WASHINGTON, July 3 (UPI) -- As evangelical Christianity is becoming the dominant force in sub-Saharan Africa, the key New Testament passage dealing with the relationship between church and state has taken on paramount importance.
At last weekend's international conference titled, "The Bible and the Ballot Box: Evangelical Faith and Third-World Democracy," no other Biblical text came up more frequently than Romans 13:1-7, which reads in part:
"Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God ... Therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed."
It's a troubling text because, depending on how you interpret these words, they might lead to the assumption that a Christian must not resist injustice.
At the conference in Potomac, Md., one presenter after another told the audience from five continents that in Africa this admonition by the apostle Paul had caused missionaries and old-style Evangelicals to take a quietist stance.
But this is changing, these scholars argued. They said that an African holism, which in the words of Oxford professor Terence O. Ranger "inseparably unites the 'secular' and the 'religious,'" always prevails in the long run.
"The question is... not whether Evangelical Christianity (in Africa) has been, is, and will be intensely 'political,' but how."
The issue here is by no means an exclusively African. The ugly ghosts of Christian quietism on the one hand and activist Christian enthusiasm on the other has haunted Europe especially in its darkest hours, the Nazi and Communist periods.
The operative term then was the same as in Africa now -- "two kingdoms," meaning a grotesque distortion of a Lutheran doctrine by that name. Its ghost, too, preoccupied the Potomac conference.
In reality, this doctrine describes God's two-fold reign in this world, where the Christian holds, in a sense, two passports. He is a citizen of the finite secular realm, where God acts in a hidden way.
Here natural reason is "the empress," according to Luther, and the governing authorities, though appointed by God, do not rule by the Gospel but by "the sword," the symbol of worldly power.
They need not be Christian as long as they act intelligently. It is better to have a "wise Turk than a foolish Christian" on the throne, Luther said.
But then there is also the infinite realm of the God revealed in Christ, of the Gospel, the Church, forgiveness, grace, faith and love. These two realms are not antagonistic to one another, as the doctrine's detractors would have you believe.
They serve each other. The secular realm assures good order so that the Gospel may be preached. And the spiritual realm admonishes and teaches secular rulers.
Far from preaching quietism, Luther called quietist preachers unfaithful pigs. "These are worthless, lazy preachers who do not tell the princes and lords their sins," he railed. "In some cases they do not notice these sins. They lie down and snore like swine, they take up the room where good preachers should stand."
Isabel Mukonyora, a Zimbabwean theologian, argued in an interview with United Press International that the pace of Evangelical growth on her continent has been too rapid for this kind of dialectical reflection to prevail in contemporary African theology.
She finds this troubling and fears that without theological depth the spread of evangelical -- and especially Pentecostal -- Christianity might in the end prove to be a straw fire.
History teaches us that while the bone-headed quietist misinterpretation of Romans 13, against which Luther thundered, proved disastrous, so did the utopian attempt of activist clerics to blur the distinction between the two realms.
Where this occurs, the devil is at work, said Luther. For Satan never ceases to "cook and brew the two realms together." In other words, the Church should speak up where secular rulers act contrary to Scripture. It should be a prophetic voice but not presume the duties of the state.
In Luther's rich language, a preacher "must grab into the princes' snouts but not interfere with their craft."
As the Potomac conference showed, Africa is far from immune from such interference by evangelical and other churchmen rightly rejoicing in their triumph. But Vinay Samuel, a Church of England canon who headed the Bible and Ballot Box project that was funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, offered good news Wednesday.
"The problem has been recognized," he told UPI, "this is why we are churning out competent African theologians at an accelerated pace. We have already produced 15 African Ph.D.s." By "we," Indian-born Samuel meant the Oxford Center of Missionary Studies, an evangelical institution linked to the Universities of Leeds and Wales.
As a result, it is hoped that sophisticated Reformation and other doctrines on Romans 13 will give structure to the currently sometimes feral ferment of Christian growth south of the Sahara.
To this Luther aficionado, however, it is particularly gratifying that the Wittenberg reformer's often-maligned but immensely topical thoughts on matters of church and state will get a new hearing on what seems to evolve into the most Christian of continents -- Africa.