Christian Civil Government


A Brief Sketch of the History of Alliance and Conflict Between the Church and the State

Civil Government in the Name of Christ

On October 28, in the year of our Lord 312, Constantine, reportedly having seen a vision of a cross emblazoned with the words, In hoc signo vinces, “In this sign Conquer,” defeated Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge, on the Tiber River a few miles from Rome. He then became ruler of Rome and the western part of the Empire. A dozen years later, he defeated his last enemy and became emperor of the whole Roman Empire. Constantine was a powerful force of protection for Christians from the outset of his reign, recognizing Christianity as a legally permissible religion in 313, in what came to be known as the Edict of Milan, and proclaiming his adherence to Christianity and his aim that Christianity should become the religion of the Empire once he became sole emperor of Rome in 324. As was customary in those days, years passed from his confession of the gospel until his baptism; he was baptized on Pentecost Sunday, May 22, 337, shortly before his death.

The western part of the Roman Empire collapsed in 476, but the Empire itself continued as a Christian empire until the city of Constantinople fell to the armies of Islam on May 30, 1453, and the Ottoman Turks slew Constantine XI. The center of power for Byzantine civilization then passed on to Moscow, where the Tsars ruled in the name of Christ until Nicholas II abdicated on March 15, 1917. That same year the Bolsheviks seized the Battleship Aurora on November 7, and the Anti-Christ, Vladimir Illyich Lenin, was enthroned as god in St. Petersburg.

The supreme authority in the Byzantine world was always the civil government, and the church functioned under the ruler with rather limited autonomy. But the situation in the West was markedly different from that in the East. In the West, once Rome fell, the Empire was plunged into the Dark Ages. In the place of a Christian empire, the various ethnic groups splintered under the pressure of wave after wave of barbarians with no unifying military force or law. It was within this vacuum, that one of the five Patriarchs of the Church, (originally the bishops of Jerusalem, Antioch, Rome, Alexandria and Constantinople) the Bishop of Rome, rose to civil power, taking one of the ancient titles of the Roman emperors, Pontifex Maximus. As Europe moved through the Middle Ages, the Papacy came to function somewhat analogously to our modern United Nations. While the Pope’s power was “spiritual” rather than “temporal,” he had enormous power over the leaders of the various nation-states, having the authority to excommunicate rulers and place their realms under interdict, thereby denying their people of most of the sacraments and Christian burial to all within their borders. It was the Pope who crowned Charles I, the King of the Franks, as the new Roman Emperor on Christmas Day 800. Thus by the hand of the Pope, Charlemagne became the first person to bear the title emperor in the West since the fifth century. And it was the Pope, who forced the emperor, Henry IV, to stand in the snow for three days at Canossa, in 1077, lest his excommunication result in his overthrow.

Whatever one may think of Constantine, outside of isolated situations such as Armenia, Christian civil government began with him, and it has continued on until today. Nations cannot be born again, but civil governments can attempt to rule justly in the fear of God. In my opinion, several things are involved in a nation being Christian. Whether formally or informally, by consensus, a Christian nation has respect for the person of the Lord Jesus Christ and seeks to protect his Church. Furthermore, a Christian nation bases its own laws on God’s moral Law, tempering justice with mercy. None of these things was ever done perfectly in history, not under the Byzantines in the East and not under the Holy Roman Empire in the West. Even Cromwell’s England and Puritan New England failed, if we judge them by the absolute standard of God’s Word. But is not the history of the one, truly God-ordained theocracy in the world, ancient Israel, one sordid saga of sin?

I do not believe that the New Testament lays out a political agenda for Christians, but we are called to be salt and light, according to each one’s place and calling, bringing the influence of the gospel into every sphere of life. If we are in a position of authority over others, then we must rule justly, in the fear of God. If, instead of living in a modern Republic with Democratic ideals, a Christian believer should find himself having autocratic power over others, does he not do what the Christian head of a family does? He does not force people to become Christians, but he does enforce Christian standards of conduct. But all of this is an outgrowth of the gospel—the conversion of individuals is the great task of the Church. What follows is the fruit of many individuals embracing Jesus as Lord and Savior. It is one reason why I think that so-called nation building is doomed to fail—without a gospel foundation that embraces such things as the priesthood of the believer, modern, democratic structures cannot form.

Church and State

The Church and the state are two different institutions. Two passages stand out in the New Testament: Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Peter 2:13-16.

The Apostle Peter gives us the basic function of civil government: “to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good” (1 Peter 2:14). Government should endeavor to create a climate where good living is rewarded. Among other things, it provides protection against foreign invasion and domestic evils such as theft, libel and murder, so that its citizens can work and enjoy the fruit of their labors. The fundamental way that government does this is by coercion; it is “to punish those who do evil.” Government’s task is not to change people’s hearts and make them better; it is to make hypocrisy more successful. People’s obedience is prompted fundamentally out of fear of punishment. Government represses the outward manifestation of sin by bringing justice to bear against evildoers.

Saint Paul affirms the same truths about government and teaches that the civil ruler is “God’s servant” to whom God has given authority to use deadly force: “But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:4). Paul could not be broader in his statement about governments—from Caligula’s and Nero’s Rome to Stalin’s Russia and Mao’s China, all civil governments exist under divine authority: “For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Romans 13:1).

The nature and authority of the Church could not be more different. The “coercion” that Church uses is that of fellowship and worship: singing, prayer, the Word and Sacraments; the only “punishment” it metes out is exclusion from the means of grace (1 Corinthians 5). Furthermore, unlike the state, the Church seeks to remove hypocrisy, for it does not aim simply at external conformity but at inner conformity, obedience from the heart. Its goal is that people do what is right as an expression of gratitude for God’s magnanimous grace in Jesus Christ, not looking for an immediate, temporal reward: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ, not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man, knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether he is a slave or free” (Ephesians 6:5-8).

Believers’ obedience is categorically different from that which the world expects of its own. While Christians must never disobey God and his Word (Acts 5:29, “We must obey God rather than men.” Cf. Daniel 1:8, 19, 20; 3:12, 16-18; 6:10), they are to obey even unfair authorities as an expression of love for God and trust in his promises: “Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust. For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly” (1 Peter 2:18, 19).

Of the two ancient models of Christian government, the Byzantine protects the Church from hypocrisy far better than that of the Roman, because an autocratic civil ruler can enforce outward conformity to God’s standards without the Church necessarily becoming involved in the process. Whereas, the price that the Bishop of Rome paid for resolving differences among the European royal houses was to conform the Western Church more and more to the image of the Scarlet Woman of Revelation 17. Because of the fundamental differences between Church and State, movements such as the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition are doomed to fail, especially in an American context.

The United States

The United States is not a simple democracy, but a democratic, constitutionally limited, republic. Its government was not designed to rule based on the constantly changing desires of a simple majority of its citizens, but on its laws that reflect its written constitution. This constitution is very difficult to amend, and this was done on purpose to protect the people from the “dictatorship” of popular opinion. However, the American system did not spring fully developed into the world but was born out of the matrix of the Protestant Reformation. Democratic rather than totalitarian principles underlie the American republic, because Protestantism leveled all people before the sovereignty of God and his gracious salvation, a salvation that was not mediated through priestly hierarchy but directly through the one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus (1 Timothy 2:5).

Protestantism put the Bible in the hands of the simple plowman and told him that the Spirit of God would give him the ability to understand it. It pressed him to examine the teachings of the Church by the standards of the Word of God; the “layman” must think for himself and seek God for himself, because under Christ every believer is a prophet, priest and king. The descending hierarchy of various people’s importance was destroyed at the foot of the cross. Without removing the temporal authority of civil rulers or the spiritual authority of church leaders, Protestantism, in affirming the prophetic, priestly and kingly office of every believer, taught that the individual Christian was responsible to examine even the decrees of kings by the Word of God and that all people were to be treated with respect and dignity, for: “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

Thus Protestantism inevitably gave birth to profound social and political change, and modern constitutionally limited governments developed, particularly in those nations most influenced by Calvin. At the time of the War for Independence, it is estimated that roughly two thirds of the American population were at least moderately Calvinistic.

Early in the nineteenth century significantly different theologies came to influence American thinking. Led by New England Unitarianism, on the one hand, and on the other, an anti-Calvinistic Evangelicalism from such men as Charles Grandison Finney, the American Church moved away from its Calvinistic moorings. By the end of that century, with the Church’s immersion in the war over slavery and then in the Prohibition movement, coupled with the massive influx of Roman Catholic immigrants, the religious climate of America had radically changed.

During this time, the Protestant churches began to undergo other, more radical changes. Beginning with the latter part of the nineteenth century, modernism came increasingly to dominate the leadership of the mainline Protestant churches. Rejecting the infallibility of the Bible, in time many of Protestantism’s leading theologians came to reject most of the fundamental doctrines of Christianity: miracles, Jesus’ virgin birth, sinless life, substitutionary death, bodily resurrection and triumphant, literal return. By the mid-twentieth century, American Protestantism began to jettison the basic moral absolutes of Scripture as well.

Into this collapsing Protestant civilization, new waves of immigrants came with even more diverse backgrounds, and religious pluralism began in earnest. Jews, fresh with the memories of Tsarist pogroms, sought to limit the civic expression of Christian faith. What began as a relatively mild movement became a full-fledged crusade in the wake of the holocaust of Hitler’s Third Reich.

Even in a constitutionally limited republic, significant change can come. The end of the War Between the States brought significant changes not only to American society, but to its Constitution as well. The legislative agenda of the Radical Republicans turned the Constitution into a document that was no longer completely consistent with itself, and Reconstruction (1865-1877) radically altered the political structures, establishing a stronger central government over the formerly sovereign states: before that war people said, “The United States are . . .” After the war they said, “The United States is . . .”

Under the influence of President Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921), the United States moved into entanglement with European society, politics, economics and eventually war. In the wake of the Great Depression of the nineteen thirties, the underlying, limited role of government was significantly altered under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1933-1945). Post World War II America saw a return to some of the policies of Reconstruction, with the Federal government overturning the policies of discrimination against African Americans, policies that were secured under states’ rights, and the Federal government began to replace the church as the provider of charity and securer of moral change. Community public schools that until the nineteen sixties had received no Federal funding and that, by and large, were de facto, Protestant schools, were slowly taken over by Federal mandate: prayer and Bible reading were removed and control was taken from the hands of local school boards and placed in the hands of Federal judges. The momentum of the Civil Rights movement was subsequently commandeered in the seventies by the Women’s movement and gay rights groups.

America is where it is as a result of these historical processes. Any effort to turn back the clock on American government that ignores these processes is doomed to fail. The Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition sought to push government back to the more Protestant-influenced world of America’s past. But this cannot ultimately succeed without huge numbers of Americans becoming truly Christian. At best, these movements only slow the acceleration of the anti-Christian Juggernaut, but, sadly, they do this best when they sell their souls for a temporary mess of pottage, the illusion of political power.

The Reagan Presidency (1981-1989) was seen as a great victory by many Evangelicals, but the Reagan years exposed the hollowness of the conservative Protestant church with its lust for power and wealth and its closeted sexual perversions. The eighties gave us a behind the scenes look at the perversions of Jim Bakker, Marvin Gorman and Jimmy Swaggart as well as the political manipulations of Jerry Falwell—not to mention Pat Robertson, who having left the sphere of his expertise to run for President of the United States, came to look like a fool to a majority of Americans, and who later sold off a big chunk of his Christian Broadcasting Network to Rupert Murdock for untold millions of dollars—a far cry from the Lord Jesus, who, unlike foxes and birds, had nowhere to lay his head (Matthew 8:20).

The Church needs to do what it is anointed to do: proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit, baptizing all nations in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that the Lord Jesus has commanded us. It needs to do this through broken-hearted, earnest prayer and leave the results in the hands of a sovereign God.

For a discussion of the Christian’s involvement in politics, click here.

Bob Vincent