What If The Roman Communion Had No State Or Bank?

(CNS photo/Paul Haring)

This past Thursday, senior figures associated with what Rome calls the “Institute for Religious Works” (known to the rest of the world as the Vatican Bank) were convicted, in a scheme worthy of the Mafia, of money laundering and embezzlement. Remarkably, they were convicted by a Vatican court. This happened because the Vatican is not merely the seat of the ostensible Bishop of Rome, who calls himself the universal vicar (representative) of Christ on the earth, but also the seat of a civil state. Of course, there is not a shred of evidence of a papacy in the New Testament nor in the second nor even third century. The Papacy developed gradually but it is essentially a medieval institution. From the ninth century the papacy began to accumulate wealth, secular power, real estate, and even armies. The papacy fought other Italian duchies for control of the papal territories regularly for many years. In the late fourteenth century, in the wake of the disaster that was the Avignon Papacy (wherein, at one point, three different popes claimed simultaneously to be the the pope and declared the others to be anti-popes and excommunicated the followers of the others. Indeed, two of the three had equally legitimate claims to the papacy and the third, elected by a council had some claim) the papal city built walls and what we now know as Vatican City began to take shape. As with much of what makes the Roman communion what it is today, the sixteenth century was definitive.

Flash black to 2021. These figures were able to commit these crimes, in a significant financial institution controlled by the Roman communion, within the walls of a city-state also controlled by the Roman communion, because the Church of Rome has them. Had the Roman communion dedicated herself actually to fulfilling the Great Commission (Matt 28:18–20), had she not developed the Papacy, in imitation of the Roman empire the pre-requisites for all of this would never have existed. That Roman Church has a city-state, a bank, an embassy, and even the remnants of an army, is an illustration of what can happen when the church loses sight of her vocation and mission. The vocation (calling) of the church is to use the keys of the Kingdom (Matt 16:13–20), to preach the law and the gospel (which the Roman communion has thoroughly confused), to make disciples by baptism and instruction (Matt 28:18–20), and to exercise church discipline (Matt 18:15–20). The Reformed Churches confess three marks of the true church: the pure preaching of the gospel, the pure administration of the sacraments, and the use of church discipline (Belgic Confession, art. 29). Nowhere did our Lord Jesus institute the papacy, not even in Mathew 16. Peter is the rock when he confesses Christ (Matt 16:16) and Satan (i.e., anti-Christ) when he tries to prevent him from fulfilling his mission (Matt 16:23). If Matthew 16:16 makes him Pope then Matthew 16:23 makes him Antichrist. In fact, neither Matthew nor the Holy Spirit intend for us to read those passages that way but that is a discussion for another essay. The point here is to notice what happens when the church loses sight of her mission.

The Roman communion is a major force in the world, which is what many evangelical and even some Reformed Christians say that they desire for their communions. Some of them want to be “national.” Others want to be “influential.” Some are “for the city.” Others want to “transform the world.” Has Christ clearly, unequivocally commissioned his church to be any of those things? I think not. Would people walk away from those congregations and denominations if they gave up their pretensions to influence and significance in this world? One wonders. Were the mission of the church to be and do the sorts of things catalogued above, would it be plain on the face of Scripture? Would it not at least be a good and necessary inference from Scripture? It would seem so but that such is the mission of the church was not evident to the church (at least formally) for most of its history. It certainly was not evident to the New Testament church nor to the Apostles and their company. The second-century church entertained no such desires or hopes. Consider the martyrdom of Polycarp from the second century. Just before his death, he was given an opportunity to give witness to the crowd assembled to see the spectacle of his death. He refused. He offered to give witness privately to the authorities who had arrested him but he refused to cast his pearls before swine (Matt 7:6). Polycarp would have failed most seminary evangelism courses for passing on such an opportunity but perhaps Polycarp was right and our evangelism professors are wrong? What if fidelity is more valuable than influence?

It has been fashionable in neo-Kuyperian circles to reject the traditional Christian (and Reformed) distinction  between the sacred and the secular. Reformed folk have all but lost the traditional Reformed distinction between nature and grace but here is an instance in which these distinctions would have helped. Banking is a secular enterprise. It belongs to the sphere of nature (creation), not to the sphere of redemption (grace). Christians bank and calculate interest rates just like everyone else. It would be fine for Christians to establish a private financial institution. As we heard this past Monday from Lester Cahill, marginalized black communities in the USA did that sort of thing for many years with considerable benefit to a marginalized population. Given the apparent direction of the new administration, in which it will likely become more difficult for Christians to affirm a creational ethic (e.g., males and females are biologically distinct and should be recognized as such), private organizations of all sorts may become necessary but whatever happens, banking is a secular enterprise. There is no such thing as distinctively Christian banking. At most we may talk meaningfully of a Christian approach to customer service and of the application of a Christian ethic to loan applications and the like. Even so, however charitable and merciful it might be, a Christian financial organization would be ill-advised to make a great number of risky loans.

It is those influenced by theocratic, theonomic, and reconstructionist ideologies who have been most critical of any attempt to distinguish between the what Calvin called “the twofold government” (duplex regimen) of God among men. Nevertheless, had Rome distinguished between what Calvin called the “spiritual” and the “temporal” and left the latter to the secular authorities, certain Vatican officials might not be facing time in an Italian prison. The visible, institutional church is not authorized to establish food stores, clothing stores, banks, laundries, fast-food joints, or any number of good and necessary institutions. Christians are free to establish such and they should. Where would we be, during the pandemic, without Chick-Fil-A? Christians should engage the culture and serve in secular and civil capacities but fidelity is not secular power nor does it lead to a Vatican bank or to an ecclesiastical city-state with a papal-prince wielding both swords, the temporal and the spiritual.

Embrace fidelity and marginalization. Leave the glory to God.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


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  1. I agree. I’ve also thought if Anglicans and Catholics didnt have the grand edifices they have if there would be such a draw. I mean who wants to meet in a converted Vons store for Lord’s Day worship. Most would rather be in a large cathedral with vestments and stained glass. That is holy stuff. People are attracted to those large buildings. They think God must be there. Or they really glorify God with that building. Maybe they do. But the gathering of the saints together is the church. Too often that is overlooked. What many people want are external grandiosities. IMO less faith is required. Who needs faith when its all right there in front of you. I am not saying beautiful building are bad per se, but they can easily veer attention and faith elsewhere. But many say since they are the true church that is why they are a global impact with large edifices. The false sects must gather in hovels in small insignificant numbers. My reading of the NT is when truth is faithfully preached numbers diminish. Nothing has changed though God reserves a number who havent bowed the knee to Baal.

    • Mike – and don’t forget the magnificent pipe organs that have been installed in some of these buildings down through the years. ‘Course, if you mention to any of the members that it is a false reckoning of true worship they will hastily push back that the instrument is a testimonial to the congregation’s dedication to worshiping God. Maybe so, maybe not. I tend to veer toward the latter.

      • Yep. Buildings, priestcraft and power draw the masses. For many, organs and elaborate cathedrals is the respectable and fashionable worship for the high cultured. Evangelicals do it with worse taste: dry ice, lighting, a charismatic pastor and worship band drama. The kids go cause its cool and God’s there. The cathedral goers love the drama too, and of course with all that sacramentalism, God is there.. The priests processing, elevating, bobbing, incensing etc. It’s a drama too. No faith required for either. Its all before your very eyes. Buildings, priestcraft and power.

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