State Power, Church Power

On Strange Objections to Classical Protestant Politics

Recent discussions, debates, and Twitter banter have revealed persistent misunderstandings about classic Protestant views of the relationship between the civil magistrate and the church. It is hard to figure out the cause for this confusion, because the classic sources are well known and hardly unclear (it’s all there in Chapter 20 of Book 4 of Calvin’s Institutes, for example). Are these misunderstandings caused by ideological blindness, willful misrepresentation, inability to understand the sources, fear of, or revulsion toward, that which is unfamiliar, or something else? I don’t know, but I have seen two commonly repeated errors. The first is that the classic Protestant understanding of the civil magistrate implies a merging of church and state. The second is that it places far too high an expectation on what the civil magistrate can accomplish.

Regarding the relationship between the magistrate and the church, Calvin is clear that the state must not take to itself the divinely ordained vocation of the church, just as the church must not do with regard to the state. The church, in its focus on that which is spiritual, “has reference to the life of the soul,” while the state has reference “to matters of the present life, not only to food and clothing, but to the enacting of laws which require a man to live among his fellows purely honorably, and modestly” (Institutes 3.19.15). The church has a spiritual task “by which the conscience is trained to piety and divine worship” (Institutes 3.19.15), whereas civil magistrates “are ordained protectors and vindicators of public innocence, modesty, decency, and tranquility, and that their sole endeavor should be to provide for the common safety and peace of all” (Institutes 4.20.9). There is no merging of church and state, though Calvin does believe the state should be supportive of the church in certain ways that do not require it to usurp the church’s vocation (more on this in a moment). The distinct, though complementary, roles of the magistrate and the church are clear. Calvin is by no means an outlier on this.

The second objection to modern appropriations of classical Protestant political thought I’ve seen recently is the claim that they place too much hope in the power of the state to transform society. This is a strange objection. No Protestant political thinker has ever argued that the state can regenerate human hearts. This, of course, is no failure on the part of the human governments, since that is not why God ordained that such governments would exist. He has, however, decreed that the state exist in order to “punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good” (2 Pet 2:14). The result of states doing so is good order. The failure of states to do so is anarchy and violence. “When the righteous triumph, there is great glory, but when the wicked rise, people hide themselves” (Proverbs 28:12). Is it expecting too much to insist that the state conform to God’s explicitly stated intention? The purpose of laws is to prevent crime and make nations safe so their people can flourish. Is it an unrealistic expectation that they would actually do so? No one believes that even the best civil magistrates and the best human laws can usher in utopia. But does that mean that they therefore do not fulfil a vital purpose? Claiming that the state, because it cannot usher in the kingdom of God, also cannot maintain basic civic righteousness is unbiblical and indeed a denial of law and order at all.

I think the one aspect of classical Protestant politics that is most distressing today, and is probably behind the other strange objections that are voiced, is the idea that the church has any sort of positive function with regard to true religion. Even here, however, there is much confusion. The positive function can be described like this: the state should do certain things according to its unique vocation to facilitate the unique vocation of the church.

Calvin, for example, believed

civil government . . . prevents idolatry, sacrilege against God’s name, blasphemies against his truth, and other public offenses against religion from arising and spreading among the people. (Institutes 4.20.3)

The key phrase in this quote is “public offenses.” This seems to be one of the most overlooked dimensions of the classical Protestant view of the state. The state is not given carte blanche to interfere in the governance of the church. It can only act on religious matters that rise to the level of public offenses. In short, some religious matters become state matters because they harm the body politic. America has always had a more limited understanding of the application of this principle, but it has not been lacking entirely until very recently (public blasphemy laws, etc.).

As a matter of basic understanding, if people are going to critique the older Protestant view, they should at least understand it and accurately articulate it. Even with the expansive view of older thinkers like Calvin, there was never a merging of the vocation of the magistrate and the church. The magistrate was only allowed to act with regard to religion in ways that facilitated the church in its own unique work. In essence, the magistrate was tasked with ensuring that the church carried out its spiritual functions, but could not carry out those spiritual functions itself. The magistrate could call synods, for example, but could not interfere in their internal deliberations. The magistrate could punish obstinate heretics (especially those whose actions damaged civil society), but could not attempt to force the faith on a person (only the persuasive power of the gospel, attended to by the Holy Spirit can bring one to faith).

The original form of the Westminster Confession of Faith adhered to the older Protestant understanding of the roles of magistrate and church. The American Presbyterian church adapted the Westminster Confession by toning down the responsibility of the magistrate with regard to supporting true religion. But it did not entirely abandon the notion that the magistrate had a specific responsibility to be broadly supportive of Christian churches. In Chapter 23, Section 3, the Confession calls the magistrate a “nursing father” with the duty “to protect the church of our common Lord.” This was to be done, it is true,

without giving the preference to any denomination of Christians above the rest, in such a manner that all ecclesiastical persons whatever shall enjoy the full, free, and unquestioned liberty of discharging every part of their sacred functions, without violence or danger.

All true Christian denominations, that is to say, were to be protected by the state so that their “ecclesiastical assemblies” could “be held without molestation or disturbance.” This protection only applies, however, to “the voluntary members of any denomination of Christians.” One can make an argument for modern pluralism, but such a sentiment is wholly absent even from the American version of the Westminster Confession. The American revisions are not really different in principle from the older Protestant view on this point. Both agree that the state has a responsibility with regard to protecting, and thus furthering, the work of the church in society. The older Westminster Confession is simply more expansive in its understanding of what should be done in this regard.

In the end, one may desire to critique any version of older Protestant political thought. In America as it is today, it doesn’t seem prudent to me even to attempt to legislate the totality of the older Protestant view of the state’s responsibility regarding true religion, though I don’t believe the older view is illegitimate in principle. But anyone who would dispute the theological arguments behind the older view has a moral responsibility at least to understand what the older views actually taught and to critique those views. It may seem more advantageous to simply scare people away with flamboyant rhetoric, but this will likely turn out to be counter-productive. It doesn’t take a whole lot of reading to see what the older theologians taught. Bizarre misrepresentations will become clear quite quickly. Much better is to engage in vigorous, but honest, intellectual combat on the real issues.

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Ben C. Dunson is Founding and Contributing Editor of American Reformer. He is also Visiting Professor of New Testament at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary (Greenville, SC), having previously taught at Reformed Theological Seminary (Dallas, TX), Reformation Bible College (Sanford, FL), and Redeemer University (Ontario, Canada). He lives in the northern suburbs of Dallas with his wife and four boys.

4 thoughts on “State Power, Church Power

  1. No merger of Church and state and there under Calvin’s thought there is pluralism? We should remind those who say such of the following: Concepts–words should not leave home without them.

    According to the article, the state is in charge of enforcing a certain level of public purity and modesty and is to stop public offenses like blasphemy because they violate the ‘body politic.’ But who gets to define what purity, modesty, blasphemy, and other religious matters are but the Church? Who else did Calvin expect to set those standards? The Church does so either directly or indirectly. And if the state is enforcing Church standards on the public, how can we say with a straight face that Protestant thinking here does not merge the offices of Church and state? If the Church determines the standards of purity, modesty, blasphemy, and other religious based laws meant to maintain the body politic, then doesn’t the state become a proxy disciplinary arm of the Church?

    And what is wrong with violating the ‘body politic’? To not do so is to embrace an authoritarian system of government where the actions of government cannot be questioned nor can, in some cases, the views of the majority of people. When Civil Rights workers went into the South to challenge Jim Crow laws and voter suppression, they were violating the body politic.

    I understand why some fellow religiously conservative Christians want a Christian government; it is because they are very afraid of the changes in society. But others want such a government because they are in enamored with power. But the Gospel has never relied on the power and ability of people to work as the power of God. The Gospel relies on us preaching it and the Spirit does the rest.

    Those who favor Calvin’s view of government, can you tell me how his view of government would be feasible with our current demographics? And so maybe it is time that we do some real critical analysis of Calvin’s view of the relationship between Church and state as well as doing the same to the WCF’s statements on the relationship between Church and state.

    1. Don’t pretend you don’t understand how it’s possible for a civil magistrate to articulate moral standards without becoming “a proxy disciplinary arm of the Church.” You do, you’re just pretending you don’t.

      As always, Curt Day delenda est.

      1. Ryan,
        If the Christian Magistrate is a church member, then the church is directly or indirectly defining moral standards as well as how to respond to them. It is the indirect participation by the church which you seem unable to see.

  2. The best arguments against Christian Nationalism are not arguing that the magistrate fulfills no “vital purpose.” Nor are they arguing the state cannot “maintain basic civic righteousness.” Suggesting so risks becoming a straw-man argument. The disagreement is over how much of the moral law God has actually commissioned the magistrate to enforce. Nobody believes the magistrate should enforce the moral law completely and entirely (ie my sinful thoughts). It’s a question of scope.

    God has commissioned the magistrate to govern intra-human affairs by enforcing the substance of the second table of the law. God has not commissioned the magistrate to enforce the first table of the law (the only exception being OT Israel). The ongoing Noahic Covenant limits the magistrate scope of retributive justice to only intra-human affairs, not God-human affairs (ie first table of the law). In Romans 13, pagan ruler authority (Nero himself) is legitimized. In the immediate context of Romans 13:8-10 Paul jumps right to the second table of the law strongly implying a magistrate scope that is limited to the second table. We render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s , and to God the things that are God’s. Where would one go in the NT to defend the view of the magistrate presented in this article?

    If the magistrate is enforcing the first table of the law (punishing heretics), then the distinction between church and state has already been lost. Enforcing the first table requires the magistrate to discipline doctrines only revealed in scripture (deity of Christ, trinity, etc). In other words it requires biblical interpretation. Perhaps the magistrate will get this biblical interpretation from the church. If so then the magistrate is using coercive force based off what the church says. Is there still a meaningful distinction between church and state in such a model? In your words, “some religious matters become state matters.”

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