Opinions

Governments are not competent to make theological judgments

By Bishop Dave Chikosi
Most church leaders have learned with dismay that Zimbabwe’s Ministry of Home Affairs intends to register and regulate churches, ostensibly to “help instill sanity in places of worship.” This is despite the fact that both the Private Voluntary Organizations Act as well as the Constitution do not require churches to be registered or regulated.

The lack of sanity in places of worship is said to have come about because churches have become a means of making money.

Churches are also said to be gathering at places where there are no public toilets. And some of the new churches are into devil-worship. The Ministry therefore feels the need to regulate all this irregular religious activity.
Governments are not competent to make theological judgments
But this is a sad development. Churches that meet under trees without toilet facilities anywhere near have been around for almost a century in Zimbabwe (MaZioni since 1920 and Vapostori since 1930). What has now changed? Nothing. Does Zimbabwe not have adequate sanitation laws for large gatherings of people? Sure it does.

What about human rights abuses by church leaders? Is our government currently hampered in any way from bringing to book religious offenders? Nope.

We have a legal system in place where perpetrators, including members of the clergy, can be made accountable. The standard procedure is for all criminal activity to be reported to the police, who in turn have the powers to investigate in conjunction with our courts – and this without fear or favor.

The Church is private property
However, our primary objection as the Church to the proposed registration and regulation is theological. The Church is not only part of separate Kingdom: it is also the private property of the King. The Church belongs to God, who purchased it nearly 2000 years ago.

“Be shepherds of the church of God” St Paul once told the church elders at Ephesus, “which He bought with his own Blood.” The Church was bought and paid for by nothing less than the Blood of God’s only begotten Son. Jesus Christ paid the highest lobola anyone could ever pay to marry His Bride. Therefore “Caesar” has no right to seek to regulate both a Man’s wife and property.

But the Church is not only the Bride of Christ. It is also the Body of Christ. Again, “Caesar” has no more right to govern what I do with my own body than he has a right to govern what Christ does with His Body. What I do with my own body is my business. What Christ does with His own Body is His business.

The Church does not need permission from a government department to exist. She (the Church) is a creation of God Almighty, not a creation of the State. By the same token a preacher does not need government permission or license to preach or plant a church.

We got that mandate in the Great Commission when the Master told us to “Go into all the world and preach the Gospel” (Acts 28). As long as the preacher and/or the Church are not infringing upon the individual rights of another person, we think that the State should leave both preacher and Church alone.

Ours is a civilized nation
Zimbabwe is a civilized nation. One of the hallmarks of religious liberty in any civilized nation is the protection of people of all faiths, even those whose beliefs seem irrational, bizarre or just plain silly. This includes devil-worshippers. Yes, they too have a right to pursue what they believe to be religious truth, within limits of earthly justice and the common good – of course.

Every human has the right to believe what they want to believe without prejudice from others. Indeed Kevin Seamus Hasson, in his book “The Right to Be Wrong” correctly argues that religious liberty is for A to Z i.e. Anglicans to Zoroastrians.

I know that this is hard for many Christians to stomach, especially coming from one of their own. But if Jesus was here on earth physically, this would be His position too. Remember how he told people not to attempt to separate the wheat from the weeds as there was a danger of pulling out the crop with the tares? Here’s what He said:

Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’” (Matthew 13:30).

Governments are not omni-competent
The State must accept the fact that it is incompetent when it comes to the issue of making theological judgments between what is true worship and what is false. Government is not omni-competent. Theological decisions are one of those issues that lie outside its realm of competency.

This is why James Madison, the fourth American President wrote, “The religion of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man.” Madison believed that it is an “arrogant pretension” to believe that “the Civil Magistrate is a competent Judge of Religious Truth.”

The fact is that no-one in his right mind trusts the government (of any country) to guide its subjects’ spiritual lives. That is not one of the government’s raison d’etre or reason for existence. The Holy Spirit, not the government, “guides us into all Truth’ (John 16:23.

We instead expect the State to tolerate its citizen’s various religious beliefs under the general rubric of “liberty of conscience” as opposed to it trying to be arbiter between what is theologically valid and what is not.

We expect for our government not to discriminate against theological views it disapproves and/or exclude them from equal access to public property and resources. There is neither theological nor legal justification for that.

Christ above Caesar
The legal concept of church autonomy in a civilized country such as ours ought to secure for us the continued independence of religious organisations from secular control. Christ is above Caesar. Church autonomy should protect Christ’s Body and Bride from Caesar’s interference.

This is not, however, to say that government cannot enact regulations that incidentally interfere with religious practices. But such measures must be neutral and “generally applicable” to everyone. Churches must not feel like they are being targeted because of an anti-religious bias on the part of some incumbent government official who just feels the need to let pastors know who is boss. That would not be right.

Conclusion
It is not my wish to pick a fight with the powers that be. The purpose of this essay is merely to make known the concerns of the Church vis-à-vis the proposed registration and regulation. After all the elders say, “Mwana asingacheme anofira mumbereko.”
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