My Kingdom…Ed Cook July/August 2021
This article is the latest in a series addressing changes in church and state relations in America. Because of the great influence of Christianity in America since the Colonial Era and onward, this article distinguishes between Christianity that adheres more closely to its biblical roots and that in unfortunate times in the history of Western civilization when misguided religious leaders departed from biblical principles. This article is not intended to criticize, or condemn, such leaders or moments, but is intended to demonstrate how biblical Christianity is often mischaracterized by those who use such departures from biblical norms to stereotype Christianity and its followers as a maleficent influence in society.
On December 19, 2019, Mark Galli, then-editor of Christianity Today, published an editorial viewpoint, “Trump Should Be Removed From Office,” that set off a spate of contention among Evangelicals who supported Trump and those who did not. Galli argued that Christians should not support any national leader who demonstrated a lack of morality and ethics. To do so would diminish and tarnish the reputation of Christianity.
Nearly a year later, on November 2, 2020, the new editor of Christianity Today, Timothy Dalrymple, alluded to the same issue and affirmed Galli’s concern, as well as expressing his own conviction that aligned with Galli’s. Dalrymple also identified two groups among Evangelical Christians—the Church Regnant and the Church Remnant. The first group (Church Regnant) supports leaders whose actions advance Evangelical issues, even if those leaders may have questionable moral character or potential ethical issues. The Church Regnant derives its appellation from the term reign, or to govern. Thus, the Church Regnant consists of those Christians who interpret Christ’s teaching to establish Christianity as a reigning, or governing, force in the world. In essence, the church should help to establish the kingdom of God on earth, and such Christians view their role as addressing moral issues and practices in society.
The second group (Church Remnant) considers the witness and integrity of Christianity to be more important than policy issues and politics. They interpret Christ’s teachings as more spiritual and forward-looking to the time of Christ’s kingdom being established on an earth made new, after the destruction of sin and evil. From this belief, they see the church primarily as the medium God appointed for the salvation of humanity, a place where sinners are reconciled with God and given the assurance of eternal life. Such Christians participate in earthly activities, such as voting, daily life, holding down a job, forming a family unit, etc., but dedicate their primary focus upon evangelism. As such, they do not become so heavily involved in politics or candidates for public office.
What does the historical record reveal about Christianity from its founding to the present? The authoritative source for all Christians, the Bible, contains several principles regarding believers and their relation to civil authority.
Church and State
In Matthew 22:16-22 Jewish religious leaders attempted to catch Jesus speaking against the law or against Caesar by showing Him a tribute coin and asking whether it was lawful to pay tribute. Jesus, perceiving their craftiness, rebuked them and asked them to show Him the coin. Then He asked them, “Whose is this image and superscription?” They said to Him, “Caesar’s.” Then He said to them, “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.”
The historical context reveals that the tribute money in question had at least two meanings for the Jews living in Rome: some of the tribute money was used to support the temple of Roman deities, and the tribute tax was a perpetual reminder to the Jews of their subjugation to the Romans. Both of these issues led more zealous Jews to seek an opportunity for revolt, and most certainly was a discussion point as to whether any “pious and devout” Jew should pay the tribute in view of its association with Roman deities.
Christ’s answer was clear: render, or pay, dues to whom they are due. By His answer Christ establishes the principle that Christians should show deference whenever possible to earthly rulers and authority. The apostle Peter admonishes the same thing: “Fear God. Honour the king” (1 Peter 2:17). Christians should not be involved in efforts to overthrow even a pagan form of government. Christ’s instruction here is the same that the Holy Spirit inspired Paul to write in Romans 13, “The powers that be are ordained of God” (verse 1), including the pagan Roman government that existed when Paul wrote the book of Romans.
Additionally, in Matthew 22:16-22 Christ makes a clear distinction between two spheres of authority: the heavenly authority of God and the earthly authority of men. Martin Luther, the Catholic monk who turned into a Protestant Reformer, derived from this passage the concept that a Christian is a citizen of two kingdoms. As this passage implies, Christ foresaw times when both kingdoms would be in conflict over some things—the image on the coin identifies the kingdom to which it belongs. Likewise, humanity was made in the likeness and image of God (Genesis 1:26, 27) and, as such, belongs to God.
Yet a human is also a subject, or citizen, of an earthly kingdom, as Paul admonished: “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. . . . Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God” (Romans 13:1, 2). But, the demands of the state, if in conflict with the demands of God, must take second place, as Christ further pointed out: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind” (Matthew 22:36).
What, then, are some areas that God has reserved unto Himself? The first four commandments clearly describe supreme allegiance that humans owe to God as their Creator: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3); “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image. . . . Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them, for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God” (verses 4, 5); “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain” (verse 7); and “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy; six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: but the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God” (verses 8-10). Thus, a Christian must worship God and rest on the Sabbath (Saturday) instead of yielding homage to the demands of one’s employer (most state laws favor employers’ rights above those of employees); a Christian should pay tithe before taxes; Christian parents have the obligation to raise their children in the ways of God, rather than the ways of nonbelievers (homeschooling versus public education that typically includes evolutionary theories)—these are just a few of the areas in which Christians’ convictions conflict with the demands of earthly (civil) authority and provide sufficient reason for which the two spheres should be identified and maintained as distinctly separate.
Church and state relations involve not only relations between civil authority and religious groups, but also relations between various religious groups. Perhaps the most notable teaching of Christ regarding tolerance toward differing religious beliefs may be found in Luke 9:51-56. Christ was en route to Jerusalem shortly before the events leading up to His crucifixion and had chosen to travel through a Samaritan village. The Samaritans held some religious beliefs in common with the Jews, but many that differed. One primary difference was they worshipped on a mountain in Samaria and not in Jerusalem at the temple, as the Jews believed and practiced (John 4:20). Thus, the Samaritans refused to allow Jesus and His disciples to pass that way. With great indignation two of His disciples wanted to “command fire to come down from heaven to consume them” (Luke 9:54). Christ rebuked them, saying, “You do not know what manner of spirit you are of. For the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives but to save them” (verses 55, 56, NKJV).1 Thus, Christ not only demonstrated tolerance, but also revealed that religious bigotry and retaliatory actions toward those with differing faiths had no place in His teachings and should never be practiced by His followers.
Nonetheless, religious discrimination and persecution based on a false religious zeal have been revealed in Christian history and will again be revealed in the future. In Revelation 13:1-3 and 14-17 John, the beloved disciple of Jesus, described an entity that combined religious and political power, which had characteristics similar to those of Christ (receiving a deadly wound [Revelation 13:3] and having two horns like a lamb [verse 11], both of which are symbolic of Christ, the Lamb of God [John 1:29], and His crucifixion). That religiopolitical entity would deceive earth’s inhabitants into establishing a decree to enforce worship of itself and the mark of its authority. From John’s perspective of A.D. 98, what future events did he foresee?
Christianity was essentially an illegal religion from the time of its founding (roughly A.D. 33) until the fourth century, when Emperor Constantine recognized it as the religion of the Roman Empire. During its illegal existence Christians were considered a threat to the Empire because they would not recognize the divinity of each reigning emperor, and would make that known by refusing to offer a pinch of incense to their statues. Christians were not allowed to proselytize (make converts), and blended in with the Jewish worship services because Judaism was a legal religion and because of the common day of worship for both groups, the biblical Sabbath (Saturday). For these reasons countless numbers of Christians died as martyrs as part of public entertainment—some through public burning and others through being mauled by wild animals during the Colosseum events.
As Christians became the dominant religion in the Roman Empire, they exerted more influence on society and its customs. Christians wrote much and entered into debates with non-Christians over philosophical issues and such practices as public entertainment at the coliseums. Emperor Constantine the Great came into power in A.D. 306 and issued the Edict of Milan in A.D. 313, which granted tolerance to Christians throughout the Empire. He presided over the Council of Nicea in A.D. 325, thus serving a dual role as emperor and as theologian over some doctrinal issues that church leaders needed to settle. This marked the first time in the history of Christianity that Christians entered into close working relations with civil authority and political forces. By A.D. 381 Emperor Theodosius I had made Christianity the official religion of the Empire, and in A.D. 392 paganism was officially banned, leading to persecution of pagans for the better part of a century. By A.D. 538 the church in Rome assumed the role and influence over the Roman Empire of the West when Emperor Justinian transferred the seat of imperial authority from Rome to Constantinople. This period marked the beginning of what would grow through the following centuries to become the monolithic, oppressive, and persecuting force of the Roman Catholic Church, which reached its apogee during the Medieval Era.
In A.D. 494 Pope Gelasius I conceived the Two Swords theory, by which the Church claimed the sword of spiritual authority and conceded to the state that of civil authority. Under this configuration the spiritual authority of the church outweighed the civil authority of the state. Thus, the Church justified itself in using civil authority and leveraging politics to achieve its ends if spiritual means would not suffice.2 During the following centuries the Church assumed such authority that church leaders began to adopt practices and affirm doctrines that were not based on the Bible. In essence supplanting Christ as the mediator of human beings before God, the Church began to exert control over the consciences of adherents (and nonbelievers) by teaching auricular confession (audible confession of sins to a priest in order to receive pardon). The popes began to take on a supreme, pontifical role, assuming prerogatives that belong only to God, such as power to forgive sins (Matthew 9:1-8) and holding “the keys of hell and of death” (Revelation 1:18). By claiming such authority and adopting the title of Vicar of the Son of God (i.e., one who stands as the incarnate Son of God), popes through the centuries abused such improperly claimed authority to denounce kings, to christen kings, and to coerce monarchs and their subjects through papal interdiction (not allowing any dead to be buried in the church cemetery and forbidding priests to conduct funerals, infant baptisms, or weddings—prohibitions that struck panic into the believing masses, because the priests were seen as the portal to the afterlife).
The Holy Inquisition of the Medieval Era (1200-1500) marked the height of the abuse of papal authority. In twelfth-century France papal directive led to the violent suppression of the perceived errors of Cathars (aka Albigensians) and Huguenots, as well as in Italy against the Waldensians. The Inquisition was established over a vast area that included Madrid, Spain; Rome, Italy; Goa, India; Lima, Peru; England; and Mexico City, Mexico. The Renaissance (1300-1400) exposed fallacies of papal teachings. A Roman Catholic monk named Martin Luther appealed for a return to a biblical model of the church and its claims. He was rejected and became a figure at the epicenter of what we remember as the Protestant Reformation. Thus, after 1518, the Inquisition targeted Protestants primarily, and at times Jewish believers. The Index Librorum Prohibitorum (List of Prohibited Books) was used during the Inquisition to identify prohibited literary material. (Its use ended in 1966 in the wake of Vatican II, but the Legion of Decency in America and the Knights of Columbus monitor and refute any publications against the Church.)
The Roman Catholic Church was not alone in committing atrocities unbecoming of Christians. Protestants also utilized the weapons of this world and tactical measures to engage in conflict with Catholics. The Schmalkald League (1531-1547), organized by Lutherans, intended to defend Protestant believers against Catholic forces in the Holy Roman Empire. As Protestantism spread, the European Wars of the Religion,3 lasting from the sixteenth to the early eighteenth centuries, were battles between Catholics and Protestants for control of formerly Catholic territories. In Geneva, Switzerland, John Calvin established a union of Protestant religion (Calvinism) and civil authority (the Court of Star Chamber) to try to condemn those believed to be in violation of the religious teachings established by law. As part of Christianity’s sorrowful past, John Calvin ordered that Michael Servetus be burned at the stake because he held an antibiblical view of the Holy Spirit, had disseminated such views through writings, and refused to recant from those beliefs.
After several centuries of such oppression, society threw off the yoke of papal control. Secularists, non-religionists, and philosophers, disgusted by the un-Christlike actions of both Catholics and Protestants, contributed to the Enlightenment. In France Voltaire vowed to undermine the Christianity of the day; and the French Revolution (1793-1798) marked the beheading of many priests. Napoleon’s General Berthier took the pope captive, thus marking what church historians refer to as the Roman Question (i.e., Would the Roman Catholic Church regain the civil and ecclesial authority that it had once exercised during the Medieval Era, and what would become of the church as a mere spiritual entity?).
Several of America’s Founders were influenced by Enlightenment thought and perceived the dangers of church and state union as recorded throughout much of European history. Thomas Jefferson, in particular, helped produce a secular Constitution, while it was James Madison who penned the religion clauses of what later became the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Those founding documents have surely functioned well in America for more than two centuries. However, in recent decades, various Christian groups have organized for political power and influence: they appear to be producing a mirror-like image and following in the footsteps of Roman Catholicism from its earliest origins through centuries of dominance. The Church Regnant may believe involvement in politics is justified, but to what end will it lead?
1 Texts credited to NKJV are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
2Harold Kingsberg and Dustin James Hudgins, contributors to Quora.com, “What Was Gelasius’ Two-Swords Theory?” translated from the Latin text (2020), https://www.quora.com/What-was-Gelasiuss-two-swords-theory, accessed March 11, 2021.
3See David J. B. Trim, “The Reformation and Wars of Religion,” Liberty, 2010 edition, for a five-part series detailing these events, http://www.libertymagazine.org/article/the-break-from-rome, accessed March 11, 2021.
Article Author: Ed Cook
Ed Cook has a doctorate in church-state studies from Baylor University, Waco, Texas, where he currently leads in church religious liberty activities.