God, the State, and You
“Church and State Face Off in Referendum on Divorce in Ireland”
THIS headline in The New York Times illustrates how people today may be confronted with a choice between what the State wants and what their church teaches.
The article stated: “With less than a month before a referendum on whether to abolish its constitutional ban on divorce, overwhelmingly Roman Catholic Ireland is witnessing a rare clash between the leaders of its Government and those of its church.” The State proposed the removal of the ban on divorce, whereas the Catholic Church strongly opposes divorce and remarriage. Irish Catholics had to choose between Church and State. As it turned out, the State won by a narrow margin.
More dramatically, for many years people in Northern Ireland have been faced with a bitter conflict over national sovereignty. Many have been killed. Roman Catholics and Protestants have had opposing views on which State to submit to: continued British rule in Northern Ireland or a centralized government for the whole of Ireland.
Similarly, in what was Yugoslavia, the ruling authorities have required members of different faiths, including the Catholic and the Orthodox, to fight in a battle for territory. For average citizens, where did their first duty lie? Were they to follow those who claimed to represent the State, or were they to obey God, who says: “You must not murder . . . You must love your neighbor as yourself”?—Romans 13:9.
You may think that this kind of situation may never affect you. But it could. In fact, it may concern you even now. In his book The State in the New Testament, theologian Oscar Cullmann speaks of “life-and-death decisions modern Christians must or may be called upon to make in desperate situations when threatened by totalitarian governments.” However, he also speaks of “the equally real and important responsibility of every Christian—also the Christian living under so-called ‘normal,’ ‘everyday’ conditions—to face and answer a serious problem which confronts him simply because he is a Christian.”
So should the relationship between religion and the State interest Christians today? It certainly should. From the earliest times, Christians have tried to cultivate a balanced view of secular authorities. Their Leader, Jesus Christ, was judged, condemned, and executed by the Roman State. His disciples had to reconcile their Christian obligations with their duties to the Roman Empire. A review of their relationship with the authorities will, therefore, provide guidelines for Christians today.
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Tom Haley/Sipa Press