Service to Whom?

In the state of Maryland, the governor has decreed that Saturday, September 29, will be a state-wide day of service. This is a good thing. For citizens to exercise civic responsibility is always a good thing. To perform service for the state, to perform service that expresses gratitude for the benefits of social order, safety and infrastructure is quite appropriate. Everyone should applaud the governor for showing leadership that will inspire citizens to participate in service that is good for the state is a good thing.

Christians must be careful, however, not to confuse the service that the governor inspires with service in the mission of the church. The governor has asked for service that builds up the image of the state of Maryland. When the day is over, people will praise the governor, and in his person, that praise belongs to the state, for having inspired so many good works. Roadways, rivers, and parks will be cleaner. Homes will be repaired. Meals will be shared with the hungry and homeless. Money will be raised to fight disease. When everything is reported and accounted for, the statistics will show that Maryland is a state to be proud of. That outcome is a good thing.

What is not good is to confuse the service a Christian renders in God’s name with the service a citizen renders in the name of the state. The church I belong to, for example, announced that it will cooperate with this state-mandated day of service and schedule a variety of church service projects for that day. The church will report to the state that these projects were completed and that some specific number of people participated, and the outcome of all these projects will be praise for the state. That outcome is a bad thing.

Jesus said that when his followers do good works, those works should point people to God. He did not say that his followers ought not to be good citizens and participate in civic projects, but the clear principle of his teaching seems very clear. The church as the church should not submit to the state and give the state the praise for the good works of God’s people in service to the mission of the church. The church cannot be a partner to the state and a thorn in the side of the state at the same time. It is the natural role of the church to be separate from the state, functioning often in an adversarial role both as an institutional entity and as the nursery where the moral and ethical values of citizens are shaped. Citizens in the USA are, in fact, the government, and as such, Christians who are citizens carry into their civic participation the moral and ethical principles shaped by their faith. Churches, however, are separate entities. They are not established by the state, and they must not serve the state. They must vigilantly guard against commingling their values and their influence with that of the state.

This is the reason that my church, and any other church, ought to stand apart from the state day of service. They should emphasize their separateness, even though they might actually encourage their members to participate with enthusiasm. If the church values good government as the institution ordained by God for good order in society, then the church ought to encourage its members, the citizens who are the real government of the nation, to act in accord with their civic obligations. Church members could quite justifiably be part of any of the proposed activities on the state day of service.

However, any activities unique to the church and its mission ought to be scheduled for some other day in order to achieve the outcome Jesus expected from good works in his name. Will God be praised because state parks are clean or because a roadbed is free of trash? Not likely. Will God be praised when the church gives poor people warm clothes to wear in the winter? It is certainly the outcome to be hoped for.

Service as a civic act on a state day of service is a good thing. Performing service that expresses thanks for good government and that inspires praise of good government is a good thing. However, service in support of the mission of Christ’s church on earth, the institution that is God’s agent for bringing his kingdom near, ought to point people’s praise and thanksgiving to God, not to the state of Maryland. The churches should emphasize their separateness from the goals of the state by scheduling service in God’s name on some other day and by not reporting it to be mingled with praise for the state.