As a part of my studies in the doctoral program at Multnomah University, I participate in online discussions among the colleagues in my “cohort” (the group of us proceeding through the program together). This will be redundant for them, but hopefully instructive for others, so I’ll include it here in my blog as well.
Dr. Paul Louis Metzger is quoted as having said, “There is no such thing as an apolitical theology. Why don’t our social justice people identify with the poor? Why do we realign to new centers of power? We have to confront the powers!” The question regarding those statements was, “How do we respond to this? Let’s take this on biblically and theologically.” In support of holding a supra-political theology of God’s sovereignty that, in particular instances, variably requires the church to engage, inform, influence, confront, oppose, or even destroy governmental systems (anarchy and chaos being infinitely preferable to a well-organized bureaucracy efficiently inflicting oppression, exploitation, and destruction upon the people God has called governments to serve), I offer the following.
Remembering that for Richard Niebuhr the word “culture” refers to society, and especially interactions with political government (which I would differentiate from bureaucratic and corporate government, but which may be considered part of the whole here), the statements attributed to Dr. Metzger would seem to seize on one of the three main categories (Christ above Culture, which comprises sythesism, dualism—labeled Christ and Culture in Paradox, and conversionism—labeled Christ Transforming Culture) to the exclusion of the other two. For a lengthy discussion of all of the above, feel free to audit “Kings and Prophets” next spring at A.W. Tozer Theological Seminary (yes, that’s a shameless plug).
My understanding of Bonhoeffer (limited though it is, I’m thinking specific of his ethics and the framework of political interaction he followed), however, suggests that there is a parallel existence between church and state (Christ and Culture), with particular responsibilities inherent in each. This has not neatly fit into any of Niebuhr’s five categories, in my thinking, and I am hoping that D.A. Carson’s Christ and Culture Revisited will shed additional light on the subject. But in the mean time, I would offer Bonhoeffer's caveat regarding our need “to confront the powers.”
To be sure, the first of Bonhoeffer’s three stages of interaction between church and state can be pursued confrontationally. But there is also a history of cooperation and interaction (not to mention pacifism) in Bonhoeffer’s ministry and writings that suggests that during most seasons, even under despotic regimes, the confrontation is to be handled with diplomacy in the nature of an ambassador, “requesting” that the state fulfill its Godly obligation to act in ways that allow us to “lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity.” (1Tm2:1-2) This seems to be the point of “render(ing) to Caesar,” as well as being “in subjection” (if not strict “obedience” at all times). It is at this level, I believe, that the statements above assume a political interaction from within the system, where Bonhoeffer appears to envision a church structure and responsibility that transcends that of the state, while still encompassing the obligation to remind the state of its position within God’s government.
Bonhoeffer certainly understood that civil societies' responses to these calls upon them ranged from simple apathy and ignorance to murderous manipulation. Even under the most benign or even beneficial rulers, though, the dynamic nature of economies and justice systems leave ample opportunity for ministry to “the widow, the orphan, and the alien in their distress.” Bonhoeffer’s second stage, to bandage those wounded by the wheels of state, is always an indispensable complement to our expectations that civil societies function equitably.
This draws us to the most famous and most controversial third stage of Bonhoeffer’s prescription. There are times, he believed (and acted upon those beliefs), when the damage being inflicted by the state is so entrenched and grievous that the appropriate response of the church can only be to “drive a spoke through the wheel of state.” But in the context of the statements above, the work of the church in bringing the grinding wheels of state to a grinding halt is less a matter of political action than it is the expression of the Sovereign through His servants: “This far and no farther” (Job 38:11).