Monday, February 9, 2009

Reformed Church and State Relations--The Spirituality of the Church

The Westminster Confession of Faith has two separate chapters for teaching about The Civil Magistrate (chapter 23) and Of The Church (chapter 25). With regards to the relationship of Church and State there are a couple of paragraphs that are very helpful in understanding that these two spheres of authority are separate from one another. The both function under God's rule, but they function separate from one another--and are not to be mixed.

With regards to the State, chapter 23, paragraphs 1 and 3 read:
1. God, the supreme Lord and King of all the world, hath ordained civil magistrates, to be, under him, over the people, for his own glory, and the public good: and, to this end, hath armed them with the power of the sword, for the defense and encouragement of them that are good, and for the punishment of evildoers.

3. Civil magistrates may not assume to themselves the administration of the Word and sacraments; or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven; or, in the least, interfere in matters of faith. . . . And, as Jesus Christ hath appointed a regular government and discipline in his church, no law of any commonwealth should interfere with, let, or hinder, the due exercise thereof, among the voluntary members of any denomination of Christians, according to their own profession and belief. . . . and to take order, that all religious and ecclesiastical assemblies be held without molestation or disturbance. [emphasis mine]
With regards to the Church, chapter 25, paragraphs 1 and 3 read:

1. The catholic or universal church, which is invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the Head thereof; and is the spouse, the body, the fullness of him that filleth all in all.

2. The visible church . . . is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.

3. Unto this catholic visible church Christ hath given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints, in this life, to the end of the world: and doth, by his own presence and Spirit, according to his promise, make them effectual thereunto. [emphasis mine]

It is clear from these statements that there is a recognition that there are two separate authorities that need to understand how to relate to one another. Both the State and the Church function as those ordained by God to serve under Christ, but it is only the Church that is described as being organically and covenantally connected to Christ with him as its head. This difference can be described as a difference between Christ's providential authority over all his creatures and all their actions, and Christ's redemptive authority to extend the benefits of his death and resurrection to the elect.

They both are called to serve a body politic, yet, the State is said to serve the "public" good, while the Church is said to serve Christ for the gathering and perfecting of the saints, who make up the catholic, visible church. The State has the power of the public good, or the commonwealth, but the Church has been given the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven.

For both of them to carry out their different callings, they have been provided means to use. But since their callings are different, so are the means they are provided. The State is given the power of the sword. The church, on the other hand, has been given the ministry, oracles and ordinances of God.

And just to be clear that these two authorities are to remain separate in their unique callings, chapter 23, paragraph 3 is clear that, "Civil magistrates may not assume to themselves the administration of the Word and sacraments; or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven; or, in the least, interfere in matters of faith,"[emphasis mine].

Although the Church and State both serve under Christ, they are related to him differently (State--providentially; Church--redemptively), they have unique callings, serving distinct body politics, have been provided different means to carry out their callings and, therefore, are not to overstep their bounds into the others sphere of authority. This separation of Church and State in reformed theology is referred to as the doctrine of the spirituality of the Church, while some in the reformed camp utilize the Lutheran designation of the Two Kingdoms theology.

However, there are some who disagree with this and believe that the WCF has been corrupted by the enlightenment thinking that lies at the foundation of the American Revolution, and its subsequent standards, i.e., the Constitution of the United States. Some have suggested that with the American Presbyterians revision in 1788, that the true, reformed understanding of Church-State relations was corrupted.

But is this complaint legitimate? If David VanDrunen is correct, then the American revision should be seen as a return to the historic reformed understanding. See Jason Stellman's blog for a helpful summary of VanDrunen's position on the historic reformed distinction between Church and State.

What do you think?

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