context,” 76.

[29] Tessa Wong, “Shanmugam Meets LoveSingapore Pastors to Discuss Gay Issue,” The Straits Times, February 18, 2013, https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/shanmugam-meets-lovesingapore-pastors-to-discuss-gay-issue; Seow Bei Yi, “Shanmugam Clarifies News Report to Church Leaders,” The Straits Times, February 14, 2018, https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/shanmugam-clarifies-news-report-to-church-leaders; Tan Tam Mei, “Shanmugam on India Decriminalising Gay Sex: Singapore Society to Decide Which Direction to Take,” The Straits Times, September 7, 2018, https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/shanmugam-on-india-decriminalising-gay-sex-singapore-society-to-decide-which-direction-to.

[30] Soon, “Religion and Politics in the Singapore Context,” 80.

[31] See 1 Peter 3:15-16.

[32] Sng, “Proclaiming God’s Excellencies,” 13.

[33] Soon, “Religion and Politics in the Singapore Context,” 74.

[34] The Desert Fathers, “Of Humility,” in The Paradise of the Holy Fathers, vol. 2 (London: Chatto & Windus, n.d.), 113.

[35] Soon, “Religion and Politics in the Singapore Context,” 73.

[36] Luther, “On Secular Authority,” 35–36.

[37] Aurelius Augustine, “Book V,” in The City of God, ed. Marcus Dods, trans. Glenluce George Wilson and J. J. Smith (Edinburgh: Project Gutenberg, 2014), 223, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/45304/45304-h/45304-h.htm.

[38] Bobby Sng, ed., “A Discussion with Dr Tay Eng Soon,” in Church and Society: Singapore Context (Graduates’ Christian Fellowship, 1989), 82.

[39] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “V. Letters to a Friend, Poems and Miscellaneous Papers,” in Prisoner for God: Letters and Papers from Prison, ed. Eberhard Bethge, trans. Reginald H. Fuller (The Macmillan Company, 1959), 97.

[40] Luther, “On Secular Authority,” 33.

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———. “Whether Soldiers, Too, Can Be Saved.” Translated by Charles M. Jacobs. Martin Luther Heritage Foundation, 1526. https://www.checkluther.com/wp-content/uploads/1526-Whether-Soldiers-Too-Can-Be-Saved.pdf.

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———. “Proclaiming God’s Excellencies.” In Church and Society: Singapore Context, edited by Bobby Sng, 1–13. Graduates’ Christian Fellowship, 1989.

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