Sub-Christian Nationalism? (Part 11)

In article XII: On the Vocation and Calling of Christian Officials and Legislators, the Statement says,

WE AFFIRM that God extends the rule of Christ in the world by calling to and gifting Christians as His servants on vocation as civil authorities. We affirm that citizens are to submit to our civil authorities, as unto Christ, for His glory and our good. We affirm the need for more theologically sound Christians to enter the political realm to proclaim the excellencies of Christ and His Law.

WE DENY any theology which holds that Christian participation in the civil realm is necessarily unwise, unfruitful, sinful, or anything other than a fitting and necessary vocation and calling for Christians.

Scripture: Exodus 18:13-26; 20:12; Deuteronomy 1:17; 16:18-20; 17:1-20; Isaiah 1:17; Romans 13:1-4, 6; 1 Corinthians 7:7, 17; 2 Corinthians 9:8; 1 Timothy 6:18; 2 Timothy 3:16-17.

This brief article raises some of the most important questions of our time: 1) What is the nature of the Kingdom of God? 2) How is that Kingdom extended?

All Christians should agree with the subject of the verb in the first clause of article XII of the Statement. It is undeniably true that “God extends the rule of Christ in the world.” The clause, however, that follows the preposition is of the utmost importance for the Christian. Does God sovereignly extend “the rule of Christ” through the magistrate? That phrase, “the rule of Christ” is ambiguous. By it, does the Statement intend what Jesus and the Apostles meant by the Kingdom of God (e.g., Mark 1:15; ἡ βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ)—that entity of which Jesus declared to the civil magistrate Pontius Pilate, “My Kingdom is not of this world” (ἡ ⸂βασιλεία ἡ ἐμὴ⸃ οὐκ ἔστιν ἐκ τοῦ κόσμου τούτου)? Did Jesus intend to say that Pontius Pilate should have been about extending that Kingdom? Judging from John’s Gospel and from the rest of the New Testament, a positive answer seems extremely unlikely.

The brevity of this article contributes to the ambiguity because, in Reformed theology, we distinguish aspects of Christ’s kingdom. One of these distinctions is especially relevant in this context: general and special. Regarding his general (or universal), sovereign, providential government of all things, it is true that God uses the civil magistrate to administer what Calvin called Christ’s “twofold” (duplex) Kingdom (Rom 13:1–7). One aspect or sphere of his jurisdiction is spiritual (spiritualis) and the other is temporal (temporalis). The spiritual species pertains to the “life of the soul.” The temporal aspect pertains “to this present life.” The job of the temporal sphere is to “prescribe laws” whereby a man may live among other men piously (sancte; cf. 1 Tim 2:2), honestly, and moderately. This aspect of God’s regime regulates only outward customs (externos mores). The spiritual aspect is a spiritual kingdom (regnum spirituale) and the other is a political kingdom (regnum politicum). How did Calvin think we ought to consider them? This striking passage deserves consideration:

Now these two, as we have divided them, must always be examined separately; and while one is being considered, we must call away and turn aside the mind from thinking about the other. There are in man, so to speak, two worlds, over which different kings and different laws have authority (Battles trans.).

Where the Statement would have the magistrate (art. 11) “protect” the soul, Calvin (here anyway) left the soul to the care of the visible church, which, for Calvin (and for Reformed orthodoxy), was considered the principal, visible manifestation of the Kingdom of God on the earth. It is to the visible church that the keys (administration) of the spiritual sphere of the Kingdom were given and where the means of grace (to which he devoted book 4 of the Institutes) are administered.

He restricted the interest of the magistrate to external behavior and then parted (partiti) the two spheres in order to consider them separately (seorsum) because each sphere has its own interests, nature, and laws.

Calvin, like all the magisterial Reformers (and like all the medieval church before them) was a theocrat. He simply assumed (based on centuries of precedent and his own experience) that there must be a state established religion. He could not imagine a coherent society without a state religion. But the American founders defied the theocratic norm to establish a republic without a federal religion, and the courts extended that principle to the states in the early nineteenth century. The Americans have demonstrated the viability of a secular republic, where religion is left where Calvin theorized, but where it was never realized until the eighteenth century.

The framers of the Statement lack Calvin’s conceptual clarity and, remarkably, (like the integralists, the other Protestant theocrats, and theonomists) they seem to have given up on the American experiment. Thus, we should pay attention to the participial clause that follows: “by calling and gifting Christians as His servants.”

Few in the Reformed or Lutheran traditions doubt that Christians may be legitimately called to secular, civil service, and thus, to anticipate a question that might arise: Am I implying that Christians should not serve in secular government? Not at all. I have urged believers, as much as they are called and able, to get involved in the cultural and civil life of their communities, states, and nations. I have even sketched a strategy whereby Christians might, for example, oppose the agenda of the sexual radicals of our age. Secular political, military, civil, or law enforcement service is honorable and valuable and to be encouraged. Thus, I agree heartily with the denial section of this article in the Statement.

Nevertheless, the way the clause before us is worded, one might infer that only Christians are to serve in government. This is another ambiguity inherent in the Statement. Is this what the framers intended? It is unclear. If they did, then they should reconsider Romans 13:1–7, which they cite. When Paul wrote to the Roman congregation from Corinth, the emperor was a pagan. About ten years after Paul wrote the epistle to the Romans, Nero murdered and martyred Christians to cover up some sort of corrupt business deal. He was a pagan when Paul wrote Romans 13. Nero Claudius and all the Caesars under which Christians lived, until Constantine, were pagans who sought to suppress Christianity. Paul called them each a “minister of God” (θεοῦ διάκονός; Rom 13:4). Their “ministry” was to punish evil-doers and reward the good. They did not administer the covenant of grace, where free favor with God and free salvation are found, but rather a sort of covenant of works: “do this and live” or “the day you do this you will die.”

For his part, Calvin had no doubt that pagan magistrates were legitimately called, and that Christians ought to respect and honor their office. He taught and thought that because he knew 1 Timothy 2:2. The kings for whom Paul instructed us to pray, were all of them pagans. When Peter wrote, “honor the King” (1 Pet 2:17), Nero was emperor and was about to martyr Christians in Rome or perhaps already had.

As a grammatical note, I do not quite understand the phrase “on vocation.” Do they mean “by vocation” as in, “By vocation I am a fireman but by avocation I am a fisherman”?

Christians agree that we must submit to the magistrate, as the Statement says. There has been considerable disagreement as to the extent to which Christians must submit, and since the Apostles (Acts 5:29), Christians have always confessed that we must obey God rather than men. As I have noted in this space many times, there is a long and honorable tradition of Christian resistance to tyrants and injustice stretching from the Apostles themselves, who were jailed and martyred for the sake of Christ and his church, to the Christians of the mid-twentieth-century civil rights movement, who peacefully resisted segregation and who were beaten, hosed down with firehoses, and murdered.

The last clause that needs attention and correction is the language in the final clause of the article: “To proclaim the excellencies of Christ and his law.” Again, Calvin helps us here. The Statement confuses the two realms of Christ’s kingdom. We should follow Calvin rather than the Statement. Those Christians who serve in civil government are concerned, insofar as they were serving in government, not with the souls of the citizens, nor with “proclaiming Christ” or his law, but with serving their neighbor by seeking natural justice.

In this article, the language of the Statement confuses nature and grace. Christians who serve in secular civil government are not there to administer the covenant of grace, or what Calvin called “the spiritual kingdom,” (i.e., the eternal and spiritual sphere of Christ’s Kingdom) but the secular, temporal, and political sphere under Christ’s general providence. They are to attend, as Calvin wrote, to the laws of that kingdom or that sphere of the kingdom. They are, as I suggested above, administering a sort of covenant of works, not the covenant of grace.

If we use Paul’s language, then the Statement confuses the two ministries—that of law and that of grace. Pastors or ministers of the gospel are called to administer grace and to proclaim the excellencies of Christ and his law. No magistrate has that vocation. Paul might very well have written about that obligation in Romans 13, but he did not. Thus, the Statement is effectively seeking to emend Scripture by making Paul to say what he did not.

Let us be satisfied with Scripture as it is.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.

You can find this whole series here.


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2 comments

  1. Very xlnt and helpful article! As nearly always, Calvin clarifies Biblical topics so well! Thank you for this pertinent, well written article, Sir!✝️📖🛐

  2. Wonderful insights. Even Paul makes that distinction between those in the church and those outside the church to the Corinthians.
    Why do you go to secular courts and judges, can’t you deal with this among yourself ?
    Hey, we’ll judge the world, so handle it among yourselves.
    Paraphrase.

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