I am the pastor of a multi-cultural English-speaking Reformed church on the southern tip of Africa in a city called Cape Town. Since 1652, when the first Dutch settlers landed in the Cape, the church has struggled to fulfil the Great Commission amid common cultural enterprise with its underbelly of political power-plays ranging from colonialism, slavery, and racism to corruption and xenophobia. In other words, South African churches have sought to fulfil a cruciform mission in a world of competing agendas, especially those put forward by the state.
This essay sets forth some possible lessons to be learned from one corner of the globe where the church has at times transformed or conformed to the policies of civil government. I propose that to better protect the calling of the church and her central doctrine of justification by faith alone, there should be ‘apartheid’ (separation) of church and state.
Making sense of Mandela’s post-apartheid South Africa
In 1995 Nelson Mandela became the president of South Africa’s new liberal democracy, which forged beyond a conflicted history of European, Christian, white, and black variations of nationalism. For the first time, the church in South Africa had to figure out her role in a religiously plural and disestablished context. No longer did certain ecclesiastical traditions officially endorse a system of racial prejudice. It was time for sharper distinctions between church and state. To be sure, this has not been easy for believers accustomed to using the Bible as a blueprint for every aspect of life, including secular politics.
Yet perhaps these developments in Mandela’s ‘rainbow nation’, not unlike other Western countries, have been a good thing for both the rule of law and the Gospel witness. The idea of separation of church and state as enshrined in the best of liberal democracy is not without precedent in the Catholic and Protestant traditions. With support from passages like Genesis 8:20-9:17 and Romans 13, theologians have argued that government should have a unique divine authority and mandate to ensure political order and peace. In this perspective, the best of civil legislation is not found in arbitrary human opinion but in the created order. In other words, just secular rule reflects God’s natural law inscribed upon the human heart and discerned within the world, albeit imperfectly (cf. Rom 2:14-15). Scripture testifies to these natural laws (cf. Proverbs). Pastors are to preach them and admonish individual Christians to live by them in love to one’s neighbour. This would necessarily include combating social ills, like racial prejudice, by welcoming insights wherever God’s common grace truth may be found.
What, then, should Christians do when faced with injustice, like discrimination, within the congregation of Christ?
The journey toward racial integration in South African churches of all stripes over the past quarter century has been a slow and imperfect one. One of the highlights was the repentance of the mainline Dutch Reformed Church for her official endorsement of institutional apartheid. Restoration in the wake of forced racial inequality is no different from other sins Christians struggle with, the difference being that the church handles injustice in cruciform ways. God’s covenant community has a distinctly different moral compass. I illustrate this reality with a few pertinent biblical examples.
Divine and civil justice overruled
For one, the church engages in a ministry of the law that exposes the depravity of human hearts like no civil code can (2 Cor 3:6). This ministry focuses on both tables of the Ten Commandments as refracted through the Beatitudes of Jesus (Deut 5:6-21; Matt 5-7; Gal 6:2). No thoughts or intentions, let alone actions, escape scrutiny. They all flow from a source absent from any secular constitution: a dark heart seeking divine rule that bypasses God’s perfectly holy standard (Gen 6:5). Adam’s first sin was profoundly political. Sinners ever since have been tempted to lord it over God and man to grasp glory (Gen 3; 8:21; 11).
While civil government can restrain wickedness, it cannot offer freedom from sin. God’s works of creation and providence only provide a reasonable and provisional solution to political tyranny (Gen 9:6; Rom 13). In contrast, the church’s mission is to proclaim God as redeemer, a message foreign to broader culture, including the state. The revelation of Christ crucified for sinners is scandalously incongruent with human conceptions of proportionate justice (Gen 3:16; John 3:16; 2 Cor 5:21).
Justified and sanctified through suffering and death
The offence of church life centres upon the suffering and death of Jesus to satisfy God’s justice to save sinners (Rom 3:21-26). Ironically, Christ was crucified because sinners sought ‘justice’ in first-century Rome. So-called ‘virtuous’ people who thought they were doing God a favour killed his Son (Matt 17; 27). The ethic of the church is rooted in the paradox of Jesus who earned life through death, who conquered through weakness.
This way of life subverts the legitimate and penultimate pursuits of broader social reform that celebrate good deeds and seek to reduce the evils of human suffering (cf. Rom 13). In the church one can expect a mysteriously positive evaluation of suffering: the crucifixion of Christ for sinners and the cross-bearing nature of Christian sanctification (Matt 16:24-28; Rom 6:1-11; 1 Cor 1-2; 2 Cor 1).
The church is that one place on earth where sinners invite the conviction of the law with hope (Rom 5-6; 2 Cor 3). It is also that one community where to use the law incorrectly can be dangerous, where doing good deeds for the wrong reasons can earn you judgment (Gal 3:9-13). While activism and legal redress are appropriate in the public square, the church is that one sphere where God acts against self-righteous law-keeping (Gal 1-2; 2 Cor 3). By the reading and the preaching of the law, God crucifies the flesh to save the sinner (Acts 2:42; Rom 10; Gal 2:20). Only once united to Christ in his death can the law be a guide to new Christian obedience out of gratitude (Col 3).
The congregation of the faithful is that sphere where lawbreakers escape retributive divine and civil justice. Sinners—even the very worst—do not get their due for bad behaviour, for cosmic treason. Instead, ‘pious’ pretenders, prostitutes, and the prejudiced get infinite mercy. The playing field is levelled. There are only sinners and saints, who have nothing to boast of but sin and the gift of everlasting life. The church is that uncanny space for second chances, for seventy-seven chances (Matt 11:19; 18:22).
Hence, the counterintuitive nature of church life. When believers are persecuted and wronged, they are to respond with the gracious turning of the cheek, against the backdrop of a world where individual rights are insisted upon, and oppressors are corrected, sometimes forcefully. Accordingly, the fellowship of the saints is that one community where the last are first, where the less conspicuous are given greater honour, where leaders serve—even while social, racial, and biological distinctions remain (Matt 5-7; 1 Cor 1:18-31; 15:35-58).
Just as Jesus suffered the scorn of the masses for failure to achieve social and political transformation, the church is ridiculed for her seeming lack of relevance and success. Like the ministry of Jesus, the church extends the kingdom of heaven through a message of death and dereliction that brings life. This message is delivered by a frail minister exercising the ordinary means of Word and sacraments to lowlifes and outliers (Is 53; Matt 27:45-56; 1 Cor 1-2; 11; 2 Cor. 1).
The New Testament church of the crucified and risen Jesus has in common with the Old Testament patriarchs, Job, the persecuted prophets, and the Jewish exiles, a pilgrim status that awaits the new heavens and new earth (1 Pet 1-2; Rev 21). Because Christ is the fulfilment of the types and shadows of theocratic Israel, the prospect of health, wealth, prosperity now comes through the common cultural mandate only (Gen 8:20-9:17; Lk 24). Until his second coming, Christians are to take up their cross, suffer injustice, and die in anticipation of consummate glory (Matt 16).
‘Apartheid’ of church and state
In short, the biblical observations on the cruciform nature of the church’s pilgrim polity reveals how at odds she is with the earthly scales of justice, power, and glory. The peculiar constitution of Christ’s body on earth, the Word of God, grants the community of faith a counter-cultural Great Commission (Jn 18:36; Matt 28). Scripture does not promise that the potency of the church can be found in national life or the collective achievements of human history, including any kind of social reform. As in the earthly ministry of Jesus, the church does grow and will triumph, but in ‘passionate’ ways hidden from a world intent on ‘seeing’ measurable results.
With the above contours of the life of the church in view, how can she possibly transform or be conformed to the ethic of the state? Would this not be a confusion of law and gospel? A collapsing of creation into redemption? A merging of faith and natural reason? With the advent of political liberalism in South Africa, Christians have been forced to re-evaluate the public role of the church. Perhaps this is a good thing. Could it be that the church should not contain or reflect any secular political theory or party with its quest for justice—hence, the promise of ‘apartheid’ of church and state?
Time for a two kingdoms and natural law paradigm?
I can imagine that for some (perhaps many) readers, the idea of separating church and state is jarring. Yet could this discomfort not be an extension of the offensive message of the cross?
There is a substantive Catholic and Protestant tradition that embraces this vision, which reaches back to Augustine’s two cities through Luther and Calvin’s natural law and two kingdoms political theology, and into contemporary Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Reformed circles. This perspective, which affirms Christ’s rule over all of life, casts Christians as dual citizens: at once governed by the cruciform polity of Christ’s church while making common culture with unbelievers under the proportionate justice rule of civil government.
The value of this paradigm is its promise to safeguard the gospel and the church’s Great Commission, while freeing Christians to make a provisional difference in society as a realisation of the Great Commandment to love. With the growing popularity of identity politics everywhere, including in the church, perhaps there is more space than ever for the two kingdoms and the natural law paradigm at the table of ecumenical Christ and culture discourse.
Rev. Simon Jooste is the pastor of Reformed Church Southern Suburbs.