Proximity to Political Power
Ever since Constantine adopted a more tolerant attitude toward the church, followers of Christ have been at risk of dancing to the music from the halls of political power and finding ways of justifying edicts coming from the political sphere. In this 400th year of the publication of Thomas Helwys' A Declaration on the Mystery of Iniquity, we reaffirm the danger of pursuing religious ends by seeking proximity to political power.
We salute Thomas Helwys for not courting political favor. Because he understood his ultimate accountability to God, rather than the state, and distanced himself sufficiently from the sources of political power, he was able to reflect responsibly on how political power ought to be exercised.
Members of the church can learn from Helwys' attitude to those who hold political power. Because he understood the exercise of political authority as part of God's ordering of creation, Helwys was prepared to respect the king. Some may argue that Helwys overstated the case for respect for political authority. They understand Helwys to be implying, in the way he described the authority and role of people in politics, a certain bifurcation of life into mutually exclusive realms with the king ruling in one and the church in the other. This reading of Helwys suggests that a wedge exists between Christian conduct in the private domain and in the public sphere. As a result, the church's role as advocate and participant in the public life of society is marginalized.
This way of reading Helwys is reminiscent of what I consider Ernst Troeltsch's error in his interpretation of Martin Luther's social doctrine. As with Luther, so with Helwys, religion is not merely an inner spiritualistic phenomenon.
I do not support the suggestion that Helwys intended a strict divide between the personal and private sphere, on the one hand, and the public and official domain, on the other. Such an interpretation is inconsistent with Helwys' support for Christians participating in politics and the king's membership in the church. What Helwys urged, I believe, was an understanding of the two realms as related and overlapping, rather than as autonomous and discrete compartments. Whatever position one takes on this controversial matter, we can agree that Helwys denounced excess in the exercise of political authority and sought to correct the ways of its purveyors.
When church leaders and members free themselves from the allurement of proximity to political power, they allow themselves space to more easily discern the promptings of the Spirit of God. Receiving vital insight into the value God places on each human being, we can affirm the inviolable dignity and inalienable rights due them - including the right of religious liberty that Helwys so admirably advanced.