How Are Christians to View Government?: Lessons from Church History, Part 3

Lucas_Cranach_d_-_Martin_Luther_1528_Veste_Coburg_croppedIn part 2 of this series, we looked at the relationship between church and state during the Middle Ages, noting particularly the tug-of-war between the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor over who was to be the supreme authority in the Christian world. Once the Reformation began in the sixteenth century, this dynamic changed considerably, particularly in Protestant countries.

The Uses of the Law

Martin Luther, the theologian who began the Protestant Reformation, had been an Augustinian monk prior to being excommunicated by the Catholic Church. Not surprisingly, even as a Protestant, his ideas about church and state were influenced by Augustine’s “The City of God,” discussed in the first article in this series. To understand Luther’s ideas, it will pay to back up a moment and look at his understanding of the relationship between Law and Gospel.

Luther believed that for a Christian, the Law served two functions. First, through fear of punishment, the Law restrained people from committing evil acts; in this context, Law would include both the biblical and civil law. Second, the Law shows us our guilt before our God and so drives us to the Gospel. Unlike the Law, which is based on obedience, the Gospel is based on grace, coming to us entirely undeserved from God and operating in our life on the basis of faith.

(Reformed and some Lutheran theologians add a third use of the Law: It teaches us how to life a godly life after we have come to faith. Other Lutheran theologians and probably Luther himself rejected this third use as implying works-righteousness. Nonetheless, it was an important influence particularly on Reformed theology and its emphasis on church discipline.)

Two Kingdoms Doctrine

The first and second uses of the Law lead directly to Luther’s Two Kingdoms doctrine. This says that God has two kingdoms in this world, the left-hand kingdom and the right-hand kingdom. The right-hand kingdom is very similar to the City of God in Augustine and grows out of the second use of the Law. This kingdom is spiritual, invisible, and internal, and is ruled by the Holy Spirit and grace. There is no need for coercion or violence in this kingdom since its citizens obey God freely and naturally.

The left-hand kingdom is more relevant for this article. Luther departs from Augustine’s analysis in “The City of God” at this point, since unlike the City of Man, the left-hand kingdom operates under divine authority to promote God’s purposes in society by fulfilling the first use of the Law. In other words, this kingdom is ordained by God to restrain evil by the threat of or, if necessary, by the use of force.

In Luther’s day, the Catholic Church wielded a great deal of power politically and legally. Luther was highly critical of the Catholic Church, but he could not completely escape his cultural context. As a result, for Luther, the left-hand kingdom included not simply the civil government but also the visible church. Luther at this point distinguished the visible church from the true church, the latter of which consisted of all the faithful and was known only to God. The visible church had a role in the left-hand kingdom in providing religious education and in regulating religious practice.

Luther’s conception of the church’s role in the left-hand kingdom differed in one significant way from the Catholic view current in his day: The left-hand kingdom, including the church, had authority to deal only with external behavior, not with conscience.

The Catholic Church believed it had the right to enforce its beliefs and practices in society using the full coercive force of both church and state. Thus inquisitorial courts ferreted out heresy, and the heretics were turned over to the state for execution. Individuals could be excommunicated by the church and incur significant civil and legal penalties as a result, and entire kingdoms could fall under interdict (i.e., mass excommunication) if the king defied the Pope.

Luther, himself excommunicated from the Catholic Church and subject to summary execution should he be found, did not believe the church had the right to do any of this. Neither church nor state had the authority to bind consciences through demanding adherence to human-made laws, traditions, and practices, or by false teaching about works being necessary for salvation. Luther specifically had in mind practices like fasting, clerical celibacy, penance, or any other religious obligation not explicitly mandated by Scripture.

God alone has authority over our consciences, and thus they are bound only to the Scriptures, which sets our consciences free in Christ. Should any earthly power, civil or ecclesiastical, claim authority over our consciences, then we are obligated to disobey that power even at the cost of our lives. We will return to the issue of responding to unjust laws in a later article in this series.

The Rise of State Churches

The rise of Protestantism also forced a reconsideration of the relationship of church and state. As we have seen, the early church recognized that church and state were separate institutions as a result of three centuries of persecution at the hands of the Roman government. Through the middle ages, the Pope had claimed universal jurisdiction over all Christians and had a parallel government running alongside secular governments, though in practice the civil and ecclesiastical government often worked hand-in-glove, with bishops holding both secular and religious authority. With the break with Rome, Protestant states needed to come up with a new approach to church-state relations. Luther’s doctrine of the Two Kingdoms suggested a solution: Since both church and state were part of the left-hand kingdom, they could be brought together through the creation of state churches.

The idea of state churches wasn’t entirely new. For example, John Wycliffe in the 1300s and Jan Hus in the 1400s had advocated for national churches with greater state control over ecclesiastical affairs. Protestants took this one step further and functionally made the church a branch of the state.

This took a variety of forms. In Lutheran areas, the state handled administrative affairs for the church and to a limited extent regulated aspects of worship and doctrine, but otherwise left the churches to conduct their own business. In Calvin’s Geneva, pastors were paid civil servants, but the church had more autonomy in ecclesiastical matters. Where the government and the church shared legitimate responsibilities (social welfare and public morality), they worked together; otherwise, they generally stayed out of each others’ affairs.

The Anabaptists

One implication of state churches that would prove controversial, particularly over the long run, is church membership: Just as you were born a citizen of your state, you were born a member of your church. A number of more radical groups, notably the Anabaptists, objected to this idea, insisting that church membership had to be voluntary and that you had to prove by your life that you were worthy to join the church and to stay in it. Given their ecclesiology, Anabaptists naturally rejected the idea of infant baptism and argued that only people who presented themselves for church membership and proved worthy of it should be baptized.

In essence, Anabaptists argued that the visible church had to conform as closely as possible to the invisible church. Mainstream reformers countered, on the basis of Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the weeds, that separating true and false believers is impossible in this world and will not happen until the final judgment. Any attempt to create a “pure” church in this world is thus doomed to failure.

Ultimately, the Anabaptists proved sufficiently disruptive that the mainstream reformers began persecuting and even executing them because of their practice of (re-)baptizing adults.

The Church and the Secular State

With the rise of secular states in the 18th and especially the 19th centuries, the cozy relationship between church and state suggested in Two Kingdoms doctrine became less and less tenable, though most Lutheran churches still held to it. In its place, Reformed theologians such as Abraham Kuyper suggested a Transformational model, whereby the church works to transform society (and with it, government) into progressively more godly forms. These thinkers drew inspiration from earlier models of social change such as the British abolitionists, but they developed their own distinctive way of looking at the issue. The Transformationalist view is now the most common view among conservative Reformed Christians, so much so that it is often incorrectly assumed to have been Calvin’s view.

This all-too-compressed overview of Protestant understandings of the relationship between church and state has left out one crucial question: What should we do if or when the state becomes hostile to Christianity? What do we do when the state commands us to do something that violates our conscience or tells us not to do something Christ obligates us to do? To put it differently, when does a legitimate government lose its legitimacy? When does a lawful king become an unlawful tyrant? And how are we to respond when it does happen? We will explore these questions in the next article.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.



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