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English: Church versus State

The Intersection of Church and State (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Recently, I spent the day with a friend who would probably like nothing better than to exhume Hitler‘s dead body and raise it from the dead just so he could kill him again. Same goes for Stalin and a few other evil world leaders.

We had a great conversation about the differences between fascism and communism and why both are hated in this country. I spent much of the morning cringing at his vehemence. It’s not that I don’t dislike the two political world-views, it’s just that I cannot muster that level of hatred that is so readily wielded by my old friend.

Talking politics and culture and philosophy like that, we discovered something scary about the Church in the process.The Church? Yes, the Church.

Well, it finally came up. I asked him what he thought of the Church’s occasional forays into both communism and fascism.

His response was immediate. “What does the Church have to do with Fascism or Communism?” he wanted to know. “That’s an economic and political description! Churches aren’t economic structures,” my friend argued. ‘And we aren’t supposed to be political.”

I had a few thoughts, but they weren’t clear, so we looked up the ideas.

FASCISM
1. often capitalized : a political philosophy, movement, or regime (as that of the Fascisti) that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition

COMMUNISM
1. capitalized
: a doctrine based on revolutionary Marxian socialism and Marxism-Leninism that was the official ideology of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics
: a totalitarian system of government in which a single authoritarian party controls state-owned means of production
: a final stage of society in Marxist theory in which the state has withered away and economic goods are distributed equitably

Well, he was right. These ideas were and are of an economic and political disposition.

But I had bad news for him.

Church as Economic System

commune of Sermentizon : church, (Puy-de-Dôme,...

Commune of Sermentizon : chapel, (Puy-de-Dôme, France). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The root of the word “economic” is oikos. And that word appears in the New Testament as a means of describing the church as the household of God. I’ve even talked about it here on this blog. A great deal of my understanding comes from Dr. Doug Meeks. Look up his book on the subject of the household economy of God.

As Christians, we believe in things like sharing and giving things away. Early Christians lived in communes where they shared everything. Note the word and it’s obvious root relationship with communism. Though they shared willingly, there were punishments for those who pledged to share, but held things back. It’s actually a story from the Book of Acts.

So we had a hard time with that, as you might imagine.

What we finally agreed on was that the Soviets didn’t ask. They just made people “share” even though things weren’t shared equally.

“So your real problem is with fascism, then?” I asked. “Well, yeah. I guess so,” was his answer. We agreed.

Church as Political Authority

Woodcut illustration depicting the crossed key...

Woodcut illustration depicting the crossed keys representing the Church’s power to loose and to bind, used by Heinrich Stayner of Augsburg (Photo credit: Penn Provenance Project)

That settled it. We didn’t like it when people made other people do something that they didn’t want to do. That’s fascism, and that’s bad.

Problem solved, right? So we moved on.

But just a few moments later, he stopped mid-sentence. We had moved on to calmer topics around the subjects of Wesleyan scholarship and University of Tennessee Football (neither of which is particularly divisive when both parties agree that Wesley was right and UT deserves the Heisman and the BCS rings every year).

“We’re wanna-be fascists.”

I, being slow, didn’t follow him right away. I started trying to put UT Football and fascism together, and I just couldn’t do it. Good thing, since it turned out he was talking about the church.

“We’re wanna-be facists,” he repeated. “We want to make people act and believe the way we want them to act and believe.”

We didn’t go into detail. We both knew the large number of Christians who were actively lobbying against legalizing same-sex marriage. We both knew the near fervor reached in some churches around election time (on both sides of the aisle). And we both knew very well the leanings of conservative Christians sometimes caused folks to vote a straight Republican ticket.

Jonathan Merritt, a Southern Baptist who writes on faith and culture, is on the record as “waiting for a resolution naming Sean Hannity as an honorary fourth member of the Trinity.” – [See more at religionnews.com]

“What does ‘wanna-be fascists’ mean?” I asked. “I mean, for the way we do church?”

Now, THAT conversation was long. The topics were wide and varied. But by the time we concluded the debate/conversation/discussion, we had firmly agreed that our job was not to force folks to accept Christ. We both decried jihad as a method of evangelism, whether it was at the point of a sword or the barrel of a gun or the tip of a law-writing pen. And we both agreed that a religious belief that was forced was no belief at all for the person upon whom it was inflicted.

Is there "free will" in heaven? What...

Is there “free will” in heaven? What about “free will” in life? (Photo credit: Zombie Inc.)

Love Them Enough to Tell Them; Respect Them Enough to Let Them

In the first part of Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome, Paul says not once, but three times. “God gave them over to …” some sort of sinful mindset, depravity, or bad decision.

But how can we let someone do such a thing? Because God does. Because God evidently believes in the power of the human will that he put within us, and values the worship and honor that is freely given above that which is forced on a heart against it’s will.

We don’t have to approve of a sinful life, or a bad decision. And we don’t have to bind them to our beliefs.

But we do have an obligation to love, to share, and to exemplify the way of life that we think is right. We are simply called to offer an alternative, another choice.

Religion: The Tie That Binds

The very word, religion, comes from two root words: ligios – to bind, and re – again.

Sailors once tied themselves to mast and rail when the storms threatened to wash them away from the deck of their ships. There’s wisdom in binding oneself at times.

But we do it wrong when we bind others without their permission. That’s kidnapping.

That’s fascism.

We have to be comfortable with saying, “Our answers may not be your answers. Your beliefs may be different from ours.”

Naturally, there are some who will be able to persist because they are heart-broken to think of the consequences of unrepented sin. But more frequent is the case that some of our folks have simply decided that they are right and have the power to inflict that view because of money, power, and station in life. And so they do.

We must speak up when powerful Christian men and women foist their beliefs upon a smaller and less powerful minority.  That, I believe, is the definition of fascism, wrapped in the robes of a church, undoing the work of Jesus Christ as fast as it can.

And that’s wrong.

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Author: Joey Reed

Joey is married to his best friend. Together, they have two children and live in Jackson, Tennessee. Joey serves Grace United Methodist Church, the Jackson District, the Memphis Annual Conference, and the world is his parish.