Weekly Bible Study
Tuesday 13th October 2020
Topic: The Power of the Church and the Power of the State
Text: John 18:36, 2 Cor. 10:4.
We have previously examined spiritual power and spiritual warfare to be exercised by the church. But should the church ever use physical force (weapons and armies, for example) to carry out its mission? The phrase commonly used to refer to the idea of physical, worldly warfare is “to take up the sword.” There are several indications in Scripture that the church must never take up the sword to carry out its purposes in the new covenant age. There was a time of Crusades, when church-sponsored armies marched across Europe and Asia to attempt to reclaim the land of Israel. In these cases the church was trying to use physical force to bring about its triumph over earthly territories. But Jesus said in John 18:36 that, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight.”
The church has the power of the keys, which is spiritual power. It is to carry out spiritual battles using spiritual weapons, but is not to use the power of the sword to accomplish its purposes. “The weapons of our warfare are not worldly” (2 Cor. 10:4). Certainly God does give to civil government the right to bear the sword, that is to use force to punish evil in the world (Rom. 13:1–7).
But there is no indication that the power of government is to be used to enforce adherence to Christianity upon any people. Moreover, there are several indications that Jesus refused to use the power of physical force to compel people to accept the gospel. For example, when a Samaritan village would not receive Jesus, James and John asked, “Lord, do you want us to bid fire come down from heaven and consume them?” (Luke 9:54). But Jesus “rebuked them” (v. 55) for even making that suggestion. Jesus came the first time to offer the gospel to all who would receive it, not to execute punishment on those who rejected it.
This is why he could say, “For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17). He will one day come again in judgment, at the end of the church age, but during this age it is not the prerogative of the church to use physical force to carry out judgment. Jesus clearly made a distinction between the authority granted to the government and the authority that God exercises in our personal allegiance to him when he said, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matt. 22:21). And though Jesus recognised the authority of civil government, he refused to usurp that authority himself, telling someone, “Man, who made me a judge or divider over you?”
With respect to a matter of family inheritance (Luke 12:13–14). A further reason why the government should not use force to require allegiance to Christianity is that in the new covenant, membership in the church and allegiance to Christ must be voluntary. They cannot be compelled by family or by the state. In fact, faith in Christ, to be truly held and practiced, cannot be compelled by force. If it is compelled, it changes its essential quality and is no longer a voluntary act of the individual, and cannot be true faith. From this it also follows that the civil government should not enforce laws requiring or prohibiting kinds of church doctrine, or abridging the people’s freedom to worship as they choose. On the other hand, the church does not and should not rule over the state, as if it were some kind of higher authority over the state; it is not. Rather, the authority of the church and that of the state belong to distinct spheres (Matt. 22:21; John 18:36) and each should respect the authority God has given the other in its own sphere of operation.
Whenever Christians are involved in the political realm, they ought clearly to affirm freedom of religion as a political policy that is nonnegotiable, and they should be willing to defend that freedom for religions other than their own as well. The Christian faith can stand on its own two feet and compete very well in the market-place of ideas in any society and in any culture, provided it has the freedom to do so.
It is right for Christians to attempt to persuade governments to make laws that protect families and private property and the lives of human beings, laws that both outlaw and punish murder, adultery, theft, and the breaking of contracts, as well as prohibit homosexual conduct, drunkenness, drug abuse, abortion, and other things that are inconsistent with biblical standards of morality.
Governments should refrain from making laws on belief in certain types of church doctrine or theological conviction, people attend certain kinds of church or worship services these are clearly “religious” activities in the narrow sense in that these pertain to our relationship to God and our beliefs about Him. Governments should refrain from making laws about these things. Without mincing words, the church and state must be separated and what God has put asunder, let no one put together.