More on Martyn Lloyd-Jones and Christian relations to the State

As promised I’m listening to Lloyd-Jones’ sermons on Romans 13, although it’s taking a while – finding time to concentrate on sermons nearly an hour long can be tricky. From the latest one I picked up a few points where I again somewhat disagree with Lloyd-Jones (and I would remind you again that me disagreeing with Lloyd-Jones is rare).

First was a passage in which he spoke rather as if Paul’s Romans 13 was almost the only full expression of these ideas. But in Paul it’s just one chapter in a longer exposition of many basic Christian ideas.  So for me, though Romans 13 is certainly a key passage, Peter in his first epistle actually says much more, gives more detail, than Paul in Romans, and I think it’s a good idea to see the two passages together.

Apart from simply using as much of the biblical teaching as possible, getting the widest biblical view of the topic, Peter’s letter has a further key element for an issue that arose later; supposedly the Roman Catholic Church claims special authority as the ‘successor of Peter’. Yet ironically, if you follow Peter’s actual words, much of it contradicts the way the Catholic Church (and the Orthodox Church before the split between RC and Orthodox) dealt with the state through history. Which of course raises some questions on how much the Catholics can truly claim succession to Peter….

Secondly, though, Lloyd-Jones takes up the idea of ‘subjection to’ the state that Paul expresses, and he says rightly that this can’t mean we must always obey the state, the ‘powers that be’. And quite rightly Lloyd-Jones quotes Peter’s words from Acts 5, about how Christians must ‘obey God rather than man’. But he then I think makes a significant slip; he speaks in terms of being ‘subject to the state’ EXCEPT when we must ‘obey God rather than man’.

And I want to say no; we must actually as the text says ‘be subject’ full stop. NO EXCEPTIONS!! And I think the slip here is common, made by many; it is the slip of equating ‘be subject to’ with simply ‘obey’. As I see it, we are to be subject but in different ways – when we can, we obey; but when we find it impossible to obey, we still remain ‘subject’, we still don’t ‘resist’ in a sense of military rebellion or the like. We disobey, and if the state chooses to punish us for it, we accept the punishment – as Peter, Paul, and indeed Jesus himself did; Jesus in his unjust death, Peter and Paul later in their martyrdom for the faith….

The trouble with trying to make an ‘exception’ to subjection to the state is that although it sounds very reasonable, it’s hard to keep it as a minor exception. Ian Paisley and others in Ulster advocated a similar ‘exception’ and effectively it ‘ate up’ the rule it was supposed to be an exception to. It pretty much ended up as being subject to the state only if the state did what you wanted. Where Paul was ‘subject’ to the state of an emperor like Nero and willing to accept eventual martyrdom at the hands of Nero’s Rome, the Ulstermen ended up basically rebelling against a democratic state that simply wanted them to respect the rights of others who disagreed with them – and indeed compared that democratic state to Nero or Hitler…. And Ulster Catholics, also on the ‘Constantinian’ side of the argument, took similar views, making a bloody clash inevitable.

One common way to justify the exception at least in the days of kings and emperors was to try to distinguish between the ‘office’ of king which you had to respect, and the individual holding the office, who, in effect, didn’t have to be respected and obeyed if he wasn’t doing the job properly. That kind of reasoning leads to very hair-splitting legalism which basically comes to attempting to justify rebellion. The idea I’m advocating, of distinguishing between ‘subjection’ and ‘obedience’, allows the different option of being always subject and never rebelling, while still, when required, obeying God rather than man and so risking martyrdom. That avoids all the dubious legalism and also the essentially selfish and fractious attitudes which accompany such reasoning.

In the same sermon Lloyd-Jones dealt with questions about capital punishment – the death penalty. I’m going to have to go into that one sometime in future – for now I’ll shove it on the back burner and think it over.


About Gay Marriage

Why, you might ask, have gay people insisted on ‘marriage’ rather than ‘civil partnership’? Is the word itself really so important, so long as you’ve got equivalent rights? There is a quirk of our constitution, because England has an established church, which makes the issue significant.

Back to basics; people make all kinds of legal arrangements for both their personal and their business lives. In some cases these arrangements are so common that for convenience the law provides what might be called ‘templates’ of these, standardising them, bringing them under common legal procedures. Partnerships are an example in commerce, adoption in personal affairs. In some cases these arrangements may be considered so beneficial to society in general, beyond those directly involved, that they come with tax breaks, next-of-kin rights and other benefits. Marriage is one such example.

In religious states like Muslim countries with their Shari’a law, the marriage laws will reflect the beliefs of the religion in question – though they may allow some latitude to foreigners’ marriages. In the countries of ‘Christendom’ the marriage laws have generally reflected the teachings of the Christian Church, though most Western states have long allowed secular (‘registry office’) marriages, divorce, and other features not quite according to Christianity. Until comparatively recently it was pretty much taken for granted that marriage was between a man and a woman, especially since homosexuality, being a sin, was illegal anyway in such ‘Christian’ states. Now that homosexuality is legal, and indeed many other sexual practices between consenting adults have been decriminalised, things have changed and the formerly persecuted gay community now seeks to be as equal as possible – or at least a very vocal segment of it does.

If you were designing from scratch a plural society which respects many different beliefs and unbeliefs, you would I think include a ‘civil partnership’ which in a way would not need a sexual implication, a deal for companionship and shared life which might be very flexible. It need not, for example, be ‘monogamous’, given the number of religions which accept polygamy, though if tax breaks and the like were involved it might not be unlimited in terms of the number of such partnerships one person could form. The various religions existing in the state could use the ‘civil partnerships’ as a legal foundation for religious marriages but would also have internal disciplines for their members in the matter (as sporting bodies have their own internal rules for various things).

Unfortunately in the UK we aren’t designing an ideal pluralistic system from scratch. Indeed although in so many ways we do act like a pluralistic democracy, we are still technically a Christian country with an established Church. Technically the Church of England is still the legal norm and everyone else, including other forms of Christianity, are only ‘tolerated’ in an impliedly ‘second-class’ way. Anglican marriage is still significantly privileged in small ways.

If you are a gay person seeking equality, this is basically unacceptable. A church which is technically part of and deeply entangled with the state refuses to treat the gay community as equal; this is not just “there are some people around who disagree with us”; this is effectively continued discrimination against the gay community in and by the state itself. For now we have ‘same-sex marriage’ equally for all – except still the state church is allowed to refuse it – indeed has been positively banned by law from doing it, as has the connected but disestablished ‘Church in Wales’! I think it unlikely that this compromise will endure. I think in the end one of two things must happen; either the ‘Church of England’ will have to accept gay marriage, to keep their established privilege but not be discriminatory, or they will have to accept being disestablished. And they may face similar arguments in other areas as well.

Churches which are not established, and have no special privileged position in the state would be a different matter; it would be reasonable for them to disagree with homosexuality and choose not to do same-sex marriages for their own members – interestingly they might nevertheless use the neutral civil partnership for non-sexual relationships….

The tragedy of this is that the present bitter controversy need never have happened, at any rate as a dispute between an established church and the gay community. Christianity was never intended to be established, as I’ve been saying elsewhere in this blog, and so should never have been involved as it was in the criminalisation and effective persecution of gay people. Ideally, Christianity should have remained a voluntary religion, of those who humanly speaking choose to join the church; and they would not be seeking to rule society at large, so everyone else would be free to do – well, not quite whatever they liked, but whatever the state and/or its alternate state religion might allow. I’m not saying the situation would be friction-free; but the whole dynamics would be very different.

As it is, the imposition of Christian behaviour on everybody in a ‘Christian’ country has created all kinds of problems. These included persecution of other religions and of variant forms of Christianity; and legal intervention in all kinds of sexual issues, of which homosexuality is pretty much the last one outstanding – the others beyond that being things like paedophilia and rape which are unlikely ever to have wide social acceptance…. This inappropriate imposition beyond Christian ranks has also created all kinds of attitude problems.

Put bluntly, the only way there can be a resolution is for Christians to abandon the notion of ‘Christian states’ which seek to impose Christian morality on all citizens, and return to the New Testament notion of being an independent voluntary organisation within the earthly state. Only then will we be able to work out a ‘modus vivendi’ with people whose morality in this matter we disagree with. As I say above, this makes the Church of England’s position untenable one way or the other; they must sacrifice either Christian sexual morality or their favoured position and influence in the state – they cannot continue to uphold both.

The Starting Point

Anabaptists and their Christendom opponents agree, of course, that being a Christian is very important.  It is, after all, no less than your choice whether you are going to live according to the ultimate truth of God’s world as it is – particularly the bit about it being God’s world – or whether you are going to choose, as far as is possible, to live against and in opposition to that ultimate reality.  The choice against God, as John 3; 19-21 points out, is a choice of terrible darkness.  It is far more important than a choice to join the Scouts, a football club, a chess club or a model railway club.

However, and here Anabaptism arguably takes a different view, it is very much part of the message itself that this choice is to be voluntary, a choice ‘in spirit and truth’.  In the context of this choice, the kind of coercive power and influence the state can exercise is wildly inappropriate, as are the kind of temptations and blandishments the state can offer.  Indeed, even when the state is not being exceedingly uncharitably coercive, its involvement can confuse issues; one of the worst ways this happens is when people assume that merely by being born in a ‘Christian country’ they are automatically Christian.  Another way is when the involvement of state with church leads to unChristian activities such as war and persecution, and narrow nationalism instead of the inherent internationalism of our faith.

So the position of the church in the state needs to preserve the voluntariness, and also, it should be said, to glorify God by having it clear than any power and influence is God’s power rather than the kind of power the state has.  Therefore, despite the enormous difference in importance involved, the appropriate position of church in state is to be like the voluntary/hobby organisations mentioned above – Scouts, football and other sports clubs, chess or model railway clubs.

With such clubs, joining is voluntary and they have to attract members by what they offer, not by government coercion or by favoured status in the state.  And leaving is also free; if you choose to leave the model railway club you don’t also have to plan to leave the country to avoid being imprisoned or worse.  Being thrown out – not the Inquisition threatening burning at the stake, but simply “Look mate, if you really won’t keep the rules you can’t be in the club any longer”.   You carry on living in the community, perhaps with slight embarrassment , and you can join other clubs, or even found your own alternative to the original club if enough people are interested.   It should be the same with churches; and thank God it mostly is, these days, but there are too many churches still hanging on to some remnants of a past when many churches did expect a more favoured or even totalitarian position.

It won’t be simply like the hobby clubs.  One major difference is to do with the importance and the distinction of religion.  The various sports and hobbies are not necessarily mutually exclusive – apart from the issue of just not having enough time and/or money for all of them, of course!  There is no ethical or philosophical inconsistency in going to Scouts on Friday night, playing soccer on Saturday, rugby on Sunday, model railway club Monday night, and racing in a stock car on Tuesday night, and so on.  There ARE some ethical and philosophical problems about being Muslim on Friday, Jewish on Saturday, Christian on Sunday, and Hindu during the week.

Another distinction is that there are going to be discussions, even arguments, with people who disagree with us.  And it is a major point about voluntariness that we do that in a loving spirit.  Read I Peter for some guidance about this.  We do have to recognise how important our message is.

A contributor to the forum conversation which inspired this post noted the sometimes oppressive conformity seen among ‘sectarians’ assorted – and I can get a bit fed up myself with Amish arguments about hairstyle or how many straps you’re allowed on your suspenders (in UK, ‘braces’ for trousers, belts being forbidden in many Amish groups as not ‘plain’).  It’s a real problem, though at least these things are not enforced on people outside the community; and, like it or not, any voluntary organisation is human and can get things wrong.  But think in terms of the ‘starting point’.  It may sound a bit trivial at first, but consider three situations involving conformity that a young teenager might face.

Friday night, he enthusiastically puts on his Scout uniform to go to the meeting.  Saturday morning, he enthusiastically puts on his football club’s shirt, and for purposes of this illustration, it doesn’t matter a lot whether that’s a Premier League club he’s going to support, or a junior league club where he is a player himself.  On Monday morning, he puts on his school tie – and you’ll notice I left out the word ‘enthusiastically’….

OK, the ‘free church’ may not always quite live up to its ideal that any conformity should be willingly chosen fellowship/togetherness; but it should never be the kind of compulsion involved in the school uniform, let alone the kind of compulsion seen in the Nazi Party or Hitler Youth.  And this is what I’m getting at with that title ‘the starting point’.   As things now stand we have two broad groups of Christians in the world with two ‘starting points’.  The Anabaptists and other “free church/believer’s church” groups start from that voluntariness, that reliance on God’s power rather than the world’s power, the refusal to coerce.  Others are at the end of a long history of having long ago been ‘Christendomite’ in attitude and though they are no longer the totalitarians they used to be, they still start from the idea that Christianity should somehow be privileged and special, that England is still a ‘Christian country’.   And so they often still think in terms of “We must have laws against gay marriages” and so on, which amount to pushing Christian ideas and practices INvoluntarily on our fellow citizens.  And that is beginning to have all kinds of negative effects….

So what I’m saying is that in facing the world and interacting with it, we are better starting from that ‘like a voluntary club’ position, than from the compromised rags of the old ‘Christendom position; both on grounds of it being closer to what God commands in the Bible, and on grounds of practicality and effectiveness.  It’s also quite likely that in the near future much of what’s left of ‘Christendom’ will be dismantled whether we like it or not.  And I think the world will be more impressed and better served by churches which honestly admit the mistake of Christendom and go willingly, preferably before they are forced to, than by churches which only go reluctantly and hang on grimly to what’s left of their former influence, and carry on afterwards being rebellious troublemakers about their position.

There is another issue.  The importance of our message in the world, not just in the afterlife, does raise questions about how far we can or should be involved in the world’s affairs, even if not in an actually coercive way.  Can we enter politics?  Can we seek to influence government policies?

I’ll hopefully be dealing with that kind of issues in future; but what I want to say for now is “Here’s the starting point.  We are a ‘kingdom not of this world’, a body which must in human terms be voluntary.  How far we may go from that starting point, I am not sure either – but at least it will hopefully be in the right direction.  We should also consider that things are different in a modern democracy; in most of the past, Christians will have had little opportunity at power in the world, but in democracy we do have the vote and other privilege as citizens.  How may we use that?  However it is, we must start our thoughts from the right place, the voluntary nature of the Church.

But Seriously (6) – Romans 13… starts in Romans 12….


The chapter and verse divisions in our Bibles are quite handy for finding references; but they weren’t put in till centuries after the texts were originally written, and sometimes they can be a bit misleading.  The division between Romans 12 and 13 is just such a case – all too often we start with Romans 13 as if it were the start of a new bit of the epistle not directly connected to what went before, whereas in reality it is part of a longer exposition which begins… well, really at the start of Romans 12, though it does shift focus significantly partway through that chapter. 

In Chs 9-11 Paul has dealt with the relationship between Israel and the Gentile Church as represented by the Romans, and has also taught a great deal about God’s sovereignty, ending in a paean of praise to God’s wisdom and rich grace.  Then he moves on; “I beg you therefore (i.e. in light of that teaching, appreciating the wonder of God’s grace to you as Gentiles now incorporated into his people)… present your bodies a living sacrifice… do not conform to the present world scheme, but be transformed by a complete renewal of mind, so as to sense for yourselves what is the… perfect will of God”. (I really like the JB Philips translation in v2, “Don’t let the world squeeze you into its mould”!)  Then Paul expounds how this will work out in various areas….

He warns them not to value themselves higher than they should, but to be humble.  Then he looks at how to apply this in the Church, among your fellow-Christians….

For precisely as in one body we have many members, but not all the members have the same function, so the many of us form one body in Christ, while each is related to all the others as a member, but possessed of varied talents according to the grace bestowed on us

Though this is true of the local congregation, Paul clearly also has a wider meaning; this one body is the worldwide church – ‘the many of us’ throughout the world ‘form one body in Christ’, on the one hand united in our Lord, on the other hand very practically acting as his body in the world, his feet to go to people, his hands to do his work.  The state we live in may well try to claim our primary loyalty – but as citizens of the kingdom of heaven, our first loyalty must be to God, to Jesus as Lord, and to the body of Christ the church.  We must not let the world divide us from our fellow Christians, or set us against one another.  Paul spells out the ‘church-and-state’ issues more specifically in chapter 13, but when we get there, remember that this point about the body of Christ must be part of that context.

Paul then briefly refers to various gifts including prophecy, teaching, charity work, then shows how we must love one another….

Let your love be perfectly sincere, clinging to the right with abhorrence of evil; joined together in a brotherhood of mutual love; allowing one another to enjoy preference of honour; never slacking in interest; as the Lord’s servants keeping spiritually aglow; joyfully hoping as you endure affliction; persistent in prayer; contributing to the needs of the saints; practising hospitality.

Much of this also applies to or affects our relationships with people outside the Church; now in v14 and to the end of the chapter he moves on to consider those external relations, which is why these verses are part of the context of the teaching that continues in chapter 13…

Bless your persecutors; yes, bless and do not curse.

‘Bless’ is ‘eulogeite’; the same basic word as ‘eulogy’ or ‘eulogise’, though presumably in this context it means ‘good speaking’ to and for the persecutors rather than merely about them as in a funeral eulogy, and so means ‘wish them well’.  I think, though my NT Greek skills are limited, that this is not just that we individually bless our persecutors – the church is to work together in this, supporting one another in avoiding the temptations to hatred and ill-wishing which arise from persecution, together in wishing well to the persecutors (though not wishing them ultimate success, of course!), together in loving the enemy as Jesus taught.   

Share the joy of those who are glad, and share the grief of those who grieve.  Harmonise with others in your thinking; do not aspire to eminence but humbly adjust yourselves to humble situations; do not become wise in your own conceits.

Sharing the grief and joy of others; Paul may have written elsewhere that Christians are to ‘come out from among the pagans and be separate’ but it seems he is not advocating that Christians be totally separate from the surrounding society

In no case paying back evil for evil, determine on the noblest ways of dealing with all people; if possible, so far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.

This is basic; it looks back to Jesus’ teaching and example of ‘turning the other cheek’.  ‘Living in peace with everyone’ constantly comes to my mind when I’m hearing news from Ulster of those parades and the civil disturbance which so often attends them.  There is no New Testament command or requirement to stage these triumphalist and intimidating events, and much including this passage that says we shouldn’t.  How is it ‘living in peace with everyone’ to have hundreds, occasionally thousands of Protestants marching noisily through a Catholic neighbourhood celebrating, in effect, that Protestants won the 17th century wars and now dominate over their Catholic fellow-citizens?  Neither the marches nor the massive protests when they are refused sound to me like ‘providing for good things before all men’ (as my ‘interlinear’ Greek/English version literally renders the phrase about ‘noblest ways’), even when the protests are peaceful, which too often they aren’t! 

Of course, if Christians are following the idea of a ‘Christian country’ it seems natural to do such things; that’s how ‘kingdoms of this world’ operate!  Those who thus break peace with their neighbours think that in asserting their ‘Protestant country’ they’ve got a legitimate exception to passages like Romans 12; but all they’re actually doing is contradicting the Lord who said explicitly that His kingdom is ‘not of this world’!

Do not revenge yourselves, dear friends, but leave room for divine retribution, for it is written “It is Mine to punish; I will pay them back, the Lord says.”

Instead, if your enemy is hungry, feed him; in case he is thirsty, give him drink; for doing so you will pile burning coals on his head.  Be not overpowered with evil, but master evil with good.

I don’t really need to add much to that!  The ‘burning coals’ refer to the shame that should be induced when the enemy finds his evil met with such generosity; though it may also refer to the ultimate judgement awaiting an unrepentant persecutor.  We should remember that as a former persecutor Paul will have felt that shame when Jesus met him on the Damascus road, and would understand better than most the effect on the persecutor of victims who love in return.  In this context ‘Be not overpowered with evil’ seems to me to mean not letting the evil of revenge overpower us and make us as evil as the enemy.

This seems an appropriate place to tell one of the classic stories of Anabaptism.  The Anabaptist leader Dirk Willems was on the run in wintry Holland; with pursuers close behind, he ran across a frozen river on the ice.  One of the pursuers fell through the ice and was at risk of drowning.  While the man’s colleagues were fearful and hung back,  Dirk Willems rescued the man and hauled him out – and the rescued man then arrested Dirk, who eventually suffered martyrdom!  That is the way of Christ; holy wars, riots, the bombs and guns of paramilitaries, are the exact opposite.  As Paul said elsewhere, ‘Our warfare is not with physical weapons’, and as Jesus said and showed by example we are to love our enemies even to the point of dying for them.  Theories of ‘Church-and-State’ which lead us to other courses of action should be regarded with extreme suspicion….

And when we come to Romans 13, this chapter is its context; we must be careful that we do not interpret Chapter 13 in ways which contradict chapter 12.  That in turn means don’t isolate chapter 13, don’t treat it as a separate subject. 

But Seriously… (2) In which Pilate’s exercised!

In this episode we are looking at Jesus’ trial before Pilate.  The basic plot is that the Jewish leaders, having captured Jesus, drag him before the Roman governor not only to get the death penalty they, in an occupied territory, can’t legally exact for themselves, but also because in their eyes a Messianic claimant who gets killed by the Romans should be thoroughly discredited.  Pilate for various reasons refuses just to rubber-stamp their demand and actually examines the case and declares Jesus to be innocent as far as he’s concerned.  The High Priests and the Jerusalem ‘Rent-a-mob’ thwart Pilate’s efforts to free Jesus by a combination of political arm-twisting and by choosing the robber Barabbas for amnesty, following which Pilate orders the crucifixion but makes his opinion clear by the gesture of ‘washing his hands’ of the affair[i].

For Jesus to fulfil his role as a sacrifice for sin it was necessary for him to be innocent.  In relation to the Jewish charge of blasphemy, he appeared guilty in his claim to divinity but was innocent because those claims were true and were vindicated by the resurrection.  Appropriately he was unjustly put to death for what is really the root or basic sin of men, that we try to be our own gods, effectively stealing our lives from God; from that fundamental selfishness flow all our other sins, both the obviously evil and also sins like those of the Pharisees, superficially good but proud and self-righteous.

It tends to be overlooked that having been handed over to the Romans, Jesus needed also to be innocent and unjustly executed in Roman terms, which is why the gospel writers make such a point of Pilate’s verdict of innocence.  This mattered in two ways – firstly if Jesus was truly guilty in Roman terms, at the very least it confuses the issue of whether he died an undeserved death, and secondly a Jesus justly executed in Roman eyes would not be an easy ‘sell’ in the Roman Empire and would mean that Christians in turn would be deservedly persecuted by Rome for following a rebel.  This confusion and persecution of the Christians could still arise if you tried to make the case – as a more conventional messianic claimant might – that Jesus had been unjustly executed because the Roman law itself was unjust.  Pilate’s verdict of innocence followed by him crucifying an innocent for reasons of expedience avoids all such ambiguity.  Christians could claim that Jesus had died an innocent death in every respect and that persecuting them for Jesus’ claims would also be unjust.

But – how on earth did Jesus secure a verdict of innocence from Pilate of all people?  Pilate was a tough guy who had quite happily ‘mingled the blood of Galileans with their own sacrifices’, and executing messianic claimants was part of the job description for the governor of Palestine.  For Jesus to convince this tyrant would need exceptional circumstances.

I do suspect that the Holy Spirit did a bit of ‘overtime’ here to ensure that Pilate actually listened to Jesus rather than cursorily rubber-stamp the death sentence; but even so, Jesus would have to provide a credible argument for his innocence.  The answer, I believe, is to be found in the exchange between Jesus and Pilate recorded in John’s gospel[ii]

Then Pilate entered the palace again and summoned Jesus, whom he asked, “Are you the king of the Jews?”

Jesus replied, “Do you say this of your own accord, or have others told you about me?”

Pilate answered him, “I am not a Jew, am I?  Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me.  What have you done?”

Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world.  If my kingdom were of this world, my attendants would have struggled to prevent my being delivered to the Jews.  But really the source of my kingdom is not here.”

Pilate then said to him, “You are a king, then?”

To which Jesus replied, “You say correctly that I am a king.  For this purpose I was born and for this I entered the world, that I might testify to the truth.  Everyone who loves the truth listens to my voice.”

Pilate remarked to him, “What is truth?”  With these words he went outside again to the Jews and told them, “I find him not guilty at all….”

The key sentence here is ‘My kingdom is not of this world’.  In many bible commentaries this is almost passed over as a bit of airy-fairy spirituality or vague philosophising; but come on, this is not a casual conversation between friends at a Socratic symposium; this is a trial on a capital charge requiring the accused to give hard-as-nails answers to the judge!  Yes, Jesus has said, I’m a king – BUT… I’m not the kind of king that concerns you, Pilate, not the kind of king who threatens your Roman rule with military rebellion and strife.  I’m a different kind of king, seeking a different kind of following, disciples who will act very differently from those of the usual ‘messiah’.   My followers won’t be fighting to save me from you; indeed if you check you will find that when one young hothead did draw a sword I stopped him and even healed the wound he had inflicted.  My kingdom is not one of armies and weapons, but of people who recognise the truth I proclaim and follow that truth.

Now Pilate may be a bit scornful of this, as his rhetorical “What is truth?” suggests; but it is clear that he believes Jesus, that he accepts that Jesus is not the usual violent rebel messiah, and he is at least willing to make some effort to avoid what he realises is an injustice, though not to the point of putting his career at risk.  As a result, the important point is made – Jesus is innocent and his crucifixion unjust.

What does this mean for the scriptural teaching about ‘established churches’ and ‘Christian countries’?  Well Jesus was on trial for trying to set up the most direct form of Christian country, with himself as king rebelling against Rome; and he disclaims any such intention.  Is it credible he intended his disciples later to set up such kingdoms in his name?  And in any case, if he would approve of his followers setting up Christian states, that would be just as bad in Pilate’s eyes as Jesus setting himself up as king.

Try a thought experiment; nearly 300 years later, Constantine took over the Roman Empire by force, conquering ‘in the sign of the cross’ and supposedly in the name of Jesus.  Imagine Jesus by a miracle showing Pilate that future episode and then saying that he approved of Constantine – could Pilate approve?  Or indeed imagine Jesus showing Pilate the English Civil War and telling Pilate he approved of his followers behaving like that in his name!!  I can’t see Pilate responding to that any other way than “If that’s the kind of ‘king’ you are … guilty as charged – to the cross with him!”

Take a modern example.  I found a book called ‘A Higher Throne – evangelicals and public theology’ which originated as papers at Oak Hill College’s Annual School of Theology.  In an essay advocating ‘Christian confessional states’ (with a marked lack of scriptural evidence for the proposal), one David Field cited with approval the Puritan Samuel Rutherford’s ‘defence of armed resistance against the tyrant’.  Again, what would Pilate say to that?  Surely his response would be, “Oh you messiahs and your followers always justify your rebellions that way!  Get the cross ready!”

That’s the problem; those who advocate ‘Christian countries’ are advocating exactly the kind of ‘kingdom very much of this world’ that Jesus rejected – and there would have been a verdict of guilty against him if he hadn’t rejected it!  A kingdom that may be set up by force rebelling against the existing government, and then defended by force.  A kingdom that might invade its neighbours in a holy war to impose the faith upon them, or externally encourage subversion and foment rebellion in the neighbours for that purpose.

In advocating a ‘Christian state’ such people think they are honouring Jesus, but in fact they are contradicting him at the key point of his declaration of innocence when on trial for his life.  If you think about it either they are saying

  • “Jesus meant what he said to Pilate about his kingdom not being of this world; but we know better what kind of kingdom Jesus should have”. Or they are saying
  • “Jesus intended kingdoms-of-this-world/Christian-states all along; but he misled Pilate about his intentions”.  Effectively they accuse Jesus of lying, yet of course can’t explain why Jesus would do so.

I’m not sure which of these options is worse.  The arrogance of claiming to know better than their Lord the Son of God, or the sheer blasphemy of accusing the Lord, the Son of God, of lying.  Perhaps the second, because although others are misled as a result, the arrogance in the first case mostly affects the moral position of the arrogant themselves; accusing Jesus of lying threatens the atonement itself, because if Jesus were a liar  that would make Him a sinner and therefore unable to die as an innocent sacrifice!

But what is arguably worse still is that the advocates of Christian states are generally not consciously saying either of these terrible things; rather, they so take for granted the idea of a Christian state that they have never thought through this issue at all, they have blinded themselves to it.

Pilate took Jesus seriously, that his kingdom is not of this world, and declared Jesus innocent.  The advocates of the ‘Christian state’ do not take Jesus seriously, and end up saying that Pilate should have found Jesus guilty!!   For faith in an innocent Jesus who can therefore save you, follow Jesus as Lord and follow what he said on this issue, and reject the ‘Christian state’ lobby!

[i] And of course ‘the Jews’ should not be held responsible for ever for the actions of a few leaders and what was effectively a ‘Rent-a-mob’.  Modern Jews are no more ‘responsible for the crucifixion’ than any Gentile unbeliever.  And in any case as Christians we are meant to follow the example of Paul who, far from wanting to persecute his fellow-Jews, said that if it was possible he would be prepared to lose his own salvation to save them!!

[ii] interestingly, a case where we very likely have more than usual ‘the actual words’, since the Koine Greek ‘trader language’ of the New Testament would be the common language of Roman Pilate and Galilean Jesus, whereas most of Jesus’ teaching  would have been in the Aramaic usually spoken among the Jews at that time, which Pilate would not have known.