Church and state: have we nonconformists been wrong all along?

henryI’ve been reading Oliver O’Donovan’s Desire of the Nations and very challenging I’ve found it. I won’t attempt to summarise or give any account of what he argues, since I don’t feel qualified, on the basis of one quick reading, to do so. I will however share some of the things reading this (excellent) book has made me think.

Accepting any version of the “modern” or “liberal” doctrine that “religion” is a private matter and that the civil authority could or should be neutral in matters of religion is hard to square with some basic aspects of Christian thinking and living. We proclaim Christ as Lord. That means, as I see it, Lord of all the world in all its aspects. We should, therefore, want the rulers of the nations to acknowledge and follow him, shouldn’t we? If not what does his lordship mean? Christianity necessarily (as far as I can see) implies a desire to remake the world, including its politics, by subjecting it to the rule of Christ. The only way this would not be required would be if one were to make Christianity primarily a matter of the salvation of individuals from the world, rather than of humanity in the world (a way of being Christian that is not unknown but which I have never been attracted to).

If one accepts that Christianity is, also, public and political then the rejection of the link between the Church and the state can still be maintained, if one were to conclude that the state as such was corrupt and corrupting such that the Church must exist in opposition to it (something like this may be the position of some modern inheritors of the anabaptist tradition). One could hold that the current political arrangements are such that entangling the Church with them will be so harmful to the Church that it must withdraw from them so as to maintain itself as what it is called to be. Something like this was the position of those who withdrew or were driven from the Church of England in the seventeenth century.

They must (and I’m no expert so I could be wrong) have accepted the possibility of an established church in principle or they would not have been members of the CofE in the first place. When they were unable to conform to the changes made at the restoration they must have regarded these as turning the church from one they could in good conscience belong to into one they no longer could. Their position, to be coherent, must at that point have been such that a properly reformed established Church would have been a preferable alternative.

This is different from the alternative, which I can imagine, of saying that until the coming of Christ in glory the Church must always remain separate from the civil authority which could never be sufficiently in conformity with Christ’s will for Christians to align the Church with it in any kind of partnership.

The problem with this is that it seems to deny that Christ is Lord in fact, being so only in name.

I find it hard to find a way through this problem of the standing of the Church with respect to the political order but see it as an extremely pressing theological problem for all of us, whether we recognise it or not.

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2 comments
  1. Elliot said:

    The majority of presbyterians in the period 1662-1672 (i.e. to the indulgence) did not give up a belief in a nation church and held to the position of nonconformity to the rites and government of the Church of England but non-separation from it (although a few did essentially turn congregationalist). The first ten years of non-conformity was a time of (fading) hope for presbyterians that comprehension talks would come and reunite the Church of England. Indeed, in this period many of the presbyterian ‘congregations’ were framed as private conventicles for those within the Church of England – and the minister – claiming to be acting in the role of a private man and not as a minister – would lead the private devotion.

    As to the issue of the state – the presbyterians and magisterial congregationalists generally followed their Elizabethan predecessors by holding to the two kingdom theory developed from Calvin by Beza. In doing this they placed a strong emphasis on the magistrate as an aid to Church – mainly based on a belief in the continuation of Old Testament precedents of kings acting in support of the priesthood. In that theory the Christian civil state was to compel the ungodly to hear the Word and restrain heresy and vice, but was not to arrogate to themselves those roles that properly belonged to the ministry or the councils of the Church (such as preaching, administering the sacraments or deciding right doctrine) – i.e. the traditional distinction of a ‘ius circa sacra’ rather than a ‘ius in sacra’ So while the state was not to arrogate ecclesiastical power to itself (Uzziah in 2 Chronicles 26:18 being the common proof text) the state was to be ‘a ‘nursing fathers and nursing mother’ (Isaiah 49:23) to the Church by compelling uniformity and protecting the Church from predators ‘outside the hedge of the vineyard’.

    As you say (and as James I said) the difficulty for this theory comes when the state supported and compelled things and people considered erroneous and even heretical yet with in the church (such as Arminians or Roman Catholics) – thus leading to appeals to the dangerous escape position that the state was only to be obeyed when it conformed to scriptural purity as interpreted by the presbyterian clergy.

    I suppose we should all probably read Richard Hooker at this point….

    • it does seem to me that all the churches (including the national churches) are now too ready to accept the modern liberal notion of “religion” as a private matter. It also seems to me that Christianity has nothing very interesting and distinctive to say of a “political” nature (the various attempts at a “social gospel” amount to a theological glossing of political positions shared with those of other faiths and none). My feeling is that the Christian voice is “meta-political”. We have something to say about what lies beyond politics in the public domain. On the one hand something about the grounds for the (temporary) legitimacy of political power as such and on the other about the grounds of a political reasoning beyond the limits of what that legitimacy can reach.

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