Through The Church

(from In Christ—The Church At Ephesus, forthcoming.)

To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. —Ephesians 3:7-10

In today’s world Christians too often want to impose Christian values upon the leaders of society. We see this in our politics as various groups work to impose their own understanding of good upon others through law and policy. Both sides, both the Right and the Left understand themselves to be working for the betterment of humanity through their various laws and policies. And both are partially right. Both focus on some particular aspect of society that needs improvement that they deem to be a kind of social driver for other social goods.

Liberals tend to focus on resource sharing, and Conservatives tend to focus on personal responsibility. Both are important, but neither can be legislated to the satisfaction of all. Nonetheless, both sides work feverishly to pass legislation that will further their cause, either resource sharing or personal responsibility. But both also see the work of the other side as undermining their own efforts to help society. Too much gratuitous resource sharing can undermine personal responsibility, and too much emphasis on personal responsibility can stunt needed resource sharing.

And as long as each side believes that the only or the best way to advance its cause is to impose its values on society through legislation, each side does in fact undermine the efforts of the other. The values of both sides are indeed socially good and important, but neither can be legislated because they are moral values not mere behaviors. Legislation addresses behaviors, but cannot accomplish what the various sides want to accomplish, a change or augmentation of moral values.

The old saying is that morality cannot be legislated. And while all legislation issues from moral sensitivity and imposes some sort of moral behavior, no legislation can create genuine, personal, willing moral sensitivity. For instance, love cannot be legislated because legislated behavior is imposed, not voluntary. And for love to be love it must be voluntary. Sure, some people will engage the legislated behavior whether it is legislated or not, but others will only submit to it under duress.

The problem is that moral instruction is not under the jurisdiction of the state according to the Bible. The state has the jurisdiction of the sword, of the imposition of justice regarding perpetrated crimes. The state deals with the consequences of immorality. The church, on the other hand, has the jurisdiction of the Word, of the teaching and instruction of morality. What morality? Which version of morality? God’s morality or biblical morality because there isn’t any other kind that is actually moral. And God’s biblical morality has a wholeness that includes the concerns of both the Right and the Left because it is truly and wholly moral.

Looking to the state or civil secular government to inculcate moral values is like trying to get blood from a proverbial turnip. The state cannot give what it does not have, it cannot teach what it does not know. It can only give and teach false imitations of moral truths because it accesses and uses the wrong tools and processes. It cannot handle or process both the fine granularity or the inclusive wholeness of genuine biblical morality because it is committed to codifying everything within its grasp. And biblical truth is only partially codifiable, only the grosser moral truths of Scripture can be processed into general principles. And the common view of biblical principles tends to be myopic—shortsighted. Biblical truth must be processed personally, not principally, and wholly, not partially. Biblical morality is not the mere application of biblical principles as if they are cold, calculated algorithms of some process, but requires a personal applicability that is beyond the sensitivities of mere algorithmic application. Morality is necessarily religious because it must be both personal and whole, and a any morality that is not religious cannot be moral in the fullest sense of the word.

In contrast to this governmental or principled approach to morality, Paul commends that Christian morality happens “through the church” (v. 10). The church is not only the appropriate vehicle for the inculcation of morality, but is the only vehicle that is truly able to do so because the church, properly functioning, engages Scripture personally through the regenerate eyes of the Spirit and wholly in fellowship with the community of believers. All true Christians are regenerate, and all truly regenerate people are Christian. Thus, the regenerate are personally involved in Christ and wholly involved in His body—the church.

Notice also that the church is to provide instruction to the “rulers and authorities” (v. 10). The Authorized Version reads, “principalities and powers,” which suggests the governments of this world. However, Paul added the phrase “in the heavenly places” (v. 10), which makes it sound like the church is to inform heaven about Godly wisdom. No matter how it is interpreted, it is oddly phrased.

There are three pieces of verse 10: “so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” There is 1) the church, 2) the wisdom of God and 3) the rulers and authorities. The action of the verse involves making God’s wisdom known. Is Paul saying that the church is to make God’s wisdom known to the rulers and authorities? Or that the rulers and authorities are to make God’s wisdom known through the church? Does the church inform the authorities? Or do the authorities inform the church? There is no simple answer, in that this involves the long-standing conflict between church and state that has simmered since long before and after Jesus’ arrival on the scene. Ideally, there is to be harmony between church and state.

The mission of Scripture is to reveal God’s will and way to this wayward world. So, regardless of who informs whom, the crux of the matter is that the correct information about God’s wisdom and will gets conveyed. When the church falls into corruption, the state must convey God’s wisdom. And when the state falls into corruption, the church must convey God’s wisdom. Ideally, church and state both work together to convey God’s wisdom and eliminate corruption by containing themselves to their distinct jurisdictions. The model is for the state to exercise the ministry of the sword (justice or consequence), and the church to exercise the ministry of the Word (fellowship or instruction). The fullness of God’s wisdom speaks to both concerns, and when the church functions correctly, it diminishes the role of the state because there is less injustice to prosecute. And when the state functions correctly, it encourages willing sensitivity to moral instruction because of the fear of just consequences.

Nonetheless, the ordinary model is for the church to embody the values and ways of God’s wisdom, whereas the state provides corrective measures for the sin of the abandonment of God’s wisdom. Thus, the state has no modeling or instructive function regarding God’s wisdom. The great temptation in every age is for the state to do all that it can to promote and encourage God’s wisdom—which is a good thing. But the only tools the state has are tools of imposition. And so the state begins to encroach upon the job of the church with the tools of imposition. And the success of such an effort ends up engaging the Fascist tools of oppression.

It is very difficult to allow God’s grace and justice to unfold in God’s time, regardless of whether the state fails to exercise its role of justice correctly, according to God’s Word in the light of Christ, or not. The great temptation is to get ahead of God, by trying to be more holy than God, or more righteous than God requires. The temptation is to try to short-circuit the ordinary consequences of sin by imposing the instruction of grace apart from Christ. Grace is wonderful on the receiving end, but much more difficult to dispense to others. People love to receive God’s grace, but have great difficulty being truly graceful to others. Regardless, the church is to model God’s grace by being gracious. If any errors are to be made, it is better for both church and state to err on the side of grace and mercy rather than wrath and vengeance.

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