Singapore Political Scientist Suggests Three Principles on Church-State Relations in Non-Christian Countries

Dr. Joseph Chinyong Liow, Tan Kah Kee Chair in Comparative and International Politics, Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore, spoke at Plenary 3 of the Asia 2022 Congress themed “Church and State Relationship in Asia today” on October 19, 2022.
Dr. Joseph Chinyong Liow, Tan Kah Kee Chair in Comparative and International Politics, Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore, spoke at Plenary 3 of the Asia 2022 Congress themed “Church and State Relationship in Asia today” on October 19, 2022. (photo: Screenshot/Asia 2022 Congress)
By Kristina RanNovember 14th, 2022

A Singaporean political scientist suggested three principles for the church to deal with its relationship with the state: authority, obedience, and perseverance.

From October 17 to 21, the Asia 2022 Congress gathered about 600 Christian leaders from across Asia under the theme of "Rethinking Church and Mission: God’s Agenda for Today ", convened jointly by the Lausanne Movement in Asia, Asia Evangelical Alliance, and Asia Theological Association. 

Dr. Joseph Chinyong Liow, Tan Kah Kee Chair in Comparative and International Politics at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore, spoke in Plenary 3 of the Asia 2022 Congress themed “Church and State Relationship in Asia today”.

 “The nature of the relationship between the church and the state has been a question that has exercised Christian theologians and philosophers for a long time and will continue to do so.” Dr. Liow first led the congress to think about the historical discussion on this theme and pointed out that the notion of the separation between church and state, which was originally from the western historical and cultural context, is not just applicable to the West. 

It came out from the tension and attempt by the state to domesticate the church to control its power and influence in Europe. In the United States, the First Amendment erected a war between the church and the state, setting up an anchoring principle for American society.

Although the distinction between church and state was born out of these unique historical and cultural circumstances, the professor argued that this principle is universally applicable whether the church is in the West or Asia today. 

Meanwhile, he mentioned that we should also notice the characteristics of regionalization and the Asian church needs to pay more attention to the issue of how Christians live in non-Christian countries. 

First, it is because Christianity is the fastest-growing religion among Asian countries. The number of Christians in Asia is increasing while that in Europe is decreasing. Secondly, Christians remain a minority in most Asian countries. Thirdly, based on the previous two realities, Christians face persecution in most Asian countries, mentally, physically, and economically.

He continued to alert the church to be aware of two extremes. One is the complete denial of the church's responsibility for social justice, which will lead to apathy toward injustice and suffering. He cited the example of the church in Latin America, where, in the face of social problems such as crime, drugs, and displacement, people once bemoaned the church's indifference and absence. Now the church functions not only to meet spiritual needs but also to provide material help to society. Another extreme end is urging the church into the swift and complete eradication of injustice and it may open the door to self-righteousness, like exactly what happened in Cambodia under Pol Pot.

Professor Liow continued to share three principles that the church should learn from scripture. 


Dr. Liow emphasized that the discussion of the relationship between church and state should be on the respect that both of their authorities are ordained and determined by God.

He said that Romans 13:1-5 illustrated three points. First, the foundation of all authority resides in the will of God, not the will of men or institutions. Second, it is God who is the ultimate judge and His word is the reference for justice. No one escapes His judgment, not even kings or rulers. Third, it is Jesus Christ who holds the triple role of prophet, priest, and king and who possesses all authority in heaven and earth.

He noted that the authority of governing had already been mentioned as early as in Genesis. The flaming sword held by angels in the Garden of Eve symbolizes an instrument of restraint and it represents the use of force.

“We are not supposed to judge others individually but in the context of maintaining God's laws and God's rule on earth, man is actually empowered to judge... this forms the basis of the authority of the state.” He added the power is to protect human life and property, particularly these of the weak, to protect the innocent, and restrain the evil-doer.

“God gives the power of the sword to the state and the keys of the kingdom to the church.” Joseph thought it is significant to identify the parameters and points of differentiation between the responsibilities of the church and state. 


“If Authority is established by God then it follows that those who oppose the ordinances of God receive condemnation.” Dr. Liow stated that Christians are obliged to be subject to earthly spheres of authority because this authority derives from God Himself.

Although it is challenging and difficult, especially talking about Christians under persecution, he shared that even though the Roman regime was a secular and corrupt persecutor, the apostle Paul still called believers to obey because “he recognizes that as corrupt as that government was, God ordained it and stands behind it.”

The professor added, “If Civil Authority commands us to do something God has expressly forbidden or not do something God has called us to do, then we must disobey. Just as Peter and John stood firm when authorities wanted to prohibit them from preaching in the book of Acts. Just as Daniel continued to pray even though the government in Babylon introduced basic legislation against praying.”

But he also alerted that the church should note the essence of this biblical disobedience to civil authority. “We disobey not because we dislike a policy or that a policy disadvantages us or makes us suffer even... we disobey in the event we are called to deny Christ to deny that which God calls us to do. ”

In this sense, he emphasized again the church and the state should be kept separated in the part of responsibilities and rights. “The primary role of the Christian church is not to make society better, it does make society better but that is a consequence further downstream. The primary purpose of the church is to spread the gospel... The church should not exercise the sword and the state should not administer the keys,” he urged.


Most Asian countries are under persecution, like discriminatory practices, policies, laws, physical violence, or disavowal in the Middle East or North Africa. Dr. Liow shared three points in the face of these persecutions. 

First, the church should speak out with prophetic criticism. He explained, “Like the prophets of old, we are called to speak out so that those who persecute can know where they have gone wrong according to God's word.” He clarified that this is very different from trying to overthrow the government but speaking to their conscience. 

Second, Joseph encouraged the church to pray as Daniel, David, Paul, and Jesus did under persecution. 

Third, Christians can choose whether to “leave or stay”. Regarding this, he  clarified ultimately it is about seeking God’s will because “we are not where we are by chance.” 

He held that even though it is controversial that a “bad government is better than no government”. Mentioning the movie The Purge, he shared that “without government, there will be absolute freedom and absolute Anarchy. What this means is that evil will be unbridled and this will be terrible for the weak.”

He then pointed out that the primary interest of the Scripture is on the believer's responsibilities and obligations as a citizen and the Bible does not talk too much about the role of the government.

He said, “One important point is as Christians we are ultimately obliged by our faith to do what our Lord requires of us, whether it involves activism or inactivism in our politics. We are to submit unto the Lord even though the submission as I mentioned earlier is not unlimited. We are to wait upon God for his leadership.”

Dr. Liow finally encouraged the participants, even though we would not know why God allows injustice and problems to remain unresolved, we should have faith that God will use our obedience and holiness for His glory.    

related articles