Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the January 2023 Volume 12 / Issue 1 of the Lausanne Global Analysis and is published here with permission. To receive this free bimonthly publication from the Lausanne Movement, subscribe online here.
I am the Pastor of a multi-cultural English-medium Reformed church on the southern tip of Africa in a city called Cape Town. Since 1652, when the first Dutch settlers landed in the Cape, the church has struggled to fulfill the Great Commission amidst common cultural enterprise with its underbelly of political power-plays, ranging from colonialism, slavery, and racism to corruption and xenophobia. In other words, South African churches have sought to fulfill a cruciform mission in a world of competing agendas, especially those put forward by the state. This essay sets forth some possible lessons to be learned from one corner of the globe where the church has at times transformed or conformed to the policies of civil government. I propose that to better protect the calling of the church and her central doctrine of justification by faith alone, there should be “apartheid” (separation) of church and state.
Making Sense of Mandela’s Post-Apartheid South Africa
In 1995, Nelson Mandela became the President of South Africa’s new liberal democracy, which forged beyond a conflicted history of European, Christian, white, and black variations of nationalism. For the first time, the church in southern Africa had to figure out her role in a religiously plural and disestablished context. No longer did certain ecclesiastical traditions officially endorse a system of racial prejudice. It was time for sharper distinctions between church and state. To be sure, this has not been easy for believers accustomed to using the Bible as a blueprint for every aspect of life, including secular politics.1
Yet, perhaps these developments in Mandela’s “rainbow nation,” not unlike other Western countries, have been a good thing for both the rule of law and the gospel witness? The idea of separation of church and state, as enshrined in the best of liberal democracy, is not without precedent in the catholic and Protestant traditions. With support from passages like Genesis 8:20–9:17 and Romans 13, theologians have argued for civil government’s unique divine authority and mandate to ensure political order and peace. In this perspective, the best of civil legislation is not arbitrary human opinion but is discovered in the created order. In other words, just secular rule reflects God’s natural law inscribed upon the human heart and discerned within the world, albeit imperfectly (Rom 2:14–15). Scripture testifies to these natural laws (See Proverbs). Pastors are to preach them and admonish individual Christians to live by them in love to one’s neighbour. This would necessarily include combating social ills, like racial prejudice, by welcoming insights wherever God’s common grace truth may be found.2
What, then, should Christians do when faced with injustice, like discrimination, within the congregation of Christ?
The journey toward racial integration in South African churches of all stripes over the past quarter century has been a slow and imperfect one. One of the highlights was the repentance of the mainline Dutch Reformed Church for her official endorsement of institutional Apartheid. Restoration in the wake of forced racial inequality is no different from other sins Christians struggle with. The difference being that the church handles injustice in cruciform ways. God’s covenant community has a distinctly different moral compass. I illustrate this reality with a few pertinent biblical examples.3
Divine And Civil Justice Overruled
For one, the church engages in a ministry of the law that exposes the depravity of human hearts like no civil code can (2 Cor 3:6). This ministry focuses on both tables of the Ten Commandments as refracted through the Beatitudes of Jesus (Deut 5:6–21; Matt 5–7; Gal 6:2). No thoughts or intentions, let alone actions, escape scrutiny. They all flow from a source absent from any secular constitution: a dark heart seeking divine rule that bypasses God’s perfectly holy standard (Gen 6:5). Adam’s first sin was profoundly political. Sinners ever since have been tempted to lord it over God and man to grasp glory (Gen 3; 8:21; 11).
While civil government can restrain wickedness, it cannot offer freedom from sin. God’s works of creation and providence only provide a reasonable and provisional solution to political tyranny (Gen 9:6; Rom 13). In contrast, the church’s mission is to proclaim God as redeemer, a message foreign to broader culture, including the state. The revelation of Christ crucified for sinners is scandalously incongruent with human conceptions of proportionate justice (Gen 3:16; John 3:16; 2 Cor 5:21).4
Justified And Sanctified Through Suffering And Death
The offense of church life centers upon the suffering and death of Jesus to satisfy God’s justice to save sinners (Rom 3:21–26). Ironically, Christ was crucified because sinners sought “justice” in first-century Rome. So-called “virtuous” people who thought they were doing God a favour killed his Son (Matt 17; 27). The ethic of the church is rooted in the paradox of Jesus who earned life through death, who conquered through weakness. This way of life subverts the legitimate and penultimate pursuits of broader social reform that celebrate good deeds and seek to reduce the evils of human suffering (cf. Rom 13). In the church, one can expect a mysteriously positive evaluation of suffering: the crucifixion of Christ for sinners and the cross-bearing nature of Christian sanctification (Matt 16:24–28; Rom 6:1–11; 1 Cor 1–2; 2 Cor 1).
The church is that one place on earth where sinners invite the conviction of the law with hope (Rom 5–6; 2 Cor 3). It is also that one community where to use the law incorrectly can be dangerous, where doing good deeds for the wrong reasons can earn you judgment (Gal 3:9–13). While activism and legal redress are appropriate in the public square, the church is that one sphere where God acts against self-righteous lawkeeping (Gal 1–2; 2 Cor 3). By the reading and the preaching of the law, God crucifies the flesh to save the sinner (Acts 2:42; Rom 10; Gal 2:20). Only once united to Christ in his death can the law be a guide to new Christian obedience out of gratitude (Col 3).
The congregation of the faithful is that sphere where lawbreakers escape retributive divine and civil justice. Sinners—even the very worst—do not get their due for bad behaviour, for cosmic treason. Instead, “pious” pretenders, prostitutes, and the prejudiced get infinite mercy. The playing field is levelled. There are only sinners and saints, who have nothing to boast of but sin and the gift of everlasting life. The church is that uncanny space for second chances, for seventy-seven chances (Matt 11:19; 18:22).
Hence, the counterintuitive nature of church life. When believers are persecuted and wronged, they are to respond with the gracious turning of the cheek, against the backdrop of a world where individual rights are insisted upon, and oppressors are corrected, sometimes forcefully. Accordingly, the fellowship of the saints is that one community where the last are first, where the less conspicuous are given greater honour, where leaders serve—even while social, biological, and gender distinctions remain (Matt 5–7; 1 Cor 1:18–31; 15:35–58).
Just as Jesus suffered the scorn of the masses for failure to achieve social and political transformation, the church is ridiculed for her seeming lack of relevance and success. Like the ministry of Jesus, the church extends the kingdom of heaven through a message of death and dereliction that brings life. This message is delivered by a frail minister exercising the ordinary means of Word and sacraments to lowlifes and outliers (Is 53; Matt 27:45–56; 1 Cor. 1–2; 11; 2 Cor 1).
The NT church of the crucified and risen Jesus has in common with the OT patriarchs, Job, the persecuted prophets, and the Jewish exiles, a pilgrim status that awaits the new heavens and new earth (1 Pet. 1–2; Rev 21). Because Christ is the fulfillment of the types and shadows of theocratic Israel, the prospect of health, wealth, and prosperity now comes through the common cultural mandate only (Gen 8:20–9:17; Luke 24). Until his second coming, Christians are to take up their cross, suffer injustice, and die in anticipation of consummate glory (Matt 16).
“Apartheid” Of Church And State
In short, the biblical observations on the cruciform nature of the church’s pilgrim polity reveals how at odds she is with the earthly scales of justice, power, and glory. The peculiar constitution of Christ’s body on earth, the Word of God, grants the community of faith a counter-cultural Great Commission (John 18:36; Matt 28). Scripture does not promise that the potency of the church can be found in national life or the collective achievements of human history, including any kind of social reform. As in the earthly ministry of Jesus, the church does grow and will triumph, but in “passionate” ways hidden from a world intent on “seeing” measurable results.
With the above contours of the life of the church in view, how can she possibly transform or be conformed to the ethic of the state? Would this not be a confusion of law and Gospel? A collapsing of creation into redemption? A merging of faith and natural reason? With the advent of political liberalism in South Africa, Christians have been forced to re-evaluate the public role of the church. Perhaps this is a good thing? Could it be that the church should not contain or reflect any secular political theory or party with its quest for justice? Hence, the promise of “apartheid” of church and state?5
Time For A Two Kingdoms And Natural Law Paradigm
I can imagine that for some (perhaps many) readers, the idea of separating church and state is jarring. Yet, could this discomfort not be an extension of the offensive message of the cross? There is a substantive Catholic and Protestant tradition that embraces this vision, which reaches back to Augustine’s two cities through Luther and Calvin’s natural law and two kingdoms political theology, and into contemporary Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Reformed circles. This perspective, which affirms Christ’s rule over all of life, casts Christians as dual citizens: at once governed by the cruciform polity of Christ’s church while making common culture with unbelievers under the proportionate justice rule of civil government.6 The value of this paradigm is its promise to safeguard the gospel and the Church’s Great Commission, while freeing Christians to make a provisional difference in society as a realisation of the Great Commandment to love. With the growing popularity of identity politics everywhere, including in the church, perhaps there is more space than ever for the two kingdoms and natural law paradigm at the table of ecumenical Christ and culture discourse?7
©Simon Jooste. All Rights Reserved.
1. See Simon N. Jooste, “Recovering the Calvin of “two kingdoms:” A historical-theological inquiry in the light of church-state discourse in South Africa” (PhD diss., University of Stellenbosch, 2013), Chap. 3, https://scholar.sun.ac.za/handle/10019.1/80065; and “From Orange to Pink: A History of Politics and Religion in South Africa’s Cape Town,” Modern Reformation Nov/ Dec 2021.
2. A contemporary leading proponent of this perspective is David VanDrunen. See, e.g., Living in God’s Two Kingdoms: A Biblical Vision for Christianity and Culture (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010); Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms: A Study in the Development of Reformed Social Thought, Emory University Studies in Law and Religion (Grand Rapids/ Cambridge: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010); Divine Covenants and Moral Order: A Biblical Theology of Natural Law (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2014); and David VanDrunen, Politics after Christendom: Political Theology in a Fractured World (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2020). See also, e.g., Bryan D. Estelle, The Primary Mission of the Church: Engaging or Transforming the World? (Fearn, Mentor Imprint, 2022); R. Scott Clark, Recovering the Reformed Confession: Our Theology, Piety, and Practice (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2008); Michael Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011); and D.G. Hart, A Secular Faith: Why Christianity Favours the Separation of Church and State (Chicago: I.R. Dee, 2006).
3. My hermeneutic draws inspiration especially from Martin Luther’s 1518-1519 Heidelberg Disputation; see Luther’s Works, Vol 31, edited by Helmut T. Lehmann (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1957).
4. A related way in which the church defies the standards of the world is her material abundance that transcends worldly economic scarcity; see, e.g., 2 Cor. 8-9.
5. I see to answer these questions in a forthcoming volume called Pilgrim Politics: Recovering the Cruciform in our Creed (2023).
6. See endnote “2” above.
7. I have sought to introduce a refined two kingdoms and natural paradigm into the South African discourse; see, e.g., Jooste, “Recovering the Calvin of “two kingdoms.” I am grateful for the input of David VanDrunen on sections of this essay.
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I agree with the importance of this separation and how culturally accepted norms and power dynamics can overcome and interpret biblical truths and realities.
SIMON JOOSTE: “Time For A Two Kingdoms And Natural Law Paradigm …This perspective, which affirms Christ’s rule over all of life, casts Christians as dual citizens: at once governed by the cruciform polity of Christ’s church while making common culture with unbelievers under the proportionate justice rule of civil government. The value of this paradigm is its promise to safeguard the gospel and the Church’s Great Commission, while freeing Christians to make a provisional difference in society as a realisation of the Great Commandment to love. With the growing popularity of identity politics everywhere, including in the church, perhaps there is more space than ever for the two kingdoms and natural law paradigm at the table of ecumenical Christ and culture discourse?”
I think that’s a fair and worthy intention and I hope to see bold progress in these areas. However, here in the States, it appears natural law theory has been shaped and continues to evolve from “Enlightenment thought,” including a particular type of “rationalism (seeking that which can be known a priori—before experience—by the mind alone)” & “empiricism (seeking that which can be known and verified by the senses and/or instrumentation).” Enlightenment thought was “skeptical of the supernatural” which was written off as “superstition.” “Anti-supernatural” continues to gain prominence and essentially enabled practical “atheism to become more mainstream.” “God is a supernatural/supersensible being…belief in Him simply irrational tradition.” “Biblical criticism” rooted in “Enlightenment assumptions” assumes “certain scientific, mechanistic, and naturalistic notions” that have twisted natural revelation and placed into question otherwise apparent absolutes. Today’s rationalism/empiricism takes into account and embraces what would otherwise be considered defective or unnatural (fallen) realities (death, disability, same sex attraction) and elevates lower forms of creation (animals, environment, etc.). It’s how climate change, depopulation, AI-transhumanism, etc. become treasures of a new, perpetually evolving/devolving idol factory ( of course we know there is nothing new under the sun).
So it’s not like there has been a seamless transition from Aquinas to Calvin to today’s mainstream society. There has been a lot of bumps and detours along the way. Orthodox Christians already think rightly about these things, but society has already moved away. It’s not like there is a natural meeting point. There is a natural antithesis not only rooted in religion but also prevailing philosophy and social presuppositions. How do we put that genie back in the bottle without being seen as trying to do a bait and switch in promoting superstition and a reviving, repackaging or retweaking of so-called religious nationalism.
We should account for the snares on all sides when promoting our voice in these areas. The dangers are perpetually existent and should be placed side by side when promoting this type of analysis so we account for and eliminate all (or many of) the blind spots.
I would also add that perverted art and activity is deemed good and commendable. Good is called evil. Natural realities viewed favorably through a sin laden lens (in which we indulge in what is forbidden) is obviously very tempting and always threatening. But it usually appears good and appealing, even when it’s destroying us.
Just to add I highly respect the efforts to reclaim the Reformed teaching and tradition on these matters. The numerous examples of the state infiltrating the church in various times and places is highly sobering.
I’m super on board with the 2K paradigm! A natural law/common good approach to our fellow man is vital. Our neighbor is not our enemy! He’s our friend and God willing our brother! My only reluctance stems from the reality that natural law is no longer neutral law. I would obviously love for a true and legitimate natural law paradigm to be restored (in more than just our posture toward the unbeliever) but if it reels in the theonomist that is a worthy and worthwhile pursuit.
Thank you for your thoughtful and encouraging responses here. If you have not done so already, I would encourage you to check out the resources in footnote 2, especially VanDrunen’s Politics After Christendom and Divine Covenants and Moral Order. You might also check out my PHD (free online) “Recovering the Calvin of Two Kingdoms?”, especially the section on natural law from pages 273ff.
For sure, an Enlightenment atheist epistemology has been problematic for the biblical doctrine of natural law. This said, that everyone is made in the image of God with relative access to the moral law by nature (by common grace), oftentimes the legacy of political liberalism hasn’t faired too badly in terms of delivering on the basics of the Noahic covenant (i.e. the republished creation cultural mandate).
What concerns me more than moral erosion due to modern rationalism is the deconstructing agenda of postmodern identity politics since the 1950s. When reason itself is cancelled and the notion of “objective truth” is deemed a language construction, then it is well nigh impossible to debate moral absolutes. A critical theory reinvention of natural law has signalled the end of anything solid and enduring in a creation order sense. At least with the legacy of Enlightenment/ modernity, one could argue using the given categories of reason and embodiment.
Along the lines of the above paragraph, that a urinal can be deemed “beautiful art” is illustrative of the postmodern reconstitution of reality as speech-act. The good, the true and the beautiful are now subjective creations through language, as long as they don’t transgress (irony alert) the “natural laws” of equality established by the woke gatekeepers of the West.
Social identity theory prizes inclusivity above all else. The social and intellectual standards have been dumbed down exponentially to the point that the foundations of reality have become an afterthought. Discernment is now discrimination and natural order is of no value to those who want to redefine order out of chaos. God is not the author of confusion. The nationalists are relying more on tribalism than virtue – fighting fire with fire – which only makes things worse.
Unfortunately, this is probably a result of the ambitious and prosperous forgetting God. As we become preoccupied with staying on top or maintaining a status quo above God’s blessing it appears even that is being taken from us. Probably as far back as Machen (hat tip to DG Hart’s recent lectures) many of these developments had begun to take shape with some calculated uniformity.
As you said, moral standards (absolutes) are even losing their value. It appears to be by design. I would love to see good philosophy and natural law theory revitalized and retake the realm of arts and science as we let the church be the church. But it appears we remain in our little corner of hope, contemplation and thoughtfulness. Would love to see a break into mainstream society somehow. Or at least a seat at the table.
In a positive note, many average joes of even the nominal Christian variety are seeing the insanity, so there is a major opening for Christian thinkers, historians and philosophers.
AJ, more astute observations, thanks. “Embodiment and Power” (Clavin Jubilee Bookfunds, Kindle, 2022) is my humble attempt to understand and engage the postmodern sleight of hand in my context where debate is rife around opening ecclesiastical office to every intersectional/ queer identity imaginable. I hope you can make a difference in your context/ vocation/ church as well. Best.
Just to add…. It appears a skewed, atheistic Darwinian slant on what is ‘good’ for sustainability could completely destort natural law and even the common good. Tyrants could careless about those things. If interested the world economic forum promotes their global vision on their website. Just so we can recognize the concentrated propaganda, if you are interested.
Where does the Enlightenment comes in? In my opinion, I have not done any deep research into this….Atheism! Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, which made atheism, or at least practical atheism, (which may have been prominent in some Christian circles anyway), even more accessible, accepted, embraced and possibly the leading “secular” ideology (maybe by default – just for the fact that it’s not considered a religion and thus deemed neutral and ultimately superior?). The presuppositional lens starts to move away from a God-based natural law system to an atheistic one (at least the seeds have been planted). Jefferson’s idea of natural law probably did not conflict with the “Christian” but may have (to a certain degree with the “Calvinist” who still held to Puritan-Theocratic notions of community and civil law).
I understand that Reformed natural law (as explained by Dr. Clark) is for us and it helps us maintain a right perspective and a right relationship with the unbelieving world) but I was searching through this blog around the time gay marriage was gaining mainstream acceptance and some of the requests for clarification were noteworthy (although did not merit a theocratic embrace neither now or then – I would surmise that ultimately it’s hard to apply teachings from one historical context to another wholly or partially across the board, outside of the Church, without deeply considering the variables).
Here is one of those requests for clarification (I’m not sure there’s any easy answers in the context of the unbelieving world and any type of application to that sphere):
“Which NL theory is correct? Acquinas? Oh yeah, the reformers had it right. Wait, no, they sort of had it right, but since they were theocrats, they applied it wrongly.
If God’s moral law doesn’t contradict natural law (not theory), then any proper discovery of NL should be in harmony with God’s moral law. Special revelation gives us this moral law in writing so there shouldn’t be any problems here. The divines had no problem mixing the two, but scripture always trumped ambiguity. Just look at the Larger Catechism section on the law.”
Take a look at the resource page on natural law, which includes a bibliography. In those titles there is discussion of the effect of the Enlightenment on natural law theory. The problem I’ve seen, however, among neo-Calvinists (i.e., neo-Kuyperians) is that they tend to focus almost exclusively on Enlightenment versions of natural law to the exclusion of the orthodox Reformed usage of natural law. One would not know from some accounts that that the Reformed taught natural law.
The American Enlightenment figures borrowed and adapted language and categories from orthodox Reformed folk re natural law.
On Aquinas v Calvin see this. It’s a start. For the Protestant Reformers, and their orthodox successors, natural law is the moral law (the Decalogue) and the moral law is the natural law.
As to application, just about everyone after Theodosius was a theocrat but virtually (I known of none) no one before Theodosius was. So, the smart-aleck reply is wrecked on the rocks of some basic historic facts. Most of the church was also wrong about geocentrism for 1,000 years. We’re always subject to correction. I very very much like a theocrat to show me from the New Testament or an early father where anyone advocated the civil enforcement of the first table. I’ve been asking for proof for 20 years and no one has offered any.