The Political Church

Or, on Two-Fold Ecclesiastical Government

There is much talk of the two swords, kingdoms, and regiments (or administrations) of Christ. Even within this initial two-fold distinction there exists another two-fold distinction. The visible and invisible are distinct realities. The church occupies both according to its particular and universal existence, respectively. The church visible is, obviously, situated within the visible world alongside the civil or temporal sword, kingdom, etc. The mistake made by many Protestants is to identify the church with the invisible, spiritual kingdom solely—as if souls are not embodied and humans not temporal.

Another error follows from the first, viz., to conceive of the church only as to its internal life, neglecting its external life and, by extension, thinking little of its external existence and administration.

Conversely, all polities themselves possess an ecclesiastical character in the sense that public morality and virtue are central and perennial. This falls within the duty and function of the civil authority, lest the church be confused with, rather than married to, that power. In marriage, man and woman are one flesh and share much—just as the husband and wife enjoy “common advantages and responsibilities that are provided and communicated by both spouses,” as Althusius says—but maintain their individuality and distinct roles, duties, and functions. Likewise, church and state.

Calvin, Althusius, and Turretin are particularly good exponents of this dynamic, demonstrating the two-fold ecclesiastical administration. They represent a general consensus and compel us today to aspire, at least notionally, to a more integrated and full political life. Its intuitive appeal—such longings must be unlearned—is owed to its correspondence to the full person, viz., body and soul confined, at present, to the temporal realm, thereby yielding twofold expression of each component of the twofold reality. Too many Evangelicals want to prematurely transcend this reality. Moreover, if you self-identify, to use modern parlance, as “Reformed,” it seems to me that any misgivings you harbor regarding the foregoing model must crumble under the weight of luminaries like Calvin, Althusius, and Turretin. On what basis can you assert superior wisdom and learning?


At the outset, it is important to remember that Calvin situated both the visible church in its particular locale and the civil authority within the temporal realm under a two kingdoms paradigm. Each power is part of the two-fold temporal regiment. And every true commonwealth features both powers cooperative and rightly ordered as to their distribution of labor for the benefit of the whole. They are not two sides of the same coin, but rather two members of a marriage (a “two-headed regime”). The maintenance of true religion in the polity is of paramount importance to both.  

“[I]n every well-ordered polity, religion must have pride of place and is to be preserved intact under the supervision of the laws, as even unbelievers confess.” (Hopfl, The Christian Polity of John Calvin) (See also Institutes, 4.20.9). That is the baseline principle. The rationale for it extends further.

Religion, of course, has both internal and external dimensions even in the individual, but so too with the ecclesiastical administration itself. Since the church’s power lacks coercion, public or external ecclesiastical functions require the magistrate.

It is not only the magistrate’s God-given duty to punish vice and reward virtue that drives this. Rather, the division of labor at to the two-fold ecclesiastical administration is intricate to any well-ordered polity. This division is decidedly not between secular and spiritual, but rather “between humanitas and pietas, between teaching and coercing, between moral instruction and legal enforcement, between outward and true righteousness.” (Hopfl).

From Harro Hopfl:

“In consequence… the expulsion or execution of persistent and impenitent heretics, the chastisement of deriders of the ministry and the Word, of contemners of piety and of those of scandalous immorality of life, diplomatic and military activity to relieve hard-pressed brethren abroad and to defend reformation at home, the public mobilization of resources for ecclesiastical and charitable works such as the payment of ministers, teaches and officials, and public institutions for the relief of distress, are all activities which would be either quite frustrated or severely handicapped without the use by the magistracy of its particular sorts of powers. Calvin’s view, like that of most of his evangelical and Romanist contemporaries, was that these were proper, indeed divinely ordained, functions of magistracy and aids to godliness.”

This outward ecclesiastical regiment does not itself produce true righteousness or faith in the heart, but then neither does internal ecclesiastical discipline. Both are an encouragement to righteousness and aids in sanctification. This is not primarily about restriction or repression but edification. Perhaps, most important to notice is that Calvin did not consider the civil magistracy to be a mere necessary evil. Order and stability are prerequisites for any polity, but that includes moral and religious order. Moreover, the church, as a decidedly public institution, one of two heads in the ideal regime, requires the civil magistrate for its external life, its political governance. In this way, “Calvin intended to re-sacralize the magistracy,” and thereby counter Roman errors, the heavy hand of the Papacy.

If you are Protestant, historically speaking, you must accept, embrace, and perpetuate this re-sacralization. There lies the true distinction—the deeper Protestant conception, if you like—between Protestant and Roman. This realization does not quite support semper reformanda enthusiasms, but it is nevertheless true. Transubstantiation, albeit deficient, errant doctrine, does not make you a Romanist; denial of the magistrate’s sacral, religious role does. For without it, universal Papal jurisdiction and inordinate subjugation of the civil, is, at bottom, what awaits you, wherein, as Turretin puts it, the magistrate “ought to draw the sword at the nod of the priest.”  

Consider the geographic relation of Moriah and Zion. Consider who reformed the Old Testament church, viz., David, Hezekiah, and Josiah, etc. Consider who lifted the New Testament church out of oppression in Mosaic fashion, viz., Constantine, Theodosius, and Justinian, etc.

The other ill-advised option—the Third Way—is some form of adjusted Anabaptism, which both Reformed and Roman agreed was decidedly disagreeable and unworkable. The Fourth Way, if you will, is atheistic. That is, to deny the spirituality of public life, of civil power, and, by anthropological extension, the human person.


In his Politica, Althusius describes the right of the realm as twofold, pertaining “both to the welfare of the soul and to the care of the body.” Dealing with the first, the welfare of the soul, i.e., “ecclesiastical communion of the realm,” Althusius defines it as the “public organizing and conserving of the kingdom of Christ… to the eternal glory of God and for the welfare of the realm.” He lists the many means by which religion is recognized and preserved both by the magistrate and the clergy—we will not reiterate them here.

What interests us, at present, is how Althusius, like Calvin, bifurcates the ecclesiastical administration (“There is therefore a twofold administration of ecclesiastical matters.”). “Ecclesiastical administration” is self-explanatory. It is the means or process by which ecclesiastical functions are administered.

In this sense, there is an internal and external life to the church.

Some ecclesiastical functions pertain to the magistrate and others to the clergy or elders, “according to the example of Moses and Aaron.” The ecclesiastical administration, on the one hand, is the responsibility of the magistrate (external); on the other hand, it is the responsibility of the clergy (internal). Though, to be clear, “In the administration of ecclesiastical matters the magistrate does nothing without the counsel and consent of the clergy based on the Word of God.”

How do these administrative duties play out?

For the magistrate, it is the “inspection, defense, care, and direction of ecclesiastical matters.” And yet, “the execution and administration of ecclesiastical offices belong to the clergy.” Again, the advice and consent of the clergy is indispensable to the magistrate.

The latter should promote divine worship, of course, as even any pagan ruler does. Said function and spirit is fitting to the office. I cite William Prynne’s Sword of Christian Magistracy often on this point. But recall also Peter Leithart’s description of the conflict between upstart Christians and pagan Romans in his magisterial Defending Constantine. Contra “modern” scholars, Leithart rightly discerns the inherently religious, cosmic warfare of Diocletian’s reign. The Romans were trying to eliminate—ever creative and symbolic, even spiritual, in their torturous executions—those “just ones” who had silenced the prophecy of the oracles. Christians were in combat with demons—literally, from their perspective—stalking the imperial capital. These realities are unavoidable and intricate to political life whatever contemporary detractors insist.  It follows naturally that a good magistrate, whatever his religion, should “expel all atheists, and all impious and profane men who are obstinate and incurable.” That’s what the Romans were doing. That is what the Christian magistrate, according to prudence, should do also.

“Consequently,” writes Althusius, “the magistrate before anything else, and immediately from the beginning of his administration, should plant and nourish the Christian religion as the foundation of his imperium.” Introduce true religion and then conserve it, protect it; these are the duties of the good magistrate. Thereby, “the kingdom of God is raised up and preserved among men in this political society.”

This entails that the magistrate must officially endorse (via “edicts”) the true religion, “legally validate orthodox canons of faith,” organize the national church into local jurisdictions, and guarantee a legitimate and educated ministry, and see to it that they administer word and sacrament appropriately.

Important to recognize here is that the magistrate possess—indeed, must exercise—theological judgment. This will be a hard pill to swallow for many right-liberal Christians.

“[I]t is apparent that the supreme magistrate has a responsibility to judge concerning the knowledge, discernment, direction, definition, and promulgation of the doctrine of faith, that he exercises this responsibility on the basis of sacred scripture, and that he commands bishops in keeping with these scriptures. So Constantine undertook to judge the Arian controversy. Whence it is evident that clergymen have been subjected to the power of kings, except in those matters that are proper to them. These matters are the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments, in which they are subject to God and to the church.”

In other words, the magistrate does not confiscate the keys of the kingdom, nor the sacramental, apostolic ministry, but he does dominate the external administration of the church within the two-fold administration of the same. And this is necessary not only to all rightly ordered polities but is inherent in the administration of the church itself.

All of this, obviously, pertains to the public presence of the church, to public religion. Per Althusius, within the organic, integrated symbiosis of political society, it is not simply a matter of civil stability at stake here, but rather the longevity of the “kingdom of God” in political society as well. The church is an intricate part of any true polity. Its governance is two-fold, administered through the clergy and the magistrate. Only “modern” Christians who lack an integrated conception of political life and privatize the church will object. And such objections should be expected but disregarded.

You all are by now asking, “What of toleration?” The magistrate can claim control, nor has it in fact, of the conscience. This is rudimentary and unobjectionable. Even Constantine believed that bodily punishment of errant and senseless men was too extreme. Persecution is not good nor effective. Errors may be permitted, as a concession, but wicked practices and rites may not, for they signal the doom of any realm. The longevity of the commonwealth is ever paramount. The foolish error of modern Evangelicals is not in espousing toleration but in extending it beyond reason, beyond a Christian frame, and assuming judgment will not follow. Differing creedal opinions are manageable; diametrically opposes ways of life are not. And even within a mood of toleration, the magistrate must not let the true religion fall into ruin.


Like Calvin and Althusius, Turretin covers in his Institutes of Elenctic Theology, as a matter of ecclesiology, the “political government of the church.” As an institution of internal and external existence, as we said, it is inevitable and intended that the church has a political presence lest it remain ethereal as some today would have it.

At this point in the Institutes, Turretin has already covered the (internal) ecclesiastical governance of the church. Now, the (external) political. There are two errors, one of excess and one of defect. The fault of the first is distributing all ecclesiastical power to the magistrate such that the church is subsumed by the civil, external power, to the detriment of its internal governance. The second error is the removal of “all care of ecclesiastical things [from the magistrate] so that he does not care what each one worships and allows free power to anyone of doing and saying whatever he wishes in the cause of religion.” The error of defect includes a passive magistrate who administers no judgment as to religion but merely and totally defers to ecclesiastical judgment of the same.

The orthodox Protestant position is the mean; it avoids both errors. Magistrates must care for religion and the church. He must care for public piety “which is commanded by the first [table], no less than for justice and love, which is commanded by the second table.” Turretin takes all this as a prerequisite for the fulfillment of 1 Timothy 2:2. That is, the magistrate’s religious interest is imbedded in his purpose, viz., providing a quiet and peaceable life. For this reason, magistrates are called gods (Psalm 82:6), pastors (Isaiah 44:28), and fathers (1 Samuel 24:11), and these titles are taken as perennial and normative, as they should be. Not only does the Old Testament affirm the magistrate’s religious interest, but so too do the ancients (e.g., Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, etc.), as do the “pious emperors” (e.g., Constantine, Theodosius, Valentinian, and Justinian). Again, none of this confounds the two powers, the marriage of ecclesiastical and civil. “As it is not lawful for bishops to draw the sword, so neither is it lawful for princes and civilians to handle the thurible… But it does not thence follow that the other functions concerning the [external] government of the church do not belong” to him.

The magistrate cannot construct new doctrine, commandeer church discipline under the authority of the ecclesiastical keys, nor perform essential, formal ministerial duties. But he can, and should, “establish sacred doctrine and pure worship,” conserve the same “even to restore and reform it when declining,” as Althusius also said. This latter duty in particular must be affirmed by Protestants as Protestants. For not only do the examples of Asa, Jehoshaphat, Josiah, Joash, and Hezekiah confirm it, but so too did the Reformation itself depend on it.

Moreover, the magistrate must “cherish and sustain” the church, as the oracle of sacred doctrine and discipline, by warding off and punishing nuisances to the same, viz., “heretics and disturbers of ecclesiastical peace.” He should also encourage and provide for unity in doctrine and practice for the sake of the church. These are external (“extrinsic”) things but no less belong conceptually to ecclesiastical governance, to sacred things. The root of this duty and function is, once again, found in the magistrate’s obligation to both table of the Decalogue. (We cannot but wonder whether the denial of this basic obligation by modern commentators is the fundamental cause of the decline of Protestant political thought.) In any case, and put simply, the civil magistrate, the prince, is concerned and charged with the “external adjuncts” of sacred and spiritual things. That is, he is especially concerned with the “objective,” the time, place, manner, and persons. But these things cannot be easily disentangled from ecclesiastical judgment in doctrine and practice. Hence,

“the Christian magistrate has the right of knowing and judging concerning matters of faith, at least with a discretive and approving judgment, whether he ought to confirm by his authority the judgments of the church and commit them to execution. But according to the Romanists, the church alone judges by a supreme, definitive and infallible judgment, which the magistrate (equally with the private person) is bound simply and with implicit faith to embrace and to put into execution without any preceding judgment of discretion upon the judgment of the church.”


Turretin goes on to note that the title of “head of the church” afforded to the king of England is “not understood of intrinsic, formal, and spiritual ecclesiastical power, but of extrinsic, objective or defensive power about ecclesiastical matters.” All of this, of course, fits well within the circa sacra doctrine. The important thing to notice in Calvin, Althusius, and Turretin, however, is that while the external duties ascribed to the Christian magistrate pertain only indirectly to internal life (“adjuncts”) they are no less properly conceived as pertaining to the two-fold governance of the church. A distinction between church and state is too simplistic. Both powers (the keys and the sword) possess internal and external subdivisions. The church necessarily has external existence that must be established, ordered, and governed. Christ’s kingdom is twofold, but within that broad twofold distinction, there is a further twofold distinction. To deny the aforementioned is to invite not only sickness into society generally, but disorder to the church specifically. Disunity is disordered; and unity does not erase inherent distinctions.

Without the political government of the church, which magistrates must shepherd, wild schisms, errors, and disorder will develop. Does not (true) reason and (recent) experience confirm this? Magistrates, as “guardians of both tables,” “ought to see to it that [true religion] suffers no harm and prudently meet the approaching evil, that the gangrene may spread no further and many not become diffused over the whole body.” If you, reader, recoil from this proposition, in principle, consider whether any basis consistent with the consensus presented here can be supplied for it.

Moreover, the denial of the church’s external existence, which necessarily requires governance, is the denial of the fullness of its visibility. Many Evangelicals effectively perform this denial, even if they will not say it—or, perhaps, they do not realize it. And for all their longing for revival and reform, absent the aid and initiative of the Christian magistrate, no such thing will materialize. Do not history and text demonstrate as much?   

Image Credit: Henry VIII Suppresses the Pope, from Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.

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Timon Cline

Timon Cline is the Editor in Chief at American Reformer. He is an attorney and a fellow at the Craig Center at Westminster Theological Seminary and the Director of Scholarly Initiatives at the Hale Institute of New Saint Andrews College. His writing has appeared in the American Spectator, Mere Orthodoxy, American Greatness, Areo Magazine, and the American Mind, among others. He writes regularly at Modern Reformation and Conciliar Post.

One thought on “The Political Church

  1. There are some things to agree with in Cline’s article. For example, Cline is right in saying that the Church has an external life that can be seen in its influencing the government. And he is partially correct in saying that polities have moral components to them. Where he is wrong is in saying that all polities have moral components. We could then ask how does theory become practice here, but we first need to check the theory with the Scriptures. For it is not as important to be Reformed and Protestant in formulating the relationship between the Church and the magistrate or government as to having our model be biblical. And part of being Biblical is in what the New Testament describes our relationship with unbelievers are to be.

    Cline wishes to use the marriage relationship in describing the relationship between the Church and the government in their appointed duties. In that relationship, the husband and wife become one and have shared advantages and responsibilities. But with those shared advantages and responsibilities comes a potential problem to the analogy: the context of hierarchy. In sharing those advantages and responsibilities, the husband has a certain authority over the wife in how they share their lives together. And so the question for Cline becomes, which entity is playing the role of the husband, is it the Church or the government?

    Of course we should note what the New Testament says to the Christian who would seek power over others: don’t be eager to do that. First, as Jesus told His disciples that they were to move on if the people they were speaking with failed to heed their message. Also Jesus warned his followers not to imitate the unbelievers of His day in how those unbelievers sought to rule over each other. We see Paul in I Cor 5 talking about his concern with sexual purity applies solely to the Church, not society. We should also note that we are to live on earth as if we were in exile. And Hebrews tells us that we have no home on earth. Several times, the New Testament writers tells us that it is service that marks the Christian’s relationship with others, not power. We might also note for those who are eager to apply the laws of Moses to society’s laws that the New Testament testifies to how there was a relaxing of those laws for Gentile believers. And so should the government enforce laws on unbelievers that the Apostolic Church did not require of Gentile believers?

    Cline makes the following claim in his description of the relationship between Church and government. In the section on Calvin, Cline while quoting Hopfl writes:

    [I]n every well-ordered polity, religion must have pride of place and is to be preserved intact under the supervision of the laws, as even unbelievers confess.” (Hopfl, The Christian Polity of John Calvin) (See also Institutes, 4.20.9). That is the baseline principle. The rationale for it extends further

    Religion, of course, has both internal and external dimensions even in the individual, but so too with the ecclesiastical administration itself. Since the church’s power lacks coercion, public or external ecclesiastical functions require the magistrate.

    It is not only the magistrate’s God-given duty to punish vice and reward virtue that drives this. Rather, the division of labor at to the two-fold ecclesiastical administration is intricate to any well-ordered polity. This division is decidedly not between secular and spiritual, but rather “between humanitas and pietas, between teaching and coercing, between moral instruction and legal enforcement, between outward and true righteousness.” (Hopfl).

    The Church in and of itself might lack the ability to ‘coerce’ compliance from the unbeliever in society, but if the Church is the husband in the analogy between how Church and the government work together to ‘punish vice and reward virtue,’ a statement that was deduced from a theology rather than taken from the Scriptures, then the Church, through the government, has the power to force obedience from unbelievers in society. The Church can now use a proxy to discipline unbelievers in society. At this point, there is little practical difference between what the Reformers, and Cline too, from what Rome practiced.

    To see how that theory can become practice, we only need to look at how it was applied in Calvin’s Geneva when it was under his influence. Children were punished by the government for insulting their parents and one was executed for striking a parent. People were punished for heresy and blasphemy. Banishment was one such punishment and people were punished for returning from banishment–here we might remember how the Puritans executed 4 Quakers for returning from banishment. The punishment of banishment was society’s equivalent to the Church’s use of excommunication and it was sometimes used for the same offenses. People were also punished for failure to attend Church and for committing adultery and sodomy. Punishments included execution, imprisonment, fines, whippings, and hanging by one’s limbs.

    Does Cline’s vision of the relationship between Church and the government coincide with how the New Testament describes we are to relate to unbelievers in society? Is Cline centering the Church’s role in society as one of service rather than seeking and exercising power? And was what Cline wants ever a recorded part of the Church’s carrying out of the Great Commission as reported in the New Testament? In seeking to base his theory and claims on the words of Calvin and other reformers, is Cline replacing the Scriptures with Calvin and others as our canon for determining how the Church relates to unbelievers and the state?

    Why does Cline want the Church to have the power to discipline unbelievers, which is what it would have under his notions of how the Church and the government should interact? Do Cline and others want to bring back Christendom because of the fears and insecurities that fellow believers have because of the secularization of our nation and the West? Is that how the Apostles responded to a vastly more negative world than what we are facing?

    If we want to see a more biblical model for how the Church should interact with government in order to get righteous polities passed, then Cline would do much better to follow Martin Luther King’s Jr. words and examples. Yes, the Church sought to influence the government. But the influence wasn’t to get the government to enforce laws some of which were exclusively Christian. Rather, they sought laws that had to do with the general welfare of certain groups of people–of marginalized people. They didn’t work to restrict the right so others, but to protect and expand the rights of those who were unfairly treated. They worked against social injustices in society. And btw, we should note that many Christians opposed what King and the SCLC were working for: an end to racism, militarism, and poverty due to economic exploitation.

    We should note that Cline’s perspective makes society into a quasi-church organization that allows the Church to use a proxy to punish its members. But yet, according to Cline, this Church/government relationship isn’t there for repression, it is there for edification. But was that what we saw in Calvin’s Geneva? Or did we see edification as the result of the work of Martin Luther King Jr. and the SCLC?

    One must wonder why Cline and others want to subject society to Church’s control via the government as its proxy. One must wonder about Cline’s claim that the relationship between the Church and the government, which he wants, is there for edification and not repression while Calvin is one whom he cites. One must wonder that because the relationship between the Church and government in Calvin’s Geneva exercised a lot of repression against the people there. Here, rather than waiting for explanations for those concerns, we might look at Cline’s descriptions of the relationship between the Church and government as merely a framing of his pitch just as catchers often try to influence calls from the umpire by framing the pitches they catch.

    In the end, what Cline and those who agree with him are not promoting the carrying out of the Great Commission through the preaching of the Gospel, they are promoting the creation of societies in which they can feel at home and not threatened in. But we should note here that Cline is using examples and words of those from the Reformed traditions because he cannot find those examples or any justification for what they want in the New Testament.

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