Church, state and freedom of religion — Michael Cassidy
A monthly column by Michael Cassidy, evangelist, author, Christian leader and founder of African Enterprise whose ministry in Africa and the world has spanned more than 50 years.
The South African government are standing ready with two documents which they are wanting to push through parliament at all costs. These are:
- The prevention and combating of Hate Crimes and Hate Speech Bill.
- The CRL (Cultural, Religious and Linguistic) Commission’s Report on the Commercialisation of Religion in South Africa.
These bills are very sinister, perilous and definitely an invasion of religious freedom. The fact is that if taken literally these bills will intrude at certain points on what the Church may or may not teach and preach. This is completely inappropriate and unacceptable for Christians.
The Helen Suzman Foundation has written saying, amongst other things, that “the Bill’s vague and broad wording in attempting to define Hate Speech holds considerable dangers for freedom of expression. The phrasing and structure of the Bill allows for potential abuse in curbing speech that is unpopular, critical or politically unwanted. In going as far as criminalising actions that are ‘insulting’, and others that ‘bring into contempt or ridicule’, the Bill fails to differentiate between behaviour which is harmful and behaviour which is offensive, and ends up criminalising both…
“In terms of the Bill, if you were to ridicule someone for clearly laughable behaviour, you and many others such as satirists, comedians, and journalists could potentially face criminal charges, with either a fine and/or a jail sentence up to three years on first conviction. By criminalising aspects of speech that are constitutionally protected the Bill goes beyond the limitations created by the Constitution, by current legislation and by the common law.
“The fact is that the purposes for which the Bill has ostensibly been drafted are effectively achieved by the existing limitations on freedom of expression found in the Constitution, as well as other existing legislation and the common law.”
Thus, for example, if Christians assert that they believe the Christian way of Salvation is the right and true way, and Islam and other religions are therefore in error, this could be read as offensive or hate speech. Likewise if pastors preach their understanding of the Bible that Same-Sex Marriage is morally unacceptable, this could be considered offensive or hate speech.
In the circumstances, there appears to be a head-on collision between Church and State which we need to face.
The New Testament has much to say about the State and by extension about politics. Biblical theology recognises the State as a divine order of control whereby order of man’s outward organisation is maintained.
The State is a divinely ordained phenomenon (Romans 13:1) to promote justice and prevent social chaos. Civil government therefore has a divine responsibility. It stands under God and is answerable to Him. As “ministers of God” (Romans 13:6) government authorities have an immense responsibility to rule and lead in a way compatible with the Christian ethic and to promote “good conduct” (Romans 13:3).
They are to approve “what is good”, while working always for the “good” of all citizens (Romans 13:3). The justice of the State is to be patterned on and reflect the justice of God (Romans 13:4). Thus for example, apartheid laws and rule served the good of one section of people at the expense of others. It was not for the good of all.
Now while the Bible affirms that the State is divinely established to promote external justice by outer constraints, it also recognises that the State, also vulnerable to sin and fallibility may gravitate to the demonic. The most obvious modern example is Nazi Germany.
The fact is that apart from God’s control, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Any State, of course, has power and must have power. Power is the essence of the State and the State more than any other institution is the ultimate repository of the power and strength of organised humanity. But its power is not there for its own sake, but for service. The State is to be “God’s servant for (our) good” (Romans 13:4). And if it is indeed God’s servant it has a transcendent point of accountability. It cannot be a law unto itself.
This underlines as Thomas Aquinas affirmed, that human law and authority are subject to internal and divine law.
The corollary of this is that the Church everywhere in every country must remind the State that its call to rule is part of a higher call to obey.
Thus when the State ceases to serve God and man, it deserves the criticism, the condemnation and sometimes even the disobedience of Christians.
The Church must also be clear about its witness to the State. The Church is to be there as a reminder to the State that what we see in the world is not the ultimate but at best the penultimate, “for the whole frame of this world is passing away” (1 Corinthians 7:31).
The Church is to be there as a sort of counter-sign, as a constant demonstration to the State of the kind of model community on earth towards which the State should be striving. The Church is not to be a pale reflection of the State, but the State should be seeking to reflect the Churches’ example.
Beyond that the Church is to pray for the State. St Paul urges priority prayer “for Kings and all who are in high positions” (1 Timothy 2:2). In South Africa Christians must not despair and must continue to pray for our leaders and to seek their conversion so that the country could be “Godly and quietly governed”. Great prayer meetings such as Angus Buchan is calling for on 22nd April in Bloemfontein have great importance.
The Church is to manifest itself as the conscience of the State, never allowing its own theology to be subordinated to the State’s ideology.
Another lesson is that the Church must speak its word in time. Thus going back to the Idi Amin era my own feeling is that the Ugandan Church, for all the magnificence of its courageous testimony once Amin’s wrath was let loose on it, left its prophetic words of challenge and warning until too late. The same was true of Rwanda before the 1994 genocide. The Rwandan Church delayed its strong prophetic witness until it was too late. As to Nazi Germany, the only group that Hitler was scared of was the Protestant Church, but by and large it remained silent till it was too late. Thereafter there could only be the isolated and very costly witness of people like Bonhoeffer and Niemoller.
So as far as South Africa is concerned, the Church needs to make it very clear to the State that there are biblical limits to what the State can do or legislate. And this needs to be made clear now. This can be done by Christians being clear and firm in their witness and by Church leaders speaking a clear prophetic word to the State.
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