Beware the nationalism trap: Our era is more vulnerable than ever (pt 3)

The lampstand and the ‘two trees’

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I awoke to politics in the summer of 1952 when I watched the first nationally televised political conventions choose their nominees for the presidency.

Decades later I wonder if the balance of authority in our nation will be sustained, and even if the nation itself will survive.

The era we inhabit is more vulnerable than any I have known in the years I have been studying and observing Church and State. The flaming issues of our day are moral and even spiritual — the right to life, freedom of belief and expression, marriage and family, care of needy people, race relations, national boundaries, crime and punishment to name a few.

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The hotter the conflict over these incendiary concerns the more Church and State are tempted to usurp the role of the other.

Hence the danger in our day is that of a stark secular State on the one hand or a nationalist Church on the other. History is laden with the wreckage of nations that have failed to respect the crucial balance of Church and State.

How do we avoid this?

An example is revealed in the experience of the Hebrews centuries ago as they returned to Jerusalem after 70 years of captivity in Babylon. They saw and were overwhelmed by a mountain of rubble from the collapse of the once glorious Temple.

Zerubbabel, the civil leader, and Joshua, the high priest, know they must mobilize the people to restore the Temple, the city, and its walls — but especially the Temple, the very center of their nation. Zerubbabel and Joshua occupied the two God-ordained offices of authority that together could lead the nation.

God gives a vision to the prophet Zechariah in which he sees a golden menorah-lampstand, centered between two olive trees. (Zechariah 4:1-7) Zechariah asks the angelic messenger what it means. The Lord’s revelation was that the Spirit of God Himself would be the power that would overcome the mountain of rubble, working through both Zerubbabel and Joshua.[1]

This, then, would be a shared responsibility. Church and State must cooperate and yet be separate, not forming a theocracy. But Church and State must not be rivals, otherwise, the nation will be plunged into a religious conflict.

What establishes the boundaries between Church and State is the Lampstand, placed at the center, representing the presence of God amid the two “trees.”

Here, then, are crucial takeaways that emerge in Zechariah’s vision:

  • The Church must not try to become the State. The Church can perform its prophetic role toward the political and civil spheres only when it stands outside the State rather than having the identity of the State. Freedom of religion is lost, and all must give allegiance to the particular belief system imposed by the Church-State.
  • On the other hand, the State must not seek to become the Church. Theocratic systems inevitably become oppressive because those in civil leadership are claiming God as the source of their power, therefore asserting that they have divine and thus absolute sanction for their policies and actions. The State becomes the object of worship and must be obeyed. This is seen especially in those countries that embrace state atheism. It’s not that their leaders believe there is no God, but that they and their institutions are god. Such governing styles are driven by the spirit of the Antichrist. Anti, in New Testament Greek, means not only “against,” but, “in the place of.” The spirit of the Antichrist is both opposition and imposition, which is clearly recognized when the distinctive roles of Church and State are confused, and they try to usurp one another’s positions as determined by God.

Zechariah’s vision shows that Church and State are the two “anointed” ones that bring order and stability to a nation. “Anointing” in the Bible symbolized the granting of authority. Prophets, priests, and kings were set in office through anointing with oil. (What distinguishes Jesus Christ is the fact He is the only one to have all three anointings). However, in the biblical order, both priestly and civil leadership are empowered to serve the security interests and national concerns of society.

There is intense pressure for one to displace the other. When that happens, the delicate balance is lost, tyranny takes over, freedoms are crushed.

Years ago, when I worked in the White House, I occasionally escorted security-cleared visitors to the West Wing. If the president were not there a velvet chord would be stretched across the Oval Office door, and the guests could peer into the room itself. Several times I watched visitors become caught up in almost a spiritual awe as if they were looking into the Holy of Holies.

Their mystical reaction demonstrated the powerful temptation to conflate Church and State. Both “anointed ones” must resist the temptation to occupy the position of the other. Both must be respected by the people they serve and respect and defend the roles of one another.

During the Soviet bloc communist era there were “red pastors” who surreptitiously spied on church services and tried to bring churches in line with the Marxist state. The “red pastors” were intense in their efforts to tear down the “lampstand” that established the healthy boundaries of Church and State and co-opt the churches into being tools of the state.

The danger now is great, and it is vital churches not be nationalized nor the state spiritualized.

Everywhere we need people like “the sons of Issachar” who discern what is going on and what to do about it. (1 Chronicles 12) 

[1] A more detailed discussion of Zechariah’s vision is found in Wallace B. Henley’s book, Two Men From Babylon. (Thomas Nelson, 2018)

Wallace B. Henley, a former White House and Congressional aide, is the author or co-author of more than 20 books. His latest is Who Will Rule the Coming ‘Gods’: The Looming Spiritual Crisis of Artificial Intelligence, just released by Vide Press.

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