by Melba P. Maggay, PhD
The church’s track record as it relates to the state has not been without blemish or lapses. Throughout the centuries, the church in its relationship with the world has swung from domination to capitulation, from separation to solidarity.
Domination was characteristic of periods when the church was in a majority situation, as in the time of Constantine up to the close of the Middle Ages, when the gilded throne of the papacy ruled with both the cross and the sword. Capitulation characterized periods when the church was weak and in a minority situation, with survival as its main agenda. Separation has been resorted to in times of internal rot and corruption, as with the monastic movement which saw isolation as a form of purification. Solidarity occupied the church in periods when repression caused it to be a voice to the voiceless, as with recent experiences in authoritarian and totalitarian regimes.
Churches in the Philippines exhibit these tendencies in varying degrees and permutations. The Roman Catholic Church, being in the majority, wields much influence in affairs of the state, while Protestant churches, as a minority, display more insular tendencies. Charismatic churches emphasize inwardness and the use of spectacular spiritual gifts that have yet to result in the practical out-working of justice on a national scale. The Iglesia Ni Cristo, on the other hand, directly uses worldly power to advance its own ends and pet political causes.
What do we make of these various church responses to the problem of political power? First, God’s Word has social dimensions that cannot be ignored. Social justice is a general concern of the church. The poor and the weak, as the newly-installed Pope Francis I reminded us, ought to be at the center of the church’s mission.
But secondly, the way to go about this is not to turn the church as an institution into a political power or a social welfare agency. The local church — or what Sir John Stott calls the ‘church gathered’ — cannot major in making political pronouncements, or even in economic development, for its primary calling is evangelism and discipleship. It is the ‘church scattered’ — that is, the people of God spread across social structures like business, media or government — who have the responsibility to see to it that the institutions in which its members serve are consistent with God’s purposes for society. Current corporate action by Christians seeking to impact governance and the theory and practice of their professions is an example of the visibility of the church expressing itself in secular structures.
The Word of God certainly has something to say to errant powers. But there is a difference between being prophetic and mere politicking. The pulpit cannot be turned into a platform for passing judgment on sociopolitical issues. A church turned lobbyist is, in a sense, no more than just another vested interest, to be fought and resisted in much the same way that other vested interests need to be resisted when they begin to skew and subvert democratic processes.
The church has no need to play politics in order to wield influence. Simply by being itself, by being true to the power of its divine mandates and the purity of its purpose, it has power. It need not descend to the level of a power bloc by the acquisition of political clout.
A writer and a social anthropologist, Melba P. Maggay, PhD, is a sought-after international speaker and consultant on culture and social development issues, particularly at the interface of religion, culture, and development. A specialist in intercultural communication, she was a research fellow on the subject at the University of Cambridge in the UK under the auspices of Tyndale House, applying it to the question of culture and theology. She has lectured on this and other cross-cultural issues worldwide, including a stint as Northrup Visiting Professor at Hope College, Michigan and as Visiting Lecturer at All Nations Christian College in England. As a development specialist and practitioner, she has initiated Church as Power Broker 63 by Melba P. Maggay, PhD and supervised fresh research projects and groundbreaking grassroots work as President of the Institute for Studies in Asian Church and Culture, a research and training organization engaged in development, missiology and cross cultural studies aimed at social transformation.