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How do we rightly relate church and state?

Augustine on the times in between

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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