Thursday, September 20, 2012

Separation of Church & State vs. Two Kingdoms

My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about Separation of Church and State:

Q:  Is it appropriate for Christians to influence government and promote laws that are consistent with their morality?  Is the idea of a separation between church and state biblical? 

The accusation is frequently being made in our nation that certain Christians are seeking to impose their beliefs on the rest of the country.  These accusations often assume that it is immoral or illegal for religious people to make or enforce laws if those laws are based on religious ideas. 

This opinion is mistaken, though, because the constitution’s protections only go in one direction.  That is, they forbid the government from imposing religious practice on citizens, and they forbid the government from interfering in the religious exercise of its citizens.  However, it does not forbid citizens from choosing leaders or supporting causes based on their religious convictions.  In other words, the constitutional provisions only work in one direction.  The government may not interfere in the practice of religion, but religious people are free to influence the course of government. 

Prior to the Christian Reformation, it was simply assumed that government and religion were unified.  Under this assumption, popes would often coerce kings and princes into ruling according to his desires, and rulers at various levels would often impose their religion on their subjects.  It was in the midst of the Reformation that Martin Luther first introduced the idea that religion and government acted in separate spheres.  Instead of “separation of church and state,” he instead used the language of “two kingdoms.” 

Luther proposed a framework in which God ruled with His “right hand” through the Gospel by grace to forgive sins and save souls, and a separate kingdom where God ruled with His “left hand”, through the work of earthly laws and rulers, to preserve safety and keep order in society.  He saw these as separate, yet complimentary ways in which God provides and protects humanity. 

Often, religious morality makes good public policy, such as when laws are made against murder, theft, fraud, and other ways that people will harm one another, because these laws protect citizens from being injured or robbed by ill-intentioned neighbors by regulating external actions.  On other occasions, religious morality does not make good public policy.  This is particularly true when dealing with internal motivations or desires.  Laws against greed, lust, or hatred, for example, would be impossible to enforce, not to mention universally disobeyed.  Likewise, we have seen that laws prohibiting all alcohol sale or possession and forbidding Sunday commerce have also been ill-conceived. 

This is why you see Christians promoting some Biblical values as worthy of being national law but not others.  So, for example, there is not a strong movement among Christians to promote laws against adultery or the use of obscene language.  When we do see Christians supporting laws which reflect their morality, they are doing so not to impose their morality on others, but in order to help and protect their fellow citizens—not because it is God’s law, but rather because it makes good public policy.

So when we see Christians supporting pro-life measures, they do so for the sake of protecting living-yet-unborn citizens.  When Christians support measures which protect marriage and preserve the family, it is because these interests promote the good of the nation, and it is not in the best interest of the state to adopt innovative definitions in this sphere. 

For the government, religious origin could never become a standard for accepting or rejecting law, because then a vast majority of laws, even those forbidding murder, would have to go.  For the Church, this means that she ought not have the illusion that her hope is in the government reflecting her morality.  The Church does not deal in the sphere of legislation and coercion, but rather in the sphere of proclamation and persuasion by God’s Word, so that Christ’s message will go forth regardless of the laws of the state.  As the Psalm says, “Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation…the Lord will reign forever, your God, O Zion, to all generations.”

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Why do Churches face East?

My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about Church Architecture:

Q:  As I travel, I have observed a tendency for churches to face east.  Is there any significance to this, and is there a rule about what direction a church must face? 

In Matthew 24:27, Jesus says, "As the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man."  Ezekiel 43:4 also speaks of God’s presence as arriving from the East. 

In light of these verses, as well as other verses that compare God’s encounters with Christians to the rising sun, Christians have chosen to represent Jesus second coming in architecture, art, and other types of symbolism as being "from the east to the west."

Since Christian worship is sometimes described as a preview of Jesus’ return as well as a moment of heaven coming down to earth, and because Christians are reminded in Scripture to always be watchful regarding the return of Jesus, the Church chose to represent this in traditional church architecture by situating the Altar (which is the focal point of Christian liturgy) in the East end of the building, so that as Christians worship, they are facing the direction from which Jesus’ return is represented—as if they were watching for the Lord to arrive.

Other passages from the Bible use Jerusalem to represent the center of the reign of Jesus in the life of the world to come, and it is a popular to think of Jerusalem as the location where Jesus will touch down and sit in judgment when He returns “just as [the Apostles] saw him go up into heaven” at His Ascension.  For those of us Christians who live in the United States, Southern Europe, or Northern Africa, this also means that when we worship facing east, we face Jerusalem, making the visual imagery of the Church worshiping in expectation of Jesus’ return even more vivid. 

This custom is also represented in traditional cemetery planning.  Caskets have historically been placed with the head to the west and the feet to the east to paint the picture of the saints worshipping in the Church and being resurrected to face Jesus when He returns. (a person laying with their head to the west would face east if they were to stand up.) Additionally, when funerals are held in liturgical congregations, it is customary during the service to place the casket with the feet toward the altar to reflect a similar image and to remind us that the deceased believer and all the company of heaven continue to worship along with the Church even in death.

One particularly interesting exception to this custom exists, which is the funeral and burial of pastors. Pastors caskets would be situated with the head facing the altar during the service and buried with their head facing east and the feet west. The reason for this is that in the picture presented by this custom, the pastors would rise to proclaim the return of Jesus to their people, thus rising with their backs toward Jesus and facing the rest of the saints.

This is different from the traditions of other religions, such as the tradition of the Muslims which requires them to face Mecca during prayer, because this is not intended as a command or mandatory regulation, nor is it intended to earn anything from God.  Instead, it is for the purpose of visually representing and spatially depicting the reality of Jesus’ promised return, and thus better instructing the gathered faithful about the teachings of the Church.