God and Government 11: The Role of Religious Doctrine in Mediating Our Relationship with God

In His “render” statement, Jesus seems to be saying that in every life, there are circumstances that require us to recognize the influence of God and government respectively, and to recognize that each does have some authority over us—an authority to which we are required to respond when we can. 

For most of earth’s history, God and government have been substantially overlapping entities. In theocracy, God is government, but throughout the ages, government has used religion to control and manipulate people, and the church has often used government as an agent of influence as well. The concept of separation of church and state is a relatively recent idea, seen particularly and primarily in western democracies. But even there, we see constant challenges to it. The idea that government should try to regulate its citizens through all means, including religion, is not an easy concept to dismiss.

Historically, religion has had a strong influence on people through its readiness to furnish explanation and give meaning to things they don’t understand. Mankind lives in fear of both the known and the unknown. Religion has always been willing to fill the gap in the unknown, to answer the deep and existential questions of life. It is a great irony that religion’s willingness to reduce fear by answering questions about the unknown is matched by its willingness to introduce fear by setting up the believer for control and manipulation through its explanations of the unknown. Government has been known to do this, too. 

But if there is one message with unmistakable clarity from Jesus, it is that we do not need to fear God, because He is a God of love. It might be argued that throughout the ages, fear has been the basic currency of the church and church government. It has provided believers with a powerful motive to change their behaviors and as such is a powerful method of control. But as time passes and knowledge increases, the gaps in our understanding of the various aspects of life—biological, psychological, environmental, technological—grow narrower. 

What relationship ought to exist between God and religion? What role does doctrine have to inform us about God? On the day Jesus made His “render” statement: 

… some Sadducees (who say there is no resurrection) came to Jesus and questioned Him, asking, “Teacher, Moses said, ‘If a man dies having no children, his brother as next of kin shall marry his wife, and raise up children for his brother.’ Now there were seven brothers with us; and the first married and died, and having no children left his wife to his brother; so also the second, and the third, down to the seventh. Last of all, the woman died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife of the seven will she be? For they all had married her.”

But Jesus answered and said to them, “You are mistaken, not understanding the Scriptures nor the power of God. For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. But regarding the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was spoken to you by God: ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living.” When the crowds heard this, they were astonished at His teaching. (Matthew 22:23-33)

Jesus was addressing the question of how much we need to know about God and about how God runs the universe, in order to be able to understand and relate to Him. The doctrine to which the Sadducees were referring is this:

When brothers live together and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the deceased shall not be married outside the family to a strange man. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her and take her to himself as wife and perform the duty of a husband’s brother to her. It shall be that the firstborn whom she bears shall assume the name of his dead brother, so that his name will not be blotted out from Israel. (Deuteronomy 25:5-6)

Jesus was putting into context these Man-made rules that govern people’s lives. He seems to dismiss the question of whether the doctrine—the law—is important, and following the passage just quoted, He went on to talk about what was really important: 

“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:34-40)

How can religious rules be altered? What are the criteria by which believers can govern themselves in terms of their living? Are we prone to ascribing to God, or to religion, things that have nothing to do with God? 

David: We allow religious priesthoods to tell us what is holy; what is right and wrong. I don’t think this is their prerogative. 

Don: Our grandchildren and future generations will clearly have a different view of religion from that of ourselves and our grandfathers. What does this mean for the future of the church as an institution? This is the bigger question that arises from the passage we are discussing. The Sadducees seem genuinely concerned about it, but Jesus does not. Why not? 

KB: In South Africa, one of the two Adventist conferences split into two at its last session, along generational lines, over money. The poorly paid young pastors, and younger people in general, publicly objected to the mismanagement and misuse of church funds to support the older pastors’ luxurious lifestyles, of which there was plenty of evidence. There was corruption, basically. The issue tore some families apart.

Although I shared the opinions of the breakaway faction, I could not bring myself to leave the Conference. We were told we would be cut off if we joined the breakaway group. The thought of not being a member of the Adventist Church any more frightened me and many other young people who sympathized with the group but decided to remain. It seemed to be a bureaucratic matter rather than a spiritual matter, so in that sense, I felt it was not my business.

The old people in the Conference basically did not want to believe that the pastors to whom they looked up were corrupt. They did not want to hear evidence that their tithes had been misspent for so many years. Now that the dust has settled, I can’t help but wonder whether God cares whether I remain an Adventist or not, whether I should have stood up for what I believed to be the truth. Like so many, I felt I was just caught up in something beyond my control. 

Jay: It is amazing how, for many people, their identity is wrapped up in their formal religious affiliation. They cannot imagine life outside the church. How would they function? What would they do? It is a powerful force. But we are examining that very question: Whose force is majeure: Is it God’s or (church) government’s? Are there deal-breakers to the church that are quite irrelevant to God? What about the things that church offers that really do bring us into a closer relationship with God? Our church only came on the scene in 1844, so what about all the millennia preceding that year? Our church did not exist then, but God did. In the absence of church, there still had to be ways to commune with, to follow, to obey God.

This is not to cast doubt on the structure, which we tend to expect to harness the power of faith to explain the inexplicable to us. In doing so, we make that structure critical to our identity; hence, it becomes hard to imagine life without it. But what if we were to leave the church? Would it change our behavior? Our character? Our relationships with others? With God? If so, would it be change for the better, or for the worse? Our church does have doctrines about how it is to be structured, but they bear little resemblance to the very specific doctrines specified by God in the Bible. If it was so important to Him, why are we not following His instructions to the letter? Why are we so sure that ours is the right doctrine today? 

Robin: Our denomination is small relative to some others, so why should we expect that God will consider it more important than any other? God has preserved His people throughout history. He called them “believers” or disciples or His church. It was people, not God, who started splitting them into denominations. We received specific messages, intended for a specific time, not necessarily for all time. But people who are in a denomination for a long time, like the elder pastors KB spoke of, start to feel they deserve something extra. Where is the humility in that? The world teaches us that we deserve something—a new car, more pay—for our efforts. Are the rebellious younger pastors merely envious? If so, where is their humility? Did the two groups not get together to pray over the issue? Pentecost was about unity. But thousands of years of sin have blinded us. It is very sad, but it is everywhere. 

Don: Mankind seems compelled to make graven images. Whether it’s the Kaaba, the Golden Calf, or a doctrine or other concept or idea, we have to have an image, an idol. When Jesus said: “You don’t understand the scriptures or the power of God” He was calling us to something much higher, much grander than the doctrinal images we make. What exactly is that? Is it achievable, and if so, how? In some ways, we Adventists treat the Sabbath as an idol. We are so convinced of its rightness, its authenticity, its importance, that we put it on a pedestal. 

David: If I have understood him correctly (not a sure thing!), in his new book, Gersham Nelson shows that Jesus Himself was objectified, turned into an idol, by Paul and the early church fathers. I was struck to learn that the group that preceded the official church—primarily the disciples and family of Jesus—was called “The Way” at the time. China too has “The Way”—the Dao of Daoism—as well as (still) a very large pantheon of earth and heavenly gods. But it does not have a single idol representing a true supreme being, only the concept of heaven itself, and it does not have a central or “state” religion. It embraced Buddhism from India, but except in Tibet (before it was shamefully colonized by China) and a handful of south and southeast Asian nation, Buddhism has not served as a state religion in the way the Abrahamic religions do.

The separation of “church” and state has always been largely the case in China throughout its long history. The country has fared just as well as any other, and its people (who account for a quarter of humanity) are no worse (Tibet notwithstanding) than others. Which then begs the question: What difference would a state religion have made to China? Perhaps we could look to China to help us at least dimly understand what Jesus meant when He talked of there being something higher than doctrines and idols. True, Jesus Himself went to the temple in Jerusalem and clearly approved of people going there to pray—else why grow so angry at the impediments placed in their way? So He was fine with a religious structure that helped people develop their relationship with God, but that seems to be the extent of his approval. God, not doctrine, is what people need.  

KB: We worship constructs, such as the Sabbath, as a result of indoctrination by elders in the church and our families. They tell us what to do, and we follow. This is separate from the relationship with God, which ultimately is more important. But the church does seem to influence how that relationship develops. It is hard to separate my relationship with the church from my relationship with God—hence, it is hard to think of leaving the church. Adventism challenges us to continue the search for the relationship, but using its structure. 

Robin: The reason to become a vegetarian is because it is a healthier diet, not because it is a doctrine. Why did it become doctrine in the first place? It should not be simply a matter of identity—there are plenty of non-Adventist vegetarians—but we do tend to want to own it! 

David: Adventism, like all other monotheistic religions, popped into existence fairly recently in the history of Mankind, and it (and the other religions and denominations) could pop out of existence just as readily, and soon. With the younger generations starting to question their religions and religious doctrines, and with the potential for their replacement by online “spiritual media,” there is no guarantee, nor even (in my opinion) a likelihood, that religions will last forever. This is not necessarily a bad thing. I think Jesus was pointing out that there is something closer to the core of humanity that will never change and never pop out of existence, something upon which we can always depend for spiritual support. People are afraid to lose their religion because it serves their social, emotional, and sometimes material needs, and that is understandable, but their relationship with God (such as it is at any given time) will remain intact. 

Jay: Jesus’ response suggests that the kingdom of heaven is indifferent to our worldly social constructs and laws, such as marriage laws and customs and paying taxes, are at best inconsequential and at worst destructive. Understanding this changes perceptions regarding the importance of these constructs. 

Don: But we see Jesus undergoing baptism and practicing at the temple as a Jew. So He was an adherent of at least some Jewish practices, which suggests that He found some value in them. The specifics of temple construction, given by God, must have some meaning. Our problem is that we take such things and objectify them. We turn them into idols. How can we organize and govern our religions in such a way as to avoid this injurious tendency? 

Jay: This is the overlap in the Venn diagram. The world tries to remove the gray area by pulling the circles apart, but Jesus wants us to pull them closer together, so that God and government share the same goals. That’s why he was so angry in the temple. 

Anonymous: I think the instructions we receive in the Bible were given for our benefit while we exist on this earth only. It is not a matter of ultimate importance, because of God’s love for us. Everything that stands between us and God, whether it be a church, a doctrine, a belief, a person, or other human construct, is not from God. There was no church in the time of Jesus. People just followed His Way. It was only when the Catholic Church was established that doctrines and rules and buildings and priesthood’s and so on were established. We have been going further and further from God.

He gave us the Light, the Way, and it’s up to us to find it. We don’t need help from anyone but God to find it. Most churchgoers accept their church’s interpretation of the Bible. They do not chew it and digest it for themselves, so their relationship is based on the shaky foundation of the ideas of others. Why not experience life on one’s own, led by the Word? If I go wrong, God will correct me. If I go in the right direction, God will encourage me to keep going. In the end, it’s up to me to live my life according to the Bible. The closer I get to it, the happier and the better person, citizen, Christian,mother, and friend I become. I grow more faithful, and a better follower.

Of course, Jesus was right: Who the brother’s widow married doesn’t matter at all. What matters is that the brothers cared for their sister-in-law, and gave her security throughout her life. The Bible offers good life lessons to help us in this life, and if we do heed them, life is better. But it does not mean eternal hellfire if we don’t heed them. 

Don: It’s easy to dismiss doctrine (as Jesus shows us in this passage) but there seems to be some value in it, too. The question is how do we find that value, and apply it to bringing us closer to God. 

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