What Hath Caesar to Do with Jesus? Reflections on Church-State Models (A Guest Blog)

ImageMany may know that I wrestle with the idea of symphonia, harmony between the Church and State. I do not reject this idea, but neither do I accept it. I believe there is much discussion to be had on this relationship. It is not easy, but very complex. I think it deserves to be wrestled with and for the nuances to be seen. I believe my friend Carson does a good job of that in this piece. I think we need to have more discussions on the relations between Church and State and the role of a Christian within the 21st century political arena. I have not yet made up my mind on where I stand, but I do want to further read and discuss this issue. I do not propose full agreement with any one thing or view said here, but I think Mr. Noll and Mr. Carson have a lot to say that contribute to the conversation. And I can really relate to the Lutheran view proposed. Enjoy:

What Hath Caesar to Do with Jesus? Reflections on Church-State Models 

By Carson Clark 

It seems to me that the dynamic relationship between church and state is one of irresolvable complexity. There is no simple answer. There is no one systematic paradigm or “biblical” formulation that defines what Christians’ political activity should look like, neatly ties off all the loose ends, and is conveniently applicable to all socio-economic contexts. An approach that met the needs of one decade or century often fails in another. It may produce justice and freedom in one situation, but tyranny in another. That’s why I will not condemn figures like Constantine or Calvin despite my strong criticisms. This reflects my own tendency to think and act more as a historian than a philosopher. My emphasis is more on what has been and what is than what should be. I try to put myself in others’ shoes, realizing that the ideal decision rarely aligns with the available options. What we’re left with is the impossibly difficult task of trying to work toward God’s Kingdom in this fallen world. Of course, some leaders have been more successful than others. Joseph in Egypt contrasts sharply with Saul in Israel, for example. Likewise, some models do appear to be more successful than others. My intention here is to paint the broad categories as I understand them, then explain which general approach I favor despite its confessed imperfection.

The book that has most influenced my political thinking is Mark Noll’s One Nation Under God? Christian Faith and Political Action in America. Being as it’s no longer in print, I’m assuming few who will come across this post will have read it. I can’t recommend it highly enough, though.11.I would offer two asides. First, this is one book you truly shouldn’t judge by its cover. There’s this ’80s, Focus on the Family vibe with an American flag and a Christian flag draped over one another. The tone it sets is completely antithetical to the book’s content. Whoever came up with that illustration either hadn’t read the book or was trying to be ironical. Second, the book is so good that I feel it should be required reading before any American Christian is allowed to comment on contemporary politics, let alone vote… I’m only half-joking.From Noll’s book I learned that, historically, there have been five general models for the relationship between church and state. The final three are distinctly Protestant, which Noll points out often has more to do with actual cultural practices than espoused theological principles. If you’ll pardon me for simplifying Noll’s scholarly survey, they are as follows:

  1. Theocracy – Religion and government are completely inseparable, both conceptually and in practice. In a theocracy, the whole society has been built such that it’ll be a functional, worshipful society that revolves around their deity (or deities). Though it rarely lived up to the billing, Old Testament Israel is an example of this. The only modern-day people I know of who enthusiastically endorse this perspective are those advocating Dominion Theology. To be candid, I find these individuals to be some combination of creepy and frightening. If one were to try and frame it using Richard Niebuhr’s classic categories in Christ and Culture, this would probably be “Christ above Culture.”
  2. Caeseropapism – Break that word down and you get what it means: Caesar-Pope. It’s the intertwining of authority between a “secular government” and a “spiritual religion,” to put it crudely. It differs from a theocracy in that the roles of government and religion are ideally distinguishable and separate, but it’s not hard to imagine that amidst these entities’ constant tussling the line between the two is often obscured. Historical examples of this are Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. Technically speaking, the Church of England is still built on this model. The translation doesn’t work perfectly, but this would likely be “Christ of Culture.”
  3. Anabaptist – Not only should the authorities of church and state be kept separate, but a Christian’s responsibility is to withdraw from society generally and politics specifically in order to focus exclusively upon the Church, thereby modeling a better way for society. The extreme form of this has been preserved among the Amish. From what I’m told, contemporary Mennonites aren’t exactly unified in this, but there’s still large pockets who practice a lesser form of this political separatism. If they’re at all a representative sample, the Mennonites I’ve known run the spectrum between apathetic to restrained in regards to politics, but they’ve been consistently apolitical in terms of volunteer participation like voting. This would definitely be “Christ against Culture.”
  4. Reformed – The roles of church and state should be delineated, but a believer’s faith necessarily and immediately leads to his or her participation in all areas of society, including the political sphere. This tradition is historically marked by a great deal of political vigor. Seen in the historic examples of John Calvin’s Geneva or Puritan New England, these Christians emphasize that Christians should transform and redeem society through any means possible. A good contemporary embodiment of this tradition is Tim Keller. This is “Christ transforming Culture.”
  5. Lutheran – Building upon Augustine’s model of the Two Kingdoms, it’s important that church and state be identified separately because they have different purposes and fulfill different roles. Christians should empathize the Church and be discerning in how their faith influences, reflects, and addresses society at large. It then follows that one’s private and public positions might differ. One obvious example that nearly all Christians would agree with is that adultery is morally wrong yet shouldn’t be illegal, and thereby punishable by imprisonment. This model might be best understood as a middle ground between the Protestant extremes. If Anabaptist Christians endorse intentional withdrawal from society to focus on the Church and Reformed Christians affirm immediate application of faith to all areas of society, then Lutheran Christians aim for a sense of discerning engagement of the Church corporately and Christians individually with society at large. Luther himself is probably the best example. Regarding the use of military force, he didn’t condemn it like Anabaptists nor did the Church implicitly rule the military like in Calvin’s Geneva. Luther felt that the military was the government’s responsibility rather than the Church’s. It should be acknowledged that this approach directly resulted in the tragic Peasants’ War. This is “Christ and Culture in Paradox.”

Now here’s my assessment of each perspective:

  1. It seems clear to me that the fulfillment of OT Israel isn’t another theocracy–an empire or a kingdom with a christian ruler or even a representative democracy ruled by Christians. The NT is quite clear that the Kingdom of God isn’t supposed to be a geo-political organization. Moreover, it’s supposed to transcend nations, geography, cultures, languages, gender, ethnicity, socio-economic status, and the like. In this way the eternal Kingdom of God is distinct from any and all temporal organizations. Israel in its heyday was a beautiful thing in God’s covental redemption of His people and I eagerly await the forthcoming theocracy at the Second Coming, but this model is untenable during the Church age. Anyone looking to recreate the Levitical code as modern law is not only bonkers, but in serious need of some coursework in hermeneutics and systematic theology. Buncha ignorant, biblicist crackerheads.
  2. The whole trajectory of church-state dynamics was forever altered with Constantine. That’s the unavoidable historical reality. Whether it was God’s sovereign will or a massive misstep is something we can argue all day, but will never know definitively this side of eternity. What I can say with a measure of confidence is this: While it’s true that Christians over the next thousand years accomplished a lot of good that they’re rarely given credit for these days, I think it’s fair to say that the church-state model of the era was terribly flawed. It’s cliché, but one need look no further than the Crusades for evidence. Caeseropapism is out. Honestly, I struggle to find redemptive elements that I can take away from this perspective and am rather thankful to be a non-English Anglican.
  3. Although I confess that I often find this model attractive, in principle I don’t affirm the wholesale withdrawal from society or even from explicit politics. Jesus told his followers to pay their taxes. The Roman centurion was never told to quit his post. Paul told the Romans to submit to the government and he, personally, didn’t refrain from appealing to his Roman citizenship. These are all very political actions. In D.G. Hart’s controversial book, A Secular Faith: Why Christianity Favors the Separation of Church and State, he writes, “Church and state should be separate, but not religion and politics.” I think that’s a profound insight, and if true it effectively rules out the Anabaptist position. What I’ve gleaned from this tradition, however, is that the Church is to be a flashlight rather than a lightsaber–a peaceful light that provides a steady presence in its witness to the world rather than a combative light that is wielded as a weapon to subdue it.
  4. Noll offers a fascinating account of how the Reformed model became the cultural presupposition for all American Christians from the Puritans onward. Here’s the concise version: Henry VIII makes England an independent Catholic nation. Edward makes it Protestant, but dies young. Bloody Mary then reverts the nation back to Catholicism, murdering a bunch of Protestants and causing others to flee. Since Luther was aging and Protestantism there was literally losing ground, that wasn’t a safe haven. Instead English Protestants were exiled in Geneva where Calvin treated them like royalty.11.Little wonder they became Calvinists. Also, this is where the Geneva Bible came from. When Elizabeth ascended the throne these Calvinists returned home. The Elizabethan Settlement resulted in a comprise church that was essentially Protestant in doctrine and Catholic in form, but this didn’t please those Calvinists, who accused the Church of England of retaining “popish remnants.” These folks became the Puritans. When it became clear they couldn’t complete the Reformation in England, they left for North America to become a “light upon a hill” and the “New Israel” that would set the standard for England and the world. You probably have a basic working knowledge of church-state dynamics in Puritan New England where faith was supposed to immediately lead to righteous establishment and renewal of society. That zealous model has been the American cultural norm ever sense. As Noll puts it, “Like early leaders of Calvinism on the Continent and like the English Puritans, Americans have moved in a straight line from personal belief to social reform, from private experience to political activity.” What is wrong with this? Temporal political causes, organizations, and figures have long prostituted the eternal Bride of Christ for their own selfish gain. Given the opportunity, there’s no question that they will continue to do so. Trust me, I used to do it myself. For the majority of my life I was a fundamentalist and a self-professed member of the “vast right-wing conspiracy.” I was a religious and governmental pragmatist who thought the issues of the day too pressing to waste time with philosophical banter and historical minutia. Today I pray for God’s forgiveness. Suffice to say, I’m not politically Reformed. Still, I have taken away a passionate belief in the Lordship of Christ over all areas of life.
  5. Political Lutheranism, as Noll calls it, doesn’t suggest that Christians should completely abstain from the political realm. What it says is that Christians must be ever mindful of our dual citizenship between heaven and earth lest we lose sight of our true priorities when our commitments conflict, which they inevitably will. Christianity is a religion of tension between the eternal and the temporal. The preservation of that tension is the only way to ward off the rather frequent efforts throughout church history to make Christianity little more than a moral code that guides society as so many of our deist Founding Fathers like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson likened it to be. The Two Kingdom perspective effectively keeps Christianity from becoming either a master over or a pawn under the government. As Hart points out, Christianity is the sole monotheistic religion that calls its followers to live “hyphenated lives” such that believers are called to live within a given society without seeking to take it over. Christians may–and perhaps should–participate in government, but must at all times be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. They may–and perhaps should–speak prophetically to the government, but they must be careful not to misrepresent Christ by claiming their personal opinions on hotly disputed matters represent the entire Church. More than anything, they should not let their national citizenship and political identities cause harm to the Church’s witness by causing strife and division. This is where my own sympathies lie.

One of the things I appreciated most about One Nation Under God? was Noll’s recognition of strengths and weaknesses in the various approaches. In contrasting politically Reformed and Lutheran perspectives specifically, he writes, “Reformed strength in guiding the restructuring of societies, Reformed weakness in carrying  reforming zeal to excess; Lutheran strength in recognizing the occasional incongruity between private and public spheres, Lutheran weakness in the tendency to lapse into political quietism.” In my eyes, merely being aware of these options and tendencies is a huge first step.

What Noll does in this work is call on American Christians to bring a more balanced perspective to the dominant Reformed tendency, to at the very least leaven the Reformed dough with Lutheran yeast. The fact of the matter is that political Lutheranism is and always has been uncommon in the United States. Noll remarks, “[I]t has been rare for Americans to think that a strategy of public life might look different from the axioms of private life… The notion that the public might operate under a different set of rules, that it might be possible to erect a theory of government transcending the values guiding the self, has been rare in American history.” Looking around at my family, friends, and the prevailing church culture, including those on the left and the right, I think Noll has hit the nail on the head. What troubles me about American Christians’ involvement in politics is not the political participation itself, but the style of political participation and the mode of political behavior.

I conclude with two final quotations from Noll’s book. The first is an exhortation of what the christian faith ought to look like in American political life. It’s a fantastic illustration of political Lutheranism. The second is about the faith and action of Rev. Samuel Hopkins, who was a pastor during the Revolutionary era. He perhaps as much as anyone exemplified the Lutheran approach within the American context. My hope is that these quotes will together provide a tangible sense of my political principles in practice.

To aim at being a biblical Christian above all else means that self-identity must come from Christian faith and not American citizenship. It means that we are first Christians, and only then capitalists, socialists, or defenders of a mixed economy. It means that we will be Christians who happen to be Republican or Democrats, rather than Democrats or Republicans who happen to be Christians. The faith will loom larger than support for social security, welfare reform, farmer relief, anti-abortion legislation, or a nuclear freeze. It is unlikely that anyone can fully succeed in setting so rigorously the demands of faith before other allegiances, but it is nonetheless the place to begin.”


When the Revolution approached, Hopkins took an interest in political matters, even to the point of arguing in private for the patriot cause. But Hopkins’ patriotism was different from that of others who merged their Christianity and their politics. His carefully constructed ethical position and his Edwardian view of the church gave him an unusual perspective on Revolutionary events. Though he was a patriot, he was self-consciously first a Christian. As such, he was able to separate political and Christian allegiances. And because he did not simply define his Christianity in terms of patriotic needs [like most American Christians at the time], he was also able to bring a specifically Christian critique to bear on American society.”


About Joel

Joel is a 32 year old currently residing in the southeastern United States. His interests lay in philosophy and theology. He is a writer for The Christian Watershed.

4 thoughts on “What Hath Caesar to Do with Jesus? Reflections on Church-State Models (A Guest Blog)

  1. The perennial problem: relationship between Church and State. We are at an advantage, we have two millennia of history, we can see what worked and what failed. I’m definitely camped out in the “Christ and Culture in Paradox” model, sometimes leaning towards the transformation model, but with more passivity. I’ve understood the” Christ Transforming Culture” model as less aggressive–probably influenced by Newbigin–an example would be how the early Church transformed Hellenism. Using terminology and some concepts but “christianizing” (for lack of a better word) the culture, or transforming it; the Church then becomes a subtle shaper of culture. The Reformed/Puritan tradition I understood more as “Christ Against Culture”, the reason being, is the modern evangelical vitriolic attack against the prevailing culture and their attempts at creating a culture-ghetto (i.e. CCM) that stood over in opposition to the mainstream, secular culture. Yet, I see the point that Clark and Noll are making. The American church has definitely been on a crusade to influence society and culture, we can see this when they try to (and I used to be guilty of this) politicize morality, so the law will enforce moral conduct–this is ideological, which according Bruce Ellis Benson becomes idolatrous. Would I be correct in saying that the Reformed/transformation model can easily lead to a form Caeseropapism when enough influence and power is achieved?

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