The longer I live the Christian life, the more I realize that it is a life often lived in tension. We live in the "in between" with two opposing but complementary biblical principles serving to keep us balanced.
I have felt that tension recently with the debate regarding Syrian refugees.
On one side, concerned Christians call for open-handed compassion along with open hearts and open borders. On the other side, equally concerned Christians call for tighter screening, security for citizens, and an awareness that evil, often disguised in sheep's clothing, does exist in this world.
Whichever side one falls (or leans to), there can often be disdain and mischaracterization of the other.
This particular issue is amplified by our unique position as Christians in this nation. We are both members of the body of Christ (the church) and a vital part of the governance of this nation (the state).
The church-state distinction is a tension in itself for the believer. We are both citizens of heaven and citizens of a nation. We are commanded to honor our leaders and obey the laws of this nation (Rom. 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-17) but also to remember that we are strangers and pilgrims on this earth loyal to the lordship of Jesus Christ first and foremost (Acts 5:29; Matt. 10:16-20).
The purpose of the state is different from the purpose of the church.
The state has one primary job description in Scripture: to punish evildoers and to give incentive for proper behavior (1 Peter 2:14). The state wields the "sword" of temporal punishment, protecting citizens and preserving peace by executing wrath on those who would seek to destroy the nation or harm lives within the nation (Rom. 13:4)
The church, on the other hand, has a different job description: to make disciples of Jesus Christ by living exemplary lives, showing love to one another, and preaching the gospel of salvation in Christ alone (Matt. 28:19-20; 1 Peter 2:11-12).
As Martin Luther noted: God has ordained the two governments: the spiritual, which by the Holy Spirit under Christ makes Christians and pious people; and the secular, which restrains the unchristian and wicked so that they are obliged to keep the peace outwardly.
For the Christian in America, we must think in both spheres–church and state–at the same time. We have the challenge that a Christian involved in any form of civil government would face: How do I both lead well as a protector of the citizenry and serve well as a follower of Christ?
I have often seen Christians take verses and exhortations aimed at the church and try to apply them to the state. Turning the other cheek is a challenge in a Christian's personal relationships. It is does not make for a tenable civil government.
When the state tries to act like the church, it ignores the reality of sin and the dangers of evil. In seeking to show "compassion," it actually encourages evil behavior.
Because the sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil (Ecclesiastes 8:11).
Yes, mercy has a place in civil government but it must never be at the expense of justice. A just judge must punish evil. A just military commander must be ready to destroy a nation's enemies. And a just leader must protect his people from those bent on harming others. To pretend otherwise is to pretend that one lives in a utopian paradise rather than on a sin-impacted earth.
On the other hand, when the church acts like the state, it is equally destructive. Instead of offering mercy and grace to those who need Christ, the church projects condemnation and self-righteousness. Yes, within the church, there is a necessity for leadership, accountability, and discipline but humility and grace must still take center stage.
When church and state are separate but working in harmony together, a society experiences its greatest measure of peace on this earth.
So back to the issue at hand.
When it comes to the Syrian refugees…and many other political issues confronting this nation…the Christian must think and live in tension.
As a voice in the state, the Christian must seek the peace and protection of the citizens of this nation. Law. Justice. Security. Military strength. These are the words of a vital, sustainable, effective government. They should not be disdained by Christians mistaking the state for the church.
As a voice from the church, the Christian must at the same time seek to do good in society, welcome the stranger, show the compassion of Christ, and share the message of Christ. Grace. Mercy. Charity. Moral strength. These are the words of a vital, growing, beautiful church. They should not be ignored by Christians mistaking the church for the state.
It's not an easy tension but it is a necessary one.
It's a tension that stretches us, humbles us, helps us grow.
If you don't feel the tension, then open your ears to hear the perspective of a brother or sister in Christ who may see things differently. And then join them in prayer for wisdom, strength, and unity as we seek to follow His Word and shine His light in this darkened world.
That's what it means to be the body of Christ.