Church attendance is going out of style across America. The latest research shows that church attendance has been on the decline for a number of years, and fewer and fewer people have any religious affiliation.
Predictably connected with this decline in spirituality is a decline in the collective morality of our nation. It would seem that our nation and our world is becoming morally bankrupt. Look at the increase in murders, mass shootings, depression and suicide. Look at the drug epidemic, or human trafficking. Take, for example, the polarized politics. Look at the normalization of corrupt, evil, immoral and decadent behavior among all classes of society. If ever there was a need for a spiritual revival, it is today.
I doubt anyone would argue this point. And with this comes the next obvious statement: we need help. Look around our church. Which of us isn’t doing his or her best to come to church, to be faithful in returning tithes and offerings, and to give of their time and resources to further God’s work? Sure, we could probably do better, but that’s not my point. We need help! If nothing happens, it seems, true Christianity might die out. Who will come to our aid?
The Adventist church in this area may be small, but we’re definitely not alone in this. Churches of every denomination are dwindling. Anyone looking on would tell you: we need some help!
Wouldn’t it be great, after all, if we could just get some grant money to re-do our carpet, and maybe help renovate the basement? After all, our church is benefiting the community in a lot of ways, aren’t we? We can have classes for the community in our church. Maybe we could host a political rally? After all, who wouldn’t mind plugging a politician occasionally, if they’re helping us keep our church doors open? You know, years ago we had a church school here. Maybe we could re-open our church school, too, if we had a voucher program or tax incentives, so parents wouldn’t have to pay so much to put their kids in the church school.
And so the argument goes—hence the title of this post: The Help We Don’t Need.
“What help don’t we need?” you might ask. “After all, every little bit helps, right?” Well, that’s what they say, but I’m here to tell you today that “every little bit” will not necessarily lead us where we want to go. When it comes to God’s church, there is a help that we don’t need.
But before we answer this question, let’s open the Bible and answer some basic questions about church:
- What does it means to worship God?
- How did God design the government of Israel to facilitate worship?
- What role should the state play in aiding or facilitating the worship of God?
- How can we understand the principles of God’s government in a 21st century world?
Worshiping God & the Government of Israel
Ever since the beginning of time, the service of God has been based upon an individual choice. Eve, and then Adam, chose to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Cain chose to bring an offering contrary to God’s will, while Able brought a lamb as God required. Seth and his descendants chose to follow God, while the descendants of Cain continued in rebellion against Him. Noah chose to follow God in a world who forsook Him. “Abraham believed God”, it says in Romans 4:3, “and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” So it was with all the patriarchs, and throughout history. Those who followed God did so through their own personal choice. Each one had the choice to follow, or to reject Him. The true followers didn’t have anyone to “help” them make their decision.
“But wait!” you might say. “What about the children of Israel? Didn’t things change in the time of Moses, when God gave both religious and civil laws to govern the nation of Israel?” Wouldn’t that be a great help to following God? Let’s take a look at that.
Exodus 19:3-6 : And Moses went up to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the children of Israel: 4 ‘You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Myself. 5 Now therefore, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people; for all the earth is Mine. 6 And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words which you shall speak to the children of Israel.”
When the children of Israel came out of Egypt, under the leadership of Moses, God came and spoke with Moses on the mountain. It was at this time that God began to fulfill the promise He had made with Abraham so many years before—the promise to make his descendants into a great nation. Not just individually, but corporately, the nation of Israel was to be a special exhibit of God’s followers to the earth. God didn’t disavow His work among the other nations, “for all the earth is Mine” He says. Nor did He negate the need for personal, individual choice. But for the nation of Israel, God had something special in mind. “You shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”
God did something very special for Israel. He not only gave them His moral law, but he set up a system of civil government that was intrinsically linked to their worship of Him. They had no king—they were under the visible, tangible leadership of the God of Heaven. We call this system of government a theocracy. God was their visible, literal head and leader, as we see in Exodus 13:21:
“And the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so as to go by day and night.”
In fact, when Israel later asked for a king, during the time of the prophet Samuel, God said to Samuel: “They have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me, that I should not reign over them.” (1 Samuel 8:7)
God spoke His law to Israel from Mount Sinai, and wrote His law on the tables of stone—His eternal and unchangeable law. In addition, God gave to Israel a code book, if you will, of laws that governed both the religious and the civil affairs of the nation. Along side the instructions regarding the tabernacle service and the yearly feasts were laws that required capital punishment for various offenses, from breaking the Sabbath (Exodus 31:14-15) to murder (Numbers 35:16-21) to rape (Deuteronomy 22). Participating in witchcraft, committing adultery, homosexual activity, or cursing ones parents brought the same penalty: death. (Leviticus 18, 20).
Sadly, as we know, Israel soon forgot that God was their king, and the history of Israel is a history of failings, of backsliding and rebelling against God, of suffering under judgment, repenting and returning, only to backslide again and again. Even after Israel had a king, God intended for Israel’s government to retain the form of a theocracy—where God was the true King, and the earthly king followed the commands of God. That happened sometimes, but more often the kings of Israel and Judah led them further and further from God, until finally Israel was carried away by the Assyrians, never to return, and later the kingdom of Judah was taken captive for 70 years in Babylon.
Despite the fact that the theocracy of Israel failed more often than it succeeded, God original purpose—His plan to build a personal relationship with every man, woman, and child—was still in effect. The theocracy did not replace this relational aspect—it was meant to facilitate this relationship on a national scale. We see this clearly when Joshua appeals to the Israelites in Joshua 24:15, “if it seems evil to you to serve the Lord, choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”
God never meant for the national status of Israel’s theocracy to become a substitute for the relationship He desired with every individual. And though Israel’s light to the nations was so faltering, yet throughout the history of Israel and Judah we see individuals who became a shining light for God, even in a nation of darkness.
Looking Forward to a Change
This is nowhere more evident than after the tragic destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar’s armies—in the story of Daniel and his three friends, who became a shining light for God in the heathen kingdom of Babylon. There in Babylon, like in most every nation of history, the false and idolatrous religion of Babylon was inextricably linked with the civil government of Babylon. Daniel and his friends, as captives in a foreign land, were given names by the king that represented the worship of the false gods of Babylon. They and the hundreds of other Hebrew captives were forced to choose between the worship of the True God or keeping their own lives. Most of the captives caved in to the surrounding pressure, but Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah chose to stand firm for God even in the face of death. These young men became a shining light in that heathen land. God spared their lives and used their witness as an example of what the nation of Judah might have been, had the nation remained faithful. He used them to show what He can do through men and women who are fully committed to Him, in spite of the fiercest persecution.
At the end of the 70 years’ captivity, Daniel prayed to God for the deliverance of His people and His nation. God revealed to Daniel in vision that He would give another 490 years to the nation of Judah as a theocracy. In this incredible prophecy, found in Daniel 9:24-27, God shows Daniel that in the last 7 years of this time period, the Messiah would come to Israel, and that he would be “cut off” in the midst of the week—not for Himself, but to make an atonement for sin. But what about the end of the 490 years? What would become of Israel at that time? The prophecy doesn’t specify—only to say that this time period was “determined” or “cut off” from a much longer time period in Daniel 8:14, which points to a final and climactic cleansing of God’s heavenly sanctuary.
No doubt, God’s plan for Israel was far greater than what we have seen through history. God didn’t want to see Israel go into captivity. God had planned for Israel to become a light to all nations, demonstrating to the world what God’s system of government could look like. It wasn’t God’s intention that the leaders of Judah should reject the Messiah.
If you read the prophecies of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and minor prophets like Zechariah, we see prophecies of a future, glorious Israel—an Israel like nothing we’ve seen in history. Many have taken this to mean that the theocracy of Israel will return once again, with a rebuilt Jerusalem temple. But if we read the Bible carefully, we will realize that the literal fulfillment of these prophecies was conditional to Israel’s obedience. Had Israel obeyed God, the nation of Israel could have become the foremost in spreading the Gospel of Jesus to the world.
But of course, that’s not how it happened. When Jesus came, Israel’s leaders rejected him. At Pentecost, many of Israel believed, but the leaders continued persecuting the church. Finally, at the close of the 490 years prophesied in Daniel, the leadership of Israel sealed the fate of the nation at the stoning of Stephen. From this time on, the gospel would go directly to the Gentiles. The Old Testament prophecies, which were conditional on Israel’s obedience, are re-framed in the book of Revelation in the context of a spiritual Israel—God’s true church through the ages.
A New Era
Jesus’ coming ushered in a new era of history. Jesus followers were to become citizens of a new kingdom: the kingdom of heaven.
Matthew 4:17 “From that time Jesus began to preach, and to say, Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
What kind of Kingdom? John 18:36 “Jesus answered, My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence.”
He taught that His kingdom would be, not a worldly kingdom, but an other-worldly kingdom. Hence, His followers wouldn’t use temporal or earthly power to strengthen His cause.
Paul reiterates this principle in Philippians 3:20: “For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Rather than encourage His followers to resist the evil power of Rome, Jesus said in Matthew 5:39: “I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.” And in verse 41: “whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two.”
What Happened to Israel?
As God’s people passed out of the theocracy of ancient Israel and into the freedom of Christ, their sights were set on the everlasting Kingdom of Heaven. No earthly government was put in place to succeed the nation of Israel. Instead, the true Israel would be transformed into a spiritual kingdom. All of the Jews were given this Gospel message and invited to be part of God’s Heavenly Kingdom. Later, the Gentiles (that is, the non-Jews) also received the gospel invitation, as we see in Acts 10 and onward, through the ministry of the apostle Paul.
Paul himself describes this transition in Romans 11, in the figure of an olive tree. This tree, which represents Israel, had some of its branches broken off, and wild olive branches were grafted in—representing the Gentile Christians coming into the kingdom of God. But Paul cautions the gentile Christians not to boast.
“For if you were cut out of the olive tree which is wild by nature, and were grafted contrary to nature into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these, who are natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree?” (Romans 11:24)
There is not another time coming when the nation of Israel, as a theocracy, will be restored as God’s special people. The 70 weeks of Daniel 9 are completed and fulfilled. The Jewish leaders rejected Jesus and the gospel, but many of the Jews believed. Together, both the Jews and Gentiles who believe in Christ, through faith, have become a spiritual continuation of Israel. This is the thrust of Paul’s message in Galatians, and this is the message of Jesus to John in Revelation—that all the promises made to Israel will finally be fulfilled for all those who believe in Christ. Paul writes in Galatians 3:
“Therefore know that only those who are of faith are sons of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel to Abraham beforehand, saying, ‘In you all the nations shall be blessed.’ So then those who are of faith are blessed with believing Abraham.” Galatians 3:7-9
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” Galatians 3:28-29
Christians everywhere were taught to be subject to earthly governments for a time, because soon Jesus would return to set up His everlasting kingdom.
Paul writes in Romans 13:1: “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God.”
God’s Church versus The Pagan World
Like the children of Judah during the Babylonian captivity, or like Israel in Egypt, the citizens of Christ’s heavenly kingdom would be subject for the time to the rulers of this world. Yet when the laws of the land came into conflict with the law of God, they would declare boldly with the apostles in Acts 5:29, “We ought to obey God rather than men.”
John the Revelator saw a vision of God’s church, symbolized by a glorious woman, in Revelation 12. This woman was “clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a garland of twelve stars.” Nothing about this woman was connected to this earth, or the powers that govern it. So it was to be with Jesus’ church. Never again would God establish another theocracy upon earth, until the end of the thousand years. This would be long after Jesus second time in glory and power, when He would forever put an end to earthly kingdoms and redeem His children to their heavenly home.
For several generations after Christ, His followers suffered terrible persecution at the hands of the Romans. The Romans demanded that their subject show their loyalty by worshiping the emperor. When Christians refused to worship, many died horrible deaths. But slowly, things changed. By the 4th century, Emperor Constantine himself became a Christian. Christianity became popular. Christians were no longer persecuted. The church suddenly found itself with the unlikeliest of ally’s—the state that had so long persecuted it. But in this unlikely ally it would soon find its deadliest foe.
Experiments with a Christian Theocracy
Well would it have been for the church to stop and consider the words of Jeremiah 17:5: “Thus says the Lord: ‘Cursed is the man who trusts in man And makes flesh his strength, Whose heart departs from the Lord.’”
Rather than protect the freedom to worship for all, the state went a step further to become the protector and defender of the faith it had so lately persecuted. Bishops and popes now had the mighty arm of civil power to enforce their edicts—with terrible results. Corruption in the church became rampant. Doctrines were compromised, and soon the church itself looked very much like the pagan culture it had so lately protested. Those who dared to remain loyal to God’s truth were persecuted more dreadfully than they had been under the power of pagan Rome.
This new Christian theocracy was aptly described in John’s vision in Revelation 17. Unlike the pure, white, and other-worldly woman of Revelation 12, this new church is pictured as an impure and adulterous woman, riding atop a worldly beast of civil power. For over a thousand years, this church-state power would dominate the politics of Europe. The Protestant Reformation of the 16th century demonstrated just how far this corrupt system of Christianity had fallen from the purity of the early church. It would also demonstrate to what lengths the powerful rulers of the church would go to maintain their authority—killing not thousands, but millions of their subjects who dared to follow the Bible and disregard their edicts.
An Experiment in Freedom
It was in this context, in the late 18th century, that our forefathers framed the constitution of this country—the United States of America. Though many were believers in God, they had seen first-hand the tyranny of governments controlled by state churches, and the corruption of churches controlled by the state. So they formed a republic based on the principle of a separation of church and state.
I hear so many people today who say that “The United States of America was formed as a Christian nation.” Yes, it was founded upon Christian principles. Many of the foundational laws are based upon the Judaeo-Christian ethic found in the Old Testament. But the cornerstone principle—the key that has made the USA so mighty and prosperous—is this principle of religious freedom. This means that every citizen is free to worship as he or she chooses, or to choose not to worship at all, without fear of reprisal from the state. The USA is not a Christian nation, but a nation of freedom, where Christians, Jews, Muslims, Atheists and others can live together in harmony.
And as I study the Bible, I can’t help but believe that this is the best form of government we can hope for, this side of Jesus’ second coming. Because, after all, Jesus’ Kingdom is not of this world. He never wanted to establish an earthly government, and the principles of His heavenly kingdom forbid the use of force. So a government that allows—not one that requires, but allows the free exercise of religion, without interference, is the best kind we can hope to have.
Freedom Under Attack
Of course, our religious freedoms are constantly under attack. I hear of many cases involving employers who refuse to accommodate for Sabbath observance. An interesting case recently involved an Amish family’s request for a religious exemption from mandatory vaccination for students in New York. Certainly you’ve followed the saga of the cake baker, who refused to bake a cake for a gay couple’s wedding reception, and was sued for following his conscience. We often think of present-day discussions of religious liberty in terms of a state that has been very hostile toward religion.
It may surprise you, but I have seen recent developments in the political world to be equally as troubling, from the opposite perspective. Let me give you an example: about three months ago, US Attorney General William Barr gave a speech at the University of Notre Dame. Barr spoke about the campaign by “militant secularists” to “destroy the moral order” of society. While couching his arguments in terms of “religious freedom,” Barr argued for the need to have religion (Christianity in particular) as the moral rudder, guiding the creation and interpretation of laws at every level. He spoke at length about the attack on Christian values in public education, and the need to allow state funding for private schools through voucher and tax-incentive programs.
This would be well a good, coming from a Christian pastor, but this is coming from one of the highest officials of the state—one who is pledged to uphold the principles of the constitution! Of course, every public official has a right to exercise his religion, and I don’t have a problem with that. But Barr goes further, outlining how his religion shapes his view of public policy. Rather than a secular government, Barr argues that we need a Christian one. Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell described Barr’s speech as “a tacit endorsement of theocracy.” Nancy LeTourneau of the Washington Monthly argues that “The seeds of theocratic authoritarianism are being planted.“
Not just the politicians, but I hear this same sentiment among many Christians I speak with: This country needs to get back to God! Why can’t have teachers lead prayer in schools? Why can’t we have Bible class in school? Why shouldn’t we have access to tax money to improve our church school playgrounds, pay tuition, or help our church community programs? Wouldn’t it be a good thing for the government to protect our Christian values from being undermined by a secular society?
Why not let churches be part of the campaign platform for elected officials? After all, think how much good could be done if the politicians were beholden to the churches! After all, someone needs to keep them in line, right? How much could be accomplished, if the churches could have a bit more influence in public policy…
Or would it? Because by the same token, the churches would be beholden to those same politicians. Friends, we are seeing this taking place in this country, even as we speak. The wall the separates church and state is being subtly broken down, and once the dam is breached, a flood is soon to follow!
I realize these are deep and complicated discussions. I’m not saying I have all the answers—but I do know one thing. There is a help that we, as Christians, do not need. We don’t need to return to the experiment of the middle ages. We don’t want to see, again, what can happen when the church and state get in bed together.
A Coming Crisis
The last verses of Revelation 13 describe a system of power in the last days, which will ally itself against the worshipers of God and enforce a system of worship that the Bible calls the “mark of the beast.” These days are coming, my friends. I don’t pretend to be a prophet. I don’t pretend to know exactly how or when this may take place—or to say which political side will play the biggest part. But I do fear these days may come sooner than many think!
So what do we do, friends? I’m not here to make a political statement. I’m not hear to make you afraid. But I do feel that it’s important to mention the issues—to talk about what’s happening, and to reflect on our own attitudes toward current issues in light of Bible prophecy.
If I read prophecy correctly, one day soon this country will repudiate the principles of religious freedom that are framed in our constitution. This nation will create laws to compel the conscience, and with these laws will bring about a time of persecution once again like that of the middle ages.
While we have time—while we have a voice—let us use that voice to speak out in favor of religious freedom. We won’t have it forever, but let us do all in our power to protect these rights for as long as we can, so that this Gospel of the Kingdom can be preached unto all the world—preached in the loving tones of Jesus, not by the edge of the sword of the state.
The Help We DO Need
My friends—let me put it simply this way: Jesus never authorized a new theocracy, short of His Second Coming. He taught His followers to be subject to authority, yet always to obey God, rather than man. While He was fearless in calling out sin, He didn’t try to curry favor with Rome, or with the Jewish leaders. Jesus does not demand or force people to follow Him—He simply calls. Revelation 22:17 “the Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let him who hears say, “Come!” And let him who thirsts come. Whoever desires, let him take the water of life freely.”
And he has given us this message to proclaim to a world in need.
And the only help we need? It comes from Him—through the power of His love and the sweet influence of His Holy Spirit!
Hebrews 13:6 “So we may boldly say: ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not fear. What can man do to me?’”