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Conflict with the State

In recent years, under the influences of humanism on the one hand and pietism on the other, the church has withdrawn from many of its historic and basic functions.

R. J. Rushdoony
  • R. J. Rushdoony,
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(Reprinted from The Roots of Reconstruction [Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1991], 1-5).

In recent years, under the influences of humanism on the one hand and pietism on the other, the church has withdrawn from many of its historic and basic functions. As the church begins to revive and resume its required ministry, the result is conflict with the humanistic state. It is important therefore to examine some of the historic and necessary duties of the Christian church.

The church can be understood in part by the Biblical words used to describe it in the Bible. The basic word in the New Testament Greek is ecclesia, assembly, or congregation, which in the Old Testament was qahal and edah. The church is also described in James 2:2 as a synagoge, or synagogue. In the Old Testament, the government of the synagogue was by elders or presbyters; this office continues in the Christian synagogue, with the same basic requirements for the office (1 Tim. 3:1-13, etc.) as required by the synagogue. The Old Testament pattern was so carefully preserved by the church that the English word priest is an abridgment of presbyter, and the College of Cardinals for centuries was a lay council of 70 (Num. 11:16), like the Sanhedrin, with the pope, like the Jewish high priest as the 71st. Jesus created a ruling-serving body of 70 also, a kind of diaconate, (Mt. 10:1, 17) as the “Sanhedrin” of the church, which called itself “the Israel of God” (Gal. 6:16).

The Levitical Ministry

The Old Testament clergy was divided into two classes, priests and Levites. The work of the priests was hieratic, sacrifice and offerings being its essential function. For Christians, this aspect of the Old Testament ministry ended with Christ. Even those communions who call their clergy priests do so with a difference, so that the Old Testament priesthood is seen as finished. The function of the Levitical ministry was instruction (Dt. 33:10). As a result, education was basic to the life of the synagogue and the Levitical ministry. The well-known Hebrew proverb declares that a man who did not teach his son the Torah (i.e., the Old Testament) and a trade taught him to be a thief. Hence, Israel was unique in antiquity because of its well-nigh universal education as the ministry of the synagogue.

Josephus declared that the origin of Hebrew schools was with Moses (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 4.8.12). In Against Apion (2025), Josephus said of Moses, “He commanded to instruct the children in the elements of knowledge, to teach them to walk according to the laws, and to know the deeds of their fathers. The latter, that they might imitate them; the former, that growing up with the laws, they might not transgress them, nor have the excuse of ignorance.” While most scholars would be skeptical of a Mosaic origin for the schools, it is clear that Deuteronomy is largely concerned with instruction, of both adults and children.

The influence of this standard was great. Hillel held, “an ignorant man (i.e., one ignorant of the Torah) cannot be truly pious…. The more teaching of the Law, the more life: the more school, the more wisdom; the more counsel, the more reasonable action” (Sayings of the Fathers, 2:5; 2:7). This educational standard, noted Barclay, “has left its mark deeply upon the world, because in the last analysis it aims to educate the child in order to fit him to be a servant of God; it is an education of children for God.” (William Barclay, Train Up a Child, Educational Ideas in the Ancient World [1959], 48.)

The early church, the medieval church, the Reformation church, and the contemporary fundamentalist and orthodox churches, seek to continue the ancient mandate of education. The church is, as E. Schweizer, in Church Order in the New Testament (7b, 92), pointed out, “the realm of dominion in which the risen Lord continues to work.” (Cited in Colin Brown, editor, The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, vol. 1 [1967, 1975],  300.)

The early church came into conflict with Rome, which sought to license, regulate, control, and tax all religions, because the church refused to submit to controls. Its resistance was based on the lordship or sovereignty of Christ: Christ’s domain cannot be under the dominion of Caesar. Caesar is under Christ the creator and lord, not Christ under Caesar. The church thus engaged in several unlicensed activities:

  1. It held meetings which were instructional and worship meetings, without permits.
  2. It collected abandoned babies (as part of its opposition to abortion), gave them to various church families, reared and instructed them; orphanages were maintained also.
  3. Because of the Levitical nature of the church, i.e., a center of instruction, libraries and schools began to be built very early. Later, Cathedral schools developed, and universities.

The People of the Book

The doctrine of academic freedom is a relic of the day when the academy was a part of the church and its functions, and hence entitled to the immunities thereof. How seriously this aspect was seen as basic to the church’s life is apparent from the fact that, as soon as churches were built (not possible for the first two centuries), libraries (and schools) were a part of them. Joseph Bingham, in The Antiquities of the Christian Church (1850), wrote,  “there were such places anciently adjoining to many churches, from the time that churches began to be erected among Christians” (Bk. VIII, ch. VII, sect. 12). Bingham cited some of the ancient references to these schools and libraries: Euseb. lib. 6, c.20; Hieron [Jerome] Catalog Sireptor. Eccles. c.TS; Gesta Purgat, ad calcem Optati, p. 267; Augustine, de Haeres. c.80; Basil, Ep. 82.t.3., p.152; Hospinian, de. Templis, lib. 3, c.7., p. 101, etc. Bingham referred also to a canon attributed to the Sixth Ecumenical Council, in Constantinople, 680-681 A.D., which required that presbyters in country towns and villages maintain schools for all children. He added, summing up all the evidences, “we may conclude, that schools were anciently very common appendants both of cathedral and country churches” (Bk. VIII, ch. VII, sect. 12). Fault can only be found in Bingham’s statement on the ground that they were not “appendants” but a basic aspect of the life of the church, whether separate from the church or within it. Bingham’s high-church tendencies led him to stress the liturgical rather than educational life of the church. Many critical scholars would deny that schools existed at so early a date; too often their premise is to assume a rootless church, i.e., a church without the fact of the synagogue and the Levite in the background as its origin, and in the present as a rival and reminder. Moreover, it must not be forgotten that Christianity is the religion of the book, the Bible. Literacy and education were thus natural concomitants to conversion. But this is not all. Being the religion of the Book meant that translations were made into various tongues, and, to make the translation readable, education was stressed. In Armenia, an alphabet was created for the Bible translation, and a new culture developed as a result of the new learning in that new alphabet of the Bible. Granted that invasions, wars, the backwardness of many of the newly converted peoples (as in northern Europe) made the development of schools and learning at times a slow process, but it is clear that (1) Christianity saw education or instruction as basic to its life and a necessary function of the church, and (2) education in the Western world is a unique development in history and a child of the church.

Moreover, we must remember that, in the early church, the service was Levitical or instructional. At the conclusion of the instruction (or sermon), there were questions designed to enable the hearers to clarify misunderstood or difficult points. Since not all who attended were believers, but were sometimes visitors or the unbelieving husband or wife of a believer, questions could be at times contentious. Women were forbidden to engage in this debating or in challenging the pastor or teacher. Paul says:

Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law. And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church. (1 Cor. 14:34-35)

The point is that the church itself in the New Testament was more a school than a temple. The Reformation, and later the Puritans, restored this instructional emphasis to church meetings. This historic emphasis is again coming to the forefront. At a few morning services in the U. S., the question and answer format has been revived; it is more common at evening services. Even more, churches are establishing, whether as parochial or separate bodies, schools as basic to the life of the church. These are often grade and high schools, Bible colleges, in two or more cases in 1978, seminaries, and so on. These are not seen as innovations nor as activities alien to the church but as central to it. Whenever and wherever there is or has been a deepening of the Old Testament foundations of the Christian faith, together with a revived emphasis on the lordship or sovereignty of Jesus Christ, there has been a corresponding and necessary development of the Levitical nature of the ministry. Education then becomes essential to the ministry. The warning of Jeremiah 10:2, “Thus saith the LORD, Learn not the way of the heathen,” is taken seriously.

Another factor is also stressed. Baptism, depending on the church communion, involves an explicit or implicit vow that the baptized, under penalty of curse, is the property of Jesus Christ. He and his children must be instructed in the word of the Lord. It was once commonplace to require all baptized Christians to place their children in church schools. That mandate is again returning, because of the faith that a child who is the property of Christ by virtue of his baptism, or the parent’s baptism, cannot be place in a humanistic school. The Christian School movement is the result.

The Only Sovereign

The German historian, Ethelbert Stauffer, in his important study of Christ and the Caesars (1952 in Germany: 1955, U. S.) showed clearly that the roots of the ancient conflict between church and state are religious. Where the state claims to be god walking on earth, the state will claim sovereignty and will seek to control every area of life and thought. A free society becomes impossible. The Christian claim is not that the church is sovereign over the world for it is not; lordship or sovereignty is an attribute of God, not man. But the Christian insistence is in the freedom of the church, “the realm of dominion in which the risen Lord continues to work” (E. Schweizer), from the controls of the state or any other agency.

It involves, moreover, a denial of the doctrine of state sovereignty. The very word sovereignty is absent from the U. S. Constitution because of the theological context of those times. The historian, A. F. Pollard, wrote:

The colonies had been as anxious to get rid of James II in 1688 as they were to be free from Parliament in 1776. Their fundamental objection was to any sovereignty vested in any State whatsoever, even in their own. Americans may be defined as that part of the English-speaking world which has instinctively revolted against the doctrine of the sovereignty of the State and has, not quite successfully, striven to maintain that attitude from the time of the Pilgrim Fathers to the present day…. It is this denial of all sovereignty which gives its profound and permanent interest to the American Revolution. The Pilgrim Fathers crossed the Atlantic to escape from sovereign power; Washington called it a “monster”; the professor of American History at Oxford calls it a “bugaboo” …and Mr. Lansing writes of the Peace Conference that “nine-tenths” of all international difficulties arise out of the problem of sovereignty and the so-called sovereign state.” (A.F. Pollard: Factors in American History [1925], 31f.)

This statement is all the more of interest because Pollard was an English scholar and a great authority of his day on constitutionalism. Since Pollard’s day, of course, the U. S. Federal government and the states have steadily advanced claims of sovereignty. At the same time, they have become increasingly humanistic in their view of law and have firmly established humanism as the religion of the “public” or state schools.

The novelty in the present conflict is not that the church or the Christian Schools are claiming new, and historically novel, immunities, but that the various American states are claiming a jurisdiction never before exercised or existing. The novelty is on the part of the state. It is a product of its claim to sovereignty. This claim places the state on a collision course with the church, and even more, with God, the only Sovereign. On April 30, 1839, on “The Jubilee of the Constitution,” John Quincy Adams attacked the new doctrine of state sovereignty. As against parliamentary omnipotence and sovereignty, the colonists in 1776 appealed to the omnipotence and sovereignty of God. Adams declared:

There is the Declaration of Independence, and there is the Constitution of the United States — let them speak for themselves. The grossly immoral and dishonest doctrine of despotic state sovereignty, the exclusive judge of its own obligations, and responsible to no power on earth or in heaven, for the violation of them, is not there. The Constitution says it is not in me. (S.H. Peabody, editor; American Patriotism, Speeches, Letters, and other Papers, etc. [1880], 321).

The conflict is the same religious conflict which saw Rome and the early church in bitter war, and with many Christians martyred. It is Christ versus Caesar. For the Christian, there can be no compromise. What is at stake is not his property, concern, or income, but Christ’s dominion, “the realm of dominion in which the risen Lord continues to work.”

R. J. Rushdoony
  • R. J. Rushdoony

Rev. R.J. Rushdoony (1916–2001), was a leading theologian, church/state expert, and author of numerous works on the application of Biblical law to society. He started the Chalcedon Foundation in 1965. His Institutes of Biblical Law (1973) began the contemporary theonomy movement which posits the validity of Biblical law as God’s standard of obedience for all. He therefore saw God’s law as the basis of the modern Christian response to the cultural decline, one he attributed to the church’s false view of God’s law being opposed to His grace. This broad Christian response he described as “Christian Reconstruction.” He is credited with igniting the modern Christian school and homeschooling movements in the mid to late 20th century. He also traveled extensively lecturing and serving as an expert witness in numerous court cases regarding religious liberty. Many ministry and educational efforts that continue today, took their philosophical and Biblical roots from his lectures and books.

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