August 14, 2012

Against a “Christian Government”

by Jesse Johnson

church stateA central tenet of a baptistic world view is the separation of church and state. While many denominational forms of Christianity are more than comfortable with a church/state partnership, Baptists have learned (often the hard way) through church history that when the government and the religion are friends, that friendship usually begets the suppression of religious freedom, which begets persecution of those that believe the only faith which is pleasing to God is faith that comes from the free exercise of religion. In short, even Christian governments eventually persecute Baptists.

Thus, if given the choice between living under a deist’s democracy or a Christian’s dictatorship, the United States in 1800 is to be preferred over Constantinople in 330. If people are born alienated from God, then even those born to Christian parents need to be reconciled to God. That reconciliation comes only by grace, through faith. The act of regeneration is a mystery, but it comes through the preaching of the word, produces repentance, and results in a changed will. Thus the only kind of faith that saves is the kind of faith that changes the will.

All Christians believe that, but in church history there has been this constant temptation towards government officially establishing a religion. For that to happen, the church and state must be connected. There is no room for the conscientious objector if heavenly citizenship is akin to your earthly one. If the kingdom is spiritual, it must be entered by a person willingly, when his heart is changed and he born again.

But when Christianity is compulsory, those marks are worn down. When the gospel is reduced to citizenship, the essential act of conversion is denigrated. It makes sense that OT Israel functioned as a theocracy. If you could be circumcised into a relationship with God, that relationship better include governmental laws, taxes, and (most importantly) punishment for those who transgress the law. Obviously the OT Law was powerless to change the heart, but it was powerful enough to govern a rebellious people.

But in the NT, there is no concept of a Christian government. There is no Pauline Epistle on laws or taxes. Government leaders can be Christians, of course. And obviously those who govern with a sense of morality govern better than those who celebrate immorality. But that is not what is meant by a “Christian government.” Historically, Christian governments oversee Christian nations, where membership in the church is compulsory, and biblical affections are legislated. The pastors are political officers, and the Queen is the head of the Church. This is not a recipe for elder led churches, or for sermons on conversion.

There is a reason there are no Mennonite or Baptist countries in the world. We understand that the gospel in this age does not win, and that the road is narrow (and very few find it!). We understand that not all Israel is Israel, and not all the citizens of a Christian country actually fear the Lord. The lesson from Constantine is that you can baptize people all you want, but if they don’t believe in the gospel—if their will is not changed by the power of Scripture—all those baptisms succeeded simply in redefining the word Christian without transforming the soul.

This is why the Baptist prizes religious freedom. When people can choose what to believe about God, those that follow the Lord are doing so because their hearts have been changed, not because they receive a tax break. Thus, the system of government that is most beneficial to Christianity is one that is not explicitly Christian. For faith to be real, it must be free, and those that govern towards religious freedom are those that govern best—even if they are not believers themselves. John Piper (in an essay called “Making Room for Atheism”) puts it this way: “The spiritual, relational nature of God’s kingdom is the ground of our endorsement of pluralism—until Christ comes with rights and authority that we do not have.”

Religious pluralism in the government is not only a mark of a free society, but aides the spread of the true gospel. This is why the Mosque opening in your neighborhood is a good thing: it demonstrates that in our country, religion is a matter of the conscience. In that environment, those who follow Christ do so because their will has been changed, and not because they have confused their heavenly passport with their earthly one.

Jesse Johnson

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Jesse is the Teaching Pastor at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, VA. He also leads The Master's Seminary Washington DC location.
  • Technically, neither John Adams nor Thomas Jefferson were deists. Yes, both denied the divinity of Christ by the end of their lives – but all sorts of people (even Jews and Muslims) who are not deists deny Christ’s divinity. A deist believes that there is a God/first cause, but denies that God has any active current involvement in the universe. Adams directly stated on a number of occasions that he believed that God had a role in the forming of our country. Jefferson denied that God worked miracles in the lives of individuals, so he was certainly closer to deism, but he acknowledged God’s role in governing the affairs of nations on a number of occasions.

    -Daniel J. Mount (Apparently disqus won’t let me post as my real name – only my Twitter handle)
    Author of The Faith of America’s Presidents

    • Thanks for commenting Daniel. My daughter (4 years old) has a placemat that lists all the presidents, their time in office, their state, their VP, and their religion. It lists Jefferson as a deist. Are you saying my daughter’s placemat is not a good source of academic knowledge?

    • One more comment. Jefferson was a deist in the same sense Constantine was a Christian. That’s all I meant by that.

  • Are you saying you’re not in favor of calling the country the United Baptist States of America? J/k This was a great and powerful article. Thanks. (That last sentence sounded very ‘Wizard of Oz-ian’).

  • Excellent article. The bridging of church and state has historically had a very detrimental effect, and not just with Roman Catholics persecuting with inquisition, but even when the Anglicans called the shots in England and vealously persecuted good, Christian men like William Penn and John Bunyan.

    • Exactly. Any time their is an official “Christian” government of any persuasion…it works out bad for the good guys.

  • …just a bit confused with your use of the word “Baptist”. Is “Baptist” now the new word for what we used to call “evangelical Christians”? As someone who believes in the Lord Jesus Christ alone for my salvation and having surrendered my life to His Lordship, am I a “Baptist” and yet I just don’t know it? Great article nonetheless (just a bit perplexed).

    • Hey Kevin. I hardly meant anything novel with that word. I meant more old school, as in those that believe salvation comes by faith, and baptism comes later in life, after conversion, as you enter membership with the church. I meant more akin to anabaptist cerca 16th-19th centuries than for a post-evangelical world.

  • Karl Heitman

    Just curious: what separates this view from the athiests view that there should be no God talk or writings in the government at all (e.g., “In God We Trust”)? Why would it be bad for a government to appeal to the Bible (even if they are false believers) when making decisions about the direction of a nation?

    • Excellent question, Karl. One that needs to be asked, and one whose answer from Jesse I eagerly await.

      But as I’ve thought about that, it seems to boil down to this. What it seems Jesse’s advocating here is freedom of religion. This is constitutional. What the “no-God-talk-or-writings-in-government” people are advocating is freedom from religion. This is unconstitutional.

    • I agree with Mike. For a government to be pro-Christian, it should be separated from the church. “IN God we trust” is more akin to an obvious statement that could be shared by any member of any religion anywhere, than it is a subtle prodding of people toward anything Triune.

      As far as appeals to the Bible, I’m fine with appeals to the bible as it concerns morality. Murder is wrong because God said don’t do it, and God establishes the government to punish criminals (see my posts last week). But as far as what kind of tax code, which roads to build, what your insurance premium should be, etc., I’d be curious which passages one would appeal to.

  • jmv7000

    And yet we long for the day when the Savior is the King on the throne and ALL the nations know who reigns.

    • Amen. That’s why I love that Piper line about the second coming.

  • Drew Sparks


    Thank you for your posts relating to government recently, they are greatly appreciated. I was wondering if you could write or refer people to issues relating to Christian anarchism. It seems to be the other extreme of what you have dealt with, and I am brand new to this word/idea and am curious as to how to respond. Thank you again.

    • I’ve never heard of Christan anarchism. My guess is they would be bad at blogging.

      • Drew Sparks

        I just heard of it recently. Apparently it is the idea that Christians should stay completely out of any government because we only submit to Christ. Obviously I agree that we submit to Christ, but they seem to pit Christ against government. I believe this means that they do not vote or get involved with war, but I am not sure exactly. Here is a website I came across during my searches….

        • Yah. I sort of dealt with that last week. Are Christians Called Pacifism? Its linked on the sidebar or click on “all posts by Jesse”

  • ali

    Now tell me again WHY a mosque in my neighborhood is a “good thing.”?
    There are people who live in a nation who practice the christian faith – but a christian nation??
    We understand that the gospel in this age does not win???
    This is why the Baptist prizes religious freedom????
    Religion is a matter of the conscience – be are we called to be religious?????

    • Hey Ali,
      A mosque in your neighborhood is a good thing for a few reasons: one of which is it is a demonstration of the freedom of religion, which in the long run fosters a more healthy church, not a less healthy one. That was my point above. The other reason is it provides a public way to witness and evangelize and to engage others about the gospel.
      In this age, the gospel does not win. The world is under the power “of the prince of the air” and it will not be until the second coming when Christ puts his enemies under his feet. In this age, Christans are not to be conformed to this world. In the next age, the world will be conformed to Christ. This is in contrast to what is called post-millenialism, which sees the church growing and growing in influence until the gospel does win in this age.
      I’m unsure what you mean by “This is why the Baptist prizes religious freedom????”
      As for religious freedom, I’m using religion there as a noun (we have a “religion”). And religious freedom fosters conversion, as opposed to compulsory religion, which fosters hypocrisy. I think. What do you think?

    • Drew Sparks

      Ali, a mosque is a good thing because God is bringing people to American that Christians have not necessarily had the opportunity to reach before due to religious intolerance.

      Now, I am not speaking directly to you Ali, simply because I do not know you, but I do know that Christians are so worried about Muslims coming to America because they have the wrong perspective. God is brining the mission world to our doorstep, maybe it is because we were not doing a good job reaching them, or God just wanted to bring them within our reach. I don’t know, but I am glad there are people that we can reach out to due to the sovereign plan of God.

  • flyslinger2

    First, I think and hope you mean “religous” versus christian. I doubt that it would ever be frowned upon if a group of people had the opportunity to start a new nation and it was founded on, governed by and maintained with biblical principals.

    The phrase “separation of church and state” is attribute to Jefferson when he was trying to dispel the Danbury, Connecticut Baptists (those crazy baptists-I’m a brethren myself-another theological can of worms for another slow blog day), of their fear of the involvement of the government in their church affairs. NOT versa vice. Modern thought combined with atheism has taken this phrase and flew at mach speed in the opposite direction of what the founding fathers intended for the blending of the two together. For how can a nation founded on biblical principals last if it doesn’t uphold and recognize those same principals?

    I think we should be fighting tooth and nail to re-establish the biblical principals that the founding fathers adhered to in the selection and vetting of candidates for office. I think we should be steadfast in not giving an inch when the phrases of biblical inference or reference are attempted to be removed from government documents, the walls of courts and from the lawns of the county seat.

    I have too many pseudonyms in the web.

    Mark Sigsbee

  • Whipple

    Jesse, while I agree with you for the most part (though I am as yet undecided on some points), I have a couple of questions, if you’ve the time.

    I completely understand the individual specificity of salvation, as evidenced in the passage from Ezekiel 18, among other places. However, I feel a certain fear of civic irresponsibility that comes from passages where we see judgement on nations and people groups as opposed to individuals. The story of Lot and Sodom comes to mind, but I cannot seem to get past the idea of collective judgement. I think this has a great deal of bearing on how we as Christians approach our participation in government. I also appreciate CS Lewis’s approach to patriotism being slightly tongue-in-cheek. What do you think?

    Also, and I’m just curious, let’s say, for the sake of argument, that we lived under a government peopled by Christians (or, to widen the pool a bit, deists as well). I would think that such people would tend to institute laws under the influence of the Lord and would think it irresponsible and sinful to do aught else. The moral values propounded by such laws would be quite healthy for society, of course. However, like you said, a mandate of salvation as citizenship is wrong at its core, owing that God is the god of love, not of rape. Considering that morality is civilly beneficial, what is line between theocratic laws and ethics?
    Christians in government, ethics

  • i never seen christian on this way . this is bad for blogging i guess

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