How do we rightly relate church and state?

Augustine on the times in between

October 26, 2020

Editor’s Note: This article is part of our primer series on Christians ethics where a respected leader and thinker recommends and gives a summary overview of a book that helps orient readers to a certain aspect of ethics and philosophy. This series is designed to equip the local church to engage foundational texts of Christian ethics. Find the entire series here

For much of history, Christians have understood the church and the state as two orders given as good gifts by God. Rightly relating the two is no easy task. Historically there are two temptations regarding the proper relation of the church to the state. 

Absolutely apart? 

First, some are tempted to hold church and state absolutely apart. In doing so, they tend to conflate the relationship between church and state with the relationship between religion and politics, extending to political life a strict separation from religious convictions. This view aspires to a vision of secularism which sees the task of living together peacefully as requiring political discourse to be areligious. It may even see institutional religion as toxic to the preservation of a well-functioning pluralist society. 

Some Christians may even embrace this view, holding that we ought not bring our religious convictions with us into the public square. They may do so out of the belief that arguing for policies or visions of justice framed directly from our Christian commitments may inappropriately compel others to accept religious beliefs against their will.

Other Christians may possess a vision of the Christian faith as a fundamentally private affair, which has very little bearing on the construction of a political order. After all, did not Jesus himself state, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17, ESV)? 

The problem with this view is that it holds that political arrangements can be constructed from a neutral standpoint of reason, without recourse to religious conviction. Secularism is often self-possessed of such naivete, failing to recognize that secularism is often a shroud for a thinly veiled religiosity itself. In fact, its religious convictions about human reason or even identity being are sacred sources of truth in themselves. It is a religion of an imminent order, seeing no place for reference to a transcendent God.

Accordingly, when we seek to answer how the church and state ought to be related, we must start from the belief that religious convictions are fundamental and prior to the shaping of any worldview.

Too closely together? 

The second pull regarding the relation of church and state is to hold them too closely together. Again, this is to conflate the religious and the political with the church and state, though this position sees politics as rightly ordered only when it is subservient to the church. This was the predominant temptation of Christians for over a thousand years of Western history.

This position rightly sees the Christian faith as having a direct bearing on the shape of our civic life. However, it wrongly sees the church as possessing the God-given authority to dictate to the state what this should be. 

Our Christian convictions certainly ought to play a pivotal role in our approach to political life. Subsuming the state under the power of institutional religion misunderstands the nature and scope of the church’s earthly authority, taking for itself the power to compulse by force that which belongs to King Jesus alone, when in reality its public power is to compel.

How should we seek to navigate between these twin pulls toward secularism and ecclesialism? Saint Augustine can help us avoid both pitfalls by leading us to ask, “What are we, as humans?” and “What time is it, in God’s telling of history?”

Augustine on worship and sacred history

Augustine, Bishop of Hippo in North Africa, is almost unparalleled in the breadth of his influence on Christian thought. His theology, however, was hardly systematic, and his approach to social order was highly complex.

In his Saeculum: History and Society in the Theology of St. Augustine, Robert Markus provides one of the most lucid and helpful summaries of Augustine’s understanding of social order. In the book, Markus’ aim is to explore what Augustine thought about the nature and purpose of society and how the church should understand its relation to it. 

To have a sense of the paradigm Markus proposes, it is helpful to have a cursory understanding of Augustine’s magnum opus, The City of God. Written over the course of 16 years at the beginning of the fifth century, Augustine’s book is part defense of the Christian faith against pagan critics, and part argument for how Christians ought to understand God’s history in the world and Christians’ place in it. At the heart of the work lies his belief that human beings at their most basic level are worshipping creatures. They are made to worship God, but because of sin they worship elements of creation as idols. 

Because Christians are never fully sanctified until the final resurrection, the city of God can never be fully realized here and now. Christians will always live as pilgrim citizens of the heavenly city as they go about their lives in the earthly city.

When we look at the whole of human history there are really only two groupings of people, each constituted by its ultimate love. The city of God is defined by the love of God, and its citizens are all those who have been born again by his grace, and therefore can properly order their affections toward him. The earthly city is really an anti-city, a shadow arrangement characterized by disordered love and idolatry. Neither city is fully synonymous with any one particular grouping of people in history, but both exist alongside one another in any given time and place.

Because Christians are never fully sanctified until the final resurrection, the city of God can never be fully realized here and now. Christians will always live as pilgrim citizens of the heavenly city as they go about their lives in the earthly city. As sojourners seeking to be good neighbors in the earthly city, Augustine calls Christians to understand what we as humans fundamentally are (i.e., worshippers), and to use God’s creation in a way that exhibits and leads to increasingly more worship of him. 

This forms the initial foundation of Augustine’s social though. To complete it, Markus argues that we must also understand Augustine’s approach to history and its ultimate meaning. For Augustine, there are two types of history: sacred and secular history. 

Sacred history includes all of God’s work in the world concerning the coming of Christ, his work of redemption on the cross, his resurrection and his imminent return. The events of sacred history are the only historical happenings which bear ultimate meaning, and the reason for this is that these events are the only ones which come to us with authoritative interpretation of their significance through God’s self-revelation in Scripture. We can know why they happen and what purpose God is working toward in them because God has told us so. 

Secular history includes everything else, all occurrences of ordinary human life. Secular history only has significance in reference to sacred history, and this characteristic impels us to ask, “What time is it, in relation to sacred history?” We now live in the in-between time after Christ’s resurrection and ascension, and before his second coming. Because there are no defining markers of sacred history to give meaning to the present age, and because it is one which Scripture makes clear the city of God and the earthly city will exist co-mixed until Christ’s return, ours is an age marked by radical ambiguity. We cannot point to specific events or to political arrangements and pronounce an authoritative explanation of their meaning and purposefulness in God’s plan.

Church and state in the saeculum

How then is the church to understand its relation to political orders in the present saeculum, an ambiguous age between the Christ events? As Markus argues, for Augustine the church is not to see itself as synonymous with the state and its authority to wield coercive power, which for now rests in the domain of the earthly city, nor is the church to see itself as unrelated to it. Rather, the church is to see itself as uniquely concerned with the cultivation of the spiritual lives of the citizens of the city of God. 

Likewise, the state ought not to see itself as serving at the behest of the church or inaugurating Christ’s earthly end-times kingdom in the same way as the church. Instead, the state’s purpose in God’s plan is to preserve social order for all, citizens of the heavenly and earthly city alike. Therefore, while its grounding is religious, as any sense of justice must appeal to God and the proper worship of him, its operation cannot be to further any one religion, and thus recreate the earthly city prematurely into the heavenly one by force.

Augustine’s career as a church leader may throw doubt on the degree to which he held to this understanding, such as when he drew on state power to put down disruptive elements of the Donatist church faction. Markus argues, however, that his actions operate with some form of internal coherence in which he saw Christian individuals, rather than the offices of the state they held, as leveraging their influence to direct actions which would be seen as a blurring between matters of church and state.

Regardless, the imperative in Augustine’s thought is clear: in this time between the times church and state should remain clearly apart in their authority and social responsibilities. However, because Christians are to fill the offices of the state in order to uphold justice and enact laws for the common good, religion and politics must always be intermixed and mutually influencing. The state’s job is to ensure there is freedom to do so, while the church’s job is to fill society with the type of Christians who give guidance on the proper use of such freedom.

Dennis Greeson

Dennis Greeson is the associate director of the BibleMesh Institute and a Ph.D. candidate in Systematic Theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, with his wife and three children. He is passionate about the intersection of theology and culture, especially in the thought of Abraham Kuyper. Read More by this Author

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24