What is the relationship between the state and church? This question was thrown into intense relief at the outset of the so-called Nazification of the church in Germany back in the thirties. Because of this serpentine evil pressed against the people, and thus the German church, leaders in both the Lutheran and Reformed communions came together to form what would become known as the Confessing Church. Its most well-known participants were Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The leaders in this emerging church felt compelled to offer a declaration that would galvanize their respective position against what they discerned to be an overstep (understatement) of Hitler and his state church. The Confessing Church leadership believed, and rightly so, that the state had no business interfering with the church’s business; equally, they were convicted that the state itself had its own God-ordained integrity, to maintain order and law in and among the broader population. They articulated what they believed, with reference to these matters, in what came to be known as the Barmen Declaration. It is composed of various theses, under which explanation, both positive and negative is given. The thesis that particularly focused on the relationship between church and state is found in thesis 5; it reads as follows:
- “Fear God. Honor the Emperor.” 1 Pet. 2:17
Scripture tells us that by divine appointment the State, in this still unredeemed world in which also the Church is situated, has the task of maintaining justice and peace, so far as human discernment and human ability make this possible, by means of the threat and use of force. The Church acknowledges with gratitude and reverence toward God the benefit of this, his appointment. It draws attention to God’s Dominion [Reich], God’s commandment and justice, and with these the responsibility of those who rule and those who are ruled. It trusts and obeys the power of the Word, by which God upholds all things.
We reject the false doctrine that beyond its special commission the State should and could become the sole and total order of human life and so fulfil the vocation of the Church as well.
We reject the false doctrine that beyond its special commission the Church should and could take on the nature, tasks and dignity which belong to the State and thus become itself an organ of the State.1
Christiane Tietz in her recently released book, Karl Barth: A Life in Conflict, offers the following commentary and context for thesis 5:
The fifth thesis describes the relationship between church and state. The state is to provide justice and peace, the church is to remind the state of the kingdom of God and make the state aware that it must answer before God’s commandment and righteousness. There are two statements of rejection expressed under this thesis: the doctrine of the “totalitarian state” that seeks to dominate all areas of life, including the church, is rejected, as is the teaching that the church should take over the tasks or characteristics of the state. Barth later noted that a strong and vital church would have needed to judge the abuses of the Nazi state even more strongly. Even for these statements however they had to summon all their courage. In light of the ideology of that era the theses were “an immense contradiction.”2
Because my audience is varied, and probably not generally in-step with me on discerning our times, I want to provide further elaboration on what I think is actually happening in the state; and then how that is related in sinister form to the church at large. In order to help me elucidate my own perspective I will share a passage from Giorgio Agamben where he discusses the collapse of state directed medicine into a religion of its own. He writes:
The medical religion has unreservedly adopted from Christianity the eschatological appeal dropped by the latter. Capitalism, by secularising the theological paradigm of salvation, had already eliminated the idea of the end times, replacing it with a permanent state of crisis without redemption or end. ‘Krisis’ was originally a medical concept which designated, in the Hippocratic corpus of texts, the moment when the doctor decided whether the patient would be able to survive the disease. Theologians reprised the term to indicate the final judgement that occurs during the last day. If we look at the state of exception which we are now experiencing, we could say that the medical religion combines the perpetual crisis of capitalism with the Christian idea of the end times, of an eschaton where the extreme decision is constantly ongoing and where the end is simultaneously rushed and deferred in an incessant effort to govern it, without its ever being resolved once and for all. It is the religion of a world that feels itself to be at its end, and yet it cannot—like the Hippocratic doctor—decide whether it will survive or die.3
Lots of rich insight and perspective provided for by Agamben, but for my purposes what serves instructive is the link that is made between the medical superstructure, particularly as that is supported by the state (ie FDA, CDC, BigPharma, WHO etc.), and how this has sought to displace the church’s role as the church. Attendant to this sublation, of the church by the state, the medicine-state as religion now seeks to baptize all of its elect (even by the sword if necessary) with their ‘means of grace’ administered through the various holy waters on offer; whether that be mRNA based, or not. But without getting into those details further, suffice it to say, the church now is in just as precarious of a situation, and even greater than, what the Confessing Church was facing in the natural theology being promulgated by the state church of the Third Reich and Hitler. Things have been sophisticated since the 1930s by way of technology, and new communicative strategies and platforms for mass media and propaganda; but the sinister nature, and unholy ingress of the state into the sphere of the church is at an all-time high.
When state tyranny infringes on the people in general, and the church in particular, it is the church’s rightful place to say a resounding and holy, Nein! The church is here to bear witness to the reality of God’s life for the world, and the truth that comes with that kind of life as the ground and grammar of everything. When the state conflates itself with the church as the church, when it has ministers on the payroll, as they do in America through COVID relief, so on and so forth, this is the time for the Confessing Church of the 21st century to yell out a resounding, No! The Confessing Church is like the sons of Issachar who had “men who had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do (I Chronicles 12.32) . . . .” When the church discerns a tyrannical state using the name of Christ to grow its tyranny, particularly as it does that in the place of and as the church, then it is time for the churches, and any semblance of an emerging Confessing Church to take the mic and say, No!
Unfortunately, most mainstream evangelical pastors, and other church pastors of various movements and traditions, have failed to call out the statism as churchism currently underway in the world. They have failed to recognize, unlike Agamben, that there is a new religion in the world, and it is BigMedicine as a proxy for the state. Until pastors and theologians in the mainstream come to this realization, they will continue to bow the knee to Caesar, not realizing that they are even doing so. They will continue catechizing their people with notions that the ‘loving’ thing to do is to be baptized into this new religion, and bear witness to the fact that salvation has come to the masses in and through this new form of baptismal regeneration. Indeed, here is a learned pastor, I know, who just yesterday posted the following on Facebook:
Regardless of whether or not a government has the “right” to mandate vaccinations, masks, and social distancing, and regardless of whether or not I as an individual have the “right” to refuse, because I am a follower of Jesus called to love my neighbor, I have been fully vaccinated, I wear a mask and practice social distancing in public, and I avoid crowds. I’m not afraid of COVID-19. I love you enough to do whatever I can to protect you. If I catch SARS-CoV-2, I’ll likely recover fairly quickly because I am fully vaccinated, but I could still transmit it to someone who isn’t or to someone with a compromised immune system. As a follower of Jesus, I’m called to lay down my “rights” and serve. I don’t want you or any of your loved ones to wind up on a ventilator in an ICU. I’ve been in too many ICUs to wish that on anyone. Nor do I want you or your loved ones to die from a deadly pandemic. I’ve officiated at far too many funerals to ignore that possibility.4
This is a perfect example of how the state has reached into the church, and in the name of health and safety, presented ministers of the Gospel with a new law-code and Great Commission to be followed. It is couched in subterfuge and misinformation, and on this pastor’s part, received without any critical investigation whatsoever. As a result, he has become an unwitting tool in the hands of the angel of light, declaring health and safety over the masses in the name of an elixir that self-proclaims itself as the current means of salvation for the world.
The Confessing Church of the 21st century needs to cry out, Nein!, over and over again; and to do so as the sons and daughters of Issachar: viz. with understanding!
1 Barmen Declaration.
2 Christiane Tietz, Karl Barth: A Life in Conflict (New York: Oxford University Press, 2021), 235 kindle.
3 Giorgio Agamben, Where Are We Now?: The Epidemic As Politics (Lanham: Rowman&Littlefield, 2021), 53.
4 Anonymous, accessed 09-13-2021.