For centuries, the relationship between state authorities and church leadership has been a source of contention, a reality that persists in present-day South Africa. The complexities of this relationship were the subject of debate among 60 church leaders at Mukhanyo's annual Church Leaders’ Conference on Saturday, 28 October 2023.
While South Africa's constitution upholds religious freedom, and the society promotes religious pluralism, the prevailing influence of the Judeo-Christian worldview from the West remains strong. Despite these constitutional assurances, there is a growing concern that religious freedom is gradually eroding due to certain policies and pending laws introduced by state authorities.
Addressing this critical issue at the conference was Peter Wassenaar, a specialist in public affairs law. Wassenaar focused on 1 Samuel 8:10-18, where Samuel cautioned the people seeking a king to carefully consider the numerous drawbacks and dangers such a central authority could bring. The key message emphasised the potential burden on the people when those in authority neglect God’s guidance, leading to the misuse of power.
In South Africa, the national authorities are centralising power. This trend, if unchecked, could pose significant restrictions on the church, echoing Samuel's warning. Wassenaar advocated for decentralised power structures where local authorities actively serve the people, as this approach inherently mitigates the risk of power misuse. Unfortunately, the current path indicates a contrary movement, with the national government increasingly centralising power.
While many laws in South Africa serve the public good, some pose a threat to religious freedom and stand in contradiction to God's Word. Examples include the legalisation of homosexual marriages, a stance contrary to Christ's teachings, and the potential inclusion of certain expressions as hate speech in an upcoming act. This could restrict preachers from freely conveying biblical instructions, particularly on sensitive topics like abortion.
Additionally, there's a proposed law that might mandate the registration of religious workers by the state, without clear justification. The authority of school councils formed by parents is also at risk. Religions are prohibited from being taught in schools, with the result that students are taught the humanistic religion of “science”, this leads to a lack of biblical knowledge and moral discernment among students.
In a country with a secular government, what role does the church play? The church must articulate, both to its congregation and the broader community, the moral standards derived from the Bible. Christians should actively engage in local communities and state schools within the bounds of the law, advocating for Christian teaching where possible. The pulpit serves as the starting point for initiating change in people's hearts and minds, creating a ripple effect from the grassroots upward, influencing even those in authoritative positions.
During discussions, these issues were vigorously debated. Consensus emerged on the understanding that the highest authority in any country is the Bible. God's Word emphasises obedience to worldly authorities, except when such authorities compel the church or Christians to act against God’s commands. Christians, especially church leaders, are encouraged to apply these principles in their communities, even when faced with constraints imposed by state authorities.
In the context of South Africa, secular humanism promotes the South African constitution and Bill of Rights as one of the best in the world. Yet, Christ’s authority surpasses all. The Bible stands as God’s Word and the ultimate guide, applicable even to practical day-to-day questions. Church leaders, serving under the authorship of Christ, are duty-bound to uphold the truths embedded in God’s Word, despite the growing challenges posed by state restrictions.