Guest post by Rev. Dr. David Smith, Covenant Fellowship ARP Church, Summerfield, NC; Adjunct Professor of Church History, Erskine Seminary
The history of the relationship between the church, as an institution, and the civil government has been a complicated one in Western culture ever since Constantine declared Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire in 313 a. d. The tangled and volatile lines of responsibilities between the church and civil government, in what eventually became Europe, began to become a serious problem sometime around the 11th century. When pope Gregory VII sought to solidify and extend his authority by declaring in the document Dictatus Papae that the pope had the authority to depose emperors, that the pope alone was to be regarded as universal in the church, and that the Roman church had never erred, the battle between the church and the state was set ablaze. Serious moral corruption already marked church leadership, and some of that was demonstrated in the popes, bishops and priests having much more concern for political power than in pastoral ministry. But Gregory’s pronouncement hardened the lines of conflict and deepened the corruption. What became official church doctrine and practice in the church over the next four hundred years prior to the Reformation, was governed by the power struggle between the popes and kings and queens of Europe. That power struggle and the carnage it produced continued well into the 17th century and in significant ways did not cease until the French Revolution and the establishing of the United States as a nation. It is easy to see why people then, and still today, believe there ought to be a complete separation of the church from the state.
But, in reality, a complete separation is not possible. The real question has always been: What ought to characterize the practices of the church and state in their unavoidable union?
When John Calvin, the great French Protestant reformer, who lived from 1509-1564, wrote his Institutes of the Christian Religion, he wrote its prefatory address to France’s King Francis I. At the time, Protestants were persecuted in France and Calvin made an appeal to the king. Included in it was the following.
“It will then be for you, most serene King, not to close your ears or your mind to such just defense, especially when a very great question is at stake: how God’s glory may be kept safe on earth, how God’s truth may retain its place of honor, how Christ’s Kingdom may be kept in good repair among us. Worthy indeed is this matter of your hearing, worthy of your cognizance, worthy of your royal throne! Indeed, this consideration makes a true king: to recognize himself a minister of God in governing his kingdom. Now, that king who in ruling over his realm does not serve God’s glory exercises not kingly rule but brigandage [robbery as a bandit]. Furthermore, he is deceived who looks for enduring prosperity in his kingdom when it is not ruled by God’s scepter, that is, his holy Word: . . .”
Clearly, for Calvin, civil authorities were obligated to govern in accordance with God’s word. Calvin knew of no separation of church and state that would allow the state to function based on its own principles independent of the church. Still less, did Calvin endorse the idea that the church had nothing to say to the civil authorities. Like virtually every one of his day, Calvin believed that the civil authorities were intimately and organically united and accountable to the church, even as the church was accountable to civil authorities.
In previous sermons on this text, I have mentioned John Witherspoon, the sixth president of the College of New Jersey, which eventually became Princeton University. As the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence, Witherspoon was highly influential in arguing on biblical grounds that the colonies were fully in their right to establish a new self-governing nation.
Witherspoon’s beliefs and actions demonstrate a belief in the organic union between the salvation of individual sinners and the civil government over any human society, and therefore the organic union between the Church and the State, even while each maintain their distinct spheres of authority. It is a point that is, in fact stressed by the Bible as a whole, and in particular by the Apostle Paul in Romans 13.
In our text Paul emphasizes three things about civil authority that helps us see this organic union yet distinction between the individual Christian and the civil governing authorities over the society in which the Christian lives. What Paul teaches is very similar to what Peter mentions in 1 Peter 2:13-17. Paul stresses:
The Origin of All Authority, vv. 1-2
The Ideal for Civil Authority, vv. 3-4
The Duty to Civil Authority, vv. 1, 5-7
We will take up these 3 points in subsequent posts.