The Sword and the Keys
“He is God’s servant for your good. 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” (v. 4).- Romans 13:3–7
Key to resolving the issues regarding how the church must relate to the state is an understanding of the distinct functions Scripture assigns to each authority. Church and state are actually both ministers of God that are appointed to fulfill certain tasks. Historically, human beings have always run into trouble when the state attempts to do the work of the church and the church attempts to do the work of the state.
Romans 13 offers perhaps the most thorough summary of the state’s vocation in Scripture. Paul explains that the civil magistrate “does not bear the sword in vain” against evildoers; that is, God has delegated to the state the right to use force in order to execute divine wrath upon criminals on this side of glory. Government is called to use the sword to punish evil and to promote the cause of righteousness in society. This includes such things as establishing the police and legal authorities in order to protect innocent victims from crime and adjudicate offenders. Also, the state may wage defensive wars when it faces geopolitical aggressors. The Lord entrusts these responsibilities to the state and not the church, which is why force is never acceptable as a means of evangelization. Moreover, the state’s right to exercise force has limitations. The government uses force unlawfully if it wields the sword to promote unrighteousness in society.
God has granted to His church a separate vocation, namely, the right to wield the power of the keys (Matt. 16:13–20; 18:15–20). Christ’s church preaches His Word, administers His sacraments, and disciplines professing believers when their sin calls their profession into question. Government must not interfere with the work of the church, and the church must not turn to the state except, perhaps, as a last resort. For example, surely it is wrong for denominational leaders to sue congregations who wish to leave and take their church properties with them, but when such happens, it is surely acceptable for departing churches to make a legal defense (1 Cor. 6:1–8).
The church and state usurp the God-appointed authority of each other when they try to exercise rights that they have not been granted. Government must allow the church the freedom of expression and the freedom to address the state prophetically. The church must not take up the sword against heresy. If these vocations are confused, disaster tends to follow.
Based on the distinct vocations of the church and the state, the principle of the separation of church and state, rightly administered, is biblical. Unfortunately, the separation of church and state in our day is often distorted into the separation of the state and God. The state has no right to establish a state church, but it is still responsible to our Creator, and it must carry out its authority lawfully. It is never wrong for the church to rebuke the state for not doing its job.
Passages for Further Study
1 Samuel 13:8–15a
2 Chron. 26:16–23