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THE apostle The apostle Paul teaches us that the church has a duty towards the state when he writes: "I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; For kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty" (1Tim.2:1,2). What is involved in this duty?
We need firstly to have a right understanding of the church's relation to the state. By the state we mean the legislature (the body empowered to make and repeal laws) and the judiciary (the body empowered to administer those laws); in our country this is parliament and the courts. In some lands these two branches of state are joined; the government operates the courts and administers justice.
Both the type of legislature and judiciary vary widely. The legislature may be a single individual – as in monarchy or dictatorship. Or there may (in theory at least) be no proper legislature – as in anarchy. Then the conscience of each individual becomes the supreme authority (see Deut.12:8; Judg.17:6). Between these two extremes there is a variety of other systems, divided into two main classes: oligarchy – where power rests with a few, and democracy – where power rests with the many.
It comes as a shock for us to learn that the Bible prescribes none of these forms, not even democracy! The most common method of government in the Bible is monarchy, but Scripture does not lay this down as an absolute requirement. What is commanded is theocracy. By this we do not mean clericalism, or rule by priests, which is really ecclesiocracy, as in the statelet called the Vatican; rather we mean the rule of God. A nation may be a monarchy, an oligarchy or a democracy, but God requires it to be theocratic all the same. God's will must be done in the collective life of a people. Blessings and curses are promised alternately depending upon whether a nation is God-honouring or God-dishonouring. This refers to its corporate life, not merely to what a percentage of its citizens individually believe and do (Psa.33:12; Prov.14:34).
There are four ways in which the church may be related to the state. Firstly, the church may dominate the state, as in countries where the Church of Rome holds sway. The papacy claims temporal power as well as spiritual and it has only been the rise of democracy in many countries that has curbed these powers. This relation is sometimes known as Ultramontanism. Alternatively the state may dominate the church, as remains the case with the Church of England: parliament governs her doctrine and worship and the prime minister has a significant role in the appointment of her bishops and archbishops; this is known as Erastianism. Thirdly, many today, in modern democracies such as America, hold to Voluntaryism, that is, the complete separation of church and state.
It is the teaching of many of the Reformed Confessions however that church and state, both being divine institutions, should cooperate. They have separate governments, officers and jurisdictions but they are ordained by the same God and owe duties and allegiance to the same Lord. This relation is termed Establishment. Church and State in this view are twin departments under the crown of Jesus Christ, each under obligation to help the other, and neither usurping the prerogatives of the other. The church is not to meddle in those affairs that are strictly civil or political and the state is not to interfere in matters strictly spiritual. Yet though the promotion of religion is not a direct end of civil government it is nonetheless an end which civil governors, in the execution of their official functions, may be called to aim at. The civil magistrate does not have power in sacred things, but he does have power about sacred things.
It is not the duty of the church to agitate for a particular system of government. Rather it is her duty to advance God's rule. She does this supremely by preaching the gospel, which when blessed by the Lord changes men's hearts and brings them into subjection to Christ and into His church on earth. But she also has a duty towards the state as outlined by Paul to Timothy. It is fourfold.
Prayer is the first priority. Four terms are used, emphasising how involved the church is to be in this duty. Her praying is to be comprehensive ("for all men") and specific ("for kings, and for all that are in authority"). She is to pray for chief magistrates and those under them. When Paul wrote the kings of the earth were heathen and enemies of the church. The believers were perhaps tempted to despise them in return but God will have some of them to be saved (vv.3,4) and so He commands His church to pray to this end.
note why the church is to pray for kings: "that we may lead a
quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty." We all
desire peace, but why do we want it? There is one great reason
warranting us to pray for such a condition – that godliness and
honesty may flourish. Who better to advance that than Christian
magistrates? What the Church is required to pray for in behalf of
magistrates they are bound to promote. Scripture shows us that rulers
under all dispensations are to promote godliness (2Sam.23:3; Prov.8:15).
Psalm 2 teaches that rulers who in their public capacity opposed Christ (vv.1-3) are similarly to submit to Him (vv.10-12). Government, like education, welfare and every other good work must be affected by Christ's redemption. As God Christ is sovereign over all, but as Mediator He is also king – king of saints and king of nations. He has an inheritance for which He is to "ask" (v.8). His intercession is the basis of our praying for the conversion of the nations, including their rulers. Christ is Lord of all and the state does not have the luxury of being neutral in relation to God: no-one has that luxury (Luke 11:23a).
If magistrates are bound to promote godliness then they need the guidance of Scripture which tells men what godliness is (1Pet.2:14). Governors must be informed as to what constitutes "evil-doing" and "welldoing" if they are to punish the practitioners of the one and praise the doers of the other. The church should offer guidance to the state in moral matters as outlined in the second table of the law. And since 'spiritual' actions are also either good or evil the state has a duty in regard to these, to punish or to praise. Therefore the church must inform the state about specifically religious matters too. In the Old Testament we see the church guiding the state (2Chron.19:8-11). The civil and religious leaders had distinct but complementary roles. It is no mere coincidence that we find civil/religious partnerships raised up for the good of Israel: Moses and Aaron; Joshua and Eleazar; David and Abiathar; Solomon and Zadok; Hezekiah and Azariah; Zerubbabel and Joshua.
Civil rulers may call a synod of ministers to consult with them about religious matters. This is seen in the New Testament in Herod's time (Matt.2:1-6). He was a wicked king but the principle holds good. Would we not be delighted if our Prime Minister consulted with men of God over the Bible's teaching on the sanctity of life, crime and punishment, marriage and divorce, etc.?
It is the church's duty to remind the magistrate that there is a higher authority than man's. The king's law is not supreme but God's. The idea that the people's will is supreme and unchallengeable is not biblical. Attempts at reform are really an admission that there is a higher principle. Campaigns based on 'freedom', 'justice' or 'equality' have led to changes in public opinion and also the law on important matters. Once sodomy was a bad thing; since 1968 it has been legal: it is now officially a good thing! The church must challenge this moral relativism, a symptom of a rotten society.
The separation between church and state should never amount to the separation of Christianity and the state. Thomas Chalmers wrote: "We hold that every part and function of a commonwealth should be leavened with Christianity, and that every functionary, from the highest to the lowest, should in their respective spheres, do all that in them lies to countenance and uphold it."
The Reformed faith embraces the 'organic' idea in religion. It is involved in the covenant of grace. It is woven into the Biblical revelation (Gen.18:19; 35:1-3). In Exodus 20:10 we see that the head of the house is to secure obedience in Sabbath-observance from all "within thy gates." This was the place where elders, judges or kings sat officially, the civic centre of the community: therefore it means not simply "all who are within your territory" but "all who are under your civil jurisdiction." The individual must keep the Sabbath but the civil magistrate, in his capacity as a magistrate, is also to take all proper measures to ensure that the Sabbath is kept within the sphere of his jurisdiction. The Westminster Confession extends this principle to cover all the commandments.
The church is to ensure obedience from her own members in those things which pertain to them, but she is also to support the state in its God-appointed duties, and to be helpful to it. Equally their officers must submit to Christ the Lord of all, as those who must give account at the last day, not only as private individuals but also as they have been public figures.