Barry is the founder and Professor of the M.Div. program for Mindanao Grace Seminary, Philippines.
The Church or the State: Which has Ultimate Authority?
Every person is to be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Romans 13:1
God is the source of all legitimate authority. God established three institutions: the family, the State, and the Church. Each has its God-appointed authority and each has its domain. In the family, the parents have authority over the children and the father is responsible for the entire family. Magistrates have been given authority by God to rule the civil realm. And God commissioned Elders to administer His word to the Church. All three of these institutions are related, connected, independent and under the ultimate authority of God. The Church has no authority in the civil realm. The Government cannot override the commands of God to the Christian or the Church. The family cannot levy taxes nor call a draft. Each realm has its authority, and while there are intersections and interactions, there are also clear separations. When we realize that each institution is separate and has its domain, we can begin to understand how to resolve issues when the institutions intersect.
While Romans 13 is not exhaustive, we are given examples where the State has power. The State has the right to administer justice and to levy taxes. The State was created by God to keep the peace. We should not pass by the fact that this statement is written to Christians under the rule of pagans. Unlike the nation of Israel in the Old Testament, the New Testament Church must live in a society that is not directly ruled by the precepts of God. This is not to say that pagans are lawless. On the contrary, they have the “law of God on their hearts…their conscience bearing witness.” This is evident in that almost all cultures throughout time have recognized that some things are unjust and have made laws to reflect that (murder, theft, etc.).
The institution of the Church has a specific mandate. Certainly, we could expand these points, but at minimum, the Church exists for worship, evangelism, and mutual support. The Church is ruled, in the broadest sense, by Scripture. The administration of this rule and oversight of the function of the Church is given to Elders. When Elders follow the Bible, they are ruling as God intended. The sword has not been given to the Church. It has no authority to enforce civil law and wage war. These belong only to the State.
God created man and woman. They were created to glorify God by bringing order to the created realm. They were given the mandate to multiply and to subdue the earth. The family unit is the basis for the institution of the Church and of the State. The family is also an institution unto itself.
What do we do when apparent conflicts arise between institutions? Who has the ultimate authority? My answer is not meant to be super-simplistic nor crass in any way. God rules. And God has given the authority of each realm. Matters concerning the family are under the authority of parents and fathers. Matters of the Church are dictated by the Word. And the State has power over civil affairs. If we understand the division of institutions then there is no occasion for conflict.
The family has no right to alter the word of God so that the Church would accommodate their preferences. Nor can individual people take matters of law into their own hands and ignore due process. The Church does not weld the sword. She has no rights to wage war. And the power of the State is limited to civil affairs. The State has no right to interfere in personal matters of the family (such as, telling parents how many children they are allowed to have, dictating vocations, etc.). Nor does the State have any authority to interfere with the function of the Church as laid out by Scripture (worship, evangelism, and mutual care).
When Realms Over-step their Bounds
There are numerous sad events in history where the institution of the Church overstepped the boundaries of her authority. The persecution of Protestants, the Crusades, as well as horrific events that occurred early in the Reformation, are examples of what happens when Church and State are not separated or when the Church does not understand its realm. Much more common though is the abuse of power by the State. Throughout history, there have been numerous occasions when the State saw itself as supreme.
Since the establishment of the New Testament Church, we can see this conflict. John the Baptist, Jesus, as well as Paul, and the majority of the Apostles were all martyred by the State. John the Baptist was beheaded by the king. He was imprisoned not for civil crimes but for preaching against sin (specifically against the sins of the king). The Jewish leaders sought the permission of Pilate for the execution of Jesus. And while Pilate “washes his hands” over the matter, it was the Roman soldiers who carried out Jesus’ crucifixion by Roman law. And it was also at the hand of Roman soldiers that Paul died. In each case, the State had no right to take the lives of these men. And, in each case, these men refused to give in to the Roman government because they recognized that the rule of God was supreme.
We see this also in Acts chapter 4. Peter and John are arrested by the Council after a miracle was performed. The Council commands them not to speak anymore concerning Jesus (v.8) and they refuse to obey, saying, “…we cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard.”
It may seem that the Apostles violated Romans 13. But that is not the case. The Council had no authority over the Apostles in this matter. The civil magistrates have no right to interfere with the religious commands of God. When the State interferes with the Church, the Church is under no obligation to submit. The State is exerting power where it has no authority. If John the Baptist, Jesus, and Paul fully submitted to the State they would never have been killed, But they recognized that the State had no legitimate authority over the areas give to the Church by God.