A Reminder Of Why We Should Not Long For A State Church

A few days ago, just after he announced the election of Donald J. Trump as the 45th president of the United States of America, Vice President Joe Biden turned to the Speaker of the House to say “God Save the Queen.” Indeed. Then, a couple of days ago, I was reminded that Elizabeth I (1533–1603), who reigned from 17 November 1558 until her death in 1603,  was crowned on 15 January, 1559.

The Vice President’s quip and the anniversary of Elizabeth’s coronation prompted two thoughts: 1) This peril of a state-church ; 2) The utter absence of any evidence in the New Testament of any expectation that, after the expiration of the Israelite state (Westminster Confession 19.4), there should ever be a state church. I am regularly astonished at the number of American Christians who seem to want a state-church. They seem not to understand the history of the post-canonical history of state-churches nor the difference between national Israel and the USA.

There was no state church in the apostolic period. The state religion was paganism. The Christian religion was a voluntary association despised and misunderstood by the pagans and hated by the non-Christian Jews. By the early 2nd century Christians were beginning to experience outright hostility and even persecution at the hands of pagan secular authorities. By the middle of the 3rd century Christians were suffering grievously at the hands of pagan secular authorities. Under persecution it was demanded of Christians that they renounce Christ and swear loyalty to Caesar and to the pagan gods. Those who refused, were tortured and martyred. There was no relief from this cycle of private harassment and state-sponsored persecution until Christianity was made a legal religion in the early 4th century. Under legalization, Christians were permitted to gather for worship without fear of arrest. Their property, which had been seized by the state, was returned to them. Gradually, however, through the course of the 4th century, church and state became increasingly entangled. The Roman emperors began, in fits and starts, to suppress paganism. By the late 4th century ministers were receiving a salary from the state. This was a natural impulse since it was assumed that every state should have a church. There was no question among most whether there should be a state religion. The only real question was whether it should be Christian or pagan.

History suggests to me, however, that Christianity was much better off without a state-sponsor. The plea of the  earliest post-apostolic Christians was not that they should replace paganism as the state religion but rather that they should be left alone. The treatise To Diognetus (c. 150) and Justin Martyr’s defense did not ask the civil authorities to give them special status but only to stop murdering them. Justin invited the pagan authorities to investigate the Christians thoroughly and see that they were no threat to the state or to public tranquility. The Christians only wanted to be able to work quietly, worship peacefully, and otherwise to be left alone.

Fast forward to the accession of Elizabeth I. By the mid-16th century, Christendom, the state-church complex that developed after Constantine, had been established for a millennium. It was virtually unthinkable to most that there should not be a state-church. The only contest was which? Rome or the Protestants (i.e., the Lutherans or the Reformed). Under the Henrician Reformation, the church had been made a creature of the state. Elizabeth had complete control of the visible, institutional church. Thus, she had civil authority (on 27 December 1558) to issue a royal proclamation suspending the preaching of the Word. Her rationale was that the religious disputes that had developed under Henry, and Edward (and the vicious persecution of the Protestants by Mary) had so unsettled the realm that preachers had to be silenced. Ministers were forbidden to “teach or preach.” They were permitted to read the assigned Gospel passage and/or the assigned passage from one of the Epistles (in English) but without “without exposition or addition of any manner, sense, or meaning to be applied and added…”. This prohibition was lifted by the Injunctions promulgated in June of 1559.

Such gross interference with the divinely mandated administration of the keys of the heavenly kingdom necessarily accompanies a state-church. When the Apostles were told to stop preaching Christ they declared, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). The magistrate has not been given divine authority to silence the preaching of the  Word but in the history of the church rulers both orthodox and heterodox have sought to corrupt or silence the preaching of the Word, when the pure  Word was found to be inconvenient.

We might be happy that preaching was restored and we might think that at least some of the sermons imposed in the Book of Homilies were sound but do we really want the state suspending preaching and imposing sermons and catechesis? The governor of my state is a former Jesuit seminarian turned New Ager. I certainly do not want the Hon. Edmund G. Brown, Jr dictating what is to be preached or when it is to be preached. I am sure that Americans who advocate for a state-church do not want the Hon. Barack Hussein Obama or Donald J. Trump to meddle in the life of the institutional church.

Of course, when this objection is raised, the reply is an appeal to an eschatology of great expectations. This raises the problem of the chicken and the egg. Does the postmillennialist want to facilitate the coming earthly glory age through a state-church or is the state-church only to come about after the glory age has descended? This is not clear to me.

Neither is it clear to me that after the expiration of the the Israelite state-church the Lord of the church has authorized any civil magistrate to institute a state-church. From where in the New Testament or from where in the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament), as interpreted by our Lord himself and by his Apostles, would we infer that the Lord has authorized a state-church? Psalm 2 was not intended to be interpreted in isolation from the New Testament. The King who sits in the heavens laughing and holding the nations in derision is the ascended Lord Jesus. He is on Zion. He is the eternally begotten Son, who has been placed by his Father over all the nations. Kings should kiss the Son and they will when he return. After all, it is not as if we do not have an inspired NT commentary on this very passage. Hebrews 1:5 quotes Psalm 2 to prove the superiority of Jesus to Moses, not to justify a state-church. Hebrews 5:5 quotes it to prove Jesus’ superiority to Moses. The Apostles prayed Psalm 2 for boldness to preach the good news despite the opposition of the authorities.

Never is Psalm 2 interpreted to mean that the state is illegitimate unless and until it recognizes Jesus as King. When the Apostle Paul wrote Romans 13, which teaches Christians to submit to, pay taxes to, and to pray for the civil magistrate, Caesar was a young pagan who began and increasingly disgusting (even to other pagans) old pagan. Under the new covenant and New Testament, there is no state-church. There is the state and there is the church. Calvin described these two realms as God’s duplex regimen (twofold kingdom). He rules over both by his providence but he rules the church, in his special providence, by his Law and Gospel revealed in holy Scripture. He rules over the civil magistrate by his general providence through his law revealed in nature and in the human conscience (see Romans 1–2).

Not a few times during this past campaign season have we seen earnest American Christians exhorting others to prayer by quoting 2 Chronicles 7:14

if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land (2 Chron 7:14; ESV).

The United States of America, for all her greatness, is not the “my people” of 2 Chronicles 7:14. That people was God’s temporary, national people Israel. That national covenant expired at the cross. Since that time God has had no national people, though many have thought and apparently still think that they must be God’s special, national people. God made that promise to national Israel not the USA or to any other civil people. The USA has no more standing before God, as a national people, than pagan Rome or the “Holy Roman Empire,” neither of which exist any longer.

God’s special people are his elect, whom he has brought the new life and true faith and whom he shall bring to new life and to true faith in Jesus the Messiah. That people is multi-national, multi-cultural, and multi-lingual. We who believe are united together in Christ Jesus, the Jewish God-Man, God the Son incarnate, crucified, raised, and ascended. In him there is no Greek or Jew, Scythian or Barbarian (Gal 3:28; Col 3:11). Christ Jesus is our ascended king, where our citizenship is (Phil 3:20). We seek to be good citizens here, fulfilling our secular and religious vocations in God’s twofold kingdom. The outcome (earthly glory or no) is up to him. The visible church’s vocation is the announce the Kingdom of God in Christ, to preach the law and the gospel, administer the sacraments and church discipline (Matt 16 and 18).

It is beyond doubt that our Protestant forebears expected the civil state to impose religious orthodoxy and to punish religious heterodoxy. They were wrong. The Scriptures, as interpreted by our Lord and his apostles give no warrant for any such thing. God has not granted to any civil magistrate, not to Elizabeth I nor the Elizabeth II (God save the Queen), authority to forbid preaching nor to institute preaching. American Christians should stop longing for what God has not instituted.

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  1. I understand your points and largely agree. But, what are we praying for when, following the Westminster Larger Catechism, we include that the true faith be “countenanced and maintained by the civil magistrate” when we pray “Thy Kingdom come”?

    I’d also like to raise another issue. Many of our “cultured despisers” (as Schleiermacher would’ve put it, and their name is Legion) also insist that we conform to their image of us. If the Revolutionary Age overthrew THEEEEE “Christian view of the State” (necessarily the Throne and Altar alliance of France’s Old Regime), then, by gum, modern Evangelicals MUST desire a state church, and we MUST be getting the rack and the thumbscrew ready to be installed in the basement of the Capitol. And, if we do not conform to their image of us as something like Rome at her most post-Napoleonic defensive, then, dad blame it, those Evangelicals had better accept the Popes they anoint for us (Jerry Falwell, Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggert, Pat What’s-his-face, whoever’s dropped the scandal of the hour…)

    Originally, I was of the mind that the caricature I have presented above might be funny, and might draw some of our neighbors to laugh at themselves before the next time they hurl the epithet “bigot” at anyone. But after the Obama administration, with its attempts to force Christian and RC institutions to pay for abortions, Hillary Clinton’s statement that religious groups must come to accept homosexuality, and Mark Tushnet’s declarations that his side must show us no mercy now that they’ve won the culture wars, I am not so sure. I wince, tremble, and weep when I consider this, but could we be coming to the point where it’s either us or them?

    • Peter,

      Americans revised the Westminster Confession in the 18th century to remove that language. It does not appear in the edition adopted by the OPC for example, nor the PCA.

  2. (Quote) ‘From where in the New Testament, or from where in the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament), as interpreted by our Lord himself and by his Apostles, would we infer that the Lord has authorized a state-church?’ (Unquote)

    And the loudest “Amen!” comes from me!

    And ‘As interpreted by our Lord Himself and by His apostles’ must be the over-riding old Testament hermeneutic

  3. Scott, the “countenanced and maintained” language is still in the OPC edition of the standards, LC Q. 191, p. 342. Whether it is consistent with the action of the American churches to remove similar language from the WCF would probably fuel an extensive debate. From a Southern Presbyterian perspective, I’m not sure if Thomas Peck or RL Dabney wrote anything addressing the apparent contradiction, though Peck addresses the establishment issue head on in his Notes on Ecclesiology.

    • Andy,

      Thank you. I see it’s also in the version adopted by the PCA.

      I doubt that anyone questions whether the state should “countenance” the church but “maintain” is another matter. Thanks for stimulating some research.

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