Church and State

If then I am a wrongdoer and have committed anything for which I deserve to die, I do not seek to escape death. But if there is nothing to their charges against me, no one can give me up to them. I appeal to Caesar” (v. 11).

- Acts 25:1–12

Having noted that the Old Testament suggests a division of labor between the church and state, and having seen that the New Testament explicitly gives the use of the sword to the state, it is now time for us to consider the church-state relationship more closely. To be sure, this can be a complicated issue, but there are conclusions we can draw based on the New Testament’s division of labor and how the Apostles interacted with the pagan state of Rome.

The Westminster Confession of Faith helpfully summarizes what Scripture has to say about the state’s role in religious matters. Chapter 23 of the confession tells us, “It is the duty of civil magistrates to protect the church of our common Lord, without giving the preference to any denomination of Christians above the rest, in such a manner that all ecclesiastical persons whatever shall enjoy the full, free, and unquestioned liberty of discharging every part of their sacred functions, without violence or danger” (23.3). Here we find a logical conclusion from the state’s duty to bear the sword, for if the state is to punish evildoers, our churches may reasonably expect the state to respond when thieves, slanderers, murderers, and others attack churches and Christians. In other words, it is not wrong for the church to appeal to the state in matters of common justice. Within the church, however, Christians should strive to settle disagreements between one another without involving the state insofar as their arguments do not involve matters related to civic crimes and the common good (1 Cor. 6:1–8). That Christians may legitimately appeal to the state for protection and for justice is seen in Acts 25:1–12, where Paul exercises his right as a Roman citizen to appeal to the emperor to hear his case. Of course, any time we appeal to the state, we risk the state’s getting too involved in religious matters, so we must be wise in our dealings with the civil magistrate. Still, the state does have as its duty the protection of all its citizens, even the church and its members.

Westminster Confession 23.3 also explains that the state should not prefer one denomination of Christians above others. There should be no state-established and state-run church, for this would violate the church-state division of labor. Christ gives to the church alone the power to discipline, to bind and loose in spiritual matters (Matt. 18:15–20). A state that prefers one denomination over another has made a theological judgment it is not called to make.

Coram Deo

The history of church-state relations is messy, and often the church has ended up compromised, blessing sinful aims of certain states. It is far better for the church and the state to respect the division God has ordained. When the state and the church each focus on their areas of competency—punishing evildoers and administering Word and sacrament, respectively—all people are blessed.

Passages for Further Study

2 Samuel 23:3b–4
Proverbs 24:21; 29:4, 14
1 Timothy 2:1–2

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