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Polishing the Baptist Family Name: "Citizen Baptist"
Dr. Craig A. Sherouse
Lakeside Baptist Church, Lakeland, FL
Editorial Introduction: Dr. Craig Sherouse, became pastor of the First Baptist Church of Griffin, GA, in August, 2003. Prior to that he was the pastor of the Lakeside Baptist Church in Lakeland, FL, where he preached this series of sermons. Dr. Sherouse graduated with both the M.Div. and a Ph.D. degrees from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He has also served as pastor of the First Baptist Church in Seminole, FL.
No one likes being bullied, do we? Bullies make us feel less than we are. They can cause us to respond out of fear and intimidation, not faith and strength. Danny was our neighborhood bully. I lived across the street from the high school, and the football stadium was a block away. Danny lived on the other side of the stadium. I spent a lot of my childhood underneath the bleachers of the football stadium, and Danny didnít like it!
Underneath the bleachers my buddies and I built our own version of Al Quaida forts and bunkers. The soft Florida sand was ideal for easy digging. We would haul some 2x4ís, old plywood and cardboard from our fathersí workshops and go to work. First you had to clear away the years of accumulation of crumpled Coke cups, popcorn bags and candy wrappers. Then a stick of dynamite would loosen up that hardened topsoil that had marbleized from the years of Coke goo sediment. Digging, bracing and covering with plywood and you were ready to do battle! And what an ideal little boy battle field! Endless supplies of crumpled Coke cups for ammo! The only problem was Danny, the Bully!
We would leave from the dayís battle, return the next day only to find that Danny had been there. The sides were caved in, the plywood stomped in two, the 2x4ís thrown into the woods, the cardboard ripped in two and the hole half filled with crumpled up Coke cups, popcorn bags and candy wrappers! We felt defeated, violated, trespassed upon! We felt bad! Danny was three years older, bigger and meaner, but there were more of us. But we never stood up to him. I wonder what would have happened if we had just stood up and said, "No!"?
No one likes being bullied, do we? And we especially donít like being bullied by either the church or the government! And perhaps the most disliked bullying is when the church and the government become allies in their bullying. We Baptists have been among those who stood up and said, "No!" We have not built a fort of sand but a shared wall of separation and protection Ė a wall of separation between the church, the state and the individualís rights. And we have stood up when the wrecking crews wanted to tear it down the wall and when the carpenters wanted to cut sliding doors into it!
Jesus stood up! Jesus stood up to the bullies! Here they come: the Pharisees and the Herodians. The Pharisees are the religious bullies, the overseers of synagogue or congregational life. You might say they represent the church. The Herodians are the nationalists. They take their name from being supporters of King Herod and his sleazy dealings with the Romans. They represent the ultra-nationalist, "our Herod, right or wrong" approach to government. The Herodians are rare birds in the New Testament. They only appear twice in the Gospels: this passage and at the beginning of Jesusí ministry. There, after Jesus had ticked off the Pharisees by healing a manís withered hand in the synagogue on the Sabbath, Mark 3:6 says: "The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him."
For three or more years the Herodians had been working behind the scenes in their Mafia-like ways to try to destroy Jesus. This unholy alliance of bullies has been like a pack of hounds from hell, tracking Jesus. And now, during the last week of Jesusí life, they will tree him on the cross!
Understand, the Pharisees and the Herodians did not get along. They were not on each othersí invitation lists. They did not normally hang out together. So what an interesting mob they make. Mafia-like ultra-nationalists and mean, muscle-bound religion. Quite a bully mob! Underline this in your mind: The first time in the New Testament that a bully mob coalition of church and state came together they nailed Jesus to the cross!
I was driving on I-4 this week in one of the sections where it has three lanes. I was in the right hand lane, the middle was open and there was a commercial van in the left lane. I went to move into the middle lane to pass the car in front of me, but the van made his move at the same time. I saw it just in time, swerved back into my lane, let him pass and pulled in behind him. As I did I read the company name on the back of the van: "Bio-Medical Solutions." And I saw through the vanís rear window, strapped down in the back, one of those red bio-medical waste disposal units that you see in the hospital Ė you know, the kind you say "unclean!" to and walk on the other side of the hallway! Of all the things I would not want to collide with, a van carrying bio-medical waste ranks toward the top!
Of all the things you donít want to collide with and be caught in the middle of, its this kind of a church/state unholy alliance that comes to try to trick the Lord! Itís messy business! The bully mob comes, trying to smash Jesus in the middle. They want Caesar to do their killing Ė heís pretty good at that. Some of us here today may feel like we have almost been killed over taxes, either trying to raise them or trying to pay them! If they can trick Jesus into sounding like a full-blown supporter of Caesar, he will lose much of his following. Or if they can trick him into saying, "Donít pay your taxes," Caesar will arrest him for treason. Either way they win. A ferocious pack of hounds from hell they are!
William Penn, the Quaker founder of Pennsylvania, said: "People who are ferocious in their religion are ferociously irreligious." Several weeks ago in the little town of Crestview, just south of Ocala, the City Council had its second vote on whether or not to post the 10 Commandments in their council chambers. It lost both times. The swing vote was a very devout Christian councilman who said he voted against it after praying hard. He believed he should out of his commitment to this New Testament principle of the separation of church and state. But the fierce Christians of Crestview threatened him, that he would be the first to be voted out in the next election.
Did you know where the word "bigot" comes from? It is a combination of the words, "by God." "By God, weíll get that councilman!" "By God, weíll get that Jesus!" Ferocious, muscular religiosity. Iíve noticed that people who have to clean up the hazardous bio-medical mess after a collision of church and state donít say "by God" all that much.
Walk with me up the steep hill from Plymouth Harbor to the mother church of the Plymouth Bay Puritan colonists Ė our founding fathers and mothers. Beverly and I made that lovely walk a few years ago. And if you make it you too will stand with drop-jawed astonishment as you stand in the narthex of that beautiful colonial building and read that for almost 200 years it has been a Unitarian Church. I donít know if you know what that means, but it means that the descendants of those fierce, muscular Congregationalist Puritans went about as far to the opposite extreme as they could on the American religious landscape. And not only they, but many Puritan churches became Unitarian churches in reaction to the Taliban-like approach of their parentsí faith. Just try that ferocious, muscular, "by God" approach out on your children and see what happens. It just doesnít work! They will probably go the opposite direction. Try that on the nation and see what happens. It didnít work on the Plymouth Bay citizens.
The Pharisees and Herodians are right about Jesus, even if they are pretty syrupy when they say it: He did not show deference to anyone; he did not regard people with partiality, not even the Emperor. "Look at the Roman coin. Whose face is on it? The Emperorís. Then give him what is his, and give God what is His!" Jesus stood up, and the bullies went away, scratching their heads. Jesus caught them in their own trap! He did not elaborate. He did not give a twenty page treatise. But Jesus clarified a very simple, basic principle: there are things that are Caesarís, and there are things that are Godís, and we ought to keep them separated. It is as simple as looking at the coin.
The separation of church and state is a healthy New Testament model of how we live out our Christian lives in the public arena. It is not a naked public square! But it is a healthy public square, we have found, when the state and the church maintain their separate quarters. But there are some bullies in the public square, as there have always been. Bullies who want to narrow and accommodate that separation into some other form of church-state relationships. But you will notice that when they quote the Bible they go to the Old Testament. They go to the Old Testament model of the king and his role in shepherding the whole flock. Why donít they go to Jesus! Why donít they go to this passage, where King Jesus, the Good Shepherd, very clearly defines the principle of separation?
When I was a child I proudly learned how to spell what I was told was the longest word in the English language: "antidisestablishmentarianism." Twenty-eight letters! But I had no idea what the word meant, and most of us still donít. "Establishmentarianism" was the practice in England of having an "established," state sponsored church. No separation there. "Disestablishmentarianism" is the disestablishing of this system. Baptists and other "free church" separationists are "disestablishmentarians. But "antidisestablishmentarianism" is the regressive, revisionist movement to undo disestablishment and reconnect the church and the state. And it is alive and well in this country! Itís most radical form goes under the name of "Reconstructionism." Itís easier to spell Ė only 17 letters, not 28! They want to reconfigure the American political system along the lines of Old Testament theocracy and law. And these hyper-Calvinists have strong political connections and lots of money backing them. And they are working kind of like the Herodians, quietly but effectively, behind the political scene.
We need to go the way of Jesus, not the Herodians! The criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus, not the Old Testament kings! Jesusí divinity means not only that Christ is God-like, but that God is Christ-like. If you want to see what it would be like with God as King, look to Jesus! And Jesus very clearly articulates the principle that God wants the church and the state separate!
Some people donít like the sound of the term "separation." It sounds too much to them like God isnít to be involved in our government, or that we are suppose to be a Sunday Christian and a weekday citizen. That certainly isnít what separation means, but maybe it helps to use the word "independence" Ė "the independence of church and state." Thatís a good word, isnít it? But whatever you call it, it means, as E.Y. Mullins defined it, that Christ is not to be brought before Caesarís judgment seat. Neither is he to be placed upon Caesarís throne. It means that the state has no right to tax or interfere with the church, nor does the church have the right to use tax funds or manipulate the government. It means that the direct institutional involvement by the church in politics should be non-partisan, issue-oriented and not candidate-oriented. It means that we should not be trying to establish a "Christian government," but a strong Christian influence within a secular government. We should be salt and light. Individual Christians should be penetrating the political order, not entangling the institutions of the church and the state.
Jesusí principle of the separation or independence of the church and the state means that we owe our government faithful Christian citizenship, and our government owes us the stateís protection and honor. We are to render to Caesar faithful citizenship, but not to give him sovereignty, even during ultra-patriotic times of looming war. Our salute is "Jesus is Lord," not "Caesar is Lord" as the Roman soldiers saluted! The separation of church and state means that, if we are going to salute the flags at Bible School, we probably ought to at least teach our children to pledge first to the Christian flag and to the Kingdom for which it stands! Now there is a heretical statement!
The separation of church and state means that we ought to travel in parallel lanes, but keep an open lane between us so we not have a bio-medical mess to clean up! It means that we ought to walk side by side, but not hold hands. It means that when we hold hands, Caesar almost always has the tighter grip! Donít you think that Caesar knows that the southern vote is a key to the national vote, and that the Baptist vote in the south is a key to the southern vote? Separation means that the government should not try to shape either the political or religious persuasions of the church. Revolutionary War era Baptist leader John Leland said it this way: "The government has no more to do with the religious opinions of men than it has with the principles of mathematics." The separation of church and state means that what God has put asunder, let not man put together!
I mentioned Roger Williams a few weeks ago Ė this dissident from the Massachusetts Bay Puritan colony. He was run out of that colony by the Puritansí version of the Taliban into the howling winter and had to survive with the Indians. He went and founded the Rhode Island colony and the First Baptist Church in America as lively experiments in the separation of church and state. He has done more in the history of our country to help us keep the independence of the church and the state than anyone I know.
Williams told a parable about a ship to illustrate his convictions about our corporate life. On board this ship are hundreds of passengers Ė Catholics, Protestants, Jews and Muslims. No one is compelled to attend the captainís worship service, nor even their own service. The captain has his role: to keep the ship on course and to see that justice, peace and sobriety are kept by all the passengers and crew. If the crew refuses their duties, or if the passengers refuse to pay, or to help in the common duties and defense, or to obey the common laws, the captain may judge, resist, compel and punish them. But otherwise, letís just all be on board together!
We have developed historical amnesia about religious liberty issues! There has arisen a new generation of Americans and Baptists who know not Pharaoh, or Caesar! We view life like a digital clock, with no sense of what comes before or after. We see only the present moment.
And we forget that you used to have to be a member of the state church to even be elected in office. We forget that in our own country the state church of Massachusetts was supported with tax dollars until 1832. We didnít end all of this with a revolution!
We forget that in Maryland non-Christians were not tolerated, and that even in revolutionary era Virginia Baptist preachers were arrested for disturbing the peace.
We forget that Patrick Henry, who cried, "Give me liberty or give me death!" did not mean religious liberty. We forget that even in Quaker-controlled colonial Pennsylvania you had to be a Christian to hold office.
We forget that evangelism works best where there is religious liberty. And evangelism has worked well in our country! In 1776 experts estimate that 5% of Americans were church members. Today 60-70% are and we are the most religious nation in the western world. Would you want to trade our system for the heavy-handed, bullied approach they used in Europe?
We need to remember that the Statue of Liberty does not say, "Give me your tired, poor Christians."
We need to remember that shortly before the space shuttle exploded there were at least Christian, Jewish and Hindu prayers being said.
We need to remember that if the government mandates prayer in the public schools we will have Wiccan and Buddhist and Muslim prayers. We will!
We need to remember that the Scientologists and Black Muslims and the Moonies and the White Supremacist churches are lining up for tax vouchers and faith-based initiatives. And they will receive a disproportionate share of those tax dollars. I donít know about you, but I donít want my tax dollars going to help fund a white supremacist churchís parochial school! There is something fundamentally wrong about that!
We have developed historical amnesia to what the blending and accommodation of church and state has meant in our country. Two things vividly illustrate this loss of memory to me. George W. Truett, the prominent pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas in the first half of the twentieth century celebrated what he called the "divorcement of church and state." His successor for the second half of that century, W.A. Criswell, called the separation of church and state "a figment of some infidelís imagination." Thatís a serious loss of memory in one generation.
The second illustration is a statement from Brent Walker. He is a "walker on the wall" of separation of church and state. Heís the Executive Director of the Baptist Joint Committee in Washington, D.C. Walker knows as much as anyone I know about the current state of church-state relations. In his October 23 newsletter he said that if the First Amendment to the Constitution were put up for a vote in Congress today, it would fail! You remember that Amendment, that codified the separation of church and state and which colonial Baptists lobbied hard for: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." Walker quoted a recent survey reporting that 49% of Americans think the First Amendment goes "too far." We are the ones who have gone too far Ė too far from our memories of muscular, bigoted religion bullying other citizens! And to forget is to empower the bully!
"But Pastor, weíre in trouble!" We are! "Pastor, desperate times demand desperate measures. The ship has been torpedoed and bombed and there are mines ahead. We are on fire and people are fighting each other on board and abandoning ship. Our schools have gates and guards and metal detectors. Theyíve turned into war zones. Shouldnít we take over?"
I understand the fear. But let faith control the fear! Let faith in the basic principles of scripture control the fear. I honestly do not want the little Jehovahís Witness children in my wifeís elementary school music classes to be forced to sing patriotic songs or songs about holidays. I donít agree with much at all about their religion. But I donít want those little first graders to be bullied into doing something that their parents have taught them is against their religion.
So, how do we take over? Our schools are not religion-free zones. They are not! There are right ways to do it. Teach in the public schools. You can have a profound Christian influence there. Let your light shine as a Christian student. Support the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and "See You at the Pole" and other right ways of being a witness. According to the Departments of Education and Justice, students can pray individually anytime in school and as a group either before or after school. Students can discuss your faith, write papers and do art work on religious subjects, and form religious clubs. You can be excused from subjects that are objectionable to your faith and can be dismissed to off-campus religious instruction during school hours. The Bible and religion can be taught about, and schools can teach community values that are also shared by religious communities. There is much you can do, but donít be a bully! We donít need bullies in the school, we need servants!
"But Pastor, what can we do?" We can give to Caesar what is Caesarís, and to God what is Godís! Donít abandon ship! Be a witness! Donít give up on your biblical principles! Polish them up!
No one likes being bullied, do we! Especially in matters of faith. So what do we do? Do we ban together and beat up Danny, the Bully? Maybe we stand up to him and say, "No!" But maybe more than that, we act toward him like Jesus, who said, "Give Caesar what is Caesarís and give God what is Godís!" Maybe we just say to Danny the next time he comes around: "Hereís a full cup of Coke, and a fresh bag of popcorn and a new Snickerís bar. You are welcome in our fort. Thereís a place at the table for you."