By William Einwechter
Copyright 1999, National Reform Association
The issue of the relationship between the church and state has proven to be one that is fraught with difficulty, disagreement, and bitter controversy. Various ideas on how the church and state should relate to one another have been proposed and tried. Today, the church is as divided as ever on what the precise relationship should be between church and state. This division contributes substantially to the triumph of secularism in civil government, and negates the ability of Christians to speak with one voice on this most crucial matter.
Views on the Relation between Church and State
There have been five competing views on the relationship between church and state that have been advocated by Christians:
1. A union of church and state that grants the church power over the state. This is known as ecclesiocracy. The church holds ultimate authority in all spheres and has the power to dictate policy to the state.
2. A union of church and state that grants the state power over the church. This is known (in varying forms) as Erastianism. The state governs the affairs of the church, establishing the church's doctrine, worship, and ministers. The state (often through the office of the chief magistrate) is considered the head of the church, and the final court of appeal in all ecclesiastical matters.
3. A union of a particular denomination of the Christian church with the state. This is known as the establishment principle. In such a union of church and state, one denomination is established as the state church and it alone receives the countenance and support of the state; all other denominations or independent Christian congregations are either tolerated or suppressed. Under the establishment principle, the state church retains its independence from the control of the state (at least in theory).
4. An official recognition of the governing authority of Jesus Christ and His Word by the state. This is known as national confessionalism. Here there is a clear institutional separation between church and state, and both remain independent of the control of the other, while there is an informal union of church and state in that both confess the same Lord. The submission of the state to Christ formally establishes a Christian nation that requires Christian magistrates and biblically based laws, but does not establish a formal institutional union between church and state.
5. Complete separation between the church and state in all regards. This is known as secularism. In this view, the state is forbidden to interest itself in any way with the Christian faith (or, for that matter, with any religion). The state must maintain a clear wall of separation between church and state, and give no support or countenance to any religion at all. The concerns of the state are secular concerns only, and, therefore, appeal cannot be made to any religious or Christian principles in the state's constitution, legislative or judicial counsels, or qualifications for civil office. Although secularism may endorse a form of religious "liberty," it excludes Jesus Christ and the church from the public square.
How are we to judge between these competing theories? Which, if any, is correct? How is the dilemma over the relationship between church and state to be solved? The solution is found in the doctrine of the lordship of Christ, or, in the doctrine of His mediatorial reign.
The Lordship of Christ
According to Scripture, when Jesus Christ arose from the dead He ascended into heaven and took His seat at the right hand of God the Father (Acts 2:30-36; 5:30-31; Ps. 110:1). At that time He was granted all authority in heaven and earth (Matt. 28:18) and, accordingly, all men now have been commanded to bow before Him and to confess Him as Lord (Phil. 2:9-11). The lordship of Christ is absolute; there is no creature, person, institution, tribe, tongue, or nation, that has not been placed under Him by the Father (Dan. 7:13-14; 1 Pet. 3:22; Heb. 2:5-9; Rev. 17:16). In particular, because of the subject under discussion, we note that Christ has been appointed as Lord of both church and state.
Jesus Christ is the Head of the church (Col. 1:18), and the Shepherd of the flock of God (John 10:11, 1 Pet. 5:4). The church was purchased by His blood (Acts 20:28), and the members were given to Him by the Father (John 6:37-39). Christ alone has authority to govern the church, and those who hold office in the church do so by His appointment and serve as His ministers to carry out His will. To Christ belongs the sole prerogative to establish the doctrine, worship, and practice of the church, and this He does through His Word. The church as a divinely established institution stands directly under Christ and submits to Him as Lord.
Jesus Christ is also the Governor of the nations (Ps. 22:28), and Prince of the kings of the earth (Rev. 1:5). Christ has been placed in authority over the civil government and rulers of every nation, and has been commissioned by the Father to bring them into submission to His reign (Ps. 2; 110:1-3; 1 Cor. 15:24-28; Rev. 2:26-28; 19:16). All kings and rulers are commanded to pay homage to Christ as their Sovereign and to serve Him in their capacity as civil magistrates (Ps. 2:10-12; Phil. 2:9). Therefore, the state is to recognize the authority of Christ over it and conduct its divinely appointed task (Rom. 13:1-6) with conscious submission to His Word. The state is directly accountable to Christ as the mediatorial King.
The Relationship between Church and State
In Scripture, church and state are treated as separate institutions each having their own clearly defined ministry and sphere of authority. However, both church and state are also presented as being divine institutions and ultimately answerable to God.
In Old Testament Israel, church and state were separate institutions within the covenant nation of Israel. Both were commanded by God to serve Him in their appointed sphere. By obeying God's Word, each contributed to the well being of the nation and to the advance of God's kingdom in Israel. Church and state were not competing institutions, nor was one under the authority of the other. Rather, each stood directly under Yahweh who was Lord of both church and state. Hence, the relationship between church and state was defined by their common covenant Head. Church and state in Israel were united by a common allegiance to Yahweh; yet church and state were separate institutions by the will and command of Yahweh.
In the New Testament, the kingdom of God is not limited to one nation. However, the doctrine of Christ's lordship over both church and state means that the basic relationship that existed in Israel between church and state is the relationship that should exist between church and state today. Church and state are to be united by a common allegiance to Jesus Christ, but are to remain separate as institutions.
The sequence for bringing about the biblical relationship between church and state in New Testament times is different than what took place in Israel. First, the church must be planted in a particular nation. Then as the church grows and faithfully disciples the converts, Christian citizens and rulers will see their duty to establish a Christian civil government. When the nation comes to the place of explicitly recognizing the authority of Christ over the state, it will become a Christian nation with both church and state, in their own proper spheres, confessing Christ as Lord.
The doctrine of the lordship of Christ enables us to determine the true relationship between church and state. Since Christ is Lord of both, ecclesiocracy and Erastianism, which posit the lordship of one of these institutions over the other, are manifestly in error. Secularism is so patently false that it is amazing that this is the view of church and state that is supported by so many Christians. The establishment principle also comes up short in that it goes beyond the duty of the state to confess its submission to Christ, and requires the state to differentiate between Christian denominations, and to intrude into matters that belong exclusively to the sphere of the church (i.e., matters relating to the fine points of doctrine, practice, and worship).
The doctrine of the lordship of Christ leads to the position of national confessionalism. Here, the authority of Christ over both church and state is recognized and carefully guarded; the church and state are united by a common allegiance to Christ, but remain as separate institutions; the Christian Faith is established, but not any one particular Christian denomination.