Should the State Imitate the Church?

One of our readers named K wrote me to ask, “If God’s Word forbids women from teaching and exercising authority, why shouldn’t the state follow the same principle?”

This is a good and interesting question. It is made even more complicated by the fact that, in 1 Timothy 2:11–13, the Apostle grounds his teaching regarding male-female relations in creation, rather than in 613 commandments (mitzvoth). “Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve.”

If civil polity is grounded in creational norms, and Paul’s commands are grounded in the creational order, then why should they not be applied to civil polity? The reasoning seems to be airtight, but it is not as certain as it seems. The problem is in the middle premise—and the answer lies in reading the entire passage, beginning with verse 1.

First of all, Paul was writing to those who make a Christian profession. He wrote to the churches of Asia Minor (think of modern Turkey) to instruct them on a number of matters. He was not writing a charter for civil life, but he was instructing Christians and congregations on how to relate to the secular world.

The first thing Christians and congregations ought to do is to pray (v. 1). His opening instruction here lists the sorts of people for whom we are to pray, “For kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (v. 2). This emphasis on prayer, and in light of the themes that follow, many commentators see here a reference to early Christian worship services.

Second, we should note Paul’s stance to the world outside the visible church. What did the apostolic church seek? Did it seek to transform the existing civil order? No. Did it seek to institute Mosaic civil law or penalties in exhaustive detail? No. The early church sought merely to be left in peace. This theme was repeated by the post-apostolic church in the second century. Paul’s interest was not in the transformation of the existing social structures or civil realm but in the salvation of the lost. “This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (vv. 3–4).

Paul was “a preacher and an apostle” whose message was that there is “one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time” (vv. 5–7). Paul considered himself “a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth” (v. 7). His interest was soteriological, not social.

The ecclesiastical setting of Paul’s instruction becomes even clearer in verse 8: “I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling.” This instruction is not aimed at the world outside the church. This is the language of public worship. It is in this context that Paul issued his instructions regarding males and females. It was not a general social dictum, but the establishment of ecclesiastical order. Just as men are to pray,

women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works. Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control (vv. 9–15).

Despite the important fact that Paul grounded his instruction regarding females in creation, it is evident from the context and the language of the chapter that Paul’s intent is to speak to ecclesiastical life and Christian conduct in the broader world. Paul is not giving instructions about how civil life should be structured.

There are some more general considerations. According to the Reformation understanding of the Mosaic covenant, “To them also, as a body politic, he gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the State of that people; not obliging any other now, further than the general equity thereof may require” (WCF, 19.4).

According to Paul, the Mosaic covenant, including the national civil polity, served a very specific function (Gal 3). It was intentionally temporary. It pointed to the fulfillment of the promises made to Adam and later to Abraham, that there would be a seed. Jesus Christ was that seed. With the death of Christ, the Mosaic covenant and civil polity expired.

It is clear that there was a political federalism and family federalism (wherein the husband represents the family to the civil polity and to the religious establishment) under the Mosaic covenant. That family federalism that existed in the Israelite state also expired. Attempts to preserve that family federalism is a sort of selective theocracy or theonomy or even aspects of Mosaic worship. The civil laws and ceremonial cult (i.e., sacrificial worship) were intended to be a type of Christ, were fulfilled by Christ, and have therefore expired or have been abrogated. It was on this basis that the old Reformed churches abolished musical instruments in public worship.

After the expiration of national Israel, the only charter for civil polity is that natural law that is revealed in creation, written on the conscience, and intended for use by the civil magistrate. This much is evident in Romans 13. Paul did not qualify submission to the magistrate on the basis of the magistrate’s adherence to Mosaic law. The magistrate’s authority is derived from God (Rom 13:1). The magistrate’s function is to enforce the law (not to administer grace). Civil life is a covenant of works (law), not a covenant of grace (unmerited favor). The church, the kingdom of God, is the institution to which the means of grace and the proclamation of the gospel and church discipline has been entrusted.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


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  1. Frankly, we’d be much better off as a state if the State followed Scripture and didn’t allow women to rule. *Most* women simply cannot regulate their emotions well enough to be good leaders.

    Those womanly emotions can be a wonderful counter to manly logic and rationality, btw, in day-to-day life.

    In rule, however, they wreak havoc more often that not.

  2. How is what is stated in the article related to the “Principle of establishment”, “the duty of the civil Magistrate to sanction the non-compliance of the two tables of the Law” (According to the understanding of Calvin and the Rochelle Confession) and “The equity of the Law”?

    Greetings Dr. Clark, it is read with pleasure from Perú

  3. I do wish people saw the two kingdoms as distinct on earth. For some reason we want to return to a church run state like Rome who ruled over monarchy’s and still does. If it doesn’t run a nation, it sure has influence over those who do.
    The Pope, once Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell types.
    But I get the question seeing that Paul refers to the fall which has affect all of humanity.
    But your answer of Paul addressing ecclesiastical things within church polity only, leaving the world to common law of conscience.

  4. Dr Clark,

    I am puzzling over this statement:

    “Paul’s interest was not in the transformation of the existing social structures or civil realm but in the salvation of the lost…His interest was soteriological, not social.”

    Surely Paul’s focus isn’t exclusively on the individual. Didn’t he seek the transformation of the social structure of the family, the building block of society, when he exhorted the Philippian to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and be saved, and his house? (Acts 16:31).

    Aren’t social structures transformed through the Scriptural administration of household baptism?

    • Caleb,

      Did household circumcision “transform society”? How is household baptism any different? I understand that the New Covenant is superior to the old, fading, inferior (Mosaic) covenant but the intent of household baptism is to initiate the people into the visible covenant community, not to transform/take over the Roman Empire.

      Did I say or imply that Paul’s interest was only on the individual? I did not. If you spend 5 minutes on this site you’ll see me arguing against American individualism in Christianity and advocating a covenantal hermeneutic. See, e.g., the Resources On A Covenantal Approach To The Christian Life.

      A household theology (a Reformed, covenantal approach) is not inherently transformational. It might have that effect long term but there’s no evidence that any of the apostles were aiming at social transformation. To find it in the NT one has to know before he reads the NT that it must be there.

      Where did the Apostles speak to the widespread Greco-Roman practice of abortion? It was as big a problem then as now.

      Where did they speak explicitly to slavery? Yes, Paul addresses it implicitly in Philemon but I see no evidence of a transformationalist agenda.

      Where did they seek to have Christianity instituted as the state religion?

      Nowhere. In fact, the early Christians did not understand the Apostles to be seeking to transform the empire. E.g. The Ep to Diognetus, an anonymous Christian, ca. AD 150 wrote,

      5. For Christians are not distinguished from the rest of humanity by country, language, or custom. For nowhere do they live in cities of their own, nor do they speak some unusual dialect, nor do they practice an eccentric life-style. This teaching of theirs has not been discovered by the thought and reflection of ingenious men, nor do they promote any human doctrine, as some do. But while they live in both Greek and barbarian cities, as each one’s lot was cast, and follow the local customs in dress and food and other aspects of life, at the same time they demonstrate the remarkable and admittedly unusual character of their own citizenship. They live in their own countries, but only as aliens; they participate in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign country is their fatherland, and every fatherland is foreign. They marry like everyone else, and have children, but they do not expose their offspring. They share their food but not their wives. They are “in the flesh,” but they do not live “according to the flesh.” They live on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven. They obey the established laws; indeed in their private lives they transcend the laws. They love everyone, and by everyone they are persecuted. They are unknown, yet they are condemned; they are put to death, yet they are brought to life. They are poor, yet they make many rich; they are in need of everything, yet they abound in everything. They are dishonored, yet they are glorified in their dishonor; they are slandered, yet they are vindicated. They are cursed, yet they bless; they are insulted, yet they offer respect. When they do good, they are punished as evildoers; when they are punished, they rejoice as though brought to life. By the Jews they are assaulted as foreigners, and by the Greeks they are persecuted, yet those who hate them are unable to give a reason for their hostility.

      Michael William Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, Updated ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), 541.

      Transformatinalism is a theology of glory (this worldly triumph). The Apostles and the writer to Diognetus were theologians of the cross.

      These are two distinct approaches to Christ and culture.

  5. Dr Clark,

    I am interested to learn how your principle of Scriptural interpretation differs from that of the Reformers. Would this be a fair summary:

    Reformers: A principle in OT continues to be in force, unless it is explicitly or implicitly abrogated in the NT.

    Dr Clark: A principle in OT continues to be in force, only if it is explicitly or implicitly affirmed in the NT.

    I intended to post this comment before the one above, as it really lays the foundation for all future discussion about the Establishment Principle. But I must have made an error when trying to post it earlier.

    • Caleb,

      I deleted your comment and tried to notify you but your email came back.

      I deleted it because it assumes what it must prove, that I don’t hold the Reformed view. It grossly misrepresents my view—so much so that it violates the 9th commandment.

      Re-state your question fairly, without begging the question (assuming what must be demonstrated), then we can talk. If you don’t then I will delete this comment too.

  6. Dr Clark,

    In an earlier comment, you state, “All the Reformers (and not a few of the Anabaptists) were theocrats and they were all wrong.”

    Obviously, the Reformers’ interpretation of Scripture has led them to conclude that there can be a friendly alliance between Church and State, aka an Establishment Principle. Your method of interpreting Scripture has led you to conclude otherwise.

    Clearly, there are points of difference between the Reformers’ hermeneutic and your hermeneutic, and I am trying to figure out exactly what these points of difference are.

    I take the ninth commandment seriously and you are right to require it in all comments. That is why, rather than simply post somewhere else that “Dr Clark says…” I am interacting with you directly, to make sure I am not misunderstanding you.

    • Caleb,

      Arresting heretics or jailing them or, in too many cases, killing them was hardly merely a “friendly alliance.”

      The Reformers didn’t derive their convictions about Christendom from a Reformed hermeneutic any more than they derived their view about geocentrism from a Reformed hermeneutic. They derived their view of the necessity of a state-religion from nature and read it back into Scripture just as they knew from 2,000 years of “science” that the earth must be at the center of the universe and read that into Scripture.

      The American Presbyterians and Reformed mostly rejected the state-church model because, upon reconsideration, they realized that it is not taught or implied in holy Scripture. There is movement in redemptive history. The Reformed folk who taught Christendom make arguments, from the Reformed hermeneutic, that recognized the progress of redemptive history. That’s why the Westminster Divines confessed so plainly the expiration of the “State of that people” along with the judicial laws. They knew Heb 7:11–14 and that the Mosaic system, including the state-church, rested on the priesthood. The priesthood changed and therefore the Mosaic system expired.

      It’s in recognition of the progress of redemptive history that the the American Presbyterians, in 1788, the CRC, finally c. 1959, and the URCNA (among many others) rejected a the state-church which was confessed in the original text of the WCF and the Belgic. Was that an abandonment of the Reformed hermeneutic? No, it was not. Calvin himself, as did Beza et al. clearly taught what came to be known as the spirituality of the church. Even the RPCNA, which has a strong conviction re the establishment of a state-church, teaches with equal clarity the spirituality of the church. In the second half of their text it is they who compromise the Reformed hermeneutic (which you’ve never defined) by treating Psalm 2 as though there were no New Testament, as though Ps 2 spoke of mere human kings and not Jesus The King. Calvin & Beza do something similar. They did so not because their hermeneutic drove them to it but because their convictions about nature drove them to it.

      If you’re genuinely interested in what I’ve argued on these things my views are easily available:

      1. Resources On The Twofold Kingdom
      2. Resources On Theonomy And Reconstructionism
      3. Resources On Christ And Culture

      I encourage you to get a copy of Recovering the Reformed Confession and start there.

  7. By the way, how can I be guilty of grossly misinterpreting your view, and breaking the ninth commandment, when my post was simply an inquiry? I said, “Is this a fair summary…”

    • Caleb,

      By the way, when did you stop beating your wife?

      I just asked a question right?

      No, the very question implies that you’ve beaten your wife. It’s a question loaded with a nasty, false (I trust) assumption. So it was with the question you asked. You didn’t ask my view. You imputed a view to me and then asked me to deny it.

      The question grossly mischaracterized my view.

  8. Dr Clark,

    No, the Apostles did not expect to transform society in the short term. They knew that there would have to be a lot of toil and suffering first. But we know that in the long term, the gospel can dramatically change entire societies. In New Zealand, the Maori Christians invented a long word for the Bible. From memory, it can roughly be translated, “The book that made us stop cannibalizing each other.” When Christian missionaries went to the Pacific Islands and evangelised the chiefs of each island, the entire island was transformed. (In other places, the chiefs opposed the gospel, so the process of transforming the society or tribe was slow and painful.)

    How could the apostles not be aware of the gospel’s power to transform society? When they evangelised a head of household in Philippi, they witnessed the whole household being filled with joy. “If the conversion of a head of a househould transforms that household,” they could say, “Imagine what will happen to a society when its head of state is converted!”

    Wasn’t the city of Antioch in Pisidia transformed, when almost the whole city came together to hear the word of God? And when they heard the complaint that they were turning the world upside down, they would have no doubt that one day, the work they had begun would end up transforming the whole empire.

    • Caleb,

      From what passage or passages do you deduce that the apostles had a long-term strategy for transforming society? You assert that they did but you offer not a shred of biblical evidence?

      I agree that, as a matter of history, Christianity did make a difference in the Empire but paradoxically it did so not by aiming to transform the Empire, contra the transformationalist agenda (e.g., “Christian softball” or football or plumbing or math etc. ad infin.) but by pursuing the divine commission to preach the law and the gospel, teach the faith to the converted, to use the sacraments, and to use church discipline.

      But transformationalists keep talking as though it were self-evident that the mission of the visible church (and all Christians) is to “transform” and “take back” etc. When I ask you for direct evidence you can’t show it to me but when you ask me I can easily point to plain evidence, which I’ve sketched in this essay.

      I’m pleading with transformationalists not to reconsider the outcome, which belongs to God, but their mission. At what ought we to be aiming: fidelity to the divine mission. I’m asking for us to talk about nature (e.g., softball) and grace (redemption) the way Scripture does, the way our confessions do, rather than the way they do. I’m asking for them to talk about eschatology (e.g., the coming of the kingdom) the way Scripture does and the way the church confesses rather than they way they have for the last century or more.

  9. (edited)
    Dr Clark,

    Ah, you must be responding to a particular American brand of transformationalism that I am unfamiliar with. I am using the ordinary meaning of the word, “transform” without any of the baggage that theonomists may be attaching to it.

    The evidence that the Apostles were going to transform society is expressly stated and implied. “I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth….” Yes, Paul is speaking directly of the gospel transforming the individual, but clearly he believed that it would transform households, cities, and regions as well.

    The Apostles witnessed this personally. Entire cities came to hear the Word of God. They saw the gospel transform families, small battalions (e.g., when a centurion was converted), and when a whole city came to hear it. They witnessed the gospel transform society so much in Ephesus that it nearly put silversmiths and publishers of certain books out of business. They heard the concern that he, as a preacher of the gospel, was turning the world upside down.

    So, when Paul preached the gospel to any head of a household or ruler of a body, he knew that if that person were converted, it would inevitably change the body over which he ruled. After seeing the tremendous impact of the gospel throughout his ministry, he would have no doubt of the gospel’s power to convert a ruler/rulers of a nation, and when that ruler would be converted, it would transform that nation.

    To summarise, the Apostles’ strategy to transform society is seen in the way they exercised their ministry. Preach the gospel faithfully, pray for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and with time many households, cities, regions, and nations will be discipled and transformed.

    As I mentioned some time ago, I am unfamiliar with theonomists. What I have read of them sounds different from the alliance between church and state in Scotland that existed for centuries, and, overall, resulted in a nation that stayed largely reformed for three centuries – despite sending tens of thousands of its reformed members to America, where reformed Christianity almost immediately began losing ground, proportionally, after 1776. Granted, the alliance in Scotland was not perfect, but Scotland saw far fewer anabaptist churches, sects, and cults arise in its borders than in America.

    Virtually all the non-Reformed Christian books, songs, ideas, and methods, that I encounter as a minister in New Zealand have come from America. All cult members that knock on my door come from America, or come imbibed with religious ideas that arose in America. But all the reformed Creeds and Confessions that I gladly use have come from European Churches that adhered to an establishment principle. I say all this as a very loyal American whose patriotism is best expressed by paraphrasing Paul: “Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for America is, that they might be saved.”

    You are probably right in some of your critiques of theomonists. But when refuting them, you seem at times to be using the Voluntary arguments which use a different hermeneutic from that of the Reformers. As you know, the entire separation of Church and State was not an idea that the Voluntaries in the 19th century invented. It was first promoted by some Anabaptists and Brownists, and the Westminster Divines were well aware of their arguments.

    Like the Anabaptists and Brownists, the Voluntaries saw a greater discontinuity between the OT and NT than the Reformers. The Mosaic polity expired, but it does not inevitably follow that there is to be no alliance between church and state. The Mosaic polity embodied both timeless principles as well as temporary positive laws. You would agree that timeless principles in the OT do not need to be explicitly reaffirmed in the NT to continue to be in force. “The Scriptures of the *Old* and New Testaments are the only *rule* to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy Him.”

    I will read your other posts and links and try to respond next month.

    • Caleb,

      I’m replying mainly to Dutch neo-Calvinism, which is not peculiarly American. It’s rooted partly in Kuyper, who was not American, and partly in his successors and epigones. Al Wolters, who spoke of Christian softball, represents the neo-Kuyperian approach to Christ and culture and nature and grace.

      I don’t know to what historical reality you speak when you write of an “alliance” of church and state. This sounds theoretical to me rather than historical.

      I don’t understand how one can look at the message and mission of the apostles and conclude that they were aiming at social and cultural “transformation.” “Work quietly with your hands” is not Anabaptist. It’s Apostolic doctrine. “Live quietly in all piety” is not escapism. It’s the Word of God.

      As to the Reformed tradition, I defy anyone to find the classic Reformed writers talking about “redeeming culture” the way the neo-Kuyperians did in reaction of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. They just did not write or think that way because they accepted a distinction between nature and grace. The only people they knew who were seeking to “transform” culture were the Anabaptists and they regularly attacked them for destroying nature with grace. They quoted Thomas: gratia not tollit naturam sed perficit (grace does not destroy nature but perfects it). This is the irony of the neo-Calvinist movement and why so many Baptistic evangelicals have invited Abraham Kuyper (after a fashion) into their hearts: they recognize in the neo-Calvinist movement their own approach to Christ and culture and nature and grace.

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