David W. King
The sin of Jeroboam, son of Nebat, was a sad and tragic response to God’s goodness to him. The evil that he did in the sight of the Lord, and the Lord’s response to it, are most instructive to us as we consider matters of church and state.
From the kingdom of David and Solomon, the Lord had torn ten tribes from which he created the northern kingdom of Israel, and made Jeroboam its first king.
Through the prophet Ahijah, the Lord spoke clearly to Jeroboam regarding two things (1 Kings 11:29–38):
First, the kingdom was being torn apart as a judgment on Solomon, because he was not faithful to the Lord, having broken God’s commands by marrying pagan wives and bringing the worship of their false gods within the realm of God’s holy nation.
Second, the Lord promised Jeroboam a dynasty over Israel as enduring as the house of David in Jerusalem—“if you will listen to all that I command you, and will walk in my ways, and do what is right in my eyes by keeping my statutes and my commandments, as David my servant did” (verse 38).
Despite all that the Lord did for him, Jeroboam did not trust him. He was a man altogether of this world.
He reasoned: “If the people of Israel keep traveling down to the house of God in Jerusalem to offer sacrifices, eventually their heart will return to King Rehoboam of Judah … and they will kill me” (see 12:27). What was Jeroboam’s solution?
Did he take his fears to God in prayer, and perhaps even ask for a sign? No. Instead, he reformed—no, deformed—the ordinances for worship that the Lord had given to Israel through Moses. Jeroboam erected new shrines, conveniently located in the south at Bethel and in the north at Dan. He placed golden calves in those shrines (Exodus 32 times two). He established new festivals (“that he had devised from his own heart,” verse 33), shrines on high places, and a new priesthood in place of the Levitical priests.
No true Christian or Bible-believing church can fail to see the evils in Jeroboam’s deformation. He not only did not subscribe to the regulative principle of worship, but trampled God’s holy ordinances for worship under foot.
Great was the evil of his deformation; great also were the consequences for himself and for Israel.
The sin of Jeroboam became the sin of the nation: “Then this thing became a sin, for the people went as far as Dan [to worship]” (verse 30). His sin led all Israel to sin and brought God’s judgment on his house and the whole nation. Indeed, his sin became the benchmark of iniquity for all the kings of Israel after him. For king after king, we read in 1 and 2 Kings that he did evil in the sight of the Lord, refusing to turn away from the sin of Jeroboam and making Israel sin (see, for example, 1 Kings 16:19).
In Jeroboam’s obvious sins of idolatry and overthrowing God’s ordinances for worship there is embodied another great evil. King Jeroboam presumed, in wicked pride, to subordinate the worship of God to the interests of the state. He made the church a tool of the state.
Under the Mosaic constitution, for God’s old covenant people, church and state were one. But no king of Israel was above the Lord, Israel’s true king. No king of Israel had authority to overturn the law of Israel’s covenant Lord, the almighty God, for any reason—and certainly not to secure his own throne. That was more than unbelieving and foolishly self-destructive. It was a usurpation of God’s sole prerogative.
God cut off the house of Jeroboam in judgment. But he preserved the line of David, despite the sins of its kings and God’s judgments on them also. From that royal line came Jesus, our Savior, according to his human nature. There came from heaven the eternal Son of the Father, the Son who is God forever blessed. Jesus the Christ, the anointed Savior-King, came not to be served—in contrast to the power-worshiping rulers of this world—but to serve and to give his life to ransom ours from sin and death. Now risen from the dead and enthroned in glory at the Father’s right hand, all authority in heaven and earth has been given to him. He has been made the Head over all things for the church, which is his body.
No earthly government has power or authority over King Jesus our Lord. Therefore, no earthly power may presume to exercise authority over Christ’s kingdom on earth, his church. Called out of every tribe and nation, Christ’s church is subject to Christ alone and may yield allegiance to no other ruler than Jesus Christ, governing by his Word and Spirit.
Jeroboam’s usurpation of the Lord’s rule over his church was a great sin. But even greater have been the sins of rulers in the last two millennia who have sought to subordinate the church of Christ to their state agendas.
Examples are countless; we cite only a few. Consider the Roman emperors. Or King Henry VIII of England, who made himself head of the church to get a divorce. Or the Stuart kings, who forced Episcopal order on all their realm (and made martyrs of the Scottish Covenanters). Or Hitler, who forced churches to become instruments of Nazi propaganda and control.
Civil rulers—caesars, kings, dictators, soviets, and sometimes elected leaders—have, like Jeroboam, often used the coercive power of the state to make Christ’s church their tool.
We rightly condemn that. And when such is imposed on us, we are bound to resist and obey King Jesus instead.
What, then, shall we say when churches, with no outside coercion, voluntarily make themselves agents of cultural and political agendas and movements?
That is deeply embedded in the American church tradition. During the Revolution, preachers in pulpits declared, “Thus saith the Lord, enlist in the Continental Army and fight the British hordes of the antichrist” (actual language from actual sermons). We could talk about visions of millennial glory focused on the new nation’s march to its manifest destiny, about churches and preachers building the nation, believing they were thereby building the kingdom of God. Let’s skip over the horrors of the Civil War, in which churches and preachers on both sides declared that their side in the contest was God’s and the other side was the devil’s. Earnest evangelicals and liberal social gospelers labored alike to harness their churches to all manner of social betterment causes, such as Prohibition. In the “Great War” (World War I), churches declared that the Hun had to be defeated in his godless war against Christian (that is, English and French) civilization.
The mainline Protestant church in which I grew up denied that the Bible is God’s word, but boldly declared that God wants us to advance his kingdom by fighting for civil rights, global disarmament, farm workers’ unions, a just distribution of wealth, etc. It was sin for those liberals to hijack churches and turn them into engines of leftist social change.
Let’s come closer to home. Are we alarmed at the direction that social and cultural movements and government policies are taking our nation? Shall we then harness the church of Christ to counter them? Should we use the pulpit, the bulletin, the budget, the membership list, and the church’s property to organize marches or tea parties, raise money, promote political movements, boycott businesses, etc.?
To be sure, in regard to the issues of the day, individual Christians, as citizens of the earthly realm, are free and even obligated to exercise their citizenship, as they are able, in obedience to God’s Word. And pulpits should call sin what the Word of God calls sin, whether in the church or in the world, and point to Christ as the only Savior from sin.
But the church, as church (including its pulpit), may not become the hired Levite for any political movement or party or ideology. Our King did not “love the USA (or a certain political party) and give himself for her.” Christ “loved the church, and gave himself for her.”
Jesus did not say, “On this rock I will build (or rebuild) a Christian America” after the image of a Norman Rockwell painting or any other mythical vision of a past golden age. He said, “On this rock I will build my church.” That is the end to which his royal majesty and power is devoted, and that is the commission given to us: “Be my witnesses; proclaim my gospel to the ends of the earth and the end of the age, and I will build my church”—the one kingdom that will not be shaken when all other realms fall in judgment.
We must maintain a clear and undivided allegiance to our King and to his church. We proclaim the gospel of Christ, first, last, always, so that through us it may please Christ to build his church.
The author is pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church in Janesville, Wis. This is an edited version of a devotional message delivered to the 77th General Assembly (2010). Bible quotations are from the ESV. New Horizons, February 2012.