08 Jan 2017

RC Sproul on Church and State

Religious 15 Comments

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:



  1. 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.



  1. 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.




  1. 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.



  1. 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.



  1. 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.




  1. 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.


  1. Q&A


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.


15 Responses to “RC Sproul on Church and State”

  1. khodge says:

    I call foul…slipping in that link at the beginning is sure to get us off topic.

  2. khodge says:

    (Not having listened to Sproul:)
    This is apparently not the focus of the post but my reading of Bob’s post suggests that too much emphasis is placed on the state. The survey offered here shows that there are far too many forms of state rule. It really is the call of each person acting in community (not coercive government!) to protect the the widow and orphan.

    Along that line, following section 2 and in line with my Christian tradition:
    “Every time I sin, I participate in the evil that holds this whole world in its power.” The sin of each person damages the relationship between God and his people and among his people. The state in this scenario becomes a crutch and a barrier to holiness.

  3. skylien says:

    “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. (!!!!)”

    As far as I know there are no Hitler diaries. They were fake and it was a huge mess for the German magazine Stern, which published them without ckecking properly for authenticity.

  4. Brian says:


    You may also want to check out RC Sproul, Jr., who is even more distinctly Austro-libertarian in his ideology.


  5. David Ivester says:

    I have not listened to Sproul’s lectures but have often encountered the arguments reflected in your notes. He is profoundly mistaken—on the legal aspects anyway—in multiple respects.

    Separation of church and state is a fundamental American value that has long stood us in good stead. It is as well a bedrock principle of our Constitution, much like the principles of separation of powers and checks and balances. Just as the founders did not simply say in the Constitution that there should be separation of powers and checks and balances, but rather actually separated the powers of government among three branches and established checks and balances, they also did not merely say there should be separation of church and state, and rather actually separated them by (1) establishing a secular government on the power of “We the people” (not a deity), (2) according that government limited, enumerated powers, (3) saying nothing to connect that government to god(s) or religion, (4) saying nothing to give that government power over matters of god(s) or religion, and (5), indeed, saying nothing substantive about god(s) or religion at all except in a provision precluding any religious test for public office. Given the norms of the day (by which governments generally were grounded in some appeal to god(s)), the founders’ avoidance of any expression in the Constitution suggesting that the government is somehow based on any religious belief was quite a remarkable and plainly intentional choice. They later buttressed this separation of government and religion with the First Amendment, which affirmatively constrains the government from undertaking to establish religion or prohibit individuals from freely exercising their religions.

    That the words “separation of church and state” do not appear in the text of the Constitution assumes much importance, it seems, to some who once mistakenly supposed they were there and, upon learning of their error, fancy they’ve solved a Constitutional mystery. The absence of the metaphorical phrase commonly used to name one of its principles, though, is no more consequential than the absence of other phrases (e.g., separation of powers, checks and balances, federalism) used to describe other undoubted Constitutional principles.

    To the extent that some nonetheless would like confirmation–in those very words–of the founders’ intent to separate government and religion, Madison and Jefferson supplied it. Some try to pass off the Supreme Court’s decision in Everson v. Board of Education as simply a reading or even misreading of Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists–as if that were the only basis of the Court’s decision. Instructive as that letter is, it played but a small part in the Court’s decision. Rather, the Court discussed the historical context in which the Constitution and First Amendment were drafted, noting the expressed understanding of Madison perhaps even more than Jefferson, and only after concluding its analysis and stating its conclusion did the Court refer–once–to Jefferson’s letter, largely to borrow his clever metaphor as a catchy label or summary of its conclusion. The notion, often heard, that the Court rested its decision solely or largely on that letter is a red herring.

    It is instructive to recall that the Constitution’s separation of church and state reflected, at the federal level, a disestablishment political movement then sweeping the country. That political movement succeeded in disestablishing all state religions by the 1830s. It is worth noting, as well, that this disestablishment movement was linked to another movement, the Great Awakening. The people of the time saw separation of church and state as a boon, not a burden, to religion.

    This sentiment was recorded by a famous observer of the American experiment: “On my arrival in the United States the religious aspect of the country was the first thing that struck my attention. . . . I questioned the members of all the different sects. . . . I found that they differed upon matters of detail alone, and that they all attributed the peaceful dominion of religion in their country mainly to the separation of church and state. I do not hesitate to affirm that during my stay in America, I did not meet a single individual, of the clergy or the laity, who was not of the same opinion on this point.” Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (1835).

    While the First Amendment undoubtedly was intended to preclude the government from establishing a national religion by statute, that was hardly the limit of its intended scope. The first Congress debated and rejected just such a narrow provision (“no religion shall be established by law, nor shall the equal rights of conscience be infringed”) and ultimately chose the more broadly phrased prohibition now found in the Amendment. During his presidency, Madison vetoed two bills, neither of which would form a national religion or compel observance of any religion, on the ground that they were contrary to the establishment clause. While some in Congress expressed surprise that the Constitution prohibited Congress from incorporating a church in the town of Alexandria in the District of Columbia or granting land to a church in the Mississippi Territory, Congress upheld both vetoes. In keeping with the Amendment’s terms and legislative history and other evidence, the courts have wisely interpreted it to restrict the government from taking steps that could establish religion de facto as well as de jure. Were the Amendment interpreted merely to preclude government from enacting a statute formally establishing a state church, the intent of the Amendment could easily be circumvented by government doing all sorts of things to promote or favor this or that religion–stopping just short of cutting a ribbon to open its new church.

    To the extent that Sproul asserts or supposes that the principle of separation of church and state is “absolute,” he is simply misinformed. Madison touched on one aspect of this point in his Detached Memoranda. He not only stated plainly his understanding that the Constitution prohibits the government from promoting religion by such acts as appointing chaplains for the houses of Congress and the army and navy or by issuing proclamations recommending thanksgiving, he also addressed the question of what to make of the government’s actions doing just that. Ever practical, he answered not with a demand these actions inconsistent with the Constitution be undone, but rather with an explanation to circumscribe their ill effect: “Rather than let this step beyond the landmarks of power have the effect of a legitimate precedent, it will be better to apply to it the legal aphorism de minimis non curat lex [i.e., the law does not concern itself with trifles]: or to class it cum maculis quas aut incuria fudit, aut humana parum cavit natura [i.e., faults proceeding either from negligence or from the imperfection of our nature].” Basically, he recognized that because too many people might be upset by reversing these actions, it would be politically difficult and perhaps infeasible to do so in order to adhere to the constitutional principle, and thus he proposed giving these particular missteps a pass, while at the same time assuring they are not regarded as legitimate precedent of what the Constitution means, so they do not influence future actions.

    In its jurisprudence, the Supreme Court has, in effect, followed Madison’s advice, though not his suggested legal theories. The Court has confirmed the basic constitutional principle of separation of church and state, while also giving a pass to the appointment of chaplains for the houses of Congress and army and navy and the issuance of religious proclamations, as well as various governmental statements or actions about religion on one or another theory, e.g., ceremonial deism. Notwithstanding sometimes lofty rhetoric by courts and commentators about an impenetrable wall of separation, as maintained by the courts, that wall is low and leaky enough to allow various connections between government and religion. Indeed, the exceptions and nuances recognized by the courts can confuse laymen and lawyers alike, occasionally prompting some to question the principle itself, since decisions in various cases may seem contradictory (e.g., depending on the circumstances, sometimes government display of the 10 commandments is okay and sometimes not).

    • Dan says:

      To be clear Stephen, Sproul does not want the State to establish any one religion. I think he is making a more limited point that individuals who act on behalf of the State are subject to God’s judgement. I think Sproul would stand behind the first amendment as written.

  6. Stephen says:

    Sproul’s history regarding the English monarchs is factually wrong, and it is also very interesting that Sproul conveniently leaves out the reason as to why Henry VIII wanted to break from the Roman Catholic Church. The reason is that Henry VIII wanted a divorce, and he could not get one from the Catholic Church. Henry VIII was a monster who murdered his wives and used and abused them. He also murdered St. Thomas More, who refused to say that Henry VIII’s divorce was a good thing. See, for example, A Man for All Seasons. And the fact that Sproul leaves that out these historical details (please google them if you don’t believe me–everything I’m writing is factually accurate) is quite interesting, to say the least.. Also, Queen Elizabeth brutally persecuted and tortured Catholics. See, for example, Campion, by Evelyn Waugh. You could also google it. There were “hidden rooms” built by the English during Elizabeth’s reign to hide priests so that they wouldn’t be tortured and killed. Also, sadly, R.C. Sproul Jr. appears to have taken his “Christian liberty” a bit too far, and had to resign due to surfing adultery websites: http://www.christianitytoday.com/gleanings/2015/august/ligonier-suspends-rc-sproul-jr-over-ashley-madison.html

    • Bob Murphy says:


      I can’t respond right now to your claims, but just to be clear: Did you click through and listen to Sproul, or are you just looking at my notes? Also, are you saying he said something actually false, or are you making the weaker claim that he’s leaving out a lot of important context, and by doing so prejudices the listener to the Protestant side?

  7. Stephen says:

    Hi Bob,

    You wrote:

    “When Henry VIII broke from Catholic Church, and declared England a Protestant nation, he gave himself title “Defender of the faith” (in Latin).”

    The fact that Henry VIII was in fact a murderous monster who broke with Catholicism because he wanted the Church’s formal stamp of approval on his divorce seems too important of a historical fact to leave out. That is, unless the person leaving it out is innocently uninformed or ignorant, or deliberately trying to whitewash history to serve a particular religious agenda.

    You also wrote: “Rather than persecuting Catholics, Elizabeth persecuted nonconformist Protestants.”

    That is a false statement. Elizabeth persecuted Catholics. That is a historical truth.

    I went to a Calvinist/Reformed church for a while before I became Catholic, so I am familiar with Sproul (though not this particular lecture series). I have no desire to spend more hours listening to him, but even if someone were interested in listening to him, the fact that he would miss these huge historical details does not exactly make one want to spend hours listening to more. But perhaps you misunderstood what he was saying and your notes are wrong.

    • Patrick Dalroy says:

      It is also worth pointing out that the Fidei Defensor title was given originally given to Henry VIII by the pope for his early writings against Luther and in defense of the sacraments.

  8. Dan says:

    I wonder how Sproul would interact with reformedlibertarian.com or the argument for separating the idea of a Biblical civil magistrate and a State Monopoly on civil magistrate duties.

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