was in charge, Stu Crossan writes.
From its beginning, the church has always acknowledged that Jesus Christ is in charge.This is unsurprising when you consider how the church got started. Jesus appeared to them alive, three days after they saw him killed on a Roman cross. It was the miracle that turned a small sect of Jewish believers (perhaps around 120 people) into a movement that would change the course of global history. The question of authority in any movement, institution, government or nation, is always a key question to resolve if you are to avoid conflict and know what the limits of power are.
For perhaps a 1000 years in Western culture, the church assumed that it was in charge. But this assumption was not one that Jesus shared. When he was famously asked a question about paying taxes his response was instructive: "Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s."
Jesus assumes that the government of the day has a certain area of jurisdiction. The challenge is working out where this authority begins and ends. History shows that any institution which assumes complete authority is in dangerous territory.
"Power tends to corrupt," said Lord Acton, the 19th-century British historian, "absolute power corrupts absolutely."
Totalitarian political regimes are easy to identify in present and recent history. Communist and Fascist regimes alike are prone to horrific abuses of human dignity and freedoms. In more distant history the church, when it wielded almost total power in Europe in the middle ages, was guilty of terrible abuses in the name of God.
Over the last 100 years, as the church has receded in its influence in Western culture, the state government has assumed greater and greater influence and authority in the lives of its people. This is also the case in communist nations like China and Russia, where the individual citizen’s freedom is radically compromised.
Last century, the Dutch prime minister and theologian Abraham Kuyper proposed a model of authority he called sphere sovereignty. The basic concept was that people and institutions are given freedom under God to exercise their lives as they best see fit. The family has jurisdiction over the family, the education sphere has jurisdiction over schools and universities, the legal profession has jurisdiction over the courts, the church has authority to foster public worship of God and so on across all of society. Government has authority in the provision of public goods and justice, and in maintaining the freedoms of a civil society. Under this model, authority by all institutions is limited and focused on their primary purpose. While the state government has a God-given role in exercising and maintaining justice, it does not have final authority to tell parents how to raise their children. The state does not have final authority to tell schools what to teach our children and the government does not have authority to determine what product a company should produce.
We live in an age when all problems seem to be laid at the feet of the government of the day: crime, employment, education, the homeless, the hungry. We seem to think it’s the government’s job to fix every problem in our society — it’s not. Only God, the creator of the universe, has the capacity to solve all of our problems. It is a lazy blasphemy to expect the state to provide for my every need. As a friend of mine said this week: "Jesus is the only way to solve this broken world".
When the early church declared that Jesus Christ is Lord of all, the unspoken assumption was that Caesar was not (lord).
As we head towards our general election, it is easy to assume that a newly-elected government will miraculously solve the dilemma of crime or the declining education standards in our schools or the epidemic of mental health. Our state government has an important role to play in our public life.
There are some public goods which you and I don’t have the means to provide (like a shiny new hospital for example). But for the majority of the issues of our day, we will only make progress when we turn back to the one who created this good world and acknowledge that he is ultimately in charge.
■The Rev Stu Crosson is senior minister at Hope Church Dunedin.