The Rev Dr Scott Couper teaches history at SMMS. The following sermon series is shared as part of our on-going effort to bridge the gap between academia and the church.
Bethel Congregational Church, UCCSA
28 February 2016
The Rev Dr Scott Everett Couper
“Where Does Religious Authority Lie?”
*I Samuel 8: 4-10 and 15-22a
Meditative Psalm: 63:1-8
Christian Scripture: Romans 3:21-24
As we announced last week, we are in the midst of what is known as “The Luther Decade”. For ten years leading-up until 2017 (next year), there have been and will continue to be special themed concerts, exhibitions, church services, festivals and theatre productions that recognise the 500th year anniversary of the Reformation. At the Bethel Congregational Church, we too recognise the significance of this time. Hence, we continue a four-week sermon series entitled, “To Be Reformed”.
In our series “To Be Reformed”, we are exploring who we are as Protestants (but not in polemic opposition to our brothers and sisters in the Catholic tradition) and in what we believe as it regards to our faith in Jesus Christ. What are the spiritual tenets upon which we worship as Protestants? Each week we explore a new theological question from the perspective of Protestantism.
- How is a person saved?
- Where does religious authority lie?
- What is the church?
- What is the essence of Christian living?
Today, we ask Martin Luther: “Where does religious authority lie?”
Our answer begins in the Hebrew scriptures when our ancestors in faith asked Samuel, a judge, to give them a king like all the other countries around them. (Isn’t just like us? Always wanting what the person next to us has.) Samuel felt “displeased” or disappointed, because he was under the impression that he and his sons have failed to guide God’s people
(I Samuel 8:6). God responded to Samuel, “No, it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king” (I Samuel 8:7). Here we see an instance when God’s people no longer desired to become directly accountable to God, but rather they desired to be directly accountable to a head of state, to a king, to a government. The people gravitated to an earthly king to enforce religious authority. God then warned them that a king will be politically oppressive; a king will be a parasite, living on the surplus of the people, taking their land, their crops, their men for war, taking their money in taxes, taking, taking, taking. But no, the Israelites wanted to be like their neighbours next door and have a king. So, God said to Samuel, ‘So be it. “Give them a king”’ (I Samuel 8:22). Saul was the first king. But Saul became oppressive and even tried to kill David (I Samuel 22).
Then David became king after lots of drama! David was considered the greatest king. But, we all know what he did to his general Uriah and we all know what he did with Bathsheba (though we will not go into that as this is a PG-13 sanctuary) (II Samuel 11).
From David and Bathsheba came their son, Solomon, and he became king.
He was considered the wisest king. But thereafter, the whole king thing continued to go downhill – just as God warned that it would (I Kings 11:1-13). You see, kings, and all those who surround them, are humans, and humans sin. They always have and they always will. And when a people of faith make a king a religious authority – things tend to go haywire! For example, remember when King Ahab persecuted the prophet Elijah (I Kings 17-18)?
The Hebrew scriptures are full of evil and wicked kings, like Ahab, even though they were supposed to be the mediators between people and God; they were supposed to act as role models; they were supposed to lead people by example into relationship with God. When the kings strayed from God, so did the people. And so for hundreds of years the prophets lamented poor leadership, ungodly rule and the wayward nature of God’s people. You see, when a human king, a head of state or any government becomes a religious authority, then the people of God inevitably break their covenant with God and instead make a new covenant with a government and that government becomes the entity to which they are primarily accountable. That is idolatry. That is why God confides to Samuel: “They have not rejected you; they have rejected me.”
If we follow this theme into the Christian scriptures, one of the reasons that Jesus was killed was because he declared that people of faith could have a direct relationship with God.
No longer did they have to sacrifice at the Temple, follow the strict ordinances of the priests, and necessarily obey the Pharisees and Sadducees. No, Jesus said, ‘It is not men to whom you are accountable, it is to God’. Jesus taught that we could pray to God directly, declare our sins to God (just as we do during this season of Lent) and receive forgiveness from God and thereafter walk in God’s light. Many of those during Jesus’ time, including many of his disciples, wanted to make Jesus a king – just like they wanted Samuel to give them a king.
But, in the dessert, after being tempted to be king by Satan, Jesus resisted (Matthew 4, we examined this scripture a few weeks ago).
Many say the church was at its purest, most ideal and perfect state when it was young and persecuted by the Roman government. Many say ‘the tree of faith was watered by the blood of the martyrs’ when Christians were thrown to lions for sport because they refused to renounce their faith in Jesus Christ.
Historians generally agree that the church became corrupt when the government became Christian, when the Roman Emperor Constantine declared Christianity to be the state religion. Then the church became infected, compromised, sullied, bamboozled, corrupted by the filth of realpolitik – of dirty politics and money. That corruption continued and grew all the way into the 1500s, to the time of Martin Luther and Pope Leo, Luther’s antagonist. (Recall, last week when we learned about indulgences and how the Church ‘sold’ God’s love and forgiveness for profit?)
Friends in Christ, we see this same theme in our own country’s history, when the Dutch Reformed Church (NGK) was an ally of the National Party and the apartheid regime implemented National Christian Education in South Africa.
Church and state were fused, mixed, partners – and thus the church in South Africa justified apartheid, and thus a heresy, theologically. When the state and church are one, the church often loses its soul and worships an idol.
During the Reformation, Martin Luther was the first western Christian to advocate for a separation between church and state. This separation of spheres was a direct result of Luther’s rediscovery of Paul’s ‘justification by faith’ that we learned about last week. Just about 500 years ago, Luther’s doctrine of ‘justification by faith’, rediscovered again, that humans are to be directly accountable to God – not to an earthly king, not to a priest, not to a pope, not to a deacon and not to a minister. The is especially true within our Congregationalist faith tradition, that emphasises a free and democratic church, governed by the people within in it in covenant with God and each other. God loves us as individuals and we are to respond directly to God’s love with praise, thanksgiving, repentance and service to our neighbours. Recall we read this morning, “[The] righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe” (Romans 3:22).
In 1996, South Africa adopted its Constitution. So, this year (2016) marks the twentieth year anniversary of our constitution. In the Constitution is a Bill of Rights.
Section 15 of the Constitution’s Bill of Rights declares that “Everyone has the right to freedom of conscience, religion, thought belief and opinion”. It is not exaggeration to state that this clause is in the constitution today exists in part because of Martin Luther and the Reformation. So, for us gathered here in this sanctuary, the question ‘where does religious authority lie?’ is as pertinent today as it was five hundred years ago. I thank God that South Africa has a secular democracy – for it enables us as Christians the freedom to worship Jesus Christ and to declare that we are accountable to Christ and Christ alone! We actually should not desire a ‘Christian nation’, for a Christian nation will capture and corrupt the Christian church. I will go so far as to say that I believe that Christmas should not be a ‘public holiday’ any more than an Islamic holy day should, a Hindu holy day or a Jewish holy day. Have you noticed that Christmas has been captured by capitalism and consumerism, a day celebrated even by non-Christians because it is a ‘public holiday’ treated preferentially by the government? The way to ‘put Christ back into Christmas’ (as many advocate) is to ensure that the state does not become Christian and thus distort our faith by co-opting it. If you need the government to support your faith, your faith is not very strong. Your faith should stand on its own merit. May Christians be faithful to the gospel of Jesus Christ because we are persuaded by the gospel and have faith in it and not because it the law of the land.
So, let us together answer the question with Martin Luther, “Where does religious authority lie?” Well, it is not in a king, not with a government and not with any earthly ruler. The separation of church and state preserves the dignity, the integrity and the faithfulness of our worship to God. Where does religious authority lie?
Well, I propose with Martin Luther that it lies within our conscience, inspired by the Holy Spirit, making us directly accountable and justified to God and God alone. This was the spiritual revolution that separated the state from the church. When Martin Luther was being tried for heresy by the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, (for which he could be executed) he was asked to recant his teachings. Luther answered: “I cannot retract, for it is neither safe nor wise do anything against conscience. Here I stand. I can do no other. So help me God. Amen”.
This was the word of God. And it was preached to the people of God. And the people of God responded: “Amen”.
 Shelly, Church History in Plain English, 238.