Editorial – What is Behind Religious Lawsuits?

We live in an age when lawsuits are common in all areas of society.  Some years ago it was church policy (as well as a Biblical prohibition, see I Corinthians 6) that Adventists did not sue one another. If you read the report about the Mary Kay Silver case you will see that as late as the seventies this was considered sufficient reason to disfellowship a member. If it was wrong to disfellowship those that sue another, then a formal apology needs to be made to those who were disfellowshipped at that time for those reasons. But if it was not wrong to disfellowship members who were doing it then, the only consistent course to follow today would be to disfellowship those who are doing it today—which would include those in the highest positions of leadership in the General Conference in Silver Springs Maryland.

Of course there is a way to get around all of this. If I am a person of influence I can go to the church where my opponent is a member and persuade a majority in a church business meeting to disfellowship him first. Then I can claim that he is no longer a Seventh-day Adventist (because he is not a member of the “church,”) therefore he is no longer a brother, and the injunction in I Corinthians 6 no longer applies. I am free to seek any sort or redress I desire.

This controversy over who can call themselves by  what name has been around for a long time, most of 2,000 years. It is the same controversy that produced the dark ages—those dismal times when over 50 million Bible-believing Christians lost their lives over the very same issue. That issue is, are we going to have a religion based on the New Testament idea of religion or not.

Although there were many attempts to teach this idea in the Old Testament, Jesus taught it so strongly and forcefully that the New Testament ushered in a new concept for the society of that time. The New Testament envisions human society in this world, not as united or living in unity, or one accord, but rather  as composed of opposing factions which will continue until the end of the millenium. The New Testament teaches that some men will glory in the very same cross that other men will despise. It teaches that the same person who is precious to some will be a stone of stumbling and a rock of offence to others. But the New Testament also teaches that such diversity of religious beliefs do not make it impossible for a man to be a faithful and loyal citizen of the state. Although Christians of that time were of a different religious persuasion than the magistrates and all worldly rulers, they were to be obedient to all laws of the state (Romans 13 and I Peter 2), as long as these laws did not conflict with the law of God. When there was a conflict, Peter and the other apostles said,”We must obey God rather than men.” Acts 5:29. The apostles would not consent for the state to tell them whether they could preach or what they could preach—not because they were not obedient citizens, but because that jurisdiction did not belong to the state.  Jesus had taught them that they were to render to the state all that belonged to the state (taxes, honor of state authority, customs, and all other civil laws) but then, in the same sentence, Jesus said that they were to render to God those things that were God’s.  What things belong to God and not to the state are spelled out in the first four precepts of the decalogue. These precepts spell out what a man’s relation to God is to be, and the state does not have a right to command a man or to enforce a man to keep these precepts. This fact was most emphatically taught to the world in Daniel 3 and again in Daniel 6.

The New Testament envisions human society made up, not of one, but of two parts—the secular, that is the civil, the state, or the human government, or “that which is Caesar’s.” And in contrast to this the religious, that which is not of the state but is of the church. That which belongs to God and not to Caesar (the church belongs to God and does not, in any sense, belong to the state) that which involves a man’s relation to his God, his maker is not a matter to be decided by the state, but by that man’s will. God does not want the worship or service of any man that is forced upon that man by the state. God only accepts that worship that is freely rendered from that man’s will. The New Testament repeats the message over and over “Whoever will let him …”Revelation 22:17.

It was confusion over this issue—the idea that a human ruler could take the place of God and direct and order the way that a human being should practice his religion—that led to persecution both before and after the time of Christ.  This is what lay at the foundation of the persecutions of Christians by the pagan Roman government.  This is what lay at the foundation of the persecutions of Bible-believing Christians by the papacy during the dark ages.  And this is what will lay at the foundation of the persecutions coming during the great tribulation yet in the future. It matters not whether the human ruler be a king, a senate, a legislature, a judge, a court, a general, a Protestant church, or any other church or religion, or any other human group; the result is the same.

Jesus did not teach His followers to leave the world for caves or isolation, (see John 17) rather He taught them that they were to be in the world and deeply involved in the affairs of society, just as salt permeates the entire dish, “in the world but not of the world.” (see Matthew 5-7.) Jesus taught then that society was not mono-lithic but composite—composed of completely different factions of religious belief and His followers were to live peaceably with those of all other religions, and even conform to the rules and laws of society as long as these did not conflict with the laws of God. As one early writer described it (the Christians), “dwelling as they do in Hellenic and in barbaric cities, as each man’s lot is, and following the customs of the country in dress and food and the rest of life, the manner of conduct which they display is wonderful and confessedly beyond belief. They inhabit their own fatherland, but as sojourners; they participate in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign country is to them a fatherland and every fatherland a foreign country… They live on the earth but their citizenship is in heaven.”

So the New Testament church was always a fellowship of believers, it was never, never all those who lived in a certain locality. The early Christians knew that the church and the state existed on difference planes.

But the very essence of New Testament religion and teaching was lost when Constantine made “Christianity” the religion of the Roman State. “Christianity” was made into law for those who have only been born, instead of reborn. The result was that religion was now to be enforced by law.  The state would force men to be good, and all of society would become law-abiding Christians. (This idea, remember is what brought on 1400 years called the dark ages.) Indoctrination in tenets of the ancient pagan beliefs became outlawed and strictly proscribed. Unbaptized persons were required to attend catechism classes in preparation for baptism; all who, after attending such classes, refused to present themselves for baptism were subject to punishment by the state.

True Christians who understood the teachings of the New Testament saw that, what was thought to be the “church” had fallen (had apostatized), that the great apostasy predicted by Paul in II Thessalonians was manifested.  It was during this time, during the bishopric of Sylvester, that the Waldenses and others separated from those calling themselves “Catholic” and declared that this  “church” had fallen.

The Donatist controversy was one of the reactions to this departure from New Testament teaching. The controversy was not about doctrine but it was a question of the nature of the church as a society and its relationship to the world. Was the church all in a given locality (a state church) or was it a body of those being saved, surrounded by an unregenerate mass of people, as the New Testament taught?

Augustine, who opposed the Donatists said, “The issue between us and the Donatists is about the question where this body is to be located, that is, what and where is the Church?”

The idea of a “Catholic church” is totally foreign to the New Testament and even to the word church itself. The world “catholic” comes from two Greek words that mean together, “according to the entirety.” But the New Testament word translated “church” means “those who are called out” in other words not according to the entirety. The Apostle Peter described the church in the following language, first describing those that are not part of the church he says, “they stumble, being disobedient to the word, to which they also were appointed, but you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His possession that you may proclaim the moral excellence of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvellous light.” I Peter 2:8, 9. The apostles never speak of the church militant, according to the entirety of society, but as those called out from the world, “be blameless and harmless children of God without fault in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation among whom you shine as lights in the world.” Philippines 2:15.

For ‘twelve centuries that went before the Reformation it has never lacked for attempts to get away from the State-Church Priests’ Church and to reinstitute the apostolic congregational structurization.’ “Throughout Medieval times there never was a moment in which Constantinianism stood unchallenged. . . .Wherever the New Testament is held in honor there its concept of the Church of Christ will continue to challenge. There a Church based on personal faith will challenge the concept of a Church embracing all.”

The frantic efforts by the church of the dark ages to keep in power by destroying opponents at the stake, the scaffold, on the rack, or by the headsman’s ax is proof enough that the New Testament concept of the church was an ever-present threat. The effort to destroy all their writings shows what men were afraid of—the New Testament concept of the church would destroy the concept of a state church and the earthly power of those who, through this concept, had become the spiritual lords of their fellow-men.

The Donatists taught that a true Church cannot exist where the secular rule and the Christian Church are blended. The battle for separation of church and state was finally won in the American colonies after centuries of the most bloodly conflict recorded in all religious history. It is this concept of separation of church and state that brought freedom to the persecuted who fled to America, and freedom brought prosperity such as no nation has enjoyed in recent times. In America a person could not be prosecuted by the state for his religious beliefs or practices as long as he did not injure his neighbor. (The state has the right to enforce the outward compliance with the second table of the 10 commandments, see Romans 13.)

Today, this freedom is being rapidly lost. Society is rapidly making the state the tool for enforcing the wishes of the church. Since we are still in name under the Constitution and Bill of Rights, a way has to be figured out to show that a person has injured somebody else in the practice of his religion, or in making known his personal beliefs. So a person is sued for talking about problems with meat on television. If a person cannot express what they think anymore without somebody else deciding they have been injured, we soon will have no freedom of speech, and what is worse (which you can know if you have traveled to totalitarian countries), when freedom of speech is lost, freedom to think is eventually lost. The loss to society is beyond computation.

Jesus said about His church “My kingdom is not of this world, if My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight so that I should not be delivered to the Jews, but now My kingdom is not from here.” John 18:36. In the dark ages the professed church lost sight of this, they made the “church” a kingdom of this world, but any church which is also a kingdom of this world is not the true church of Christ according to Jesus statement. The “church” in the dark ages put Peter in the right for drawing the sword to promote the cause of Christ, and it put Jesus in the wrong for rebuking Peter for it. They conveniently forgot that Jesus had been deeply displeased at the first suggestion of a second sword; it forgot that Jesus had been so disappointed by Peter’s rash act of using the secular sword for promoting the cause of Christ, that He had stooped down to repair the damage Peter’s sword had inflicted.

The “bride of Christ” had so changed in appearance as to become unrecognizable. She, who had been sent on a mission of healing, had taken on the features of a modern police State.

The Anabaptists, one of the most persecuted groups, taught that the civil magistrate ‘must leave every man to his own devices in regard to religion no matter what he believes or teaches, so long as he does not disturb the outward civil quiet.’

The Donatists were proscribed, it was not allowed to call them Christians, they were to be called heretics and punished by the state for their heresy.  (Notice how their situation was identical to that of persecuted Christians today. They were forbidden to take the name of Christ because other Christians declared that the name belonged only to them and those of their religious beliefs, or of their church organization.) Their pastors told their flocks that nothing had changed now that the Roman empire had accepted Christianity. The only difference they said, was that before the devil had used force, he was now working in and with allies on the inside. For the true follower of Christ the result was the same, namely, persecution. There was no difference between the persecutions once staged by a pagan government and the persecutions of the flock from a supposedly Christian regime.

In commenting on this state of affairs a reformation writer says, ‘Who would not mistake the Christ for a moloch or some such god if indeed He delights in human sacrifice. . .? Imagine Him to be present, in the capacity of constable, to announce the sentence and light the fire. . .! Oh Christ, thou creator and king of all the earth, dost thou not see these things? Art thou so changed completely, become thus cruel and contrary to Thine own proper self . . .? Dost thou command that those who do not understand Thy commandments and institutions as yet, are to be choked in water, struck until the bowels gush forth, these then strewn with salt, to be struck with the sword or made to roast over small fire, with every torment martyred in as drawn out a manner as possible? Ah Christ, dost thou indeed command such things and dost thou approve of them when they are done? Are they indeed Thy lieutenants who officiate at such burned sacrifice? Dost thou allow Thyself to be seen at the scene of such butchery? Dost thou then verily eat human flesh, Oh Christ? If thou dost such things forsooth, or orderest them done, then what, pray what, hast thou left for the devil to do?

Quotations and many paraphrased statements in this editorial are from the first chapter of the excellent book “The Reformers and their Stepchildren” by Leonard Verduin, copyright 1964, published by Eerdmans Publishing Company, 255 Jefferson Ave., SE, Grand Rapids Michigan 49503