If a church spends a substantial amount of time engaging in political activity its tax immunity may be challenged. This is not necessarily bad. The state has the right to challenge false groups that masquerade as churches. In the Old Testament the state had the right to prosecute idolatry. James Bannerman in his classic study of Reformed church polity, The Church Of Christ, cites two groups that in his day were candidates who would Biblically lose freedom for some of their practices. These were the Mormons and the Jesuits.1 For example, the Mormon "Danites" were instructed "that plundering all non-Mormons should be standard procedure. . . ."2 The Jesuits were notorious for employing subversive tactics to bring about the influence of Popery.3 Bannerman then makes the statement: "It were absurd to allege that any number of men calling themselves a Church, and claiming its privileges, are entitled, without inquiry, to be held to be such."4 Bannerman goes on to say concerning the right of the state:
Independently, indeed, of positive statute, it seems to be implied in the very nature of the State, as the ordinance of God for the security and advancement of the temporal well-being of its subjects , that it has a right to make itself acquainted with the character of any society of whatever kind within its borders. . . . Secret societies are, in their very nature, dangerous and unconstitutional . . . the civil magistrate has a right to know and be satisfied that the Church which claims toleration at his hands is in truth what it imports to be, a spiritual society in reality, and not in pretense.5
This teaching by Bannerman may shock those who have in their reaction against intrusive government become almost anarchistic in how they view state authority. The state has the right to monitor subversive organizations bent on the violent overthrow of our government. There are some Islamic groups that fall into this category. Some Roman Catholic orders in Latin America have been used as Marxist front groups. As Christians we should always defend the sovereignty of the church. But have we forgotten that God also created the state to give us order in society? The state is a divine creation and has legitimacy. We need to make sure that in defending the church against present day infringement by the state, we don't fall off the other side of the cliff and become anarchists. Even oppressive governments are better than complete anarchy.
Laws restricting unrestrained political activity of churches may very well reflect the Reformed doctrine of "sphere sovereignty" set forth in the Westminster Confession. In a similar vein, it should be obvious that laws that limit contributions that business corporations can give to political candidates are good. When large corporations dump unlimited funds into the campaigns of unprincipled elected representatives it is not hard to figure out what type of laws will emerge. Repealing these laws would lead to some unintended consequences. Some want to blur the distinction between church and state. This is not a wise course of action. Consider the historical dispute between Protestants and Roman Catholics regarding the state. For those familiar with church history, it will be apparent that we have a far better situation than our forefathers. If independent churches and Protestants begin endorsing political candidates, will the Roman Catholics follow our lead? The current American arrangement that is the product of the Protestant doctrine of the liberty of conscience allows Catholics, Protestants, and others to work together.
The Roman Catholic Church in the past controlled political rulers. Tens of thousands of Protestants paid with their lives. In Colorado, for example, there are three hundred and forty thousand Roman Catholics. There are probably no more than one thousand people of Reformed convictions in the state. It is not difficult to figure out who will dominate politically. Gordon H. Clark, Presbyterian philosopher and theologian, relates the following in an essay on the role of civil magistrates:
Where the Roman church controls the government, Protestants suffer oppression and physical persecution. Their churches are bombed and their ministers are murdered . . . . In our own land the Romanists are constantly attempting to divert public funds to their own purposes. A while back they were advocating an ambassador to the Vatican, and will probably push it again when they see an opportunity . . . . And bills have been introduced into Congress to honor the Virgin Mary by issuing commemorative stamps for the Marian year. Unfortunately there are also Protestants who want a close tie-in of church and state.6
Turning away from "sphere sovereignty," which provides protection and freedom for the expression of individual religious and civil liberty, is potentially dangerous. Do we want to encourage the Roman Catholic bishops to get their members to go to the polls as a large block of voters? Many Roman Catholic bishops are socialists in outlook. Clark closes his essay on civil magistrates by correctly analyzing the theological issue that is at stake. Protestants would do well to take heed:
It would seem that the combination of church and state is a last remnant of Romanism that proves hard to part with.7
The astute reader should see by now that incorporation is not the central issue when it comes to churches and political activity. In fact a thorough study of this issue will show that there are serious Biblical considerations that have caused Christians to question whether the church should endorse political candidates. Incorporation status should be only a minor issue (if even one at all) in a Reformed church's sessional deliberations concerning endorsing political candidates. The church must constantly be on guard against Erastianism (the state ruling the church), and one of the many problems of the Roman Church (the church ruling the state). Under Erastianism individual religious freedom is threatened. Under governments dominated by Rome, individual civil and religious freedoms are lost. John Murray, the late Westminster Seminary systematic theologian, sets forth a comprehensive Biblical analysis of the relationship between church and state in his article "The Relation of Church and State."8
Repair the Theology
What are some of the religious issues that in reality have been responsible for Christian cultural decline? The late Richard M. Weaver from the University of Chicago wrote a book entitled Ideas Have Consequences. Doctrinal decline and bad theological ideas are a far better explanation for the silence of Christian churches and clergy than incorporation. It is admitted that there are many pastors who are concerned about money and do not want to threaten their tax exempt status. These pastors will not teach whole sections of the Bible because they are afraid that people will be offended and leave, causing their church to lose money. The problem ultimately has to do with lack of conviction.
This article argues as an alternative thesis that theological error is the root cause of Christian cultural impotence. The current infringement by the state into the doctrine of incorporation is the result of bad ideas. Individual Christians have been sitting on the sidelines, politically speaking, for a long time. Christian inaction caused by theological error is one of the direct causes of our current government. It has been said that "the price of liberty is eternal vigilance." What are some examples of theological ideas that can be traced to present day cultural impotence among Christians?
During the early part of the nineteenth century, a new system of Bible interpretation arose in England. The British tried to get rid of this method by exporting it to the former colonies. One of the tenets of this system is a radical separation between Israel and the church. Israel was created and ordained for earthly purposes, the church for heavenly purposes. The only valid enterprise for Christians in the church age is to save souls. Many consistent adherents to this school of theology are so heavenly minded they are no earthly good. Another popular tenet of this system when referring to this world or society is "you should not polish the brass on a sinking ship." If this is true, why vote?
Another tenet of this system is a radical discontinuity between the Old and New Testaments. This view says Christians are not bound by anything in the Old Testament. The Old Testament was for a different dispensation. This cuts Christians off from God's wisdom set forth in the case laws of the Mosaic economy. This has put modern Christians in the position of having virtually nothing to say about morals, economics, education, and law.
For example: Where does the New Testament prohibit the practice of bestiality? In Leviticus 19:36 we read: "just balances, just weights, a just ephah and a just hin, ye shall have." This passage along with others gives us the basis for a hard metal (gold and silver) based currency system. Psalm 78:2-12 and Proverbs 22:6 are examples of the many passages that deal with a distinctive Christian education. Today many Christians turn their children over to humanists for a supposed neutral education in the government schools. In Deuteronomy 22:8 men are instructed to put a battlement or railing on their roof top. This law is the basis for putting fences around swimming pools. In Exodus 21:28 the law concerning the goring ox gives us the basis for laws about vicious dogs and wild animals. Much could be said about business practice and families from the Old Testament. See the book of Proverbs. Until this century many laws in this country were based upon Old Testament case laws. Christians whose theology repudiates the binding principles contained in the Old Testament case laws play right into the hands of the godless humanists who reject all law except man-made law.
Rampant prophetic speculation is another characteristic of this same method. This writer used to attend churches of this variety in which prophecy bulletin boards of weekly newspaper clippings were posted. Adherents would clap and cheer when new clippings were announced that dealt with tragedies such as earthquakes, wars, and famines. This allegedly signaled that the end of the world was close at hand. About the only type of prophecy that was involved was possibly a self-fulfilling one of cultural defeat. If Christians should not be involved in society since it is nothing more than a sinking ship, then surely pagans and socialists will continue to dominate the political landscape.
This same system also fosters an unhealthy fixation with end times events or eschatology. Much time is wasted trying to identify the Anti-Christ. Date setting or trying to predict the second coming of Christ or the rapture is commonplace. This writer used to attend one church in which the pastor predicted that the pre-tribulation rapture would happen in 1981 and the Great Tribulation would be over in 1988. This same pastor is still considered an expert in the field of eschatology by his followers. Why vote if the end is just around the corner? This addiction to finding the inside scoop on end-time events may be nothing more than a modern form of Gnosticism (the gaining of secret knowledge). Ideas do have consequences, and this eschatological pessimism may be closely related to fatalism. Around the close of the first millennium, the Church was struck with millennial or last days madness. Today, whole garbage dumps could be filled with crackpot books on end-times prophecy. This writer knows a man who worked at a warehouse in the fifties where thousands of books published by Loizeaux Brothers were stored that claimed Mussolini was the Antichrist Time always proves the so-called prophecy experts wrong. Millennial madness is back again. Ideas have consequences.
Another form of weak theology is found in Charismatic or Pentecostal circles. It can be described as Neo-Platonic Pietism. This theology diminishes the material world. The only valid concern for these types of Christians is inward spiritual experience. Politics to them is part of the material world and therefore evil. Ideas have consequences.
Another very popular form of theology that has caused some unintended consequences is Arminianism. This system rejects God's sovereignty. Rejection of God's sovereignty has serious consequences. When God's sovereignty is rejected or minimized, someone or something, namely man or the state, will assert his own sovereignty. In our society a vacuum has been created which the modern state has rushed in to fill. When Christian people strongly declare God's sovereignty, this acts as a limit upon the state. Since God is sovereign and the ultimate standard, the state is limited by a higher power. Arminianism rejects Biblical predestination. The modern state is now trying to use the government school system to predestinate all citizens into good little socialists.
Another factor is the modern day clergy's pathetic training. In times past, pastors had to know Biblical Hebrew and Greek. A Strong's Concordance is not adequate. Many pastors today have nothing more than informal training. Poorly trained people have difficulty thinking through all the issues with clarity, and this is assuming they can even understand the issues. Poorly trained people usually are not well-read, and people who are not well-read make poor leaders.
Where to Build
While the reader may not agree with everything set forth in this article, it is hoped that it will be helpful. Numerous questions have been raised in order to provoke thought. It has not been my intent to offend. There are valid Biblical issues that prevent churches from taking certain actions. The church should clearly teach the whole counsel of God and critique from a Biblical perspective the state and political issues. Christ's church has the right to Biblically define what the limits and extent of civil government are. This is the church's right because God is the creator of civil government, and we have his revelation which defines these limits. The church is to declare the whole counsel of God. Part of this counsel sets forth the Biblical doctrine of the state. We should resist attempts to merge church and state. We should resist the statist intrusion into the sphere of authority that God has ordained for the church and family.
In summary, a number of questions will be reiterated to provoke more thought and study on the issues discussed in this article. The doctrine of incorporation is being misused by the state today. Do we reject this doctrine which is a product of Christian civilization or repair it? Disincorporation is a short term solution. It is true that by definition a corporation is a creation of the state. So what? If one is consistent, then all incorporations, families, businesses, schools, foundations, and churches, should be rejected. As shown earlier, if we operate only in terms of secular legal definitions, our actions may have disastrous consequences. The church must proceed Biblically. Those who believe in disincorporation must explain what mechanism they would propose as a vehicle for the state to relate to entities within its borders.
Bad theological ideas have caused Christians to become un-involved in society. This in turn has allowed the state to go unchecked and to become increasingly intrusive. Immoral men have risen to power unchecked by the influence of the godly. These ungodly individuals in positions of power have turned our former blessings of education, civil government, and incorporation against us. Edmund Burk once wrote, "All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing." Individual Christians have tremendous freedom to exert influence in the political realm. Let's use the opportunities before us. Thankfully many Christians are once again becoming active in society. Let us pray that God will bless our efforts to reclaim and rebuild society.
1. James Bannerman, The Church Of Christ, Volume Two (Edmonton, 1869, reprinted 1991), 386, 387.
2. D. Michael Quinn, The Mormon Hierarchy Origins of Power, (Salt Lake City, 1994), 98.
3. Loraine Boettner, Roman Catholicism, (Phillipsburg, 1983), 67.
4. Bannerman, 387.
5. Ibid., 388.
6. Gordon H. Clark, Essays On Ethics And Politics, (Jefferson, The 1992), 24.
7. Clark, 25.
8. John Murray, "The Relation of Church and State," Collected Writings of John Murray, (Edinburgh, 1976), 253-259.
- Jack Kettler