While watching Bill O’Reilly with Jonathan last fall during the presidential election my 9-year-old boy said, “When I grow up, I’m going to be president.” I was proud of my boy and thankful that I live in a country that this dream is actually possible. After assuring him that all things are possible in America and with Christ guiding him he could do anything he desired I asked, “Why do you want to be president?” He responded, “Then I would make everyone believe in Jesus and go to church.”
I suddenly realized I was raising a well-meaning little fascist, a dictator for God. Yet many Christians may not understand the fallacies of this line of thinking. Let’s look at John Calvin as an example.
This 16th century theologian who was born in France and studied in Paris had a great loyalty to his father and to his Roman Catholic faith. However, through study of the Scriptures and early church history Calvin become convinced that he must come out from the Roman church (II Cor. 6:16-17) and join the Protestant movement. After leaving his priestly post at the age of 25 he moved to Switzerland. Here he spent a great amount of time writing and rewriting his views on theology. This writing is referred to as The Institutes. While relocating to his new home in Strasbourg, Calvin arrived in Geneva where he found a newly formed city government that had thrown off the yoke of Roman Imperialism and was attempting to establish a Protestant government. When the leaders of Geneva met Calvin they begged him to stay and take the lead both spiritually and politically.
I. The Blending of Church and State
In 1541 the government of Geneva approved Calvin’s Ecclesiastical Ordinances that gave political power to the 5 pastors and 12 elders of the city’s church, all led by John Calvin. He was now the official leader of the governmental state as well as the spiritual state of the church. Calvin believed this blending to be theologically correct because he thought he saw this outlined in the Scripture. He organized the city leadership into four orders, pastors gave the Bible, teachers gave the education, elders gave holiness oversight and the deacons were in charge of social services. Historically, he had seen this done by the Roman Catholic Church for centuries. In his mind there was no reason the church should not lead both spiritually and politically.
II. The Tendency of Consolidated Power
Servetus was a fugitive on the run from the Roman Inquisition. He had been arrested for speaking against the Catholic teachings of the Trinity and Papal authority. After escaping from prison Servetus was passing through Geneva when recognized and arrested. Calvin, because he occupied the seat of both spiritual authority and political authority, felt it necessary to place Servetus on trial for heresy. He was convicted and burned alive at the stake. After condemning a man to death, Calvin saw no political uprising. He was Lord supreme.
III. The Role of the Church in Society
For thousands of years the role of the church in society has been debated by theologians and political leaders alike. The example of John Calvin and the city of Geneva has served as an example of what is possible when the church and state are blended. A sincere and devote Christian leader is given complete political power and ends up abusing the authority he had been given. This is why Baptists in America have always stood for religious liberty and the separation of Church and State.. There should be no state sanctioned church but religious freedom for all to enjoy. The separation of church and state does not mean Christians ought not get involved in the political process, but that ecclesiastical powers ought be separated from political powers and vice versa. There should never be an established state religion, likewise there should never be governmental interference in anyone’s religious practices or beliefs. The role of the church is to reach people with the Gospel of Jesus Christ and if individual Christians desire to enter the political arena they ought feel free to do so. This Christian must walk the fine line of encouraging personal morality without legislating religious beliefs.
What are your thoughts? Would you tend to be a John Calvin or Jonathan Teis? In your opinion, what is the responsibly of Christians in our current political system?
(By the way… for those loyal to all things Calvin… I use him only as an example of the importance of Separation of Church and State. Feel free to remind us of all the contributions to theology that this man brought. I know some are itching to do so.