Three Building Blocks for a Christian’s Political Theology


Every pastor desires to see his congregation formed theologically (and if the pastor doesn’t want that, he should!). Part of this theological formation involves thinking through a number of questions that relate to church and state. The three entries below are taken from a book I’ve been writing over several years called Daily Doctrine. It should be out next year. In the meantime, hopefully the topics below can help us think theologically about a few of the pressing issues of our day.


In his 1802 letter, Thomas Jefferson wrote to the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut offering his interpretation that the Constitution erected a “wall of separation between Church & State.” Although Jefferson’s phrase has been often misapplied, and his gloss on the First Amendment can be criticized, Jefferson was right to recognize that church and state are different institutions whose aim and approaches must not be confused or conflated.

The church is the visible society of professing Christians (and their children) on earth. This society has an order and government designed primarily for the spiritual well-being of its members, though not without all reference to the temporal interests of the community.

By contrast, the state is the visible society of all the members of that body (e.g., a country). This society has an order and government designed primarily for the temporal well-being of its members, though not without reference to the spiritual references of its members.[1]

While the church and state will overlap in aims and functions at times, and both societies are ultimately accountable to God and will be judged according to the divine law, the two institutions are fundamentally different and independent.

The two societies differ in their origin. The church owes its origin to Christ as Mediator. The state is founded in nature, not in grace. That is, the state is common to all people, whereas the church is a part of God’s redemptive plan.

The two societies differ in the primary objects for which they were instituted. The church was ordained by God for the salvation of souls and for the spiritual good of its heavenly citizens. The state was ordained by God for the outward order and good of human society.

The two societies differ in the power committed to them. The church’s power does not involve the exercise of physical force. The church exercises its power by the force of truth upon the convictions and consciences of men. To the magistrates of the state belong the power of the sword.

The two societies differ in the administration of their respective authorities. The church has its own office bearers to exercise authority over its own affairs. The state, while not being prescribed a specific form of government in Scripture, has its own office bearers appointed by God to exercise authority as a government over the governed.

If these four points are true, then we must reject any Erastian system whereby the state exercises supreme authority over the church, and any mediaeval Catholic system whereby the church exercises supreme authority over the state. In the best of circumstances, the church and the state will pursue their unique aims in ways that are mutually reinforcing of the other, but the two societies must not be confused as being the same.


As Reformed ecclesiology developed in the modern world, few theologians advocated final state authority over the church or final church authority over the state. Anything too close to the former was dismissed as Erastian—named after the Swiss physician Thomas Erastus (1524–83) who argued for state supremacy in ecclesiastical affairs—and anything too close to the latter was considered dangerously Catholic.

But this doesn’t mean the relationship between church and state was easy to figure out. Far from it. Even in countries with deep Protestant roots, church leaders and theologians often disagreed on whether the church should be organized according to the establishment principle or the voluntary principle.

According to the establishment principle, the church should be supported, defended, and promoted by the state. Even in a country like Scotland, which had long emphasized the distinction between church and state as two kings and two kingdoms, the assumption was that Scotland was a Christian nation and ought to be governed as a godly commonwealth. The church alone had authority to determine its worship, doctrine, and discipline, but the state was obligated to recognize and support the church by means of tax revenue and by upholding certain fundamental principles of true piety (e.g., Sabbath observance). The magistrate was afforded a power about religion (circa sacra) but not a power in religion (in sacris).

By contrast, those holding to the voluntary principle insisted upon a sharper separation of church and state. Most practically, this meant that the church was to be supported by the voluntary contributions of church members rather than out of the state coffers. Likewise, no one would be considered a member of the church simply by virtue of being a citizen of that country. Churches would be formed by the voluntary association of those wanting to belong to a given congregation. Among paedobaptists, “those” included parents and their children.

Given the fact that many of the greatest Protestant theologians in history have belonged to and believed in an establishment church, I’m hesitant to insist that the idea cannot mesh with biblical principles. And yet (as a Presbyterian), I’m glad that American Presbyterians, in forming a national denomination in 1788, altered the Westminster Standards in several places so as to give the civil magistrate much less of a role in the affairs of the church (WCF 20.4, 23.3, 31.1; WLC 109), sowing the seeds of disestablishment (which took almost fifty more years to play out in the individual states). This formal change cemented what had already taken place informally when chapters 20 and 23 of the Confession were curtailed with the Adopting Act of 1729.

While the separation of church and state has often been misconstrued as the separation of the church from the state (or, in more recent years, the hostility of the state toward the church), I nevertheless see good reasons for the voluntary principle. (1) In an Establishment, the church normally depends, to some degree, upon state revenue. This makes true ecclesiastical independence impossible. What the state giveth, the state can also taketh away. (2) The state that can establish my religion, can later change its mind and establish someone else’s religion. Given our belief in human depravity and corruptibility, I’d prefer not to give the state authority concerning religious matters. (3) The early church was clearly not an establishment church. The voluntary nature of gathering, belonging, and financially giving to the church—without which the church cannot flourish—seems more the spirit of the New Testament and should be considered a vital part of Christian discipleship.


When Martin Luther was summoned before the Diet of Worms and told to repudiate his views on theology and the church, he famously refused to recant, claiming that it was “neither right nor safe” to go against his conscience. More than a century later, the Westminster Confession of Faith stated just as emphatically, “God alone is Lord of the conscience” (WCF 20.2). The liberty of conscience has been ever since not just a hallmark of Protestant Christianity but one of the defining marks of the Western world.

But what did Luther and the Westminster divines mean by liberty of conscience? For starters, Luther declared that his conscience was “captive to the Word of God.” Luther did not use “conscience” as shorthand for “doing whatever I want to do.” His statement was about fidelity to the Bible, no matter the cost, not about cruising through life with “conscience” as a get out of jail free card.

Further, the Westminster Confession makes clear that “conscience” is not an excuse for sin and lawlessness. When, “upon the pretense of Christian liberty,” we “practice any sin, or cherish any lust,” we dishonor God and destroy the purpose of Christian liberty (WCF 20.3). Likewise, Christian liberty is not meant to overthrow the lawful power of civil and ecclesiastical authorities (WCF 20.4). The God-given authority of the civil magistrate and of the church are designed to work in concert with the God-given authority of the individual’s conscience—each supporting, and at times limiting, the others.

How this all works out in practice is often complicated, but the principle that “God alone is Lord of the conscience” is worth preserving. It means that we should not press others (nor capitulate to pressure) to do what their conscience (or ours) has concluded from the Bible is wrong. It means that the church should not require of its members (in worship or elsewhere) what the Bible does not require. And it means that wherever possible the government should look to accommodate the sincerely held beliefs of its citizens.

The Reformation view of the conscience means that religious freedom is not just an Enlightenment value or a pragmatic consideration. John Locke’s famous Letter Concerning Toleration (1689) argued chiefly on Christian grounds that the Protestant nations of Europe should show love, forbearance, and goodwill to all people.[2] Locke said there is “but one truth, one way to heaven,” but we cannot lead people there by coercion and by making them violate their consciences.[3] The care of souls does not belong to the civil magistrate. The magistrate is to secure men’s possessions; the church is to secure men’s salvation. They have distinct roles and operate in distinct spheres. To be sure, this may mean that the state has to tolerate false religion, but Locke feared that any power “given to the magistrate for the suppression of an idolatrous Church” could in time be used for “the ruin of an orthodox one.”[4]

The revolutionary notion that the individual conscience should be respected and that there should be freedom of religious belief and practice is one of the great legacies of Reformation principles. May God be gracious to preserve these freedoms in our day and for generations to come.

* * * * *

[1] These definitions, as well as the points that follow, summarize James Bannerman, The Church of Christ, 101-113, though it should be noted that Bannerman, who defended the establishment principle, argues for a more pronounced role for the state in establishing, supporting, and promoting true religion.

[2] Though, admittedly, Locke was thinking mainly about all Protestant people. Locke was actually more in favor of toleration for Jews and Muslims than for Catholics, because, like almost all Protestants at that time, he viewed Catholicism as a dangerous geo-political power hostile to the interests of Protestant Europe.

[3] John Locke, Letter Concerning Toleration, 153.

[4] Locke, Letter Concerning Toleration, 175.

Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung is the senior pastor of Christ Covenant in Matthews, North Carolina. You can find him on Twitter at @RevKevDeYoung.

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