One of the most striking insights in the booklet I received yesterday from United Church of God is the way that the booklet discusses the understanding of grace and faithfulness in the a first-century AD context. This understanding, which is not the sort of understanding that many people have about grace and faith, carries with it a host of implications that make it easy to understand the nature of trouble that exists sometimes between the Church and the state both in the first few centuries AD as well as in contemporary periods. I am not sure of the extent to which others will want to draw out the implications of the patron-client relationship between God and believers so I will do so here at least briefly and leave further investigations to others unless I receive requests to do so or find myself puzzling over and reflecting upon it in the future.
Grace, referred to as charis in the New Testament, and faithfulness, referred to as pistis, have within them a reciprocal relationship that is different from how such things are normally referred to by contemporary believers. The grace of a patron, in this case God, provides an obligation that is too immense to be repaid to which the recipient of the grace responds to with loyalty and a willingness to do what the patron commands. If this sort of reciprocal relationship sounds familiar to you, it should be, because this sort of relationship is precisely the sort that we find expounded in the mafia and in contemporary urban gangs. The leader of such organizations often call themselves godfather (itself a blasphemous placing of people in the place of God) and view themselves as the source of patronage to others which requires loyalty to a code of omerta and obedience to the commands of the godfather. The covenantal relationship of obedience and mutual service that is established in the Bible is mirrored in its imitations and corruptions among human institutions and organizations.
We might also see that this understanding of God explains the sort of rivalries that have long existed between church and state up to the present time. The demand that God has to be the ultimate authority itself conflicts with the desire for the state to be the same. Whether we look at the Roman Empire of the early centuries AD or contemporary paternalistic government, we see the same tendency on the part of the state to desire to be the ultimate authority and to show immense hostility to rivals to other institutions that demand the same loyalty. When we look at the way that governments struggle to deal with the mafia or with urban gangs whose omerta codes demand loyalty to a parallel state that claims authority over areas the state brooks no rivals, we can understand the sort of rivalry-based hatred that the state has for churches which are loyal to God rather than to them. And we can only expect these rivalries to become more serious as brethren understand the obligations due to God and the state interferes more and more with areas that properly belong to God and to the conscience of people.
There are a great many areas where this can be a problem. For example, there are times when laws seek to enforce injustice by viewing some people as superior to others, which violates the equality of all men before God. There are other times where to speak out about sexual sins is viewed as a hate crime instead of telling biblical truth. There are situations where people need to be reminded that to be baptized is to commit to spiritual warfare that precludes the sort of obedience to the state and its military that comes with volunteering for military service. Examples like this could be multiplied, where the provision of generosity by believers interferes with the state’s desire to be the source of such largess, or where the church provides biblical moral instruction that is contrary to the decadent and immoral standards of the time. In all of these cases to serve God is to reject the ultimate loyalty to the state that is expected or demanded, and this creates ill will from governments and their officials towards believers who are simply obeying God as they ought to do and as they are covenantally obligated to do as believers. Resolving these conflicts is by no means an easy matter.