By Dean Hellekson
We live in a day when there is much debate between the jurisdiction of the Church and the State, especially when it comes to social issues. Many conservatives would say that social issues are solely the responsibility of the Church, and law and order are the responsibility of the State. On the other hand, many liberals would say that social, moral, educational, parenting and commercial issues are the responsibility of the State. But the question here isn’t what conservatives or what liberals think about these jurisdictional responsibilities, but rather what God thinks about them. And of course, we all like to marshal our opinions on the side of God because it makes our rationale all the more definitive. But if we are to look at the Scriptures and analyze them in their context, and then ask some questions of our context, it might be that we find ourselves neither conservative, nor liberal, but rather something of a hybrid.
For instance, let’s look at Deuteronomy 14:22-29,
22 “you shall truly tithe all the increase of your grain that the field produces year by year. 23 And you shall eat before the LORD your God, in the place where He chooses to make His name abide, the tithe of your grain and your new wine and your oil, of the firstborn of your herds and your flocks, that you may learn to fear the LORD your God always… 27 You shall not forsake the Levite who is within your gates, for he has no part nor inheritance with you.
28 “At the end of every third year you shall bring out the tithe of your produce of that year and store it up within your gates. 29 And the Levite, because he has no portion nor inheritance with you, and the stranger and the fatherless and the widow who are within your gates, may come and eat and be satisfied, that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hand which you do.
What we can’t miss here is that this book is written to the nation of Israel. This is not a command for a select few, it was a command for every individual in the nation. The “you” here is every citizen within the commonwealth.
What also needs to be observed is that this tithe was to be set “before the Lord your God, in the place where he chooses to make His name abide.” And this place where God chose to have his name abide was later determined as Jerusalem. So all Israel was to take ten percent of their increase to the Temple in Jerusalem. It didn’t matter if it was grain, new wine, oil, herds or flocks; if it increased, it was to be tithed. So tithing was national, and it was to be of everything that increased.
In addition to this, what is important for us to notice is who received this tithe. On the first and second year it was to be taken to the Temple and used for feasting before God, and all the rest would go to the Levites. However, on the third year, the tithe was to remain in the local city at the gates. V. 28 “At the end of every third year you shall bring out the tithe of your produce of that year and store it up within your gates.” This was not to go to Jerusalem. In addition to this, it was also to go to the stranger, the fatherless and the widow, according to v.29.
The tithe, which was like a national tax, was partially used for supplying the needs of the stranger, fatherless and the widow. And on the third year it went to the city gates, in order to take care of the social needs in the city. Is this precedent for national and city social programs which care for the needy? It could be easy to dismiss if we separate church and state saying it is solely the church’s obligation. Yet, is it fair to make that kind of a distinction in Israel? It certainly makes it easy to dismiss, and it certainly lines us up with conservatives, but does it fairly address the issue?
In answering these questions, we need to first of all deal with the Church/State distinction. In the first place, Israel is the church while she is also a commonwealth. We see this language used by Paul in Ephesians 2:11-13,
11 “Therefore remember that you, once Gentiles in the flesh … 12 that at that time you were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” (Emphasis mine)
This is how Scripture speaks about Israel, the Church and the Commonwealth. God was making a new commonwealth with the Gentiles, and at the same time he was remaking Israel with the Gentiles and calling it the church. There is no Church/State distinction here, there is only one people, one God, one law, one nation, and in the New Covenant this is made out of Jews and Gentiles.
The name “Church” is used to describe God’s New Covenant people. In Greek, the word for “Church” is Ekklesia. And this is being used because of its political and communal import. According to Gerhard Kittle, in his theological dictionary of the New Testament,
“The citizens are the ekklesia, i.e., those who are summoned and called together by the herald. The distinctive element in Christianity is much better expressed by the emphasizing of ekklesia than by the selection of a cultic word which might then be individualized by a personal name. The so-called Christ cult neither was nor desired to be one cult among others. It stood out against all cults in the sense that is stood out against the whole world, even the whole of the so-called religious world. This is all guaranteed by the choice of the self-designation ekklesia.”
What Kittle is saying is that by calling God’s people an ekklesia, they were not allowed to think of themselves simply as some kind of new religion, but rather as a political body, and this was guaranteed by their name.
Here is what Wikipedia has stated in regard to the word Ekklesia,
“The ecclesia was the principal assembly of the democracy of ancient Athens. It was the popular assembly, opened to all male citizens over the age of 30, meaning that all classes of citizens in Athens were able to participate, even the Thetes. The ecclesia opened the doors for all citizens, regardless of class, to nominate and vote for magistrates, have the final decision on legislation, war and peace, and have the right to call magistrates to account after their year of office. The assembly was responsible for declaring war, military strategy, and electing officials.”
Here is a body which acted like the city council, the state, and the congress combined. Of course, as time went on, the particular rules, responsibilities and jurisdictions might have changed, the idea of it being the political body which governed the city-state, did not.
So clearly, when the word “Ecclesia” was used to name God’s people in the New Covenant, no person at that time would have thought of a building in which people worship, nor would they have thought of themselves as simply some new religion in town. They would have thought of all the people who make up the body, along with their laws, regulations and worship as the Church. Therefore there was no separation between church and state. But there was clearly a separation between the Ekklesia of God’s people and the Ekklesia of Rome.
With that in mind, we have to come back to Deuteronomy and see that God requires citizens to take care of the needy on a state and national level. He did not think of a separation between Church and State and then require the Church, not the State to supply aid for the needy–he saw it as part of Israel’s calling.
However, this also didn’t take away the responsibility of the individual either. In Deuteronomy 24:19-22 it says this in regard to personal responsibility,
9 “When you reap your harvest in your field, and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be for the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. 20 When you beat your olive trees, you shall not go over the boughs again; it shall be for the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow. 21 When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, you shall not glean it afterward; it shall be for the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow.”
So in addition to the tithe, there was a command to be personally generous to your immediate neighbor’s needs. There was to be no excuse making with your neighbors, just because there was a government program. We are to be generous givers because God is a generous giver. And therefore, neither the national tax, nor the local responsibility was to be abdicated when it came to caring for the biblically poor in our midst.
Now the question is, how does this relate to our current situation? I think we would be wrong to end all state and national aid, even if we could. What needs to happen are two things: one, there needs to be a greater restriction in the amount of aid given on state and national levels, and two, there needs to be much more wisdom in the distribution of it. Too much is given to these programs, and too much is given to the wrong people.
In the meantime, while we pursue the reformation of these programs. Those who have legitimate needs ought not to feel guilty about using government aid, and those who use it and don’t have a legitimate need, need to feel guilty and get off the bottle. Those of us who use it, and don’t really need it (but like it), need to cut the cord and grow up. We need to become fruitful and productive so we can become a giver, not a taker.
And as we get more and more people off the bottle, because we disciple them to be fruitful and productive givers, we might begin to see the day when we don’t have to fight for reforms because godliness is filling the land.