By James Bannerman in The Church of Christ

In entering on the question of the duty resting upon the Church and state respectively to endeavour to establish and uphold a friendly connection, there is a preliminary distinction which it is of some importance to keep in view. There is an important difference between the recognition of the Church by the state, and the maintenance of the Church by the state. For the state to recognise the Church as a Divine institution, to acknowledge its origin and claims to be from God, to confess that the doctrine which it teaches is the truth of God, and that the outward order and government of the Christian society are His appointment,—this is one thing; and it is, we believe, an incumbent duty on the part of a Christian state at all times. For the state to go beyond a public recognition and acknowledgment of the Church, and to lend its aid in the way of pecuniary support to its ministry and ordinances; to endow as well as to recognise the Christian society,—this is another thing, and a duty that may be incumbent on a Christian state or not, according to circumstances. To avow the truth of God, and to render the homage of a formal and public recognition to that Church which He has established on the earth, is a duty, as we believe, of universal obligation, to be discharged by a Christian state at all times and under all circumstances. The further step of supplying the pecuniary aid necessary to endow the Church and support the teachers of the truth, is one which the circumstances of the state and Church may render imperative or not at different times, according as those circumstances may differ. In determining the duty or expediency of state endowments in any particular case, many practical considerations must be taken into account. It may not be in the power of the civil magistrate to endow, through means of the money of the whole community, the Church of a fraction. The state of the nation or of the Church may render the attempt to endow the latter, although possible, inexpedient for the one or the other. But these considerations do not apply to the recognition of the Church by the state. To recognise the Church of Christ is a duty, not dependent on any local circumstances, but of universal obligation in the instance of a Christian nation or state. The duty of a Christian magistrate, like that of a Christian man, may be exhausted when he avows his religious profession, and lends his testimony to the truth of God, even although circumstances should make it impossible or inexpedient for the magistrate, as for the man, to follow it up by giving pecuniary support in aid of the Church. In both cases the duty of pecuniary endowment or contribution is one to be judged of by circumstances; the duty of recognition is one independent of such circumstances.

Bearing this distinction along with us, let us consider the grounds on which it may be asserted that it is the duty of the state and the Church respectively to seek a friendly alliance or connection—at least to the extent of a public recognition of the Church by the state, and, if circumstances permit or require it, to the extent of the pecuniary endowment of the Church by the state. In dealing with a subject so wide, and with so many different bearings, it will be impossible to do more than merely indicate the principles on which it may be argued.

I. The first principle, then, which I lay down is, that both the state and the Church are to be accounted moral parties responsible to God.

Like the individuals of which they are composed, the body politic and the body ecclesiastical have each a distinct moral personality, capable of right and wrong, and therefore directly accountable to God. Were the state and the Church in their corporate capacity to be viewed as divested of all moral character, and strangers to moral responsibility, there could be no such thing as duty predicated in regard to them. In such a case they could not do either right or wrong. But the fundamental principle that lies at the basis of the whole argument on this subject is, that both the state and the Church, made up as they are of moral and responsible individuals, and speaking and acting as they do through the organs or office-bearers that represent them, have themselves, as corporate societies, a moral character and a distinct responsibility. Like the individuals of which they are composed, the political society on the one hand, and the ecclesiastical society on the other, have each a distinct personality, in such a sense that each acts and resolves; and that for the action and resolution it incurs a moral obligation, and is responsible to God.

There is a subtle misapprehension current on this subject, as if men individually and personally were responsible, but as if the responsibility were at an end when they entered into a society, whether political or ecclesiastical, and thereby assumed a corporate or collective character. The very reverse of this is the case. Whatever moral character or whatever moral responsibility attaches to a man considered simply as an individual, is added to, and not diminished, when, in addition to his character as a man, he is to be viewed as joined to a society whether political or ecclesiastical, and becomes a citizen or Church member. The moral responsibility which he owed and felt as an individual, still belongs to him as a member of the state or of the Church. Instead of being diminished or cancelled, that responsibility is augmented by the additional obligations appropriate to the character of a citizen or Church member; and the body or society to which he is joined, in its corporate and collective capacity, derives from its members a moral character, and becomes itself responsible for all its actions. Take the case of any voluntary society gathered together for some purpose of science or humanity. The members of such a society do not sink their individual responsibility when they become members; on the contrary, they impart that responsibility to the society itself. The actions of the society, done in the name of the society, and by the appointment of the whole members, partake as much of a moral character, and are to be as much accounted right or wrong, as if they had been the acts of the individuals separately of which it is composed. The society, even though a mere voluntary society, is to be accounted a moral person, with duties and obligations incumbent upon it, and in all of them responsible to God.

Does it, I ask, add to or take from the force of this argument, that the state and the Church are not, properly speaking, voluntary societies, but ordinances of God? It plainly adds to the force of the argument. If, in the case of a merely voluntary society, the society in its collective capacity is to be regarded as a moral person, having a will and a conscience subject to the law of God, and as much responsible in its corporate character as are the individuals who compose it; much more must the state and the Church as such be accounted responsible to God for what they resolve and do. The very fact that they are God’s ordinances, founded in His appointment and resting on His authority, tends to bind all the more strongly upon them as societies a moral and responsible character. If they have received certain additional rights from Him, they have come under certain additional duties and responsibilities also. There is an individual responsibility that attaches to every man as the very creature of God, which he can no more divest himself of than he can divest himself of the character of a creature. There is a collective responsibility that attaches to every society, as a society, which it can no more divest itself of than can the members that compose it. For a man to deny his responsibility, were an attempt to set himself up beyond the reach of God’s moral government, and to make himself free from the eternal law of obligation to Him. For a society, whether political or ecclesiastical, to disown its responsibility, is an attempt equally vain and equally impious. In his will and in his conscience, in his resolutions and actions, man is under law to God, and cannot be free. In all that it resolves and does, every society of men in their collective capacity is no less under law, and responsible to God. So clear and incontrovertible are the grounds on which our first position may be maintained, that both the state and the Church are to be accounted parties morally responsible to God.

II. The second position that I lay down is, that both the Church and state, in consequence of this responsibility to God, are bound to own and recognise His revealed word.

This second position may be regarded as a corollary from the first. It follows very directly from the fact, that both the Church and state sustain a moral character, have a conscience to discriminate between right and wrong, and in what they resolve or do are directly responsible to God. There is, of course, a material difference in this respect between the Christian and the civil society,—the Christian society or Church being founded for the express and immediate purpose of being a witness to the truth of God in the face of the world, and the profession of the true faith being of the very essence of a Church, in the absence of which it would cease to be a Church at all; whereas the civil society, or the state, has been founded and exists for other immediate objects. But the duty of a Christian Church to profess the true religion, although more immediate and direct, does ultimately rest on the very same footing as does the duty of a Christian state. In both cases it is because they are to be regarded as the moral creatures of God—responsible to Him for what they resolve and do—that we are to hold them bound to own His name, to recognise His will, and to confess and bear witness unto His truth. The truth of this position, in so far as it bears upon the Church, no one, of course, is disposed to deny. For this end was the Church instituted, that it might be a witness for the word of God on the earth. But the truth of this position is denied by the advocates of the Voluntary cause, in so far as it bears on the state. It is affirmed that the state, as the state, has nothing to do with religion; that it has no duty or obligation to discharge in reference to the revealed will of God; and that it is bound to maintain neutrality between the profession and the denial of Christianity.1

Now, if this doctrine has any meaning whatever, it must mean that the state, as a corporate body, is not responsible to God at all. If the civil magistrate is not divested of the responsibility that attaches to every creature,—if he is not, alone of all others, free from a law that binds him, according to his nature and capacity as a creature, to own and honour God in all that he does,—then it cannot be denied, with any show of reason, that he lies under an obligation to receive and submit to God’s revealed will. The civil magistrate, as the organ of the state, has the Word of God in his hands. Admit him to be a moral and responsible agent in his official character, and he necessarily incurs obligation in reference to that relation, in the same manner as any other moral and responsible man. He can acquit himself of that responsibility and discharge those obligations in no other way than by receiving that revelation as God’s, submitting himself to it as such, and regulating his conduct by it in so far as its statements apply to his case. It cannot be alleged that the state, officially as the state, is incompetent to own and recognise the revelation of God, in the same sense that the irrational and irresponsible creatures are incompetent. On the contrary, there is involved in the very idea of responsibility an understanding, a will, a conscience, that make the state both capable of discerning between the truth of God and a lie, and accountable for doing so; and unless you deny this responsibility altogether, and affirm that the state cannot do right or do wrong, you are forced to admit that the very first and chiefest act for which it is responsible, is the act of owning or rejecting the revelation which God has given of His will. I do not, at this stage of the argument, speak of the duty of the state to endow the true religion,—I speak merely of the duty of the state to recognise the true religion; and that duty, as attaching to a Christian state, it is impossible to deny, unless upon the ground of a denial of the responsibility of the state as a moral agent altogether. Voluntaries freely admit that the state has a responsibility in reference to other states and to its own individual members. The state sustains a moral character, and is capable of right or wrong in its transactions with other states, in its tactics of war and peace, in its covenants fiscal and commercial. The state sustains a moral character, and is capable of right and wrong in its dealings with its own subjects, in its internal laws and regulations, in its acts legislative and executive. In all these cases no one dreams of denying that the state is a moral and intelligent agent, having an understanding and a conscience to discern between right and wrong, and responsible for doing so. Is it, then, only in reference to God and the revelation of God that the state stands divested of its moral character and responsibility, having no duty to discharge, and no accountability to incur? Is the state alone, of all the creatures of His hands, not under law to God, and having warrant to disown Him? This cannot be. As the moral creature of God,—more especially as His express ordinance,—the civil magistrate or the state is responsible to Him; and because responsible, is bound in its place, and according to its nature, to own and recognise His revealed will.

III. The third position that I lay down is, that the state, by a regard to itself, and to the very objects for which it exists as a state, is bound to recognise the true religion, and, so far as it is in its power, to promote its interests.

After what has been said, I take it for granted, as a fact not to be disputed, that the state, in all its acts, is to be accounted a moral and responsible agent, as much as any individual that is a subject of it; and that, although not under law to man, the supreme power, or organ of the state, is under law to God. I take it for granted, further, that in consequence of this responsibility to God, the state is bound, as the first and chief of its duties, to own His will, as embodied in the form of a supernatural revelation from Him, and in its national capacity, to recognise the authority and the Word of God as its law. And now, with an inspired revelation from God in its hands, what is it that the state learns as to its own interests and duties? It learns, in the first place, the intimate and indissoluble connection between the interests of civil society and the interests of true religion; and that to promote the wellbeing, or, rather, to insure the existence of the state, it is necessary to call in the aid of powers and influences which the state has not in itself. It finds, that what is awanting in civil society for accomplishing the very end of its own existence, the Gospel alone can supply; and that for the state to dismiss, as a matter foreign to it, the religious instruction and spiritual well-being of the people at large, is to forego the main instrumentality which God has put into its hands for securing the authority of law, for promoting the ends of civil government, for protecting the rights and furthering the peace of society. All this is too plain to need illustration. Without some religion, no society on earth, it is admitted by all parties, could exist at all; and without the true religion, no society can exist happily. Law would cease to be enforced, if it had to trust to punishment alone for its authority, without any higher motive to secure obedience to it; and justice between man and man could not be carried into effect, if it had no hold upon the conscience and the moral sense of a nation. And can it be alleged that religion is a matter with which states, as such, have no right to intermeddle, when it in reality forms the main and only secure foundation on which the authority of states rests,—the only sanction sufficient to enforce right and to deter from wrong in a community,—the only force strong enough to insure obedience and respect for law,—the only bond that can bind together the discordant elements of human society, and give peace between man and man? To assert that it is no duty of the civil magistrate to care for the religion of the people, is nothing less than to assert that he is at liberty to forego the chief or only certain stay of his own authority, and to disregard what is essential to his own existence or wellbeing. If religion be the great and indispensable cement of human society, then the magistrate is bound, by a regard to his own interests, and for the sake of the grand objects for which a state exists at all, to make the care of religion one of the first duties he has to discharge towards his people.

IV. The fourth position that I lay down is, that the state is bound, by a regard to the Church, as God’s ordinance for good, to countenance it, and, so far as it is in its power, to advance its interests.

The responsibility of the civil magistrate is not limited to what respects his own being or wellbeing. He finds, from the revealed will of God, that there is another society of Divine appointment, co-ordinate with the state, but different from it in its nature and in its powers. He learns that the great aim of this society is to advance the interests of the Gospel among men, and to promote the cause of truth and righteousness in the world. He recognises the visible Church of Christ as an institute appointed by Him for promoting His purposes of grace on earth, by means purely spiritual, and within a province altogether distinct from that of the state. In this separate character and province, assigned by God to the Church and the state respectively, the civil magistrate is able to see the ground laid for co-operation between the two, without the risk of interference and collision. In the common ends which in some respects they contemplate or promote together, he acknowledges their mutual adaptation the one to the other, as friends and allies. Further still, in the fact that they are both ordinances of God, equally appointed by Him, and equally responsible to Him, the civil magistrate is able to see that they have duties one to another in the way of promoting each other’s interests as fellow-workers in the same Master’s service. More especially because Scripture assigns to the Church and state jurisdiction and provinces separate and apart, the civil magistrate will see that there is no danger of interference or conflict in entering into right and friendly alliance with the Church, and lending to it his countenance within its own sphere.

Such, unquestionably, will be the light in which the civil magistrate cannot but regard his obligation to God in reference to the Church as God’s ordinance, when the Word of God is taken as the rule of duty in the matter. And what remains for him but to ask in what respects, consistently with the character and interests of the civil society on the one hand, and with the nature and welfare of the ecclesiastical society on the other, the state can be instrumental in promoting the cause of the Church? That there are ways in which the state may discharge its obligations to the Church, without sacrificing or encroaching upon the true character and essential rights of either, can hardly admit of a question. The state may give the protection of law to the Church in freely exercising its function as a teacher of Divine truth, and may embody its confession of doctrine in the national statute book. The state may recognise the Sabbath as a day set apart for worship and sacredness, and throw around the rest of the Sabbath the fence of a legal acknowledgment. The state may furnish out of the national resources pecuniary aid for upholding Gospel ordinances, and providing such an endowment for Gospel ministers, as may secure that they be set apart wholly to their office of ministering in sacred things. This last service the state can discharge, in so far as the resources of the nation may permit, and the true welfare of the Church itself allow. And in doing all this, the state would not overstep the limits of its office, but rather be acquitting itself of its duty to God, whose ordinance the Church is, and whose will it is that the interests of His Church should be furthered by every competent and available means. In no respect would there be here any encroachment on the liberties of the Church, or any prejudice done to its spiritual character and prerogatives. On the contrary, there is nothing in all this but what is imperatively demanded from the state as a duty done to God on behalf of God’s ordinance, the Church.

V. The fifth position that I lay down is, that the duty of the state thus to recognise, and, in so far as circumstances permit, to endow the Church, is undeniably countenanced by the whole tenor of Scripture.

It is a striking fact, in confirmation of the views already laid down, that the only form of civil polity ever framed and established by God Himself should stand markedly in connection with the Church of God; and that although many of the circumstances attending the alliance of Church and state among the Jews were peculiar to that people, yet the alliance itself cannot be regarded as ceremonial or peculiar, but must be held as intimating the Divine will as to the lawfulness of such a connection. Add to this fact that, beyond the case of the Jews, we have express examples in Scripture of the countenance given by pecuniary support, and otherwise, to the Church of God by heathen magistrates, and the deed so done sanctioned by the approbation of God. Still further, this evidence of the Divine sanction given to the support and recognition of the Church by the state might be very greatly augmented by a consideration of those predictions in regard to the future or millennial state of the Church, in which kings and kingdoms are especially represented as in the latter days bringing their gold and their honour unto it, and becoming the great instruments of promoting its spiritual interests. Nor is the doctrine of the duty of the state to recognise and aid the Church invalidated by the absence of an express command in the New Testament Scriptures, confirmatory of the duty as announced in the Old. On the contrary, the absence of an express prohibition repealing the law, and superseding the principles acted on in Old Testament times, is the strongest of all evidence that the doctrine and duty remain the same as before. The circumstances of the Christian Church before the canon of Scripture was closed, are sufficient to account for the absence of any express precept there, bearing on the duty of the civil magistrate to countenance and endow the Christian society. But the circumstances of the primitive Church will not account for the absence of an express prohibition repealing the law of the Old Testament on the subject, had that law been really intended to be superseded or set aside as regards the Christian Church. The very fact of the total silence of the New Testament in regard to any such repeal is, in the circumstances, the strongest confirmation of the express countenance given in the Old to the right and duty of the state to enter into friendly alliance with the Church.

The testimony of Scripture, then, seems to be decisive of the question, and rightly to shut up the whole argument. If, as we have endeavoured to demonstrate, the state is a moral agent, responsible directly to God; if, in virtue of that responsibility, the state be bound, like every other agent in his own place, to receive and submit to the revealed will of God, when made known to it; if the state, by a regard to its own existence and welfare, is imperatively called upon to promote the religious interests of its subjects; if, by a regard to the Church, as the ordinance of God, the state lie under an obligation, in so far as is in its power, to advance its wellbeing,—the inference would seem unavoidable, that it is the duty of the state to seek a friendly alliance with the Church. It is not possible to avoid this conclusion, unless there can be produced, in contradiction to all such arguments, an express prohibition of God forbidding such an alliance as incompetent, and explicitly exempting the state from the duty that otherwise would lie upon it. But instead of any such exception being made in the case of the state, as alone of all the creatures of God exempted from allegiance to Him, and licensed to disown Him,—instead of any such prohibition laid upon the civil governments of the world, forbidding them to do what all else are commanded to do,—to bring their homage and help to the Church of Christ,—we find the very opposite to be the case. We find the whole tenor of Scripture bearing testimony to the duty and responsibility of the state in the matter, and lending not a contradiction but a confirmation to the dictates of nature and reason, which declare that nations and communities, like the individuals that compose them, are the subjects of Christ, and as such bound to bring their honour and glory to His Church.2

1 [Wardlaw, National Church Establishments Examined, London 1839, Lec. iv. p. 191. Marshall, Ecclesiastical Establishments farther Considered, Glasgow 1831, pp. 112, 113, 303.]

2 [M‘Crie, Unity of the Church; pp. 144–150. Statement, pp. 10–29, 77–153. Apollonius, Jus Majest. circa Sacra, Pars i. cap. ii. pp. 28–32, 44–46; cap. v. pp. 83–91. Voetius, Politica Ecclesiastica, Pars i. lib. i. Tract ii. cap. 2–4.]


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