The Church, Society, and the Law of God

A friend of mine wrote me to tell me that I needed more balance in my presentation of how the church should relate to society. I decided I would try and give a positive presentation of my own views on this matter (at the risk of alienating some). My views are substantially those of Charles Hodge on this matter. I think he eloquently states the obligation of the church to speak to violations of moral law in society but to avoid becoming a policy maker or getting involved specifically in politics. He writes in his Discussions in Church Polity, (103–105):

It follows from the great commission of the Church, that it is her prerogative and duty to testify for the truth and the law of God, whereever she can make her voice heard; not only to her own people, but to kings and rulers, to Jews and Gentiles. It is her duty not only to announce the truth, but to apply it to particular cases and persons; that is, she is bound to instruct, rebuke, and exhort, with all longsuffering. She is called of God to set forth and enjoin upon the consciences of men the relative duties of parents and children, of magistrates and people, of masters and slaves. If parents neglect their duties, she is called upon by her divine commission to instruct and exhort them. If magistrates transcend the limits of their authority, and trespass on the divine law, she is bound to raise her voice in remonstrance and warning. She has nothing to do with the state, in the exercise of its discretion within its own sphere; and therefore has no right to meddle with questions of policy, foreign or domestic. She has nothing to do with tariffs, or banks, or internal improvements. We say, with Dr. Thornwell, “Let the dead bury the dead.” Let Caesar attend to his own affairs. But if Caesar undertakes to meddle with the affairs of God; if the state pass any laws contrary to the law of God, then it is the duty of the Church, to whom God has committed the great work of asserting and maintaining his truth and will, to protect and remonstrate. If the state not only violates the Sabbath, but makes it a condition to holding office, that others should violate it; or if it legalizes piracy, or concubinage, or polygamy; if it prohibits the worship of God, or the free use of the means of salvation; if, in short, it does anything directly contrary to the law of God, the Church is bound to make that law known, and set it home upon the conscience of all concerned.

In many of our states, there are in force laws relating to marriage and divorce, in open conflict with the word of God. We hold that it is the duty of the Church of every denomination, in those states, to tell their legislators, that while they have the right to legislate about matters of property and civil rights at their discretion, under the constitution, they have no right to separate those whom God has joined together, or make that lawful which God has declared to be unlawful.

A few years since, Dr. Thornwell preached an elaborate sermon, setting forth what he believed to be the true teaching of the word of God on the subject of slavery. What he had a right to do, and was bound to do as a minister of the gospel, the Church has the right and obligation to do. If, on the one hand, Northern brethren would abstain from teaching, on that and other subjects, what God does not teach; and if, on the other hand, Southern brethren would clearly assert, in their capacity of ministers and a Church, what they fully believe God does teach, great good and God’s blessing, we doubt not, would be the result. They are as much bound to teach the truth on this subject, as a Church as they are bound to do it as ministers; and they are surely as much bound to teach the law of God respecting the duties of masters and slaves, as they are to teach what God says of the duty of parents and children, of saints and sinners. There is a great temptation to adopt theories which free us from painful responsibilities; but we are satisfied that the brethren must, on reflection, be convinced that the duty to testify to the truth, to make it known, and to press it upon the hearts and consciences of men, is as much obligatory on the Church, in her aggregate capacity, as on her individual pastors. Her Confession and Catechisms are an admirable summary of that testimony; but she is no more to be satisfied with them, than the ministry is to be satisfied with reading the Confession of Faith, Sabbath after Sabbath to the people.

The principle which defines and limits the prerogative and duty of the Church in all such cases, seems to us perfectly plain. She has nothing to do as a Church with secular affairs, with questions of politics or state policy. Her duty is to announce and enforce by moral means the law of God. If at any time, as may well happen, a given question assumed both a moral and political bearing, as for example, the slave-trade, then the duty of the Church is limited to setting forth the law of God on the subject. It is not her office to argue the question in its bearing on the civil or secular interests of the community, but simply to declare in her official capacity what God has said on the subject. To adopt any theory which would stop the mouth of the Church, and prevent her bearing her testimony to kings and rulers, magistrates and people, in behalf of the truth and law of God, is like administering chloroform to a man to prevent his doing mischief. We pray God that this poison may be dashed away, before it has reduced the Church to a state of inanition, and delivered her bound hand and foot into the power of the world. It is obvious that the same principle is applicable to ministers. They profane the pulpit when they preach politics, or turn the sacred desk into a rostrum for lectures on secular affairs. But they are only faithful to their vows when they proclaim the truth of God and apply his law to all matters whether of private manners or laws of the state.

11 Replies to “The Church, Society, and the Law of God”

  1. I believe we give too much over to the enemy when we allow our culture to dictate what is a political issue(according to R2K, not to be handled from the pulpit), and what is a sin issue. Dr Hodge hits the nail on the head-
    “To adopt any theory which would stop the mouth of the Church, and prevent her bearing her testimony to kings and rulers, magistrates and people, in behalf of the truth and law of God, is like administering chloroform to a man to prevent his doing mischief. We pray God that this poison may be dashed away, before it has reduced the Church to a state of inanition, and delivered her bound hand and foot into the power of the world. It is obvious that the same principle is applicable to ministers. They profane the pulpit when they preach politics, or turn the sacred desk into a rostrum for lectures on secular affairs. But they are only faithful to their vows when they proclaim the truth of God and apply his law to all matters whether of private manners or laws of the state.”

  2. Wes:

    How I loved to read these words of yours: “My views are substantially those of Charles Hodge on this matter.”

    The work that I am doing on Hodge, which, given all my other duties will take a few more years, should show how balanced and, frankly, sophisticated he was in his view of the spirituality of the church and the relationship of church and state. I wrote a chapter back in the fall analyzing the development of his position with respect to this from the General Assemblies of 1862-1865. While he is not above criticism–no one is, in this period especially–Hodge develops a remarkably dexterous approach to these matters that I hope to show and tease out.

    These matters are all very much alive among us and no one position has gained lasting confessional status. Those who say that the precise texture of the spirituality of the church and the nature of the relationship between church and state have been all clearly worked out need to do some more research as this is one of the knottiest issues dividing Reformed and Presbyterian folk. Because all these matters have not been confessionally settled (in a lasting way–some things have been clearly changed from what they were, viz., the WCF here in the US no longer requires establishmentarianism), more humility is appropriate in this discussion and I appreciate your approach here.

  3. I believe we give too much over to the enemy when we allow our culture to dictate what is a political issue(according to R2K, not to be handled from the pulpit), and what is a sin issue.

    Mark, maybe. But don’t you think it’s also a mistake to not to carefully distinguish between morality and politics? Arguably, more than living in a time that gags the church, we live in a time that has moralized politics and politicized faith (thanks, evangelicalism). From my vantage point, I don’t so much see the culture dictating that the church remain silent on that which she should be vocal as I do the church pushing to pipe up on matters on which she should be silent.

  4. Zrim,
    Yes, much care should be taken to distinguish purely political issues from topics to which the Law/Gospel can and should be brought to bear. I do believe some of the reluctance to deal with politicized sin(abortion, homosexual marriage, etc.) comes from the fear of losing the respect of the culture. So be it. A doctrine that prohibits preaching on political issues(sins) reinforces the notion of the church retreating into her own enclave, and leaving the culture to its sin. Not exactly being salt and light, now is it? One more comment; a pastor that won’t preach against the sins of the culture, and of his congregation, but expects his congregation to be the salt and light he refuses to be, cannot be said to be preaching the gospel.

  5. Zrim,

    Hodge and Wes do not fully affirm the R2K doctrine that you and Darryl Hart promote and advocate.

  6. Riley & Truth, you can find my views here.

    I would note, though, that I do not think that the Lutherans are that different from what I’ve presented here (at least historically). Remember that the Lutherans embraced the idea that whoever was prince would declare the state religion. Classical Lutheranism did not believe in a secular state.

  7. I just posted this very same quote from Hodge’s Church Polity on Facebook today. I thought it to be very timely since yet another state, NY, is on the verge legalizing “gay marriage.”

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