Johannesburg — As a self-proclaimed Christian nation, South Africa has tolerated more dissent from within the walls of its churches than from most other quarters. But the government's patience appears to have worn thin.
At the same time, there is a growing sentiment among the English-language Christian churches that the time for moving beyond verbal protest to more active opposition to the government's racial policies has arrived.
Many observers here believe the church and state are on a collision course. There are already clear signs of mounting friction.
The influence of the white Christian community in South Africa continues to be weighted toward the government. The white Afrikaners who control the government are by and large members of the Dutch Reformed Church. The church finds in the Bible a theological justification for the government policy of strict separation of the races.
However, dissent from the English-language churches, which represent a majority of the country's Christian population because of their large numbers of blacks, does concern the government. These churches hit the government where it hurts most when they continually challenge the Christian morality of its policies. Also, criticism from these churches with their world links influences international opinion toward South Africa.
The government recently moved toward repression of its Christian opponents, although in a way that carefully avoids directly attacking any individual church.
The target of the government's wrath is the South African Council of Churches (SACC), claiming 21 member churches representing some 12 million Christians. A government-established commission of inquiry into the SACC - the so-called Eloff Commission - recently completed hearings and will follow with a report to the government.
Political considerations will undoubtedly bear on how the government deals with the SACC. But its views are already clear. Commissioner of Police Johan Coetzee testified at length before the commission, urging that the SACC be cut off from foreign funds, which are the organization's main source of income. He also called for close monitoring of local sources of funding.
Mr. Coetzee charged the SACC has ''degenerated to a political pressure group with a political gospel supported by a political theology and carries on a number of political actions.''
The SACC is the first to concede it is in fundamental opposition to the government. In its own testimony, the SACC said it is ''committed to the sharing of resources and power-sharing in a unitary system of government. This it regards to be an implication of the theological affirmation of the dignity and fundamental equality of all people before God.''
The SACC is generally regarded as the cutting edge of secular ''activism'' of the established English-language Christian churches. And while the state appears to be trying to intimidate the SACC from pressing further into politics, many in the organization itself feel it is time for bolder action.
''We've protested as far as possible,'' says one SACC official. ''If the SACC is true to the gospel, we may be called on to carry it through,'' he says, hinting that the kind of nonviolent civil disobedience campaigns carried out by Mohandas K. Gandhi may be appropriate for South Africa.
Moving from verbal protest to more active opposition would not be an easy step for the SACC, or for its member churches. Such a step could inflame an already mounting right-wing backlash within the English-language Christian churches.
The Anglican, Methodist, Catholic, and Presbyterian churches have all been under fire recently for involvement in areas considered by some too overtly ''political.''
The Presbyterian Church of Southern Africa (PCSA) is one of the most troubled , and its turmoil is revealing of some of the key issues facing the English-language churches.
Three years ago the Presbyterian Church adopted a more active posture in its opposition to certain government policies. It recognized that the ''situation is not changed by the church making verbal statements, but by acting in a responsible, peaceful, disciplined, and friendly manner to alter the situation. . . .'' Since then, ministers have been encouraged to quote banned literature in their sermons if necessary, and to marry mixed-race couples, despite a legal prohibition on such unions.
And the Presbyterians are attempting to merge with the Congregational Church of Southern Africa. The Presbyterian Church, mostly white and relatively wealthy , is facing mounting opposition to unification with the Congregationalists, a larger, mostly black, and poorer church.
The conservatives in the Presbyterian Church feel unification means a more radical political stance for the church. Four congregations have decided to separate from the church.
Dissent has broken out in the Catholic Church over a report by the Southern African Catholic Bishops Conference that criticized the government's role in the Namibian border war. The report and an open letter on apartheid by the Catholic Bishops Conference were banned early this year by the government.
A large meeting of Catholics was held in Johannesburg so that the church officials could explain the Namibia report. Archbishop Denis Hurley, president of the Catholic Bishops Conference, told the audience, ''Surely all aspects of human behavior are the responsibility of the church. The church must thus be involved in politics.''
SACC officials concede the organization's political posture has already alienated many whites in its member churches. But the SACC feels blacks, who are in majority, are supportive.
It remains unclear how far into politics the SACC will venture and whether the English-language churches will follow, or at least support the endeavor.
Should the SACC or individual churches endorse disinvestment or at least no new investment in South Africa? (SACC General-Secretary Bishop Desmond Tutu has had his passport confiscated for hinting that other countries should apply economic pressure against South Africa.) Should the SACC or its churches declare the Namibia conflict an ''unjust'' war and promote draft resistance? Those are a couple of the issues on the minds of some church leaders.
The SACC's future direction will probably become clearer at its annual conference beginning June 20. The organization is in some turmoil over the recent conviction of its former general secretary John Rees of fraud in the misuse of SACC funds, and the subsequent resignation of the SACC president. The choice of a new president will be watched closely. It is an open secret that staunch government opponent Allan Boesak is a possibility.
The SACC has already declared apartheid to be heresy. ''We've called it a sin , like murder, or stealing, or adultery,'' says an SACC official. The question now, says the official, is how that stance is carried ''to its conclusion.''