The Essential Distinction & Mutual Independence of Church & State

By James Bannerman in The Church of Christ

That the Christian Church and the civil state are essentially different, and rightfully independent the one of the other, may be satisfactorily demonstrated from various considerations.

First, the state and the Church are essentially different in regard to their origin.

The state, or the ordinance of civil government, owes its origin to God as the universal Sovereign and Ruler among the nations. The Church, as the visible society of professing Christians in the world, with its outward provision of authority and order and government, owes its origin to Christ as Mediator. This difference is a most important one, as it involves and implies other differences characteristic of the two bodies. The civil government is an ordinance of God, founded not in grace, but in nature, and therefore intended for human society as subsisting in all nations, whether Christian or not, and carrying with it the authority and sanction of a Divine appointment wherever human society is found. As an appointment of God, in His character of universal Sovereign, the authority of the state, and the duty of subjects in regard to it, are entirely independent of the Christianity of rulers or subjects; and the rights and responsibilities of the two parties are as valid and as binding in heathen as in Christian lands. On the other hand, the Church, as an ordinance of Christ, is founded in grace, not in nature, and is limited to those nations where Christianity is actually professed. As an appointment of the Mediator, in His character of special Ruler or Head over His own people, it carries with it His authority, and is restricted in its jurisdiction to those who profess their subjection to Him, and join themselves to the Christian society which He has established. Different in their origin, and in the source from which they derive their authority, the state and the Church are thus based on distinct and separate foundations, and are entirely independent of each other. Nor is this fundamental difference cancelled or overruled by the fact that the state or civil government is now put under the dominion of Christ in the character of Mediator, as well as the Church. It is true that the civil governments of the world, like everything else, are subordinated to the Redeemer, that He may make use of them for promoting His own mediatorial purposes, and that Christ is not only “Head of the Church,” but “Head over all things to the Church.”1 But this authority of Christ over the civil governments of the earth is a thing superinduced upon their original character as the ordinance of God, in His capacity of universal Sovereign. It does not in the least affect or supersede that character. The state, although it is now delegated to Christ to be under His authority for the good of His Church, has not ceased to be what it originally was—an appointment of God as the God of nature—any more than the creation of God has ceased to be the creation of God, because it also is now subordinated to the dominion of Christ for the interests of His people. In their origin, and in the basis on which they rest, the civil society and the Christian society are two ordinances essentially independent and distinct.

In the second place, the state and the Church are essentially distinct in regard to the primary objects for which they were instituted.

The state, or civil government, has been ordained by God for the purpose of promoting and securing, as its primary object, the outward order and good of human society; and that object it is its mission to accomplish wherever it is found,—whether in Christian or heathen lands. Without civil order or government, in some shape or other, human society could not exist at all; and as the ordinance of God for all, its direct and immediate aim is to aid the cause of humanity as such, without limitation or restriction to humanity as christianized. On the other hand, the Church of Christ has been instituted by Him for the purpose of advancing and upholding the work of grace on the earth, being limited, in its primary object, to promoting the spiritual interests of the Christian community among which it is found. No doubt there are secondary objects, which both civil government on the one hand, and the Church on the other, are fitted and intended to subserve, in addition to those of a primary kind. The state, as the ordinance of God, can never be absolved from its allegiance to Him, and can never be exempted from the duty of seeking to advance His glory and to promote His purposes of grace on the earth. And in like manner the Church, in addition to the objects of a spiritual kind which it seeks to accomplish, may be adapted, and is adapted, to further the mere temporal and social wellbeing of society. But still the grand distinction cannot be overlooked, that marks out the primary objects of the Church and state respectively as separate, and not to be confounded. They are instituted for widely different ends. The one, as founded in nature, was meant primarily to subserve the temporal good of mankind; the other, as founded in grace, was designed primarily to advance their spiritual wellbeing. They may indirectly, and as a secondary duty, fulfil certain ends common to both; they may concur in contemplating certain objects together; but as they differ in their origin, so also they differ entirely in the primary and immediate purpose for which they are respectively established on the earth.

Thirdly, the state and the Church are essentially distinct and independent in regard to the power which is committed to them respectively by God.

Civil government has been ordained by God mainly for the purpose of securing the peace and the rights of civil society; and for this end the administration of it implies a power of coercion fitted to protect the well-disposed in the enjoyment of their privileges, and able both to punish and repress the evildoers in the wrongs that they commit. To the civil government belongs the power of the sword, as the instrumentality adapted to its purposes. But the Church of Christ, having been established, not to prevent or redress human violence and civil wrong, but rather to promote the grand purposes of God’s grace towards a fallen world, is armed with no such coercive power. Its weapons are not carnal, but spiritual. The power which Christ has vested in His Church is one that does not imply the exercise of force, but is concerned only with the understandings and convictions of men. To the Church Christ has given the power of the Spirit, the force of truth, the might of saving grace, the influence of spiritual authority; and in the administration of that power, through means of the ministry of the Word and the dispensation of ordinances, the Christian society claims no right over the persons and properties, but only appeals to the hearts and consciences of men. This fundamental distinction between the kinds of power wielded by the Church and the state respectively, draws a broad line of demarcation between the two societies, as essentially separate and independent. From the very nature of the state it cannot, without departing from its proper place, usurp the office or assume the jurisdiction of the Church, because it has received no authority to perform, and is not competent to exercise, spiritual functions; and, on the other hand, the Church has no power to assume to itself the powers and prerogatives of the civil magistrate, because those powers and prerogatives, being civil and coercive, are wholly alien to its character and jurisdiction. In the employment of civil authority, with respect to the rights and lives of its subjects, the state is fenced round with the sanction of God, the supreme and universal Sovereign; it holdeth not the sword in vain; and its legitimate power, in the execution of punishment, reaches to the confiscation of property or the infliction of death. In the use of spiritual authority, as regards the understandings or consciences of men, the Church, in like manner, is fenced round by the sanction of God,—that authority implies a right to use instruction, admonition, reproof, censure, in the case of those who offend; but when those means are used, and used in vain, the power of the Church is exhausted in regard to the offender, and its office of authority is at an end. The rights that belong to the one society are rights that cannot be interchanged with or belong to the other: in their power and office the two are entirely distinct and independent.

Fourthly, the state and the Church are essentially distinct and independent in regard to the administration of their respective authorities.

The Word of God has not enjoined the form of civil government to be adopted, or the particular officers through whom its authority is to be administered; it has sanctioned neither a despotism nor a democracy, as such. But under whatever form civil government may be found, as adapted differently to the character or wishes of different nations, it is an ordinance of God; and the appointed organs of government, whoever they may be, bear with them His authority “for the punishment of evil-doers, and the praise and protection of such as do well.” The civil magistrate, as the organ of the state, is fenced about with a Divine warrant when, in the lawful exercise of his office, he lays his hand upon the property and life of man.

The office of civil magistracy is appropriate to the civil society, and is vested with its awful and mysterious power, in consequence of its being the ordinance of Him who is the sovereign Lord of man’s property and life. But there are offices appropriate to the spiritual society also, and, in consequence, vested with its peculiar authority, to be exercised in the name and under the appointment of Christ. It is not necessary at present to enter into the question of who, according to the Word of God, are the persons selected to be the magistrates of the Church, or who, in consequence of His appointment, are warranted to wield the authority of Christ within His house. This question will come up for discussion at a subsequent stage in our investigations. It is enough for us, in the meantime, to know the general fact, which lies on the very surface of the New Testament, that the Christian Church has persons appointed to rule and exercise authority within it; being, like every other organized association, made up of two classes,—the governors and the governed. In other words, it belongs to the Christian Church to have its office-bearers as well as its members,—those office-bearers being the organs of the society to exercise a certain kind of authority over the rest, and being fenced about with a Divine sanction in the rightful discharge of the duties pertaining to them. In their hands the order and government of the Church are vested; and the office that they hold, as well as the authority that they administer, are derived from the ordinance and appointment of Christ.

Now, in the separation thus established between the two societies of the Church and state, in respect not only to the kind of power committed to them, but also to its administration, we see the clear and unquestionable evidence, that they are designed to be distinct and independent the one of the other. They have a separate jurisdiction; they have separate organs and office-bearers to exercise it. There is a magistracy that appertains to the state,—the appointment and ordinance of God to exercise the functions which God has intrusted to the state. There is a different magistracy that appertains to the Church,—the appointment and ordinance of Christ to discharge the duties which Christ has intrusted to the Church. The two are wholly apart from each other, and cannot interchange office or authority or duty. Each magistracy is peculiar and appropriate to the province within which it bears rule. The office-bearers of the state are not known within the Church; and, on the other hand, the office bearers of the Church are not known within the state. In their respective authorities, and in the administration of that authority, the state and the Church are different from and independent of each other.

Upon these four grounds, then, there may be laid the foundation of a proof clear and abundant: that these two institutions, the Church and the state, equally of Divine appointment, have a separate existence, a distinct character, and an independent authority; and that it is impossible to identify them, or to make the one dependent upon the other.2 These principles may be applied in a twofold way.

In the first place, they may serve to expose the fallacy of the Erastian system, which seeks to subordinate the Church to the civil government.

It was the doctrine of Erastus, as laid down in his Theses touching Excommunication, that the general government of the visible Church is part of the one function of dominion intrusted to the state; that the office-bearers in the Christian society, as such, are merely instructors, or preachers of the Word, without any power or right to rule, except what they derive from the civil magistrate; and that ecclesiastical censure, and more especially excommunication, is a civil punishment, which the magistrate may employ the office-bearers of the Church to inflict, but which owes its force to civil authority alone. The principles of Erastus were more fully developed in after times by those who adopted his views,—more especially in Holland; and they are sufficiently recognised now as that system of opinion which in any shape ascribes to the civil magistrate a proper jurisdiction in spiritual things or ecclesiastical matters. Such a system cannot be consistently maintained, except by those who to a large extent overlook or set aside the fundamental distinction between the Church and state, as societies wholly separate and independent, and who, in one way or other, are disposed to confound or identify the two. In this way the Erastian theory is opposed more or less to all those principles already indicated, as furnishing, with their appropriate evidence, a satisfactory proof that the Church and state are distinct and independent in their origin, in their primary objects, in the power exercised by them, and in the administration of that power. It is more especially opposed, however, to the third and fourth of the positions already laid down. If it be true that the nature of the power appertaining to the state is wholly different from the nature of the power intrusted to the Church,—the one being coercive and civil, and the other purely spiritual,—then it would seem undeniably to follow, that the province and jurisdiction of the one are fundamentally distinct from those of the other; and that, so far from subordinating the Church to his own authority, the civil magistrate cannot lawfully trespass into a region where he has no jurisdiction, and the Church alone has. Again, and still further, if it be true that Christ has appointed in His Church not only a power distinct from that of the civil magistrate, but an administration of that power equally distinct,—if He has given to the Church not merely an authority separate from that of the state, but office-bearers to administer that authority distinct also,—then there would seem to be in this an additional security against the encroachments of the one upon the province of the other, and an additional reason for asserting, in opposition to the Erastian doctrine, that the Christian society can never, in any circumstances, be merged into the civil, nor the kingdom of Christ be made the slave of the kingdoms of men.

The principles already laid down serve to evince very clearly also the fallacy of the argument which is perhaps most often employed to justify the encroachments of the state on the spiritual independence of the Christian Church. Erastians are accustomed to contend, that it is inconsistent with the very idea of civil society to permit another and an independent society within it. They assert that the claim of the Church involves the setting up of an “imperium in imperio,” and that the state cannot stand if another body is to exercise a separate and not subordinate jurisdiction within the very bosom of the commonwealth. Now, the third principle enunciated by us, as marking the fundamental difference between the Church and state, is quite sufficient to remove the apparent plausibility of this objection. If the Church and state wielded power of the same kind, and exercised jurisdiction to the same intent, there might be, and very possibly would be, collision and contradiction between them, inconsistent with the co-ordinate authority or existence of both. If both exercised a separate and independent control over the persons and properties of men, or both claimed an equal and distinct authority over the conscience,—if, in short, both wielded a power either exclusively temporal or exclusively spiritual,—the Church and the state could not exist in the same country, without endangering the peace and harmony of the community. But if, as we have already seen, the nature of the authority exercised by each be wholly and fundamentally unlike,—if the one claims jurisdiction in temporal and the other in spiritual matters,—they may exist together, and embrace as members the very same individuals, without provoking any collision, or requiring that, for the sake of harmony, the one should be made subordinate to the other. In the fundamental distinction between the province assigned to each, we see provision made not only against the risk of collision, but for a friendly and harmonious co-operation.3

In the second place, the principles already laid down serve no less to evince the fallacy of the Popish system, which would subordinate the civil power to the spiritual.

The supremacy of the spiritual authority over the civil, and the title belonging to the Church to dispose of the temporal rights and property of men, are doctrines put forth in the broadest and most offensive form by the Church of Rome, in the Fourth Council of Lateran, accounted by Romanists to be œcumenical and authoritative. “Let the secular powers,” says the third canon of the Lateran Council, “whatever offices they may hold, be induced and admonished, and, if need be, compelled by ecclesiastical censure,—that as they desire to be accounted faithful, they should, for the defence of the faith, publicly set forth an oath, that, to the utmost of their power, they will strive to exterminate from the lands under their jurisdiction all heretics who shall be denounced by the Church.” “But if any temporal lord, being required and admonished by the Church, shall neglect to cleanse his lands of this heretical filth, let him be bound with the chain of excommunication by the Metropolitan and the other co-provincial bishops. And if he shall scorn to make satisfaction within a year, let this be signified to the Supreme Pontiff, that thenceforth he may declare his vassals absolved from their allegiance to him, and may expose his land to be occupied by the Catholics, who, having exterminated the heretics, may without contradiction possess it, and preserve it in purity of faith.”4 The atrocious doctrine thus authoritatively set forth by the Fourth Lateran Council, has frequently been disavowed by individual members or doctors of the Church of Rome; and, more especially in later times, has been put as much as possible into the background by those who did not, or could not, disavow it. But it has never been denied or disavowed by the Church of Rome itself; and the greater number of her theologians have ever maintained the dispensing and deposing power of the Pope. Bellarmine, her ablest controversialist, lays down and defends the proposition, that “the Pope has, in order to spiritual good, supreme power to dispose of the temporal affairs of all Christians.”5 And if additional proof were wanted on the point, it would be found in the fact, that the Gallican Liberties, the first article of which denies this deposing and dispensing power ascribed to the Pope, have been disapproved by successive Popes, have by the majority of Romanists been accounted heretical, and have been maintained by few beyond the boundaries of the French Church.6 It is needless to say that the inherent superiority of the spiritual power over the civil, and the consequent right of the Church to dispose of all temporal matters, are flagrantly opposed to the scriptural principles respecting the relation of the Church to the state already laid down.

Not less opposed to the scriptural principles, which determine the proper relation of the Church to the state, is the assertion of the same general claim, although in a somewhat modified shape, in the exemptions and privileges demanded for the clergy by the Church of Rome, in all countries where it has been free to develop its principles, and reduce them to practice. In accordance with the general policy of the Popish system, which seeks to make the clergy a distinct body throughout the world, subject only to the Church, and in conformity with its claims of spiritual power, the Church of Rome, wherever it has had the power or opportunity, has demanded, on behalf of the priesthood, more or less of exemption from the ordinary jurisdiction of the civil magistrate, and has claimed, on behalf of ecclesiastical persons and property, rights and immunities not vouchsafed in the case of the rest of the community.7 It is in opposition to those exemptions and powers claimed by the Church of Rome on behalf of the clergy, that the Westminster Confession declares, in its 23d, that “ecclesiastical persons are not exempted from paying to magistrates tribute and other dues, from obeying their lawful commands, and from being subject to their authority for conscience’ sake.”8 Such claims are but part and parcel of the general principle maintained by the Popish system, of the inherent supremacy of the spiritual over the temporal power; and nothing but a right understanding of the position already illustrated, in regard to the relation of the Church to the state, and their mutual independence and essential distinction, will enable us successfully to resist such pretensions, and to “render to Cæsar the things that are Cæsar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”9

1 Eph. 1:22, 5:23; Col. 1:16–18, 2:10.

2 [Cunningham, Works, vol. iv. pp. 196–210. Jus Div. Reg. Eccles. Part ii. chap. ix. sec. ii. Apollonius, Jus Majestatis circa Sacra, cap. ii. pp. 25–28; cap. iii. pp. 50–58; Pars ii. sec. ii. cap. i. pp. 283–318.]

3 [Cunningham, Works, vol. ii. pp. 394–402; iii. pp. 557–582.]

4 “Moneantur autem et inducantur, et si necesse fuerit, per censuram ecclesiasticam compellantur sæculares potestates, quibuscumque fungantur officiis, ut sicut reputari cupiunt et haberi fideles, ita pro defensione fidei prœstent publice juramentum, quod de terris suæ jurisdictioni subjectis universos hæreticos ab Ecclesia denotatos bona fide pro viribus exterminare studebunt.… Si vero dominus temporalis, requisitus et monitus ab Ecclesia, terram suam purgare neglexerit ab hac hæretica fœditate, per Metropolitanum et cæteros comprovinciales episcopos excommunicationis vinculo innodetur. Et si satisfacere contempserit infra annum significetur hoc Summo Pontifici: ut extunc ipse vasallos ab ejus fidelitate denunciet absolutos, et terram exponat Catholicis occupandam, qui eam exterminatis hæreticis sine ulla contradictione possideant, et in fidei puritate conservent.”—Lateran, 4. Can. iii., and iii. Can. xxvii. Perceval, The Roman Schism, pp. 128–138.

5 Bellarm. Opera, tom. i. Pars ii. lib. v. cap. 1, 6.

6 Bossuet, Defensio Declar. Cler. Gall. tom. i. pp. 45–46, lib. i. cap. 1, 2; De Maistre, The Pope, considered in his relations with the Church, Temporal Sovereignties, Separated Churches, and the Cause of Civilisation, B. ii. cap. 3, 4, 9. [Cunningham, Works, vol. iv. pp. 133–163. Apollonius, Jus Maj. circa Sacra, Pars i. cap. ii. pp. 8–25.]

7 Bellarm. Opera, tom. ii. Pars ii. lib. i. cap. 28.

8 Conf. chap. xxiii. 4.

9 [Cunningham, Works, vol. ii. pp. 402–412; iv. pp. 78–132. Apollonius, Jus Maj. circ. Sacra, Pars i. cap. vi. pp. 381–411.]

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x