Throughout Protestant history, great theologians from various schools and various time periods have wrestled with the unique relationship between the Church and the State. In some periods and cultures the two were so overlapped that it was difficult to tell the difference between them. In other periods and cultures, the Church has been functionally oppressed and stamped out of existence by tyrannical leaders and pagan kings. In the midst of these two extremes, modern Americans seem to be in a sort of fuzzy middle ground longing and praying for strong Christian leadership but fearful of our politics becoming overtly Christian. What does the Bible have to say on this fascinating and important subject? And ultimately, what ought Christians hope for as we labor towards God’s vision of society.
In no way do I suppose to offer the answer to these big questions in a simple blog post. However, I have spent considerable time reflecting on God’s Word as it pertains to this topic. In fact I recently took an entire class to study the Reformed historic positions on the topic in order to broaden my understanding. These reflections have been a joy. They have caused me to reflect both on history and our current cultural moment with a stronger Biblical framework. With humility, I offer a few sentiments here, sentiments that will certainly ruffle someone’s feathers. But I suppose that is what good theological reflection ought to do.
The Bible affirms that Government has been established by God (Romans 13:1), and that it serves a particular function defined by God (1 Timothy 2:1-4, Genesis 9:5-6). In other words, there are boundaries which define what a government does and doesn’t do, and those boundaries are defined by God. Romans 13:1-7 expresses that the Government is God’s “deacon” who carries the sword.
Romans 13:1–4 (ESV) 1 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed... 4 for 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.
This language of “bearing the sword” implies that God has granted Civil Government coercive authority to restrain evil. The “sword” in this sense is a mechanism granted to authorities to punish the evildoer and promote Biblical justice. The “sword” of Romans 13 is the coercive authority that gives a nation both the God-assigned authority to punish evildoers with capital punishment (see Genesis 9:6 below) as well as the right to defend their nation’s sovereignty with the force of war where properly justified.
Genesis 9:6 (ESV) “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.
While that basic framework does indeed provides some foundation to consider what a “good government” might look like, there are plenty of other questions that great theologians throughout history have wrestled with. The question posed in this article is one such question. Should Christians desire a “Christian nation?” Further, what might a “Christian nation” look like in practicality?
We unfortunately live in a time where the majority of the Church is vastly under-informed on the rich history of political theology and of the world that Christians—thinking Christianly—created through political endeavors. Further, most modern Christians assume the fallacy that no right minded Christian would ever argue for an overtly Christian government. Our modern secular ideology has so effectively sprouted their propaganda that we now blissfully ignore the wonderful symbol of politicians being sworn in upon a Christian Bible as some curious relic of the past, and happily forget that once upon a time our public schools catechized children in the Christian faith and prayed to Jesus in the classroom. How do we account for these historical practices? Are they simply concepts developed by mistaken radicalized Christians? Were these happy mistakes that simply ought to be relegated to some form of old fashioned thinking. Or, do these surprising overlaps of Christian influence on government institutions have something profound to teach us.
The Christian Family as an Analogy
As in imperfect analogy, let us consider the family unit as a miniature form of government. In fact, from a Biblical worldview, the family is a government unto themselves—a vital government at that. Each family has a head—the husband/father—who sets the rules and norms of acceptance for the family. In a “Christian family” the father will prioritize the worship of God in his home, setting practices for proper worship, for training in godliness, and the value system which is to be celebrated among its members. Let us suppose that one of the children decides as a young teenager to not follow Jesus. This child would not be cast out of the home. Far from it, that child would be loved and accepted as a vital part of the family. However, within the home, the expectations and values would not change. The law of the home would remain fixedly upon Christ and the values celebrated in the home would remain Christian. The child would be free to not believe in Jesus (for true faith cannot be coerced), but she would not be free to get drunk in the home (or drunk at all for that matter). The child would be free to not believe in Jesus, but she would not be free to take the Lord’s name in vain thereby creating an environment where other children in the family may begin to loosen their own Christ-honoring values.
It bears repeating, the analogy of the family is imperfect, because the government of the family has not been granted the same “sword” as a coercive measure to restrain evil that Civil Government has. Yet, within this simple illustration, we can glimpse a miniature picture of how a larger Christian society might operate. A society where Christian values reign, and yet non believing members of the community are not exiled or cast as second class citizens in any way.
Critical Biblical Passages
Before I offer a few thoughts on civil government, it will be helpful to stay rooted in a handful of passages that historically have historically been a part of the central nervous system of this discussion.
Isaiah 49:23 "Kings shall be your foster fathers, and their queens your nursing mothers. With their faces to the ground they shall bow down to you, and lick the dust of your feet. Then you will know that I am the LORD; those who wait for me shall not be put to shame.”
In the above passage we see that governmental authorities have some type of responsibility to lead and point people towards, as “foster fathers” to the one true and living God. At least this was a vision that Isaiah had of what would be in his future. Theologically, some believe this passage is speaking of our current Church age, while others believe this to be speaking of the future “Millennium Kingdom” that takes place after Christ’s return but before the inauguration of the New Heavens and the New Earth (a view I believe to be inherently flawed).
Psalm 72:8–11 (ESV)8 May he have dominion from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth! 9 May desert tribes bow down before him, and his enemies lick the dust! 10 May the kings of Tarshish and of the coastlands render him tribute; may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts! 11 May all kings fall down before him, all nations serve him!
Royal imagery like the above passage is found all throughout the Scriptures. Psalm 72 speaks about the reign of the King (King Jesus). The desire of Christ’s reign is regularly seen as extending over every part of the Earth. The desire of the Psalmist is that governmental leaders would directly serve His ultimate reign. Far from secular fears that a truly Christian King would lead to religious tyranny (as in many Muslim contexts), this vision of kings bowing to Christ is often then directly followed up with how under this context the weak, the needy, and the vulnerable are lifted up and provided for.
Psalm 2 (ESV) 1 Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? 2 The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and against his Anointed, saying, 3 “Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us.” 4 He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision... 10 Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth. 11 Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling. 12 Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.
Psalm 2 (above) is a classic doorway passage to the entire Psalter. It describes the folly of nations who fail to serve Christ and admonishes all nations and all kings to bow before the King. Quite literally the foolish King is the one who refuses to, “kiss the Son.” According to the Psalms, it is underneath this bowing to Christ that nations find their ultimate good. A king, and therefore a nation, that does not “kiss the Son” will never find their ultimate prosperity, and will doubtless be lead into many avoidable evils.
Matthew 28:18–20 (ESV) 18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
The Great Commission above declares that “all authority” has been given to Jesus. Not some authority, but all. This means that even Civil Authority is ultimately Christ’s. Whether or not any particular lesser authority (whether it be the authority of a government or a family) recognizes Christ’s true reign, has no bearing on that reality. Jesus holds all authority for He is Lord of all.
1 Corinthians 15:22–25 (ESV) 22 For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. 23 But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. 24 Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.
Lastly, in the above critical verse, we see once again the order of things to come. Verse 25 explicitly reminds the reader that Christ is ruling and reigning right now. And he must reign until every authority who does not bow to his authority is “put under his feet.” I believe this means that it is the ultimate progression of history that authorities will increasingly recognizes the true and proper dominion of Christ.
What Might This Look Like?
So, how do we put this together? What would a nation overtly submitted unto Christ look like? For starters, a Christian nation would be comprised by a majority of those who proclaim Christ as their King. This is an important starting point, because it assumes that this ideal is developed from the bottom up, and not simply enforced from the top down. In other words, ideally this Christian vision would be the majority vision of the people, and so government would only need to enforce what is already cultural norms. This is in fact the history of our country, and why so many Christian values were sown into the fabric of the nation.
The nation would overtly state that Jesus is Lord, that the Bible is God’s Word, and it would order its laws in accordance with that reality. This then causes a number of challenges that are not easy to sort through, especially with a modern pluralistic mindset. It is worth noting, that while we struggle to see how this could be implemented, many faithful Christians of the past did not. A few suggestions have been that the nation would adopt a credal approach to the Christian faith, but not a denominationally confessional approach. In other words, it would not seek to be a Baptist nation or a Presbyterian nation, but simply a historically credal Christian nation. This does not mean that every member of the nation would be forced to be a Christian under punishment of governmental coercion, like you might experience in a Muslim nation, for Christians do not believe the conscience of an individual can be forcibly arranged. Rather, individuals would be free to worship in the privacy of their homes however they pleased. Here is where our modern pluralistic expectations kick in, and my own modern mindset feels uncomfortable. Would a Muslim or Hindu still be free to worship in a mosque or temple? The answer might be no, not in a Christian nation. For public worship of Allah is immoral (see the first commandment). On the other hand, a “Christian nation” might determine that “freedom of religion” including “religious worship” is not something the government ought to oversee. Scholars have handled that question different over the years. One thing for sure is that in public, the realm that civil magistrates provide oversight for, the assumptive moral and legal standard would be what flows from a straightforward reading of the Bible.
The irony here is that much of our current American societal legal code is exactly that, a practical attempt to put the Biblical vision of justice into practice. Atheists and secularists take it for granted that we have a judicial system that celebrates “innocent until proven guilty,” but this cornerstone only developed out of a thoroughly Christian worldview. We take for granted that a King is not above the law—as is the case often in more atheistic countries like China and North Korea where tyranny tends to blossom—but we have our Puritan Protestant forefathers to thank for such an ideal. We take for granted that the government cannot coerce faith in a particular God, but once again that ideal grew from a Protestant worldview. The modern secularist (and often the modern uninformed Protestant) lives upon and celebrates these values without realizing it is only the Christian worldview that provides them. The worldview of secularism has no basis for these ideas.
It seems that a “Christian nation” would enforce a day of rest on the Sabbath, which would encourage but not enforce worship of God (a practice that is still common in many parts of our country today). It would enforce public blasphemy laws—akin to current ‘hate speech’ laws—that would include blasphemy of our Lord Jesus Christ under the definition of ‘hate speech’. And it would adhere to clear legal enforcement of God’s design for society and interpersonal morality. There would be national days of prayer (as was once common in our nation). Christian and nonChristian would be able to run for office and hold office, but the expectation would be that the nonChristian in office would adhere to the values of the Christian nation, and would legislate accordingly, just as a number of the nonChristian founders of America did. The Church would be guarded and protected to freely operate, and in fact encouraged and supported by a civil government determined to honor Christ, by creating an environment where the gospel could flourish.
Admittedly, there are a thousand details that would need to be sorted out, many of which have already been thought through by great men and women of old (see Kuyper’s Our Program for an excellent real world study). Politics would still be politics as legislation is wrestled through, but the true King would be recognized by the nation.
It is worth noting here that for the last few centuries, it was assumed that America was a Christian nation. While we have plenty of bruises and scars from our failures, the overall consensus was always that America was a Christian nation. When Muslims in the past fled persecution in their own Middle-Eastern countries, they knew full well that they were moving into a Christian nation, in fact it was this freedom that came from being a Christian nation that gave many of them such hope. Because Christians do not believe faith can be coerced through force, Christians are radically tolerant and welcoming of others. This is why wherever refugees are landing, you will find Christians serving and blessing. In general you won’t find Christians defacing the property of groups they disagree with, and when you do it is clear they are violating their own Christian presuppositions. Our new secular elites however are not so tolerant. It is not uncommon for Christian voices to be violently and threateningly shut down and Christian institutions who simply stand for the Word of God to be slandered and canceled. As it turns out, someone’s ideology is going to drive the ship in some direction. There is no moral neutral. As Christians standing on the Word of God, don’t we desire the values of Christ to drive society? Isn’t that the good life?
These political musings are in development. I have tried to write this with enough humility to say that these questions are not easy, and that the details have no consensus among historic Christian thinkers. And yet, I also love Christ. I want to see him honored. I hate that our culture defaces the name of Christ at nearly every turn. Yes, I pray for a more “Christian” future for. our nation. A future where the name of Jesus is honored. Where politicians think, act, and legislate Christianly. A future where the Church is not regularly looking over their shoulder for potential government overreach into their jurisdiction, but knows the government is their biggest encourager, because healthy Churches produces highly moral individuals, which in turn makes the government’s job a whole lot easier.
Looking forward will always seem blurry. Thankfully, history has been well recorded. And we have much to learn from, both positive and negative, from our nation building Christian forefathers. We would do well to apply ourselves as students.