Editorial: What Is the State For?

Gregory E. Reynolds

There are probably few, if any, more controversial subjects in Christendom than the relationship between the church and the state. Since Constantine, the debate has raged. The editorial opinions expressed below are merely a small part of that debate among the Reformed. While we must labor especially hard not to enshrine our own convictions on this subject, I hope that those who may strenuously disagree with me will be patient enough—as I have attempted to be with the ideas of others over recent years—to carefully consider a minority view—one which I, too, once opposed.

I once believed that the British—or original—version of the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) was the best. I was convinced that the separation of church and state enshrined in the Constitution—although I used to think that people beginning with Jefferson misinterpreted the establishment clause of the first amendment[1]—and the 1788 American revision of the Confession, were responsible for the decline of American culture.

So what is the state for? It is easy to forget that the state in the Old Testament had the same purpose as the state in the New Testament: God's providential arrangement to protect life and property in the fallen situation. The nation of Israel was utterly unique—sui generis. It is a stand-alone institution in the history of redemption. It served as a preparation for the Messianic Age, a prototype of eschatological glory, and a witness of the utter uniqueness of God's grace and holy ways to the nations. God's moral standard for his image bearers never changes, but the organization of his people as a nation does. Israel as a nation had a typological function, now fulfilled in Christ.

Even the Puritans, who believed in the concept of a Christian commonwealth, understood that the civil administration of Israel was so inextricably tied to the ceremonial or cultic that it is all done away with, as a single entity, in Christ. This doctrine is made quite clear in WCF 19.4: "To them [Israel] 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." Significantly, this paragraph was not revised in the American revision of 1788, because it comports well with the distinction between the church and state accentuated by the American revisers. The seeds of the separation of church and state were already sown in the two-kingdom distinction rediscovered during the Reformation. So emphatically both the judicial, or civil, laws and the state of Israel itself, have expired, with no obligation to obey either, except as "the general equity thereof may require." Note that even this is tentatively stated as "may" require. Theonomists and reconstructionists tend to ignore this radical reduction of obligation, and tend to make the "general equity" clause require more than it does—a mandate for the civil magistrate to enforce Mosaic laws or the true religion—as well as ignore what it clearly says. But did the Confession writers have the state principally in view regarding general equity?

The proof text of the Assembly is telling: "Do I say these things on human authority? Does not the Law say the same? For it is written in the Law of Moses, 'You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain.' Is it for oxen that God is concerned? Does he not speak entirely for our sake? It was written for our sake, because the plowman should plow in hope and the thresher thresh in hope of sharing in the crop" (1 Cor. 9:8-10). The equity referred to is a general principle of Mosaic law applied by Paul to ministers of the New Covenant, i.e., to the people of God under a different administration of the Covenant of Grace. The limited obligation commanded by this law is not for the civil magistrate but rather for the church. It is true that the concept of general equity in seventeenth-century jurisprudence refers to principles of justice common to all people. But Paul's focus in applying the general equity of this particular Levitical law is the church, not the general population, however applicable it may be to the latter.

After the initial extended proof text for this passage in the WCF is cited (Exod. 21:1-23:19), Jacob's prophetic blessing on Judah in Genesis 49:10 is cited: "The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler's staff from between his feet, until tribute comes to him; and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples." The coming of Messiah changes everything. The relationship of God's people to the state reverts—mutatis mutandi—to the equivalent of the Patriarchal situation, in which the Lord used the state to protect his redemptive project. As Troxel and Wallace have pointed out, the Assembly used the Mosaic law in its proof texts to apply the judicial or civil law to Christ and his kingdom, as does the New Testament itself.[2]

The moral law, which continues in all administrations of the covenant of grace (cf. WCF 19.2), is, by parity of reasoning, still applicable to the people of God. The New Covenant rendition of the holy demands of obedience, similar to the Ten Words, is distinctly covenantal in nature and not addressed to the nations per se. It is not that the nations are not held accountable to God's moral standards, it is just that they know those standards through a different revelation, as Paul makes clear in Romans 1:20: "For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse."

Special revelation, it may be argued, has also been passed on from Eden through common culture, and has been especially amplified through the powerful influence of subsequent special revelation in the development of Western culture. Hence the inclusion of Moses, along with Confucius and other jurisprudential influences, on the pediments of the Supreme Court building in Washington. What does the New Covenant teach us about the purpose and role of the state? Emerging from several millennia of living under the Mosaic arrangement, in which the nation and its ruler were in special covenant with the Lord, we would expect special instruction in the New Covenant documents as to how believers should relate to the secular state in the new situation.

The Apologetic of Luke-Acts

Written after the day of Pentecost Luke-Acts is, in part, an apologia for the church's mission being of such a nature that it is not seeking revolutionary overthrow of the civil government. The first-century Roman Empire was rife with revolutionary movements. In contrast, the New Covenant church is called to be supportive of civil government as a God-ordained institution, providing temporal order—protecting life and property—but not directly supporting the church. The transcendent spiritual nature of the church enables it to work within God's extant providential arrangement, while depending directly on him for its life, guidance, and government. There is no establishment agenda anywhere in the New Covenant. To the contrary the New Covenant agenda assumes the disestablishment of God's people as a national identity.

Many have argued that John the Baptist exemplifies the church's interest in the morality of secular leaders. Actually, he is the last Old Testament prophet pursuing a covenant lawsuit against the immorality of Herod Antipas, who claimed to be the king of Israel. Paul, on the other hand, as a New Covenant prophet to the world, does not call Herod Agrippa II (Acts 25-26) to repent of his incest (with his sister and wife Beatrice) as a king in covenant with God, as John did Antipas. Rather, Paul calls him to repent as a sinner and to believe the gospel as a man. Such is the prophetic mission of the church.

The notion that the church, as the church, is to continually inform the state of its duty, is contrary to what we see in the inspired record of the church's early mission. The Assembly asserted this in WCF 31.5: "Synods and councils are to handle, or conclude nothing but that which is ecclesiastical: and are not to intermeddle with civil affairs which concern the common wealth, unless by way of humble petition in cases extraordinary; or, by way of advice, for satisfaction of conscience, if they be thereunto required by the civil magistrate." The absoluteness of the prohibitions here is startling in light of the fact that these Puritans believed in the concept of a Christian commonwealth. Yet they make it clear that there are only two exceptions to their strongly stated separation of church and state: "cases extraordinary," and when the church is asked by the state for advice. The latter is unlikely in a democracy, although individual Christians, like J. Gresham Machen, may be asked to testify before Congress. "Cases extraordinary" would seem to indicate that if the church's welfare, as the church, is at stake, then a humble request for relief might be in order. What is clear is that such cases are extraordinary; they are not the regular business of assemblies.

The Imperatives of the New Covenant

Romans 13 is the definitive New Testament text on the subject of the believer's attitude toward the secular state. Peter summarizes Paul's concern in a succinct imperative: "Be subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good" (1 Pet. 2:13-14). The focus of those who claim this classic text as a mandate for the civil magistrate is Paul's definition of the ruler as a "minister of God" (NKJV) in verse 4. The ESV's "servant" doesn't help until one puts the noun in biblical context. In a similar vein the LORD refers to the secular ruler Cyrus as his "shepherd" (Isa. 44:28), doing his sovereign providential will in the restoration of Israel. It is well-known that the Caesar at the time Paul wrote Romans 13 is none other than Nero, a ruler who, as far as we know, knew nothing of either Old or New Covenant special revelation.

Equally important is the description of the civil ruler in this passage as a promoter of good and an avenger of wrongdoing. This is a fact—all verbs being in the indicative mood—not a standard to which the ruler is commanded to aspire. All of the imperatives are directed to the church. The letter itself is written to the church in Rome. Paul's concern is that they understand the secular state, not as the Jews did, as an enemy of the true religion, but as a providential provision of God to keep order in the world in which the church is called to proclaim her message. But how can a secular ruler know what is good and bad?

Where Does the State Gets Its Guidance?

First, it is important to remember that the Old Testament is filled with examples of good and wise rulers who were not believers, and had no knowledge of special revelation. Abimelech functioned so in the lives of Abraham and Isaac. So Pharaoh with Joseph. Acts is full of such examples. In Acts 28 Paul experienced the benevolence of both people and ruler alike: "The native people showed us unusual kindness..." (28:2).

Second, the "good conduct" in view in Romans 13 is not to be confused with the covenantal ethics of special revelation, emanating as they do from the heavenly loyalty of new creatures in Christ, but refers rather to conduct sufficient to maintain civil order. That both citizens and rulers alike often compromise and sometimes transgress that which promotes the commonwealth, is no argument against the fact that unbelievers know what is right and are capable of a modicum of civil behavior. As I see it, the crux of the debate is the question, Is the state guided by special revelation or not? And if not, what is the source of the state's guidance?

Fallen people are able to distinguish good conduct from wrong conduct because of general revelation. Paul makes this clear earlier in the same letter: "For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus" (Rom. 2:14-16).

The objective of Paul's exhortation in Romans 13 is for Christians to respect and, therefore, obey civil authority, despite the fact that secular rulers are not in covenant with God as they were under Moses. Jews, and Gentiles associated with the synagogue, would need to adjust to this new idea, having been under the covenantal kingship of the Mosaic order for so long. The exhortation is applicable today, especially for those who believe that civil magistrates ought to be Christian or at least rule by Christian principles. An extreme example of this is a couple in New Hampshire presently convicted of tax evasion who refuse to even listen to civil authorities because they are not "people of God." It is precisely Paul's assumption in Romans 13 that the civil ruler is not a believer. In the new situation his explanation of the common grace institution of the state is necessary.

Thus, it is not only important to distinguish between the institutions of church and state, but the source of each institution's guidance, and the definition of the purposes of each must be identified. It is not even enough to say that the goals of the state are temporal, and of the church eternal. It must be added that the sources of guidance and purposes are dramatically different. The essential interests of one are not the same as those of the other. As our confession defines the purpose of the state: "It is the duty of civil magistrates to protect the person and good name of all their people" (WCF 23.3). Rulers are not tasked with promoting or enforcing the "true religion." They are called to maintain civil order for all of its citizens, including Muslims, Jews, and atheists; and special revelation commands Christians to support them in this distinct endeavor. But we do not need the state to promote the interests of the religion. The power of the Spirit of the enthroned Lord Jesus Christ operating through his appointed means of grace is all the church needs to achieve her eternal purpose of gathering the elect from among the nations.

The Hermeneutics of Our Millennial Views

Greg Bahnsen once insisted to me that amillennialism was no impediment to accepting his theonomic understanding of the state. He maintained that the two are compatible. I mildly disagreed then and eventually my amillennialism, combined with the notable absence of a transformational agenda in the New Testament—especially in Romans 13—lead me to my present position.

Postmillennialism, whether of the Edwards or Bahnsen variety, demands an interest in Christianizing civilization, including the state. The Constantinian instinct animates both. By taking Israel as a model for civil government Theonomy ends up land-locked in this world and stuck hopelessly in the old order with its agenda. Our eschatological destination is not a simple repristination of the old order. It is, as Vos and Kline have shown us, an advancement to a glorious new and consummate state of being in a new heavens and new earth. Thus, like our mortal bodies, the state will be left behind in the wake of the coming glory. Meanwhile, as an essential part of our worldview, we are called to respect and support the state as good citizens in its temporal business. But to expect more than the protection of our lives, liberties, and property from the state is to disrespect the power and purposes of Almighty God.

In the midst of the debate over what the state is for, while I am committed to be tolerant of opposing views, I would like to challenge those who see the magistrate as called to promote a specifically Christian agenda, whether enforcing the Ten Commandments, the Mosaic judicial laws, or the true religion, to prove their case from the documents of the New Testament. What does the inspired text say that the state is for? My reading leaves me with the conclusion that the state in the New Covenant situation is God's providential institution, guided by general revelation for the maintenance of civil order so that history may continue as the context for the achievement of God's redemptive purposes in and through the resurrected, ascended, and enthroned Lord Jesus Christ.


[1] "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ..."

[2] A. Craig Troxel and Peter J. Wallace, "Men in Combat over the Civil Law: 'General Equity' in WCF 19.4," Westminster Theological Journal 64, no. 2 (2002): f.n. 317-318. This is an excellent treatment of the historical moorings of the concept of general equity in Western jurisprudence.

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Contact the Editor: Gregory Edward Reynolds

Editorial address: Dr. Gregory Edward Reynolds,
827 Chestnut St.
Manchester, NH 03104-2522
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Ordained Servant: May 2007

The Temporality of the State

Also in this issue

Church and State in Historical Perspective

The Decline of Christianity in the West? A Contrarian View

Review: Covenantal Theonomy

Review: Separation of Church and State

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