Friday, 9 November 2012

Separation of Church and State (2)

To the Amish, Christianity pervades their whole life; it is not confined to Sundays and then forgotten about the rest of the week. Given then that church=life, how can it be possible for the Amish to be separate from the world, as defined yesterday? Surely, even the Amish need to interact with the world in business, taxation, medical needs and so on. Is this possible if they are also to be separate?

I think the answer lies, in part, in the different duties of the church and the state. In a nutshell, the purpose of the church is the propagation of the gospel; the purpose of the state is to make for an orderly life, ensuring peacefulness for the inhabitants of the country and punishing evil doers. This does not however mean that the Christian has no responsibilities towards the state: Christians are exhorted to pay their taxes and to obey the laws of the land in which they live (unless those laws contradict God’s higher laws). So it is clear that separation of church and state is not simply black and white. We are not to shut ourselves away from the world and have nothing whatsoever to do with it.

Perhaps the key is in Paul’s words to the Corinthians where he says, ‘Be not unequally yoked together with unbelievers’ (2 Corinthians 6v14). The Amish take this literally, much as they take the words of Paul, quoting God in the Old Testament, to ‘come out from among them and be ye separate and touch not the unclean thing’ (2 Corinthians 6v17).

So how does separation work?

There is no getting away from the fact that the Amish are different. They do not succumb to the world around them and they are distinct. They dress differently, they act differently and they even speak a different language (Pennsylvania ‘Dutch’, a German dialect). They (mostly) have their own schools and their children do not attend beyond eighth grade (age 14); they train their children to be good workers in the home, the farm or the family business. Mainly, they work for themselves, either at farming or some other family business; they do not enter business partnerships with non-Amish people, thoughh sometimes they may work for non-Amish. They eschew modern conveniences that they feel would militate against their community values and family togetherness. They do not attend jury service; they do not take people to court to litigate against them; and they do not run for public office in government. They do not have insurance except where it is legally necessary; instead they assist one another to rebuild after disaster, or pay medical bills. They refuse social security benefits and payouts, preferring the assistance of the community over handouts from the state. To that end, they are exempt in the USA from having to pay social security tax.

However, they do pay other forms of tax. And there are other positives too; it isn’t all negative (what they don’t do). They have cordial and friendly relationships with their non-Amish neighbours; they will help them just as they help other Amish in need; they send teams out to assist in the aftermath of such disasters as hurricanes – and not only in their local neighbourhoods either. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, they sent teams from Ohio to help rebuild. They also belong to local volunteer fire crews, doing their 'bit' for their local communities. Some serve on public school boards in places where they are unable to have their own schools. They hold auctions, where quilts and other homemade goods are sold to raise funds for charitable causes.

However, they do not compromise on what they see as Biblical principles. 2 Corinthians quoted above, goes on to say ‘Be not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? And what communion hath light with darkness’. Does this mean the Amish are an intolerant people? Not at all; it means they maintain their separation while still being salt and light on the earth, as Jesus commanded in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5v13-16). They do not believe they can compromise with the standards of this world and still live a consistent Christian life.

Charitable status refused.

Two days ago, it was announced in the British press that a church in Devon had been refused charitable status. Why would they need charitable status in the first place? The answer is ‘gift aid’. If a person gives to a charity, the charity can claim back part of the tax that has been paid, thus increasing their income by up to 25%. This kind of situation would never have occurred in the Amish church, for they would not have applied for charitable status in the first place. They would have seen reclaiming tax as a kind of government handout, and they do not rely on government handouts. Christians in the UK justify having charitable status by saying it is good stewardship of the church’s money. But would it not be a better witness to the world if the church did not rely on government money? If instead, they relied on donations form their own people to support the work they do? There are those who think that if the government gives you money to support your cause, then sooner or later that same government will be telling you how to run your affairs. I have seen it happen in a charity for which I am a trustee. They obtained funding from the Department for Education, but that funding came with stringent rules as to how we could spend it. How long before the churches, claiming gift aid, will find similar restrictions and rules? How soon before the church is bowing to the whims of government? Where then will be the separation of church and state that Protestants and Anabaptists achieved in the Middle Ages?

There is a lot to be said for the separation of church and state. We are exhorted to be separate, to come out from amongst the world and its systems and way of doing things. We are members of a heavenly kingdom; our first allegiance is to the King of Kings.

For further comment on these issues, please see:

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