The Church-State Relationship
P. G. Mathew | Sunday, March 18, 2012
Copyright © 2012, P. G. Mathew
In Romans 13:1–7, Paul teaches what relationship believers in Christ maintain with the state. In the Westminster Confession we read:
God, the supreme Lord and King of all the world, has ordained civil magistrates, to be, under him, over the people, for his own glory, and the public good: and, to this end, hath armed them with the power of the sword, for the defense and encouragement of them that are good, and for the punishment of evil doers… . Civil magistrates may not assume to themselves the administration of the Word and sacraments; or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven; or, in the least, interfere in matters of faith… . It is the duty of people to pray for magistrates, to honor their persons, to pay them tribute or other dues, to obey their lawful commands, and to be subject to their authority, for conscience’ sake. (Chapter 23, Articles 1, 3, 4)
Whether in the church, or before enemies of the gospel, or in relation to the state, Christians are to live lives pleasing to the Lord in conformity with the Scriptures and not in conformity with the pattern of the world. Believers in Jesus Christ are always to do the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God.
Romans 13:1 tells us that every person must submit to the higher authorities. The source of all authority is Jesus Christ. From the Father, Jesus received all authority in heaven and on earth (Matt. 28:18). He alone is the King of kings and Lord of lords. All authorities in the world are delegated to be under him to do his will and to be accountable to him. There is no authority outside of Jesus Christ. The devil himself operates under Christ’s authority. The three institutions of society—the family, the church, and the state—are established to function under the great Sovereign, Jesus Christ. They are to do his will, and they will be judged, both in history and beyond history, on the day of judgment.
The family, then, is an institution established by God himself. A wife is to submit herself to her husband, who, in turn, submits to and obeys Jesus Christ. Children are to obey their parents in everything, for this is right and it pleases the Lord. Such children will be blessed of the Lord and live long and prosperous lives in this world. Husbands, parents, and children are to learn the will of God from the Bible so they can do it with great delight.
The church is also God’s institution. The church belongs to Jesus Christ. He builds his church with the spiritual living stones of believers, who are raised from the dead by the word of God and by the power of the Holy Spirit. God is not a God of confusion and disorder; he is the God of order. Pastors are given authority to govern the church under the Chief Shepherd, Jesus Christ, as we read in the following verses:
1 Corinthians 16:16: We are "to submit to such as these [that is, pastors]”
Hebrews 13:17: "Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you.”
1 Thessalonians 5:12: "Now we ask you, brothers, to respect those who work hard among you, who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you.”
Acts 20:28: "Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.”
Ephesians 4:11–12: "It was he [the Lord Jesus Christ] who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up.”
1 Peter 5:1–2: "To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder, a witness of Christ’s sufferings and one who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care.”
Pastors are appointed by the Holy Spirit to keep watch over the flock. They are accountable to King Jesus.
The state also is an institution of God, whatever its particular form may be, whether aristocracy, kingship, democracy, republicanism, or other forms. It receives its authority from Jesus Christ. The state is under the triune God to do the will of God and be accountable to him. The God of the Scriptures himself sets up kings and puts them down.
To exercise their God-ordained authority, parents are given the power of the rod, pastors are given the power of the keys of the word, and the state is given the power of the sword. So an individual believer is not permitted to take vengeance on a criminal. Vengeance belongs to the Sovereign Lord, who takes vengeance on the wicked through the state. The state alone has the power of capital punishment. Thus God will judge all criminals now and on the last day.
All these institutions belong to King Jesus, who rules them directly and through delegated authorities—parents, pastors, and rulers—who are under the great Sovereign to do his will. So every person must submit to every governing authority. This is not optional; it is mandatory, because there is no higher governing authority than God. In other words, the triune God, not dumb idols, is the source of all governing authority. Therefore, the one who rebels and wages war against any God-ordained and God-delegated authority is rebelling against divine order, not man’s order. Such a rebel shall bring judgment on himself from God and from the delegated authority. It is not good to be a rebel. The Bible says the way of the rebellious is hard. Such a person must pay for his sins in his own body, both now and on the last day, unless he repents and savingly trusts in Jesus Christ alone for his eternal salvation.
Relationship between Church and State
What, then, is the proper relationship of the church to the state? At times, the church has been coextensive with the state, beginning in the fourth century with the Roman emperor Constantine the Great.1 After professing his conversion to Christianity, he then proclaimed Christianity to be the religion of the entire Roman empire and began to function as the head of both the empire and the church. Constantine exercised his authority to call synods and settle matters of church doctrine and life.
As the Roman empire declined, however, the pope became the head of both the church and the state. Kings were subservient to popes and had to promote the affairs of the church. This was established by the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 AD.
During the Reformation, the reformers, without biblical warrant, accepted the idea that the king is the head of the realm as well as head of the church. John Calvin knew better, but in practice accepted this view. In England, King Henry VIII substituted himself for the pope. Already the head of the realm, he had himself installed as head of the new Church of England. Later, King Edward VI, Mary I, and Queen Elizabeth I followed their father’s example of serving as head of the church as well as head of the realm.
The confessions of the time reflected this view. The thirty-seventh article of the Articles of Religion of 1571 of the Church of England states, "The Queen’s Majesty hath the chief power in this Realm of England … whether they be Ecclesiastical or Civil.” 2 The Belgic Confession, Article 36, says essentially the same thing.3 The Presbyterian Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 23, also agreed that the civil power can exercise authority over the church: "[The civil magistrate] has power to call synods, to be present at them, and to provide that whatsoever is transacted in them be according to the mind of God” (WCF, Chapter 23, Article 3).4 The same confession says this head does not have to be a Christian. "Infidelity, or difference in religion, does not make void the magistrate’s just and legal authority” (WCF, Chapter 23, Article 4). In other words, according to these confessions, even a pagan magistrate could call synods and intervene to make sure that what took place in these synods was according to the word of God!
The reformers, then, identified church and state in practice (i.e., the church is co-extensive with the state). But in the United States we practice the church/state separation, especially due to the efforts of Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island, who was a friend of Oliver Cromwell and John Milton. (PGM) The church and the state are not the same. Yes, the church is under God and the state is under God. They both receive authority from God, but they are not the same. They are essentially different.
Today we do not have a state church in this country. The church consists of true believers called out of the state. Every believer, we are told, must submit to the state only when what the state demands does not conflict with the demands of the head of the church, King Jesus Christ. And if conflicts do exist, then believers in Christ must obey God rather than men, as the Scriptures teach: 1. The Hebrew midwives were told by Pharaoh to kill Hebrew male babies. They refused, and God blessed these Hebrew midwives.
The parents of Moses were under Pharaoh’s command to throw Moses into the Nile to kill him, but they also refused and spared his life. "By faith Moses’ parents hid him for three months after he was born, because they saw he was no ordinary child, and they were not afraid of the king’s edict” (Heb. 11:23).
Jezebel, the wicked queen of Israel, wanted to kill all God’s prophets. But Obadiah hid a hundred of them and fed them and saved them. He refused to obey the king’s edict.
Queen Esther did not have permission to enter the king’s presence. But she defied the law, and went to see the king. She said, "I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. If I perish, I perish.” She did so to prevent God’s people from being annihilated by Haman the Amalekite, the enemy of the Jews, and God granted her favor in the eyes of the king.
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were asked by King Nebuchadnezzar to worship his image. They refused and told the king, "O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king. But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up” (Dan. 3:16–18).
The enemies of Daniel devised a law that for thirty days everyone was to pray only to King Darius. Daniel knew about it, but he went home and prayed as usual three times a day to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of heaven and earth. "Now when Daniel learned that the decree had been published, he went home to his upstairs room where the windows opened toward Jerusalem. Three times a day he got down on his knees and prayed, giving thanks to his God, just as he had done before” (Dan. 6:10). For doing this, Daniel was arrested and thrown into the lions’ den. But God heard his prayer and saved him.
The wise men (the Magi), who came to see Jesus after his birth, were told by King Herod, "You go and worship Jesus; then come back and report to me.” But they were warned on the way, "Don’t go back to King Herod,” and so they refused to do what he said.
The Sanhedrin (the Jewish ruling authority) told the apostles not to preach in the name of Jesus Christ: "They called them in again and commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John replied, ‘Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard’” (Acts 4:18–20).
In Acts 5 the apostles were called back before the Sanhedrin because they had violated the law that they should not speak or preach in the name of Jesus Christ: "‘We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name,’ [the high priest] said. ‘Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to make us guilty of this man’s blood.’ Peter and the other apostles replied: ‘We must obey God rather than men! We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him’” (Acts 5:28–29).
Government can become a monster that tries to take the place of God. Government can demand that Christians confess, "Caesar is Lord,” not, "Jesus is Lord.” And when government becomes the devil, Christians must refuse to obey it. Only a government that rewards the good and punishes the evil deserves Christian obedience. The state is under God to do his will and to be accountable to him. Government exists to ensure order and peace, not tyranny or anarchy. Government is to praise good behavior and promote biblical morality. Government is to punish evildoers.
Government is created to promote family life, not to take away parental authority. In many countries, it is against the law for parents to spank their own children for bad behavior so that good behavior may be formed in them. The power of the rod is being taken away from parents by wicked laws of the state. And when kings assumed leadership of both the church and the state, the state took away the authority of the church to discipline its members through the power of the keys.
Today the state says it is permissible to abort children, and that infanticide and homosexuality are legitimate. Today religious organizations are told they must provide to employees any type of birth control, abortifacients, sterilization procedures, and so on. Today divorce is allowed for any and every reason. Today a person does not have to work at all; the government will take care of him. Today, in public schools, parental authority is being destroyed. A girl can even have an abortion without informing her parents. Religion is being driven out of the marketplace of public life into the privacy of one’s thought. The Bible is despised and its moral teaching condemned. The true and living God of the Scriptures, who gives authority to the state to govern, is driven out.
So God is angry, and he will put down wicked governments, as he has done throughout history. Psalm 75:7 says, "It is God who judges: He brings one down, he exalts another.” In Daniel 2:21 we read, "He changes times and seasons; he sets up kings and deposes them. He gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to the discerning.” And Daniel 4:17 tells us, "The decision is announced by messengers, the holy ones declare the verdict, so that the living may know that the Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone he wishes and sets over them the lowliest of men.”
Our Duty to the State
When God’s design is "systematically, constantly, and notoriously disregarded,” our obligation to obey stops,5 declares Princeton theologian Charles Hodge. We must render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar, but we are also told we must render unto God what belongs to God. We are created in God’s image and likeness. We must therefore worship and serve God. Whether we eat or drink or whatever else we do, we must do it for the glory of God and in the name of our God. Our God’s authority alone is absolute; all other authorities are derived and delegated, as Jesus himself said in John 19: "‘Do you refuse to speak to me?’ Pilate said. ‘Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?’ Jesus answered, ‘You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above’” (vv. 10–11). Hodge says, "Rulers are the servants of the people as well as the servants of God, and that the welfare of society is the only legitimate object which they as rulers are at liberty to pursue.”6 Rulers are to praise and promote the good and to punish evil. Morality is not relative; it is absolute, because it comes from the absolute Sovereign who alone is good.
Today in the Western world, we live in moral confusion. The leaders of the state are partly responsible for this, along with unbelieving parents and unbelieving pastors. They are supposed to give us moral clarity, not moral confusion. Professor F. F. Bruce speaks of this, quoting T. M. Taylor, "The obedience which the Christian man owes to the State is never absolute but, at the most, partial and contingent. It follows that the Christian lives always in a tension between two competing claims; that in certain circumstances disobedience to the command of the State may be not only a right but also a duty. This has been the classical doctrine ever since the apostles declared that they ought to obey God rather than men.”7 Many governments are demonized even to the point of killing Christians.
These rulers hate Jesus Christ and his true followers. Therefore, it is important that, as we study the power of the state, we read not only Romans 13, but, as Dr. John Stott said, also Revelation 13, which speaks of the demonic powers that oppose God and the people of God.8
John Calvin said, "[Civil authorities] are not to rule for their own interest, but for the public good; nor are they endued with unbridled power, but what is restricted to the wellbeing of their subjects; in short, they are responsible to God and to men in the exercise of their power. For as they are deputed by God and do his business, they must give an account to him: and then the ministration which God has committed to them has a regard to the subjects, they are therefore debtors also to them.”9 I say that the state then must function under God, whose delegated authority they exercise. Their authority did not come from themselves or directly from the people, but directly from the Sovereign God. Therefore, authorities must do God’s will, which is written in each man’s heart: "Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them” (Rom. 2:14–15).
The will of God is most clearly expressed in the holy Scriptures, which leaders should read to discover what is the mind of God. The state must promote moral law, praise those who do good, and punish those who violate God’s moral laws. They are given the power of the sword to administer God’s wrath. Those citizens who do good have no fear of the rulers. But those who practice evil must fear them. In this passage Paul uses the word diakonos twice to describe the ruler (v 4). In verse 6 he calls him leitourgos, a servant who governs full-time. Rulers are God’s deacons, God’s humble servants, designated to obey God’s rule. They are God’s avengers. They punish not the good but the wicked. They work fulltime in the work of the Lord, including collecting taxes. John Calvin says, "[Taxes collected are] public property, and not to be spent in the gratification of private indulgence.”10 Financing unjust wars, financing lazy people and making them dependent on the government, financing Planned Parenthood and abortion, or financing a bloated budget, is not the purpose of taxes.
The state is to work fulltime in the work of the Lord by collecting taxes, building roads, insuring peace in the land, upholding God’s moral law, providing impartial justice through the courts, and helping the institutions of family and church to flourish. So everyone must submit to good government. We must pay taxes. And I would say maybe everyone must pay a flat tax of twenty percent or less. Today 49.5 percent of people do not pay any federal or state tax. We must submit to the government, not only because the state can punish evildoers, but because of our Christian conscience as it is informed by the holy Scripture. That conscience tells us that it is the right thing to do to please God.
So we pay our debts, we pay our taxes, we pay revenue, we fear those whom we must, and we respect those whom we must as good citizens of the state that is under God.
As citizens of the United States, we have a right to shape our government, and we are to be involved in the affairs of the government. Dr. James Boice says that we must oppose verbally when government does wrong, and we must disobey when what the government demands conflicts with what God demands.11 In this country we can vote out the most crooked rulers, and we can vote in the less crooked rulers. We refuse to be like the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries Anabaptists, who promoted anarchy. They argued against any state government. But God opposes the anarchy of the people as well as tyrannical government. God is a God of order and not of disorder. So there is order in the family, order in the church, and order in the state. Though we no longer have a theocracy, God has given the state the authority to rule for the welfare of its citizens. God does not approve what is written in Judges 21:25: "In those days, Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit.”
Points of Application
Let us then ponder the following points of application.
We must obey our parents and pastors as much as we obey the state, because family and church are also God’s institutions.
Marxist ideology and government negate God and therefore is demonic.
Any government that opposes Christianity and kills Christians is demonic.
No government has absolute authority.
Jesus Christ is the King of kings and the Lord of lords and the sole Judge of all.
We must give to Caesar what is due him, and we must give to God what belongs to God.
God alone sets up kingdoms and puts them down.
All human kingdoms one day will be destroyed by King Jesus to set up his own kingdom of righteousness and peace. "In the time of those kings, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever. This is the meaning of the vision of the rock cut out of a mountain, but not by human hands—a rock that broke the iron, the bronze, the clay, the silver and the gold to pieces” (Dan. 2:44–45a). We also read, "Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet” (1 Cor. 15:24–25).
It is the duty of every ruler to confess with Nebuchadnezzar, "Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and exalt and glorify the King of heaven, because everything he does is right and all his ways are just. And those who walk in pride he is able to humble” (Dan. 4:37).
Many governments today promote evil and oppose good. They allow and even condone, in some cases, abortion, anti-Christian ideas, every form of sexual deviancy, homosexuality, atheism, infanticide, unjust wars, corporate corruption, and every form of lying.
Understand that we are dual citizens. Yes, we are citizens of this world, but, thank God, we are also citizens of heaven. Paul declares, "But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Phil. 3:20).
Capital punishment is biblical. God knows the fallen human condition better than we do, and only God has the right to take life by the state. No woman has the right to abort her baby. And the state must practice retributive justice based on moral model rather than humanitarian-reform justice based on medical model that crime is due to a disease.
Government is necessary because of the fall. People, including rulers, are pervasively sinful.
The state’s especial task is to restrain evil.
Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones says that if a government breaks the law and becomes tyrannical, then people have the right to change the government.12
The state should not encroach upon or hinder the work of God’s other institutions, meaning the work of the family and the work of the church.
The state is not separate from God but under God. All rulers will answer to him: Stalin, Mao, and Hitler included.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York is opposing Obamacare as it encroaches upon the church’s domain by demanding that the church institutions provide birth control, abortifacients, sterilization, and so on.13
Understand this: in Romans 13:1-7, Paul is dealing with the state in its ideal, normal way, not in a demonized state where Christians would forced to sin if they obeyed the state’s laws.
1 The following points are summarized from D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Romans: Exposition of Chapter 13, Life in Two Kingdoms (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2002), 75–116.
2 Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 1178.
3 Lloyd-Jones, 97–98.
4 Spirit of the Reformation Bible, New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 2185 (note 10 about Section 23.3 of the 1647 version).
5 Charles Hodge, A Commentary on Romans, Geneva Series of commentaries (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1989), 414.
6 Hodge, 408.
7 F. F. Bruce, The Letter of Paul to the Romans. Rev. ed., 1985. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, reprinted 2000), 224.
8 John R. W. Stott, Romans: God’s Good News for the World (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1994), 343.
9 John Calvin, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Baker, rptd. 2003), 481.
10 Calvin, 483
11 J. M. Boice, Romans, Vol. 4, The New Humanity (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995), 1650.
12 D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Romans: An Exposition of Chapter 13: Life in Two Kingdoms (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2002), 69.
13 "When the Archbishop Met the President,” The Wall Street Journal, March 31, 2012, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702303816504577311800821270184.html?KEYWORDS=archbishop
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Copyright © 2012, P. G. Mathew
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