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Church & State Responsibilities

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With Dan Kiehl
Senior Pastor of Oakwood Presbyterian Church

QUESTION: “What about the ‘separation of church and state’? What does the Bible teach about the role of the Church in relation to the State?”

ANSWER: There is no way to answer this question in a few paragraphs, but I’ll try to set out a couple of key principles. First of all, it is true that the Church and the state are separate entities established by God for different purposes. History is full of wrong-headed and tragic attempts to create a hybrid church /state, where ecclesiastical and civil authority are mixed and confused.

However, even though God created the church and state with separate responsibilities and spheres of responsibility, He didn’t ever intend for them to operate in total isolation from each other. They have a very important connection to each other – they were built upon the same foundation, the Word and authority of God Himself. Paul teaches in Romans 13, “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.” When Pilate boasted of his authority to Jesus, our Lord replied, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above.” This is an important point – whether those in civil government recognize it or not, their position and authority come from God, and they are accountable to him for how they use it.

The idea of a “neutral” state, which is immune from any religious influence, is not only foreign to Scripture, it is also logically impossible. Is murder wrong? Is stealing wrong? Is abortion the taking of a human life? Is assisted-suicide a legitimate option for suffering elderly people? Is a committed relationship between two men or two women a legitimate marriage? These are decisions which can only be made based upon a religious worldview. The question isn’t whether or not a government official should be influenced by his religious views or not; the question is, which religious views are influencing his decisions?

America is not a theocracy, and I don’t believe that it is God’s intent to establish a theocracy like Old Testament Israel in this age. However, God does still hold all human governments accountable for their decisions and actions, judging them by the standards of His holy and perfect law. In Romans 13, Paul says that a governing official is “God’s servant to do you good…He is God’s servant, and agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.” Civil government is given “the power of the sword” to punish lawbreakers, protect against enemy aggressors, to restrain wickedness and provide order in society. But how should our society define “lawbreaking”, “enemies”, “wickedness”, and “order”? These are fundamentally moral and religious questions.

This brings us to role of the Church in relation to the state. Again, even though there are no Israel-like theocracies today, I still believe that the basic principle of church / state relations is embodied in the structure of Old Testament Israel. The three authorities in Israel were embodied in the prophets, priests, and kings. The Kings wielded the power of the sword in punishment and protection, while the priests oversaw the ceremonial system of worship and religious instruction. The prophets were the means by which God communicated truth to the King and the people. This is well illustrated by the crucial relationship between the prophets and King David. The prophets were the spokesmen and interpreters of God’s will for the King, whether it was in his personal life (i.e., condemnation of his adultery with Bathsheba) or in his public office (condemnation of his decision to number his troops) (Cf., also John the Baptist’s denunciations of King Herod).

So how does all of this apply to a 21st century democracy like the U.S. of A.? Even though many of the laws in Scripture applied uniquely to Old Testament Israel or to the Church, the rest of God’s laws form the basic principles by which any government should carry out its responsibilities. The fact that no government on earth is listening doesn’t change the fact that they are still accountable to God and to his standards. And the Church continues to bear the responsibility of being “the prophetic voice to the king”, speaking the truth in love. How else could the civil authorities know the will of God? The church has no power or authority of the sword from God to force government officials (or anyone else) to comply with God’s will; our job is only to proclaim the truth, and then trust in the power of the Holy Spirit to change hearts and society. And we are blessed to live in a country where we still have multiple means of expressing God’s truth to those who govern us.

in Bible

Bible Translation

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            I read an article once about the meticulous process by which the experts at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. have preserved the most precious documents from our country’s history, such as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.  Over a five-year period, they worked to extract them from the deteriorating encasements that had protected them for the past fifty years, and then placed them in high-tech, state-of-the-art encasements that will hopefully protect these crucial documents for centuries to come.

             As I read with fascination about the extreme care and honor with which these parchments were handled, I was reminded of Paul’s instruction to Timothy:  “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.”  There is no more solemn and awesome responsibility in the world than that of “rightly handling the word of truth.”  I’m not talking about physical manipulation of the document; instead I’m referring to the duty that every generation in the Church has to ensure that God’s Word is faithfully and completely transmitted to two generations – its own and the one that follows.

             God revealed His word between 1,400 BC and 100 AD, using over 40 different authors to produce the inerrant and infallible book that explains that which the wonders of God’s creation cannot explain – who He is, for what purpose He created us, what went wrong, and how we can be delivered from our misery.  Every word that God revealed through the prophets and apostles – even every “jot and tittle”, as Jesus put it – is “God breathed” (II Timothy 3:16), and nothing is to be added to or taken away from what He has revealed (Proverbs 30:5,6; Revelation 22:18,19).  Therefore, this word of truth must be handled rightly and with extreme care.

             Alongside of the responsibility of each generation to guard and protect the content of the revealed word of God is the equally important responsibility of translating it into the common languages of the people.  It is the difficult task of Biblical scholars in every age and place to translate God’s word into the vernacular without distorting it.  We in the English-speaking world are deeply indebted to those “approved workers” who were willing to give up their lives in order to translate the Bible into English, beginning with John Wycliffe in England in the late 1300’s and later William Tyndale and others.

             In the 1600’s the King James Version became the dominant English translation of the Bible, and it remained so for the next 300 years.  However, since 1950 there has been a virtual explosion of new English translations of the Bible.  While the new translations have, in many cases, led to improvements in accuracy and readability, there also has been a troubling trend in the approach to translation that they reflect.  Whereas, until 1950, the concern was to translate the Bible word-for-word from the original languages into English, the move recently has been to translate the Bible “thought-for-thought”.  In other words, in an attempt to make the Bible more easily understood by modern readers, the concern is not so much to translate the words of the original texts as it is to translate the Biblical author’s meaning behind his words. 

             Some of the modern translations are known as “paraphrases” (e.g., The Living Bible, The Message), and the “translators” are very up front about the fact that words and phrases in the original text are changed and / or supplemented in an effort to make the meaning of the text more clear to even the most uneducated readers.  These “translations” are really more commentaries on the Scripture than Scripture itself.  More difficult to classify are translations like the New International Version, which employs a “word-for-word” method of translation for the most part, but uses a “thought-for-thought” approach where the translators felt that the text wouldn’t be easily read or understood by a modern reader with an eighth grade education.  For example, when the Bible uses the title  “the Lord of Hosts” for God, the New International Version of the Bible translates it as “the Lord Almighty”.  While this would be a limited but accurate interpretation of the title, it is not a translation of the original words.  Unfortunately, the imagery of spiritual warfare and the heavenly armies inherent in “Lord of Hosts” is obscured by the NIV’s “translation”.

             The danger of mixing translation and interpretation has become apparent in the controversy over a “gender neutral” version of the NIV several years ago.  In response to sexism and chauvinism in our culture, a version of the NIV has been produced that attempts to change references in the Bible to “man” or “men”, along with masculine pronouns, when it is believed that the original intent of the author was to include all humans of both genders.  In many cases this is legitimate, but in some cases it has changed or obscured the meaning of the original.  It clearly raises the question of what affect the translators’ agenda can have on the translation itself.

             As a preacher of the Bible, I am expected to have some knowledge of the original Hebrew and Greek and to be able to know exactly what the original authors wrote by the Holy Spirit’s guidance.  Then it is my responsibility to interpret what they wrote and communicate that meaning to others and to help them apply it to their lives.  But my interpretation and application of the words of Scripture can be wrong, and should always be measured by and held accountable to God’s word itself.  The translation and interpretation processes shouldn’t be combined or confused. 

 Therefore, I believe that the job of the translators of Scripture should be to translate the exact words of the original text, and – as far as possible – to not add their interpretation of the meaning of those words.  This is why Oakwood has chosen to use the English Standard Version (ESV) in our worship services.  It is very readable, but its translators were driven by a desire to come as close as possible to a “word-for-word” rendering of the original languages.