Relation Between Church and State
Copyright © 1997 Naphtali Press
A Lecture delivered by Dr. Cunningham at the opening of the Session of the New College, in November 1851. From Discussions of Church Principles.
The relation that ought to subsist between the state and the church, or between the civil and the ecclesiastical authorities, as representing and regulating them, has been a subject of controversial discussion since the time of the Emperor Constantine; and there are some important questions involved in the discussion of it, which still divide men whose opinions are entitled to the highest deference and respect. These differences are not merely theoretical, but have produced important practical results in all ages, and even in our own day; and are likely to continue to exert an important influence upon the actual condition of the world. The subject is now, much more than in any former age, forced upon the attention of statesmen, as involving practical questions which they are called upon to solve, and the right solution of these questions would introduce very important changes. All the erroneous views and practices upon this subject which have at any time appeared in the world are still to be found in it. Even persecution for conscience sake is not yet wholly banished from civilized countries, or confined to those in which the Church of Rome is predominant; and in all Protestant countries the civil powers have usurped, and the established churches have consented to, an exercise of authoritative control by the state, inconsistent with scriptural views of the functions of the civil government, and with the rights and liberties of the church of Christ.
We assume at present that the duties and functions, the rights and privileges, of the state and the church, or of the civil and the ecclesiastical authorities, are to be determined by the word of God, in so far as it contains materials bearing upon these points. The church is a supernatural institution, having direct relation exclusively to men’s spiritual and eternal interests; and we can know nothing certainly about it except from the supernatural revelation which God has given us in His word. It is otherwise with the state of civil government. This is intended to bear at least principally and most directly, upon the temporal welfare of men, and ought to be regulated chiefly by a regard to the principles of natural reason. God has not prescribed His written word as the only rule to be followed by nations and their rulers in establishing and administering civil government; and He has not given them in His word sufficient materials to guide them authoritatively in determining all the questions which, with reference to this matter, they may be called upon to entertain and dispose of. But it is not on this account the less true, that there are materials in the word of God which do bear upon the functions and duties of nations and their rulers, and that these relevant materials ought to be applied by them as authoritative in regulating their conduct. Some things, then, respecting the functions and duties of nations and their rulers, are to be learned from Scripture; and everything that determines the obligations and procedure of churches, and of those who represent and regulate them, is to be ascertained from that source. At present, however, we have to do, not with the whole of what is taught or prescribed in Scripture concerning the state and the church, or concerning civil and ecclesiastical government, but only with so much of it as bears upon the relation that ought to subsist between them; and, even under this head, chiefly with what relates to the peculiar testimony which the Free Church of Scotland has been called upon to bear.
The substance of what is generally regarded as taught in Scripture with respect to civil government, including the relative duties of rulers and subjects, is set forth in the Confessions of the Reformed churches, and in the old systems of theology, under the head, De Magistratu. By the magistrate, or the civil magistrate, in this connection, is of course meant the party, whether one or many, possessed of the supreme civil power, and entitled to frame the laws, and to regulate ultimately the whole proceedings of a nation. It is only this supreme legislative power, of whatever parties it may be composed, that comes directly and immediately into contact with the word of God as its rule or standard; all inferior authorities, even the highest executive and judicial functionaries, being bound to regulate their procedure by the existing constitution and laws of the nation; by the provisions which the civil magistrate, that is the nation acting by its highest organ, has established. About the duties and functions of nations, or of the civil magistrate as the party entitled to enact national laws, and to regulate national affairs; in other words, about the origin, the objects, and ends of civil government and civil magistracy, the word of God gives us some information; and by this information, carefully investigated and accurately ascertained, nations and their rulers ought to be guided. The chief topics under this general head, which have been discussed in relation to our present subject, are these: 1. What is implied in civil government being, as it is generally admitted to be, an ordinance of God? and 2., Whether the promotion of religion, or the advancement of the spiritual welfare of the community, be one of its direct and proper ends?
These questions have been largely discussed, especially in our own day, in connection with the subject of the lawfulness and practicability of some union or friendly alliance between church and state, the warrantableness and the obligation of the civil magistrate aiming, in the execution of the functions of his office, at the prosperity of the church of Christ and the welfare of true religion. If civil government be an ordinance of God in some higher and more definite sense than merely this, that it is the natural appropriate result of the constitution which God has given to men, and of the ordinary providence which He exercises over them, as Scripture seems plainly enough to intimate, then this decidedly favors the idea that the state, acting through its organs, should recognize its responsibility to God, and should co-operate with the church in promoting his cause, and advancing the welfare of religion. If the promotion of religion, the advancement of the spiritual welfare of the community be one of the proper objects or ends of civil government, then this at once goes far to establish the truth of what has been called the establishment principle, as opposed to the voluntary principle; for, upon this assumption, it seems impossible to dispute that civil rulers, in the execution of their functions, are called upon to aim at the promotion of true religion according to the word of God; and with this view, to enter into a friendly union or alliance with the church of Christ; unless indeed, upon the ground that the constitution and functions of the church preclude this.
It is important however, to notice that in order to uphold the principle of national establishments of religion, it is not indispensable to establish any particular views of what is implied in civil government being an ordinance of God, or to show that the promotion of religion is one of its proper objects or ends. For even though the possession of civil authority were regarded merely in the vague and general aspect of a talent or means of influence, the establishment principle might be shown to derive some countenance from the general obligation attaching to all men, in all circumstance to employ all their talents for the promotion of God’s glory and the advancement of his cause. And if it were conceded that the proper direct end of civil government is only the temporal and not the spiritual welfare of the community, it would still be quite competent to argue, and not difficult to prove. First, that civil rulers are called upon to aim at the promotion of religion as the best and only certain means of advancing the temporal welfare of their subject: And secondly, that though the promotion of religion is not an end of civil government, it is yet an end which civil governors, in the execution of their official function, may be called upon to aim at; or to use one of those scholastic distinctions which so frequently throw light upon an intricate subject, though not finis operis [the aim of the work], it may yet be the finis operantis [the aim of the proceedings]. On this ground, the doctrine that the promotion of the temporal welfare of the community is the only proper direct end of civil government has been held by many of the advocates of the principle of national establishments of religion, and indeed by men of all varieties of opinion upon the different topics involved in this general subject; by Cardinal Bellarmine and other Popish writers, who wished to depress the dignity, and to pave the way for its subjection to the authoritative control of the church; by George Gillespie and the old Scotch and Dutch Presbyterian divines, who contended against the opposite doctrine when brought forward as an argument in favor of the right of the civil power to interfere authoritatively in the regulation of ecclesiastical affairs. The doctrine that the promotion of the spiritual welfare of the community is one of the proper ends of civil government, has been employed by Erastians as a basis for the position that the state ought to exercise authoritative control over the church. The opposite doctrine, that the temporal welfare of the community is the only end of civil government, has been employed by the advocates of voluntarism as a basis for the position that the civil magistrate, as such, has no duty or obligation in reference to religion, and is not called upon to aim at promoting the prosperity of the church. We believe that both these positions are unfounded, and we are confident that neither of them can be fairly deduced from the particular doctrines (opposed to each other) with respect to the objects and ends of civil government on which they are respectively based. We have already explained the process by which, notwithstanding the admission that the temporal welfare of the community is the only direct and proper end of civil government, the principle of National Establishments may be defended against its opponents; and the process by which Erastiansism may be excluded, notwithstanding the admission that the promotion of religion is one of the ends of civil government, is by showing that the magistrate’s obligation to promote religion does not imply that he has a right of authoritative control in ecclesiastical matters. Even if it were assumed that Scripture has not settled the precise question whether the promotion of religion is, or is not, one of the primary and direct ends of civil government, we can see our way to a proof of all that we believe to be true, and to a disproof of all that we believe to be erroneous, in regard to the relation that ought to subsist between the civil and ecclesiastical authorities, without needing to assume as established either side of this alternative.
There is much more information given us in scripture concerning the church than concerning the state; and it is indeed from Scripture alone that we can know anything about the church; its definition, nature, constitution, objects, and ends. The teaching of Scripture on the subject of the church forms an important department in Christian Theology. Even the right scriptural definition of the church has been the subject of much controversial debate, and the settlement of this point is of fundamental importance in some of our leading discussions with the Romanists. In so far as concerns our present subject of the relation that ought to subsist between the civil and the ecclesiastical authorities, the chief topic to be examined is the constitution and government of the church as a distinct society. That the church of Christ is, by the ordination of its founder, a society, that is, a regulated union or combination of many, for the promotion of common objects and interests, is very clearly taught in Scripture, and is indeed plainly implied in all the representations given us there of the kingdom of Christ, and of the parts or sections of which it is composed. This indeed, is generally admitted, and can scarcely be said to have at any time proved a subject of controversy. The church is also represented in Scripture as a society distinct from the kingdoms of this world, and as differing essentially from them in its whole character and qualities. This appears plainly from all that Scripture tells us concerning its origin and ends, its author and objects, its constitution and government, its office bearers and members, the standard by which its affairs ought to be regulated, and the qualifications of those who do or should compose it. The distinction or diversity between the Church of Christ and the kingdoms of this world in these various important respects is also generally admitted.
Differences of opinion have, however, arisen as to the necessity of the permanence of this distinction in all circumstances, and as to some of the indifferences that may be deduced from it. To understand the discussions which have taken place upon these points, it will be proper to observe that the Scripture sets before us a visible Catholic church, consisting of all those throughout the world who profess the true religion, together with their children; and likewise a number of churches, distinguished from each other, having each its own individuality, but all of them parts or branches of the one visible Catholic church. We have nothing to do at present with the position which the Congregationalists maintain in opposition to all other sections of Christians, namely, that upon scriptural principles a church can be only a single congregation. We assume at present, what we think we can prove, the truth of the position laid down in our form of church government; namely that the Scripture does hold forth that many particular congregations may be under one presbyterial government, and that of course all the Christian congregations of a district or kingdom may be so combined and united together under one government as to form one church. What we wish especially to notice in connection with this matter is this, that the leading views taught in Scripture with respect to the church, that is, the visible Catholic church viewed as a whole, apply equally in substance to any church; that is, to any portion or section of the whole church to which the designation of a church may be legitimately applied. Whatever is prescribed in Scripture to the visible church as a whole, or as one organized society, in regard to its constitution, laws, and government, its relations to Christ, or to the kingdoms of this world, is equally binding upon every church; that is, upon every section of professing Christians, whether consisting of one congregation or of many united under one government, which assumes to itself the designation of a church. The assumption of this character and designation by any organization of professing Christians, larger or smaller, at once imposes upon it an obligation, resting upon divine authority, to conform in all respects to what Scripture teaches concerning the duties and functions, the laws and arrangements, of the distinct kingdom which Christ has established.
This is a principle of some importance, and admits of obvious and extensive application. The church of Christ, as it is represented in Scripture, being distinct, and in many important respects formerly referred to, different, from the kingdoms of this world, every church is bound to retain this distinctness and diversity, and cannot disregard or abandon it without acting unfaithfully to Christ. No change of circumstances can legitimately transmute a church of Christ into a civil society, into a kingdom of this world, or exempt it from its obligation to maintain fully its peculiar distinctive characters and arrangements as they are set forth in Scripture. Some have contended that when the supreme civil power of a kingdom professes subjection to Christ’s authority, and a willingness to aid or co-operate in carrying out the designs of the church, and especially if the whole or the chief parts of the population should become members of the church, and that the only church in the community, that then the distinctive character of the church as a separate society is virtually sunk in that of a Christian state, with which it then becomes identified. This notion or something like it (for it is generally put forth very vaguely and obscurely), has been employed by many writers as a ground for investing civil rulers with an authoritative control over the church’s affairs, and reducing the church to a condition of entire subordination to the state; and it has been employed by Dr. Arnold for the more honorable purpose, (though the practical result is substantially the same), of exalting and refining the objects and aims of the civil power. With whatever views this notion may be advocated, it is in itself fundamentally erroneous, implying a disregard at least, if not a denial, of the whole substance of what Scripture teaches concerning the church, upon the principle formerly explained; and, of course, concerning all the parts or sections of which it is composed. Christ has made His church distinct and diverse from the kingdoms of this world; and distinct and diverse it must continue, if it would not change its whole character, and abandon entirely the relation in which it stands to Him. Civil rulers, by becoming Christian, and setting about the discharge of the duties which the word of God imposes upon them in reference to religion or the church, do not acquire any right or authority which they had not before, and do not become entitled to alter the constitution and laws of the church, or to assume any authoritative control in the regulation of its affairs. The church is not warranted, on the ground of any obedience justly due to civil rulers, or in return for any favors which it may receive from them, to alter, or to consent to the alteration of, any of the characters which Christ has impressed upon it, or of the arrangements which He has established in regard to it. Every feature in the scriptural definition and description of the church implies its essential and permanent distinctness from the kingdoms of this world. Even if the whole community were members of the church, and of one and the same church, this could be regarded only as an accidental condition of things that could not be expected to last for any length of time, and if it should last, would afford no warrant for disregarding or setting aside Christ’s arrangements. Although the church and the commonwealth consist of the same persons, it would still, if Christ’s arrangements as set forth in Scripture were to be at all regarded, be by a different constitution and laws. That men held their places in the one or in the other, whether as office-bearers or as members, and thy would still have in these two different capacities different duties to discharge, and a different standard to follow.
Nothing indicates that it was Christ’s intention that the constitution and arrangements of His church should be altered when His religion should gain an ascendency in a nation. Everything indicates the reverse. He is to be with His church, and His church is to be with Him, that is, subject to His control, obedient to His direction, submissive to His will, faithful in discharging the duties He has imposed, until the end of the world. A mere change in the external condition of the church, arising from the proceedings of civil rulers professing to discharge a scriptural duty, is a fundamentally different thing from an alteration in any of those matters which manifestly constitute essential features of the church as a distinct society, of the arrangements He made for the administration of its government, and the regulation of its affairs. The classes and qualifications of office-bearers, the nature and limits of their authority and functions, the qualifications and privileges of ordinary members, and the superintendence to be exercised over them by the office-bearers, are manifestly among the essentialia of a distinct organized society, and cannot be materially changed without changing its constitution and character. Christ has settled these points for His church in His word; while in regard to civil society nations are left free to settle most of these matters according to their own judgment and discretion; and from the nature of the case, there are many of them which cannot be settled in civil society in the way in which Christ has settled them in His church.
On such grounds as these, it can be easily shown that the distinctness and diversity between the church, as settled by Christ, and the kingdoms of this world, must be permanently maintained; and that their complete organization, as distinct societies, cannot be infringed upon without sin on the part of those concerned in it, without interfering with arrangements which Christ appointed and intended to continue till His second coming.
We have said that there has been some discussion, not only as to the permanence of this distinction between the church and the state, arising from the important differences in their character, constitution, and objects, but likewise as to some of the inferences deducible from it, or as to what is involved or implied in it. From a setting forth of the distinction between the church and the state, and of the various important and fundamental differences between them, there has been deduced the inference that there can, and should, be no union or alliance between them, no definite arrangement for affording to each other mutual co-operation and assistance. This conclusion we believe to be untrue; we think it can be positively disproved; and what is more immediately to our present purpose, we think it very evident that it does not follow from anything that can be established as to the distinctness of the two societies. Since the general ends or objects of the two societies, though different, are not only not opposed to each other, but harmonious and accordant; since they are both fitted and intended, in their respective spheres, to promote the glory of God and the welfare of the community, there is no reason why they may not enter into a friendly union or alliance with each other, provided it is not a union or alliance of such a kind as to destroy or supersede their distinctness. It has never been proved that all union or alliance between them must necessarily possess this character or produce this result; and on the contrary, it has been shown that the very differences between them afford important facilities for their affording each other mutual assistance without encroaching upon one another’s province and functions, abandoning their own proper position, or neglecting their appropriate objects.
It has also been maintained that the distinctness of the state and the church, viewed as including the origin and nature of the differences between them which it implies, affords a good ground for the inference that the two societies, and the authorities who represent and regulate them, are, and ought to be, wholly independent of each other, with respect to any jurisdiction or authoritative control of the one over the other; that it precludes the assumption or exercise of any right on the part of one to interfere authoritatively in the regulation of the affairs of the other. We believe that this conclusion is well founded; that it follows fairly from the premises; and that it can be conclusively established by a survey of all the materials bearing upon the settlement of the question. This is the branch of the general subject that bears most immediately upon the position the Free church has been led to occupy, and the testimony she has been called upon to bear. It is on this topic that the controversies which have been long carried on inter imperium et sacerdotium [between the crown and the priesthood], or as to the relation that ought to subsist between the civil and ecclesiastical authorities, have almost wholly turned, until in our own day prominence has been given to the principle of Voluntaryism, or of the entire separation of church and state, a principle which only cuts the knot, and certainly does not untie it.
It is not difficult to perceive how it is that the differences between the church and the state which constitute them two distinct societies should lay a foundation for their entire independence of each other in respect to jurisdiction or authoritative control, while they give no countenance to the doctrine of the necessity of their entire separation, or of the unlawfulness or impracticability of friendly combination between them for mutual aid and assistance. That two societies which must come into contact with each other, and whose leading ends and objects, though different, have yet no discordance or opposition, should combine more or less for mutual co-operation and assistance, and of course should make arrangements with each other with this view, is a position which has every antecedent probability and presumption in its favor. The burden of proof lies wholly upon those who deny it. And then it can, we think, be proved that an obligation attaches to nations as such, and to civil rulers in their official capacity, to aim at the promotion of the interests of religion and the welfare of the church. The appropriate result of this obligation, where both parties rightly understand their respective duties, and where special circumstances in the condition of the community do not preclude it, is the formation of a friendly union between them. On the other hand, the notion that of two naturally and originally distinct societies, the one should be entitled to exercise jurisdiction or authoritative control over the other, has every probability or presumption against it. The burden of proof lies wholly upon those who assert it. That subordination of the one to the other which is implied in the exercise of jurisdiction; that is, of such a right of authoritative control as imposes, ordinarily, a valid obligation to obedience, can be legitimately based only either upon the natural intrinsic relation of the two societies to each other, or upon the interposed authority of a common superior. The natural and original distinctness of the two societies would, upon general principles, exclude the first of these possible grounds of superiority and subordination; and there is a great deal in the special features of the two societies in question, the state and the church, to confirm the exclusion, and nothing whatever to invalidate it. If it is alleged, as it has been, that God, the common superior, has invested the one with a right to exercise authoritative control over the other, this of course is a position which must be fairly met and discussed by an investigation of all the materials which legitimately bear upon it. So far as we can collect the will of God upon this subject from the more general properties and qualities of the two societies as ascertained either from reason or revelation, there is certainly nothing whatever to countenance the idea of the dependence of the one upon the other, of the subordination of the one to the other, but on the contrary, much to establish the doctrine of their entire mutual independence in respect to jurisdiction, and to prove the unwarrantableness and unlawfulness of the one usurping any authority over the other; and the very same result is brought out by an examination of the more specific positions alleged to be sanctioned by Scripture, and to bear more directly upon this particular subject.
From the nature of the case there are just three theories that can be maintained upon this subject: First, that of those who assert the superiority in point of jurisdiction of the church over the state; the right of the ecclesiastical rulers to exercise authoritative control in civil matters. This is the doctrine of the Church of Rome, and has been maintained more or less fully and openly by most of her leading authorities.
Secondly, that of those who assert the superiority of the state over the church, or the right of the civil rulers to exercise jurisdiction in ecclesiastical affairs. This has usually been known among us by the name of Erastianism, though it is often spoken of by continental writers under the designation Byzantinism, a term derived from the degrading subjection to the civil power to which the Patriarchs of Constantinople were reduced during the middle ages, while their rivals the Bishops of Rome attained not only to independence, but to supremacy.
Thirdly, that of those who deny the Popish and the Erastian theories, and maintain that the church and the state are two co-equal independent powers, each supreme in its own distinct province, and neither having any authoritative control over the other. This is the doctrine taught in the word of God and in the Westminster Standards, though it can scarcely be said to have any distinct compendious historical designation in theological literature.1
As the alleged absurdity and danger of an imperium in imperio [a state within a state], and the alleged necessity of some one power or authority that shall superintend and control everything in a community, is the common basis of the two leading erroneous theories upon the subject of the relation between the civil and the ecclesiastical authorities, it may be proper to make some observations upon it. The direct disproof of it as an argument for the superiority of the one, and the subordination of the other, is of course to be found in the proof that the church and state are two distinct independent societies, each having a distinct government of its own, self-sufficient and authoritative in its own province, and with reference to its own functions and objects. If this can be proved, then no valid argument against the application of the doctrine can be derived from mere inconveniences or embarrassments that may occasionally arise, especially if it can be further proved, as it can, that collision and embarrassment may be easily avoided by settling the limits of the respective provinces or spheres of the two powers. And there is no such great difficulty in doing this as is sometimes alleged. Our Saviour has enjoined his followers to render unto Caesar the things that are Caesars’s, and unto God the things that are God’s; and this implies that there are some things which belong to the province of Caesar, or the civil magistrate, which are subject to his jurisdiction, with respect to which he has rightful authority, and is ordinarily to be obeyed; reserving, of course, the great principle which is of universal application, namely, that we must obey God rather than man. It implies also, that there are some things which are God’s, in such a sense not to belong to Caesar at all; not to belong to his province, or to be subject to the authority of the civil magistrate. There is no great difficulty in settling what these things are, respectively. Caesar’s things are the persons and the property of men, and God’s things are the conscience of men and the church of Christ. The civil magistrate has rightful jurisdiction over the persons and the property of men, because the word of God sanctions his right to the use of the sword, and because jurisdiction in these matters is evidently indispensable to the execution of the functions of his office. The attainment of the great end of civil government, namely, the promotion of the good order and conscience, for God alone is Lord of the conscience, and has left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men. He has no jurisdiction over the church of Christ, because Christ alone is its King and Head, and because by his own authority in his word, he has made full provision for its government, for the administration of its affairs, through other parties, without vesting any control over it in the civil magistrate. The civil magistrate, we believe, is bound, in the exercise of his proper authority, in his own province, to aim at the promotion of religion and the welfare of the church; but though this obligation brings religion and the church within the scope of his care, it does not bring them within the sphere of his jurisdiction; or entitle him to deal with them in a manner inconsistent with, or unauthorized by their proper nature or their prescribed constitution. The civil magistrate is also entitled to exercise a certain superintendence and control in religious and ecclesiastical matters, limited to the object of promoting the attainment, and preventing the frustration of the great end of his office, the peace and good order of the community. But this consideration, though authorizing him to restrain and punish whatever, under pretence of conscience or of ecclesiastical authority, interferes with the interests he is bound to guard, does not invest him with legitimate authority in matters of religion, or the affairs of the church, or enable him to impose upon any a valid obligation to render to him obedience in these things.
Neither is there any great difficulty in settling the line of demarcation between things civil or temporal, and things ecclesiastical or spiritual. Civil or temporal things are just the persons and the property of men, and ecclesiastical or spiritual things are just the ordinary necessary business of the church; all those acts and processes which the church performed and conducted before her connection with the state, and which should be performed and conducted wherever a church exists, and is in the full execution of its appropriate functions. And while there is no great difficulty in settling theoretically the line of demarcation between the church and the state, neither is their much difficulty in the practical application of sound principle in this matter. It is true that there are questions in which the civil and ecclesiastical element are combined. Nay, it is true, as has been said, that there is no act so purely ecclesiastical but that in some of its aspects and consequences it may come legitimately under the cognizance of the civil power; and no act so civil that it may not, provided it be done by a member of the church, come legitimately under the cognizance of the ecclesiastical authorities. But notwithstanding all this, there is no great difficulty in disentangling the one from the other by a fair and honest application of the principles that have been stated. In this way it is easy to show that there is no necessity for subordinating the one society to the other; while, at the same time, the process suggests considerations which contribute to establish the great general truth, which of itself would fully answer the argument, even if the practical difficulties were far greater than they are, namely, that the church and the state are two distinct societies, each supreme in its own sphere, and neither dependent on the other in respect to jurisdiction or authoritative control.
The Popish argument for the superiority of ecclesiastical over the civil in point of authority, derived from the higher and more exalted character of the ends or objects of the church than of the state, has manifestly no weight. There is, indeed, no connection between the premises and the conclusion. This notion, however, enables them to dispense with the necessity of denying the appointment of a distinct government in the state, and allow them to concede this, affording, as it does, a pretence for alleging that the administration of this distinct government must be subordinated to the ecclesiastical authorities.
The Erastians are reduced to greater straits. Concurring with the Papists in holding that the one must be superior and the other subordinate, they have no very plausible pretence of a general kind for alleging that the superiority lies on the side of the state; and thus they have been led to adopt as the only plausible ground on which to defend the right of the civil power to exercise jurisdiction in ecclesiastical matters, a denial that Christ has appointed a distinct government in his church, in the hands of other parties than the civil magistrate.2