Why are there Bible-believing Christians on opposite sides when it comes to the issue of church and state? Some believers want Christianity legislated by the government, others do not. Both affirm that God is sovereign over all things and both agree that ultimate obedience comes not from government legislation but from a subdued heart. Both affirm the sinfulness of man and the resulting need for law in civil society. So why do they not agree when it comes to what law should govern civil society?
Oddly enough, the crucial issue comes down to ecclesiology, that is, their respective views of the church. In sum,
He who thinks of the Church as a community of experiential believers is bound to oppose him who thinks of it as a fellowship embracing all in a given territory; he who operates with the concept of the Church as a society embracing all in a given geographic area must of necessity look askance at him who restricts the Church to the believing ones. The two views cannot be combined; one cancels out the other. In the one view the Church is Corpus Christi, the body of Christ, which consists of believing folk and of them solely; in the other view the Church is Corpus Christianum, the body of a “christened” society.[i]
This difference is the heart of the issue.
From the initial legislation of Christianity by Constantine and the subsequent enforcement of it as the state religion to the dawn of the American experiment, the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant Reformation churches affirmed a merger of church and state, that is, state religion. That merger was rooted in their notion that the church embraced all in a given territory; that the church was the body of a christened society; that the church was Corpus Christianum.
The apostolic church for two-hundred-fifty years, and the underground churches during the Middle Ages could find no justification for such a merger in the New Testament. With the New Testament, they conceived of the church as a community of experiential believers only; the church as the body of Christ; the church as Corpus Christi. The underground churches surfaced in the days of the Reformation, held forth a separation of church and state then, and provided the seed-bed for the Baptist (believers only) churches in America that pressed for the adoption of a bill of rights and the end of state churches in the early days of America’s founding.
The difference between those churches today that baptize believers only and those churches that do not goes back to this distinction. There are other theological issues involved but this difference is foundational. In the American context of separation of church and state as well as the contemporary context of doctrinal imprecision, the lines have been blurred concerning the Christian’s relation to government. But, regardless of one’s denomination affiliation today, the practical desire to more or less legislate Christianity flows from one’s view of the church: Corpus Christi vs. Corpus Christianum. It’s fair to say that those within believers-only churches who would legislate Christianity have adopted a non-believers-only view of the church without realizing it.
The church is a people (God’s) within a people (America’s) and the gospel is non-coercive (non-legislative). That simple statement is the New Testament’s vision of civil society under the New Covenant. Theocratic Israel was done away with the fulfillment of the Old Covenant and the dawning of the New. Yes, God is sovereign over all things but He is not in covenant relationship with the nations of the world nor does He desire a national theocracy. The church is a theocracy. The church and the state are two different things.
Civil law then is rooted not in theocratic principles but in gospel principles because the church relates to the world based on gospel principles. We persuade; we do not force. Because of man’s sinfulness, civil society does require law. But that law is based on limited intrusion into the lives of people who have God-given freedom of conscience. Law must protect citizens from other citizens but does not intrude into the mere moral decisions free people make. People are not free from God in terms of accountability. They must repent in order to be saved. But God does not force them to live under the law of Christ until they are converted and become part of the church where that law is enforced. Paul tells us emphatically not to judge those who are outside the church (1 Cor. 5:12-13a).
Some will say, “Don’t fall into the trap of saying we shouldn’t legislate morality. All law has a moral component.” While it is certainly not true that all law/legislation has a moral component, the point is well made in that much of what is and should be law does have a moral component. However, we must make a distinction between things that are moral issues only and things that are moral issues and should also be part of civil law to insure a civil, and at the same time, free society. Stealing or kidnapping are moral things and must be outlawed in civil society. You don’t have the freedom to infringe on someone else’s property or freedom. Murder/abortion is a moral thing and must be outlawed. You don’t have the freedom to infringe on someone else’s life. Yet, things like sexual promiscuity, foul language, or reading salacious material are moral issues only. We don’t outlaw them. While people are not free from the eye and judgment of God, they are free in those areas in society as they do not infringe on the rights of others. Indeed such a principle is not theocratic but it is in keeping with the nature of the gospel. Again, we persuade, not coerce. The law of Christ is for those who have been brought into God’s fold, not those who remain outside.
So, the next time you find yourself in a conversation about civil society and law, talk about the church. Talk about the difference between the body of Christ and the christened body of Christ. They are two different things and the implications are far-reaching.
[i]Leonard Verduin, The Reformers and Their Stepchildren, p. 17.
Dr. Paul Dean invites you to discover more about yourself, God, and others . . . and develop a Christian worldview. Dr. Dean is a pastor, cultural commentator, and author. Receive a FREE commentary and learn more at http://www.trueworldview.com