Life in the Kingdoms of Men
How then should Christians view the relationship between church and state, and even more pointedly in the light of Hart’s challenge, faith and politics? Both books illustrate the dangers that may come when Christians incautiously allow their churches to become entangled with the state, whether through school vouchers or faith-based charities. Once the state gives public money to churches, perhaps it is only a matter of time before the state demands the right to account for how that money is used in the light of public outcomes. Likewise, Balmer and Hart each show that when political questions take on religious fervor, the stakes are heightened to such a degree that working for the common good becomes difficult, if not impossible at times. Yet I want to suggest that neither book provides good answers, from a Christian perspective, to the question of church-state separation. And it is just here that the much-maligned southern Presbyterian tradition can help us. For though they may have hid behind the notion of the church’s spiritual mission to protect themselves from abolitionist arguments, southern Presbyterians’ careful and biblical thinking on the relationship between church and state provided resources for thinking about this issue today.
Robert Lewis Dabney, that redoubtable nineteenth-century southern Presbyterian theologian, spent an entire lecture on religious liberty and the nature of church-state separation in his course on systematic theology. In assessing the relationship between politics and theology, Dabney’s basic premise was the strict separation of church and state. He argued, first, that all human government was exercised in three spheres—civil, parental, and ecclesiastical. The latter two spheres were “separately recognized by Scripture and distinctly fenced off, as independent circles”; the state had no right to invade either the parental or ecclesiastical spheres. Rather, the state’s purpose was to secure the “secular rights” of citizens, “protecting all members of civil society in their enjoyment of their several proper shares” of those rights. In order to perform this role, the state exercised three functions, as defined by Scripture: taxation, punishment, and defensive war. The church, on the other hand, had as its object “to teach men the way to heaven, and to help them thither.” The church could not coerce or compel belief because, unlike the state, it had “no civil pains and penalties at command because Christ has given her none.”
Because the church and state belonged to separate spheres, each had to respect the other’s domain. For the church to bear “penal power” and to be “armed with civil pains” was “utterly inconsistent with her spiritual character, her objects, and the laws of Christ.” Religious intolerance was inconsistent with “the relations which God has established between Himself and rational souls.” Believing in soul competency, the idea that “God holds every soul directly responsible to Himself,” which meant “no one shall step in between” the individual and God, Dabney thought that each person was accountable to God for belief. To coerce the state’s citizens to observe a specific religion violated soul competency. It was “an absurdity,” Dabney believed, “for that which is not Christian at all to choose my Christianity for me.” In addition, the question of determining what orthodox religion was stood outside the purview of the state. Because there was “no umpire under God,” the state should tolerate a plurality of belief in society and the church should be thankful for such religious liberty. Thus, the “safe theory” was the strict separation of church and state. Dabney claimed that “the ends of the State are for time and earth; those of the Church are for eternity. The weapon of the State is corporeal, that of the Church is spiritual. The two cannot be combined, without confounding heaven and earth.”
That this teaching was a reflection of the hints found in Westminster Confession 23 and 31:4 can hardly be doubted. Even more, it was from this basic understanding of the relationship between the church and state that the southern Presbyterian commitment to the church’s spiritual mission came. Because the church’s mission is to “teach men the way to heaven” and its “weapons” are spiritual and persuasive, the church as church ought not to involve itself in tasks that would distract it from its mission or in activities that properly belong to the state. Even more, involvement in moral causes or public issues was a matter of Christian liberty and not a matter of church decree. It was on this understanding, for example, that James Henley Thornwell argued against the Presbyterian Church’s recommendation of temperance societies or other groups promoting moral reform. “It is hence beside the province of the Church to render its courts, which God ordained for spiritual purposes,” he observed, “subsidiary to the schemes of any association founded in the human will, and liable to all its changes and caprices. No court of Christ can exact of his people to unite with the Temperance, Moral Reform, Colonization, or any other, Society, which may seek their aid. Connection with such institutions is a matter of Christian liberty.”
It is this point about Christian liberty for public involvement that, I believe, ought to guide conversations as they transition from issues related to the relationship between church and state to the relationship between faith and politics. How Christians vote their consciences, how they engage public issues, how they support or not support certain public endeavors is truly a matter of Christian liberty. Thomas Peck, who taught during the nineteenth century at Union Seminary in Virginia, wisely observed that “touching the life that now is, the avocations necessary to sustain the being or promote the well-being of society, agriculture, commerce, manufactures, civil and criminal laws, the man, if he be a civil magistrate, or whatever else, is to be governed by the negative authority of the Bible. He can do anything the Bible does not forbid.” This is to say, in a different way, what the Westminster Confession teaches in chapter 1:6: there are some circumstances that are to be guided by the light of nature and common sense, agreeable to the general rules of Scripture, and these circumstances fall under the realm of Christian freedom.
And so, the real question to ask is how Christian participation in the public realm might be guided by the general principles of Scripture. And, in line with Hart, I think the biblical prophet Daniel is helpful here in thinking about the relationship between two kingdoms: the kingdoms of men and the Kingdom of God. In Daniel 7, the prophet has a terrifying dream with amazing beasts that spring from a turbulent sea: a lion with eagle’s wings; a bear; a leopard with four heads and four wings; and a horrifying, powerful beast with bronze claws and iron teeth. As Tremper Longman notes, while these beasts may represent the four successive kingdoms of Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome, Christians might do as well to see these beasts as the way God’s people see the kingdoms of men: amazingly strong, ridiculously fast, and terrifyingly evil, bringing oppression and persecution to God’s people. But Daniel’s dream does not end there: for thrones are brought out and set on the earth and the Ancient of Days sits down to open the courtroom books. This seems to suggest that though the kingdoms of men may believe they are invincible and unaccountable to God, the Most High God will hold all kingdoms to account. Even more, in a coming day, he will strip away their power and give it to one “like a son of man,” whose dominion will be established forever.
In the meantime, God’s people live as resident aliens in a foreign land. They live under Babylon and Persia, Rome and England, the United States and China. They see those who belong to the kingdoms of men exercise their amazing power with incredible speed, often with horrifying and evil results. And, like Daniel, they live and move in these realms, living out of their identity as God’s people, recognized as “exiles from Judah” who belong to the Most High God. But they do not become at home here, for they belong to another King and another Kingdom. Even more, as Christians, we know that the Son of Man did not establish God’s Kingdom by power, politics, or persuasion. Rather, he established his reign through a bloody cross and an empty tomb. And though some day, the Son of Man will return as the cloud-rider with his Father’s angels in his train, that day is still future. In the meantime, we live as “resident aliens” in this world, awaiting the full and final form of God’s Kingdom.
Perhaps this general framework can help Christians as they engage in public issues in the kingdoms of men. Recognizing that we are those who belong to a kingdom not of this world means that election year politics do not determine our eternal destinies; it means rather that we live to make manifest more and more the Gospel of that Kingdom. And the way we live is by loving our enemies, doing good to those who hate us, blessing those who curse us, praying for those who abuse us (Luke 6:27-8). It is by seeking to live peaceably with our neighbors, serving them with kindness and goodness in the hopes that our actions will lead them to repentance (Romans 12:14-21). It is by working toward justice in those areas for which we have responsibility, caring for the piece of land where we live, obeying and respecting those in the kingdoms of men who have the rule over us (Romans 13:1-8; 1 Peter 2:13-17).
And the way we live here as strangers and aliens is by recognizing the liberty that other Christians have to apply their God-shaped common sense to their public actions in ways that may differ from ours, in ways that may not be required for us. Indeed, as those who belong to God’s Kingdom, we learn to thank God for these sisters and brothers, with whose public actions we may disagree and yet whose grace-inspired lives represent foretastes of that age when and that country where all shall be done on earth as it is in heaven.