I am still working on my reaction to this Catholic essay some critics encouraged me to consider, a few weeks ago. It has to do with “salvation through faith” but it’s way more subtle than that. (I am relying on my study partner to help me write a detailed reaction.) In the meantime…
My Bible study partner told me to check out this fascinating 6-part lecture series (plus a seventh block of Q&A) from RC Sproul. It is wonderful. I started it at 11:30 at night, thinking I would just listen to a few of them, and ended up staying up till 2:30am because I couldn’t stop.
Besides solid Biblical interpretation, Sproul also talks about the relevant history for certain lectures. Even if you don’t end up agreeing with him on every detail, I think you won’t regret having listened to him.
Here are the notes I jotted down as I listened. If you skim them first, it will give you an idea of whether you want to listen to the lectures. If you spot a factual error, it’s possible that I just misunderstood what Sproul was saying, but of course please flag it for me to investigate.
7 part series at:
- Lecture on Legal force
OT Israel a theocracy—church and state had distinctions were nevertheless so closely integrated that speaking of separation would be a misnomer. But in NT the church was missionary, moving out to all peoples ruled by secular governments, and Christians had to answer question of how do we relate to government?
Q: “What is government in its most elementary foundational form?”
A: Structure that is endowed legally with the right to use force to compel citizens to do certain things and not do other things.
Q: Where does government come from?
A: The original form of government and authority comes from God Himself.
Before there was any human government, there was already government from the moment of creation. God originally gave commands with sanctions if disobeyed.
First instance of earthly government (delegated authority) is angel with flaming sword to keep Adam and Eve out of the garden. However an earlier example of delegated authorities—over animals but not over people—was Adam and Eve having authority in garden.
St. Augustine observed that government is a necessary evil. In this world among fallen humans, we will never find a morally perfect government. It is necessary because of evil. It was not necessary prior to the fall. (Aquinas differed with him on this—he thought government could be useful to manage the division of labor even without fallen people.)
Purpose of earthly government is to protect human life from destructive actions of other humans, and also to protect property, and to ensure fair weights and measures, and contract enforcement, to protect people from fraud.
“Separation of church and state” is nowhere found in the founding documents of the US. It was a remark Thomas Jefferson made when speaking about the principles of the founding, and yet today it stands as one of the few (only?) absolute principles upheld in our day. Yet even here, its meaning today is not what TJ meant.
Sproul spoke at the inauguration of a governor in Florida, and told him that he only possessed authority as delegated by God. He challenged the governor to remember that he was accountable to God for how he handled his power. He said not to be confused by phrase “separation of church and state.”
The minute any government declares itself independent of God, it has become demonized at that point and becomes an Evil Empire.
But in our times it is assumed that the civil government is not answerable to God, and has a right to be Godless.
We boast as Americans that we live in a free country. But anywhere there is government, there is a restriction on freedom.
Sometimes we forget that every law restricts somebody’s freedom—perhaps rightly perhaps wrongly. Every law passed brings to bear legal force on the citizens. That’s why we have to be exceedingly careful every single time we pass a law, that we realize we’re taking freedom away from people. The less liberty we are left with, the more laws that the legislature passes.
- Civil Obedience
Reads from Romans 13…
It’s not just Paul; also Peter and Jesus said people should be as obedient as we possibly can—in good conscience—to the powers that be. Now notice Paul writes this to people under the Roman government, who would eventually execute him. (!) Later we will study the conditions necessary for when Christians should disobey the government.
Peter says we should submit to the earthly authorities for Christ’s sake. That means our disrespect to civil authorities carries through to the One who has installed the earthly authorities. God Himself is at the top of the hierarchy. There is no authority invested in any institution or person except through the delegation of that authority from God—no one else has any intrinsic authority.
Christ is the King of kings, the Lord of lords.
The task of the church is political in this sense: We are to be witnesses to the kingdom of God. Our first loyalty as Christians must be to our heavenly King. The minute we exalt the earthly authority over Christ, we have betrayed Him and committed treason.
Note that parents and dogcatcher also possess authority in certain spheres.
The lowest form of human corruption is seen in lawlessness. The first sin was an act of cosmic treason. Adam and Even disobeyed the supreme Governor, entering into a complex of lawlessness. That’s what sin is—refusing to subject oneself to God’s law. This is the sense in which sin is a political matter.
Every time I sin, I participate in the evil that holds this whole world in its power.
Note that Paul does not say that should be in submission to godly authorities. The Bible is full of examples of God raising up a corrupt ruler to rule over the Israelites to serve His purposes.
Hitler could not have ruled for 5 minutes without the providence of God. (!) Now that doesn’t mean Hitler was good, or that people shouldn’t have opposed him. (We can get into hidden providence of God.)
A president could be ungodly, even though God has put him in power for a reason—a reason that we may not know.
It was God who sent Israel into captivity. Habakkuk was mystified; how could God let the wicked Babylonians conquer the Israelites? God answered that He was using them to chasten His people. (Sproul: “That’s why it always scares me when Christians say, ‘God is on our side.’ He may not be. The question is are we on God’s side?”)
To see the subtleties of submitting to authorities: In OT God has called David to be the king, and Saul in his madness pursues David. David has him in his power, yet doesn’t kill Saul in his sleep. The reason is that David refused to lift his hand against God’s anointed.
(So is it ever lawful for people to rebel against the appointed government? A tough one, which we will cover later in this study.)
All people—not just Christians—bristle against obeying external authorities. We don’t want to be bossed around by the policeman, our employer, our teacher…
What’s difference between Christian and pagan worldview? Well here’s a great example: how do we respond to authority? Being a Christian makes all the difference in the world; we hesitate before disobeying authority. E.g. Sproul had teachers in theological seminar who didn’t believe in Trinity etc., and yet Sproul had to respect them.
- The Sword and the Keys
Martin Luther made distinction between the two kingdoms—of the State and the Church. But through Middle Ages and even through the Reformation, distinction between church and state often blurred.
When Paul wrote that people should pay taxes, etc., out of conscience not just fear of wrath, he wasn’t unaware of the corruption of government. But he was pointing out the appointed role of civil government.
God never gives the government the right to do wrong. That’s why government is held accountable to God.
Paul says civil magistrate does not bear the sword in vain—a critical passage. Paul makes it clear that the power is given to the civil magistrate, not to the church. Thus the church does not carry out her mission through coercion.
Symbolic depiction of church is the cross; but of Islam it is the scimitar.
God arms the first officer of the state—the angel at Eden with the flaming sword.
[Bob’s observation: Notice that the most corrupt organization is the state. Is God trying to tell us something?]
This discussion of the civil magistrate bearing the sword is the Biblical foundation for the classical Christian notion of just war theory. All wars are evil, but participation in war is not necessarily evil. There can be a just use of the sword to protect citizens from a hostile invasion.
The Church’s authority is spiritual. The pen is mightier than the sword is a cliché, but it is applicable here. Christ didn’t use the sword to spread His message.
A section from Westminster Confession: “Civil magistrates shall not assume to themselves” the administration of word and sacrament. Even in Israel, there was a distinction between the priest and the king. King Uziah (6th chapter of Isaiah) reigned for over 50 years, and there were only a handful of kings that were remotely godly. Uziah was a great king who brought about reforms etc., yet he died in shame and was removed from authority. Why? He went into the temple and assumed for himself the authority to administer the sacrifices, usurping the role of the priest. God struck him with leprosy and left him to die in disgrace.
The church has the “power of the keys to heaven”—Jesus says “whatsoever you held bound” etc. We have examples of church discipline, and people appealing to civil authorities. This is a clear usurpation of ecclesiastical authority. An example of a secular official throwing a minister out of his pulpit. (!)
The Westminster Confession acknowledged need to respect autonomy (no “favoritism”) of denomination, and was written in 17th century!
Churches have courts, and church matters must be left to the church.
As Christians, we learn about the church’s mission from the word of God, not from the culture.
The church is called to be a critic of the State when it fails to fulfill its role as appointed by God.
E.g. when church complains about abortion laws, people say church is trying to impose its views on the state. No, the church is not asking the State to be the church. Rather, it’s asking the State to be the State. The State is supposed to protect innocent life from aggressors.
- Established Religion
“Antidisestablishmentarianism” is reputed to be the longest English word. Disestablishmentarianism means there should be no established church, i.e. no “State church” funded with taxes and enjoying legal privileges over other churches.
When Henry VIII broke from Catholic Church, and declared England a Protestant nation, he gave himself title “Defender of the faith” (in Latin). Every English monarch since got that title.
Henry was succeeded by Edward VI and was self-consciously a reformed Protestant, and tried to bring England in that direction.
History of Bloody Mary, his sister who purged English Protestants and tried to go back to Roman Catholicism. Many fled to Germany (Frankfurt) and to Geneva.
Mary replaced by Elizabeth “Good Queen Beth,” the virgin Queen after whom Virginia was named, and who brought back exiles and went Protestant.
Rather than persecuting Catholics, Elizabeth persecuted nonconformist Protestants. These Protestants didn’t think the Anglican Church was reformed enough, and thought it retained too many aspects of the Catholic Church.
E.g. Elizabeth had some ministers executed because they wouldn’t wear white vestments that they thought were too similar to Catholics. These nonconformists were derisively referred to as Puritans. They fled, some landing in United States with a firsthand experience of religious persecution.
The principle of nonestablishmentarianism imbued the founding of American government. Its function was to tolerate different religious sects; they were to be protected from the government. This is what 1st Amendment does. Protestants could live in peace with Catholics, Jews, etc. since all would tolerate the others. All would be equally tolerated under the civil law.
Of course, problem is that people quickly went from equal treatment under law to “all religions are equally valid.” No of course not. Just saying those are ecclesiastical disputes that shall remain outside the sphere of civil government.
Christians should remember this when they seek favors from the State. Secular people say, “Wait a minute, you’re cheating!” Christians must take care before asking government to advance their agenda.
Mayflower Compact was Christian, while more debatable whether Declaration of Independence and Constitution were; however they were theistic.
Constant intrusion into the church by the State: Zoning laws regulate e.g. how big the cross can be, treating it as a business sign.
One of the darkest days in church history was when Constantine declared the empire Christian with a stroke of the pen—that’s not how we’re to spread the gospel.
- An Instrument of Evil
Paul in Ephesians 6:10: “Finally be strong…put on the whole armor of God…”
This is given to us so that we may stand against the wiles or craftiness of Satan. In this day and age little attention is given to the realm of the Satanic. People have dismissed these ideas except in the realm of the occult.
The battle is spiritual, not against flesh and blood. They are identified as powers and principalities and wickedness in the heavenlies. These elements have some type of authority in a hidden realm.
The State in the New Testament (a book) was a bombshell from leading academic released after World War II. It showed links between satanic forces and human governments. E.g. consider tyranny of Roman persecution of Christians. Today most Christians think 666 in Revelation is a future official, but some scholars think it was Nero. His nickname was the beast, and his Latin name adds up to 666. (!!!)
Hitler had written in his diary that he had made a personal covenant with the devil and that the twisted cross (swastika) would compete with traditional one. (!!!!)
Christians have a tendency to mingle their religious devotion with a brand of super-patriotism. They assume God is always on America’s side.
No, any government can so depart from mandate that it can be corrupted to this level of being in league with the devil.
[Cute story of border guards in Hungary (?) who said Sproul not American but citizen of kingdom of God—he was Christian too and he had spotted their Bible.]
King Ahab was chastised by Elijah for confiscating a vineyard. Illustrates that government should protect private property not steal it.
Tax laws favor the poor, but court system favors the rich.
Fascinating discussion of Russian flat tax and Tocqueville.
I don’t have the right to steal your property, either with my own gun or at ballot box. And it’s still wrong to limit it “to the rich.” Don’t you become part of the system.
- Civil Disobedience
When can Christian disobey the State? From time of Revolution Americans divided on this issue.
Christians are not to obey only righteous rulers. In fact we are to be model citizens; this was the early Christian defense when being oppressed. “We are obeying your laws, paying taxes, etc.”
Does this mean Christians unconditionally obey the secular government? Absolutely not.
He read from Acts about the rulers telling Peter and John not to speak of Christ anymore. (You would think the rulers would’ve responded differently to the obvious miracle they witnessed.)
Had Peter and John obeyed, we wouldn’t today be talking about separation of church and state. Since Jesus had ordered them to spread the gospel, it was clearcut case of obeying God or men.
Principle is simple: If anyone in authority—teacher, boss, military commander, parent, etc.—commands you to do something contrary to God’s commands, then you must disobey.
However, it’s often difficult to apply this principle. Our sinful nature leads us to justify disobedience as faux fidelity to God. It’s easy when government says you can’t distribute Bibles or your boss orders you to cook the books. But other cases not as obvious.
[Interesting discussion of conscientious objector status changing due to Vietnam draft.]
Martin Luther King’s strategy was to engage in civil disobedience of local laws to bring to Supreme Court challenge to test constitutionality.
Q: Why do people bristle at “legal force” definition of government?
A: Right, it’s not pejorative to call it that. Just acknowledging that government isn’t passing suggestions.
(Sproul in offhand remark says Acton wrong when he said absolute power corrupts absolutely—he presumably had God in mind.)
Bork told Sproul he no longer taught constitutional law because we no longer had a Constitution; it had been destroyed by activist courts.
Sproul doesn’t see any way to turn around growth of federal government.
Sproul sees same in church: Ministers would agree to abide by old creeds but would “reinterpret” what they meant.
Today’s “conservative” would be a wild liberal compared to historical meaning of Constitution.
The problem is with the church. We can’t expect the State to be the conscience of America.
Psalm 2 depicts government authorities defying God’s anointed. God laughs at them in derision. “Kiss the Son lest He be angry and you perish in the way.” Eventually all will bow to Christ, some willingly and some when their knees are broken with rod of iron.
Let’s remember that God is on His throne and has brought statism to increase in the US, for His own purposes. (!)
We’re the most blessed country in the history of Earth, and that terrifies Sproul because we have squandered it. His son chimed in to say that we are in judgment right now—it’s not some future punishment.
Romans 13 says only the wicked fear the State. But we know there are people who are persecuted for righteous actions.