Happenings

The line between religion and politics

Aug 2003    

The following is an extract from a talk given by the late Dr Tay Eng Soon (1940 – 1993), then Senior Minister of State (Education), in 1989 at a seminar sponsored by the Graduates’ Christian Fellowship and Trinity Theological College. Dr Tay was a founding member of Barker Road Methodist Church. This talk was first published in Church and Society: Singapore Context (1989) edited by Dr Bobby Sng and is used with permission.

The late Dr Tay Eng Soon.

The late Dr Tay Eng Soon.

MY PURPOSE is to discuss with you whether there is a line between religion and politics and if so where that line lies. Let me also clarify that I am speaking today as a Christian brother and church member and not as a member of the Government. I will be touching on three areas:

i. The question of Christians and the church getting involved in politics;
ii. Evangelism in a multi-religious society; and,
iii. The role of the church in a multi-religious society.

Christians and the church in politics
To quote Charles Colson in his recent book Kingdoms in Conflict,1 “The everyday business of politics is power.” Power to decide, to grant, to withhold, to award, to deprive. You vest power in certain people in a certain way under a Constitution. They are responsible for making laws and enforcing them. You hold them accountable through periodic elections. But bear in mind that power is at the core of it and the abuse of power is always possible.

That is the pattern in man’s kingdom – all who seek to go into politics seek power to decide and run things. In God’s Kingdom, it’s not the same. Jesus was asked, “Who is the greatest in the Kingdom” and He took a child. He said he who is greatest is the servant of all. His idea of power in the Kingdom of God is quite different from power in the kingdom of man.

So should Christians get into politics? Yes, they should and must do so as individuals. If they don’t, the vacuum will be filled by others. And if the wrong types get in, Christians only have themselves to blame. But I’m not saying that they should enter politics in order to represent their church or to create a “Christian government”. They go into power, which is temporal, to run things, to make sure things are just. A person in government is responsible for and to the whole society. And that society has Christians and non-Christians.

 

Church Politics

The church has views in the areas of morality, ethics and justice. The question is how the church should make these views known to the political leaders and yet not get embroiled in partisan politics. I think it should avoid public posturing or forming pressure groups. There are channels and they have been used.

Evangelism in a multi-religious context

Dr Tay Eng Soon the politician (centre, with outstretched hands) at work.

Dr Tay Eng Soon the politician (centre, with outstretched hands) at work.

Evangelism is difficult as there is a likelihood of opposition. Other religions too want to evangelise; the Muslims and Buddhists are very active today. But the Great Commission of Jesus to preach the Gospel to all nations stands. And we preach the Gospel not because we have to but because we want to, having received salvation and known its blessings in our lives. So the question is not whether or not to do it but rather how to do it.

There is a whole spectrum of views here. The Lord never prescribed one right or wrong approach. Some felt that because it is the Lord’s command, we go head on, regardless of everything. There are some churches which persuade their members to go door-to-door tracting, and if they don’t want to do so it is implied that they are not such faithful servants. That’s moral blackmail!

I have many friends who became Christians as adults. They didn’t become Christians because of techniques. It was the personal, loyal friendship, the willingness to be with that person in moments of grief or trouble without ulterior motives to “Christianise” the person.

Three roles of the church
*To preach the Gospel  * To minister to its members * To serve society’s needs

Christians in society
It is a fact that Christians in Singapore are among the best educated, the most affluent and the best housed. They are also a minority and largely English-speaking. How do others look at us?

The question is: Are Christians doing enough in society? Some Christians may champion the rights of the bottom 5 per cent of the population, but are not willing to dirty their hands and work with these people. They think that they are helping them by getting the Government to do the job. It’s too easy.

The way Mother Teresa does it is the more difficult way. I think it is a very Christian example. More people are influenced by her than by pressure groups and I think she has glorified the Lord much more.

The Economist magazine produced some statistics in a recent article called “Giving to Charity”. In the US, 2 per cent of their GNP is given to charities by individuals or corporations. In Singapore it is closer to 0.2 per cent. We are parsimonious by comparison!

The other astounding thing is that most of this money is given by church-going Americans and half of what they give to the church goes into non-church charities. Are our churches doing that? We are among the most affluent in the community. So how do we witness in society with the resources that we have? There are some good examples like The Hiding Place (ministering to drug addicts), homes for the aged sick and destitutes. But I think that as other religious groups and the Government are also doing that, it’s no big deal. So Christians should do more.

Nearly 38 per cent of our teachers declare themselves Christians. I think many Christian teachers are doing a great job. Teachers are called to minister to children in distress in addition to teaching the 3 Rs. But there are also many Christian teachers who are among the grumblers and who spread rumours as to how bad everything is and this depresses everybody.

Many doctors profess to be Christians. I’ve no doubt that many of them do a great service for the Lord. I know of some who don’t charge patients from the lower income group. Yet I’m told of some doctors who are quite happy to do abortions because there is plenty of money in it. They will have to square with their own conscience. So, I hope that when the day comes, Christians can truly say that they have done many things for the needy in society.

The church’s role is not necessarily the same as that of the individual Christian. In my view, the church has a unique role which no one else can play. Building homes for the aged is useful and important for witness but it is not unique. Schools and hospitals, originally Christian developments, are now state enterprises. But the unique role of the church is to preach the Gospel unto salvation. I am reminded of Ezekiel 22 where God says He is looking for a man to stand in the gap between Him and the fallen world. Jesus came to fill that gap and has asked the church to fill it now. If we fail we are entirely accountable for it.

People have many personal needs. There are secular organisations which can meet some of these. But other needs are beyond the capacity of these organisations and psychiatrists because they are spiritual. Only the church can meet these deep spiritual needs of people. In my view, the church has three roles:
i. to preach the Gospel;
ii. to minister to its own members – there are many Christians who have spiritual and personal needs; and,
iii. to serve the needs of society, i.e. non-Christians.

The first has to do with the Great Commission and the second and third derive from the Great Commandments. Our service to others should thus be concrete and real and not theoretical and superficial.

The church is asked to bear fruit lest it be pruned. And the Lord is just. There have been instances when Christian groups failed to bear fruit and He simply pruned them. Let us not be presumptuous of the Lord’s justice and mercy.

1. Kingdoms in Conflict, Hodder & Stoughton 1987. Charles Colson was a member of President Nixon’s Cabinet. He was imprisoned for his role in the Watergate affair. He became a Christian and has authored a number of books and is founder and Chairman of Prison Fellowship.

EVANGELISM AND MORAL BLACKMAIL

‘Evangelism is difficult as there is a likelihood of opposition. Other religions too want to evangelise; the Muslims and Buddhists are very active today. But the Great Commission of Jesus to preach the Gospel to all nations stands … So the question is not whether or not to do it but rather how to do it … The Lord never prescribed one right or wrong approach. Some felt that because it is the Lord’s command, we go head on, regardless of everything. There are some churches which persuade their members to go door-to-door tracting, and if they don’t want to do so it is implied that they are not such faithful servants. That’s moral blackmail!’

REACH OUT

Who are you a neighbour to?

Who are you a neighbour to?

Sep 2020     Who are you a neighbour to? The COVID-19 pandemic continues to affect our lives, despite the easing of control measures. For those who have fewer resources and are more likely to lose their jobs, the impact is substantially heavier. From a Christian perspective, the current pandemic is providing followers with...
Education as a missions endeavour

Education as a missions endeavour

Sep 2020     “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.” (Prov 22:6) Japanese gardens provide a stunning visual experience—trees are beautifully shaped in ways that are very pleasing to the eye. The clever gardener can envision the potential beauty of...