Another Area Where a Two-Kingdoms/Spheres Ethic Would Help

Rome still doesn’t seem to understand how grave the problem of pedophile priests is. NPR (HT: RNS) reports on the new measures adopted by the Vatican, including revisions to canon law, to address the crisis. One of the more surprising elements of the revisions is the omission (according to NPR) of any requirement that Bishops report pedophile priests to civil authorities. I am not a canon lawyer. Perhaps NPR missed it or perhaps it’s already accounted for in canon law, but if the NPR report is correct and Bishops are not required to report sexually abusive priests to civil authorities, that’s a signal that Rome (like some Protestant theocrats) doesn’t understand the distinction between the two kingdoms.

When a minister or a priest or an imam commits a crime against civil law, that person is be liable to civil jurisdiction. Just because a person is ordained to ecclesiastical office does not mean that he is exempt from civil authority. The authority of the church is theological, spiritual, moral, and practical but it is not civil. This is one reason why, as a pastor, I do not promise immunity or absolute confidentiality to counselees. Ordinarily, counselees have a right to expect a certain level of confidentiality but there are limits. If a person confesses to a significant civil crime (I’m not thinking of jay-walking) he should be called upon to repent and to manifest repentance by addressing the civil/legal implications of his actions.

Ministers and priests are not immune from civil prosecution because they exist in two kingdoms or two spheres (under the sovereign rule and reign of God) simultaneously. Those spheres or kingdoms are administered distinctly. The ecclesiastical sphere is the divinely ordained institutional representative of the kingdom of grace. If a person wants forgiveness, he can find it only in the visible, institutional church (not the Roman communion) where the gospel is truly preached (Rom 10), the sacraments administered truly (Matt 28), and discipline administered (1 Cor 5). This is what we confess in Belgic Confession Art 29.

God has also instituted (Rom 13) the civil magistrate to serve God not as a minister of grace but as a minister (servant) of the law. To be sure the church administers the law in its first (to teach sinners the greatness of their sin and misery) and third uses (to teach sinful yet justified believers how they ought live in union with Christ) but only the magistrate administers the law in its second or civil use. There is no grace with the magistrate. There is only law and judgment. He may and should exercise restraint and mercy as appropriate (i.e., he might not administer the harshest penalty in every case) but he does not give to lawbreakers what they do not deserve. Only God can do that and he does it only through the gospel.

Perhaps Rome (and some theocrats and theonomists) doesn’t understand the distinction between the civil and ecclesiastical spheres because it doesn’t understand the distinction between law and gospel?

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  1. Perhaps I haven’t read enough theonomists, but I’ve never noticed any of them suggesting that the ministers or any other church members are exempt from civil authority.

    Perhaps you could point to such comments?

    BTW – nice mention of jay-walking, given Machen’s view on the subject.

  2. Roy,

    I wasn’t accusing the theonomists of that only trying to explain why they are so resistant to the two kingdoms, because it is the civil corollary to the law/gospel distinction. They resist the one because they (largely) resist the other. The social agenda drives all. In this they are still more like Rome than they are like Geneva (even though Geneva was theocratic).

    At the same time I have noticed a sort of antinomian attitude among some theonomists with which I’ve been acquainted. It’s not a theoretical thing but a practical matter. I think it grows out of the notion that one has the law more or less under one’s control.

    • Hello Dr. Clark,

      As one who has been reading your blog for many years and also is extremely familiar with the theonomic works of Bahnsen and North, I’d like to add my two cents.

      You say that theonomists are resistant to “the two kingdoms.” In fairness, I think you have to admit that what theonomists are opposed to is your “two kingdom theology.” Theonomists may prefer a Kuyperian terminology using the word “sphere” instead of kingdom, but given clear definitions, theonomist writings definitely affirm many of the distinctions you like to make.

      Bahnsen wrote and spoke extensively affirming the separation of church and state, and how each minister from each “kingdom” (sphere) is duty bound not to cross the line of duties and responsibilities. Your paragraph above regarding Romans 13 & the 3 uses of the law is perfectly acceptable to the theonomic “rabbi’s.” Your paragraph above that stating that church ministers are not immune from the civil law is also perfectly in-line.

      Lastly, the early proponents of theonomy, especially Bahnsen, were absolutely clear on the law/gospel distinction. Any honest reading of Bahnsen’s magnum opus “Theonomy in Christian Ethics” will establish that as well as his many pastoral sermon’s and bible studies on tape (such as his Galations study; really awesome). Theonomy is an attempt to make consistent the theocratic views of the reformers. You say later in the comments below that “… the magistrate is obligated to obey God’s law. The question is which law and to what end.” Your answer differs from the theonomists, but the theonomist understands fully which kingdom we’re operating in when trying to answer that question (and theonomy really is just the study of how to answer that question).

      I will end with a question. When you say that the magistrate must enforce the 2nd table, would it be fair to say that you deny the magistrate the use of the scriptures and expect them to get the 2nd table from natural revelation?

      I hope this helps to clear things up a bit. It’s hard for me to see that theonomy isn’t always fairly represented. Over the years reading your works I’ve come to realize we have so much more in common than I first thought. I’ve also come to suspect that you accuse the theonomist of too much, too harshly. Anyway….

      Many blessings upon your head!


        • Dr. Clark,

          (the following is to read with a fun tone of voice….)

          I love you man! But this reply reminded me why I went to quietly reading without posting. 🙂 However, you did help me come to a revelation now.

          I now realize, based on your definition and representations of theonomy, that I must not be a theonomist! I find that there is much that you write that I agree with. There is also much you say that a theonomist is that I reject. The only problem is, again based on what you say is theonomy, Dr. Bahnsen wasn’t a theonomist either. 😉

          Theonomy is a seriously contra confessional error.

          This ultra-negative statement against theonomy is in line with Dr. Kline’s initial reaction to Bahnsen’s book. Given that Dr. Kline is one of your most beloved professors, I’m not surprised that you take his line. But many years after Bahnsen wrote his book, Westminster wrote their critique and the result was a great many chapters that barely took him to task in disagreement. I believe only 3 chapters were strongly critical, and even they didn’t go as far as your statement. Their tone was greatly softened compared to Dr. Kline’s initial reaction in the Westminster Journal.

          Anyway, my intention was not to hijack this into a “theonomy is right, you’r wrong” thread. It was just to set some details straight. I have gone back and done my homework over the years, and I know what theonomy teaches. Rarely do I see you fairly represent it, and at times I feel like I have to say something.

          Blessings to you and all who are reading here,


          PS I am looking forward to listening to your sermon next week, even though I’ll have to do that by MP3 on the plane

          • K,

            “the abiding validity of the (civil) law in exhaustive detail” is flatly contrary to the Westminster Confession. Full stop. We confess that the Mosaic civil law has “expired.” Full stop.

            We confess that what remains of the Mosaic civil law is “general equity” and that term has been hijacked and abused by theonomists for more than 30 years.

            One cannot say “not P and P” at the same time about the same thing. The Reformed say “not P.” Theonomists say “P.” There is a fundamental, irresolvable, basic conflict.

            I know the lit. I know the history. It’s a fundamentalist movement the roots of which are in rationalistic fundamentalism not in Reformed theology, piety, and practice.

  3. Doesn’t the Papacy still claim “temporal” authority?
    I don’t think she ever renounced her civil powers over the whole world.

  4. RSC, good post. The priest-penitent privilge (the common-law name for the legal privilge that pastors have to refuse to disclose communications to them from congregants during counseling where there was a reasonable expectation of privcay) can legally be respected by the pastor in all cases, including admissions of some crimes, with the exception of cases where there is a statutory duty to report. A duty to report can exist in a few instances in most jurisdictions, including confessions of child abuse or threats of same, or declarations of intent to murder or harm another, and a few others. A pastor who fails to report when he has a duty to do so can himself be civily sued (and his church) or in some jurisdictions guilty of a crime. The bishops who failed to report known pedophile priests can, in some American jurisdictions, be charged with a crime.

    Great point that the magistrate administers the law without grace (a “covenant of works,” as it were). I would add that the magistrate, by the same token, is subject to the law without grace. Accordingly, Christians in their private capacity can hold the magistrate accountable to the law.

  5. I hung with some of the old guard at the PCA GA in Nashville earlier this month and ALL of them loved to evoke Machen as the proudly jaywalked in Music City.

  6. Hey Dr. Clark,

    A possible point of interest for you might be found in the fact that as military chaplains we are given the right (obligation, actually) of strict confidentiality in counseling a soldier. They place these discussions under the heading of ecclesiastically oriented confessions, and view it as an individual’s divine right to have their conscience spoken before God and the minister w/o interference of the civil government. Under Title 10 of the US code of government, we cannot even report confessions of incest, pedophilia, or that a man has just admitted to us that he is about to rape and murder his next door neighbor’s wife.

    However, there are still ways by which a chaplain is able to place an armbar on a situation w/o telling his commander what was spoken in private. For example, if someone says they are going to rape and kill another person, you don’t have to give the commander a reason why the MPs need to be called, nor why you flex-cuffed yourself to some knucklehead in your office who inexplicably fell down and got a black eye on the corner of your desk. You just tell him it needs to be done, and then it’s up to the military authorities to figure out the situation while leaving the soldier under constant guard. Kind of messy, but it allows the government to keep it’s hands out of the ecclesiastical realm, while still allowing the church to function within its fold. There are other ways in which the two kingdoms are not so neatly separated, but I thought that you might take interest in that one point.

    Btw, in a few weeks I’ll be going out the door to some unfriendly parts of the world to look after our detachments, so please pray for both ministerial boldness and physical safety. We just had a UMT member killed in a gunbattle a few days ago. The gospel is eternal, but these frail bodies are not (for now, anyway).

  7. Dr Clark,
    When I first heard the reports on the latest update of RC Canon Law I too was concerned that the RCC was attempting to evade the civil law. However, when I looked into it further it would appear that not all reporting of these revisions of canon law has been accurate, particularly about bishops not being required by church law to report cases of priestly sexual abuse of minors to the police. I think a little more information is necessary here, since charity obliges us to represent the views/actions of others fairly.

    In most English-speaking legal jurisdictions mandatory reporting of child sexual abuse is in place (and also in France), and Roman Catholic bishops are required by the Vatican to obey the civil law in those countries and report paedophile priests to the civil authorities.
    In other jurisdictions, where mandatory reporting is usually not in place (mandatory reporting seems to have been pioneered in the Anglosphere), the official Vatican policy is to encourage the victims of abuse, or their parents, to denounce the priest to the civil authorities. This is because the Vatican feels that having the bishop do so in some way violates the father-son relationship that is meant to exist between the bishop and a priest of his diocese. The Vatican requires that the families of abuse victims and the victims be given all necessary moral and spiritual support in this process.

    Now, I’m not seeking to defend the Vatican here, just to accurately describe their policy as enunciated recently in an interview with the Vatic an official who is charged with investigating these crimes under their canon law. His responses indicate that they are not attempting to circumvent the civil law in the countries in which the RCC operates. I think we can only take him at his word and hope that these policies are indeed in place throughout the RCC, root and branch, for the sake of the innocents.

    Nevertheless, I would agree with you that the RCC confuses the two kingdoms, just as it confuses law and gospel. But it would seem possible that the latest revisions to canon law in this area, ceding authority ovr criminal priests to the police and civil courts, actually represent an overcoming of this confusion to some limited extent, rather than a continuation of it (?). (Of course, as a Lutheran, I am somewhat ambivalent about the notion of canon law altogether, but that’s another topic!)

  8. “Perhaps Rome (and some theocrats and theonomists) doesn’t understand the distinction between the civil and ecclesiastical spheres because it doesn’t understand the distinction between law and gospel?”

    Would you say the same of our Reformers, who you also accuse of not understanding the distinction between the civil and ecclesiastical spheres?

    • Sean,

      We’ve been round this pole a few hundred times.

      The Reformers were not always consistent with their doctrine of law and gospel. They theorized (particularly Calvin) about the state in a way that allowed us to make progress but they couldn’t implement it or even be consistent with it.

      Theocracy will gain no traction here. I won’t argue about it. It’s just silly.

  9. “the abiding validity of the (civil) law in exhaustive detail” is flatly contrary to the Westminster Confession. Full stop. We confess that the Mosaic civil law has “expired.” Full stop.

    Agreed. You quote Bahnsen’s thesis chapter and add “(civil).” Bahnsen’s following 23 chapters, 430 pages explain that he agrees with you too.

    We confess that what remains of the Mosaic civil law is “general equity” and that term has been hijacked and abused by theonomists for more than 30 years.

    I think this is where genuine and rational discourse can and should be made. There is a legitimate difference here. You assert theonomists “hijack” this phrase and redefine it contrary to the reformers. Bahnsen asserts and I think thoroughly supports his assertions that the reformers did include penal sanctions as legitimate to inform us as to what the general equity of the law is. There are plenty of examples I could cite, but I think that better for a different post/discussion.

    One cannot say “not P and P” at the same time about the same thing.

    Of course.

    The Reformed say “not P.” Theonomists say “P.” There is a fundamental, irresolvable, basic conflict.

    This again is where the rub is. If the “general equity” phrase is what you have in mind as to what “P” is in this discussion, then isn’t it a matter of producing the historical evidence from the reformers as to how they arrived at this clause and used it prior to its writing? I understand that you assert a meaning to this clause and that it is contradictory to what theonomists say it means. But I think there is an overwhelming amount of written evidence that disagrees with your statement. Take the New England Puritans and their laws for example. Weren’t they reformed? Didn’t they take the civil penalties of the mosaic law and almost transplant them to their own? Again, many examples to cite but I will refrain.

    I know the lit. I know the history. It’s a fundamentalist movement the roots of which are in rationalistic fundamentalism not in Reformed theology, piety, and practice.

    I know you know the lit & history and disagree with it. That you disagree with it isn’t what bothers me at all. One of my best friends at church strongly disagrees with it as you do. I suppose what always pulls me in though is when you quote it or represent it in a light that I feel is unfair to it, especially Bahnsen. A perfect example is when you add the word “civil” to his thesis statement as if he meant that literally and didn’t write over 400 pages more clarifying what he did and did not mean by that catchy title.

    Anyway, I fear that the merry go round can start again and so I will assume you’ll have the last word on this. I won’t respond any more on this particular post so as not to irritate you. (hopefully I haven’t so far).

    As always, I pray many blessings to you,


  10. the abiding validity of the (civil) law in exhaustive detail

    As a staunch anti-theonomist, who has scanned (about 50% read) the chapter in question, I don’t think it is fair to include “civil” in that title. I think Bahnsen’s intent with that chapter title is not what people usually think. I.e. the adjective “exhaustive” is not meant to describe the scope of the law which Bahnsen believes has abiding validity. Quite obviously, Bahnsen does not affirm the abiding validity of the ceremonial law. It seems to me that “exhaustive” is meant to describe the scope of Bahnsen’s analysis of pleyroo in Mt 5:17. Indeed one reason my reading of that chapter fell short at ~50% is that it just went ON and ON at a level of detail I am not qualified to follow.

    (However, I doubt it is really all that exhaustive, since I’ve heard Vern Poythress rebut Bahnsen on Mt 5:17 quite convincingly (on a 90’s vintage tape series checked out from the WSCAL library); details can probably be found in Appendix C of The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses (which I’ve scanned only at 25%).

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