THE SCRIPTURE DOCTRINE OF THE
In this discussion it is hard to stick to limits of the debate because so much depends on your covenant position and so much depends on your eschatological position. Defenders of the establishment principle often argue, as do Bannerman and Cunningham, largely from logic and tradition. The scripture arguments that are raised generally refer either to the Sinaitic Covenant or to the eschatological future when such a theocratic covenant will again be in force over the nations. So this discussion will inevitably spill over to our position on other issues.
The American Presbyterian Church and the Presbyterian Reformed Church have had previous discussions about the covenants and the APC’s development of the Westminster Confession two covenant system to more clearly delineate the various covenants God has made with man in the history of redemption. To date this has not appeared to be an issue between our churches. It is only by clearly distinguishing these covenants that we can clearly establish the status, responsibilities, and authority of the civil magistrate under the New Covenant.
The question before is exactly one of authority. No one denies that breaches of the first table are sin and are worthy of punishment. The question is to whom has God granted authority over his fellow man to enforce God’s laws and exact the divine penalties. Before the flood God refused to delegate even the authority to punish serious second table offenses such as murder and put a mark on Cain lest anyone finding him should kill him. God seriously guards his prerogatives as the Only Judge of all the Earth and personally dealt with Cain. The Scriptures declare, Vengeance is mine saith the Lord, I shall repay”. That principle still applies and only when God chooses to exact his vengeance on sinners by means of duly delegated authority acting in his name can any other entity do so.
It was not until after the flood in the Noachic covenant that God first delegated such authority to civil magistrates acting as his ministers (Genesis 9, Romans 13). But he only delegated authority to suppress such second table offenses as murder (Genesis 9:6). Under the Noachic Covenant there is no authority given to the civil magistrate to enforce God’s will in matters of religion.
Neither did God delegate any such authority to exact his vengeance on sinners who transgress the first table of the law under the Abrahamic Covenant. The Abrahamic Covenant required a “cutting off” of those who broke the covenant. This does not refer to the death penalty via the sword of the civil magistrate but rather to excommunication, an ecclesiastical penalty. Abraham as a prince with his hundreds of armed servants acted as civil magistrate and carried on a just war in the rescue of his nephew Lot from the confederacy of kings that had carried him away (Genesis 14:12-16). Abraham was also the head of the church which was formed in his household by divine covenant (Genesis 17). But as can be clearly seen in the case of Ishmael, Abraham did not threaten him with the sword of the civil magistrate when Ishmael mocked the covenant (Genesis 21:9). Rather Ishmael was excommunicated from the church of Abraham’s household and was sent away (see Genesis 17:14). And he was even allowed to return for and participate in Abraham’s funeral (Genesis 25:9). No persecution for conscience sake here or civil reprisals for religious offenses. Similarly in the next generation Esau that profane person, who married heathen wives etc. is unmolested by any civil persecution for his worldly irreverence and disregard for the covenant, and Isaac was even very slow to exercise any church discipline. The withdrawal of God’s blessing was all the punishment he received and that was surely enough (see Genesis 27 and especially Genesis 28:1-4).
It is only under the administration of the Sinaitic Covenant that one finds all the scriptural injunctions that enjoin the civil magistrate to enforce God’s will in matters of religion and to punish by means of the civil sword public displays of idolatry, blasphemy, and other infractions of the first table. But even here we find that the authority of the civil magistrate is limited in matters of religion to enforcing the terms of the covenant onto those who were included in the covenant. The oft repeated injunction that the Israelites were not to oppress a stranger or a sojourner extended to include freedom from persecution in matters of private religion. To transfer these principles to the New Covenant and to make no provision for the distinction under the Sinaitic between how these laws were applied to the covenant community and to unbelieving strangers and sojourners in the land is a perversion of the original intention of these laws.
But the true question before is can these principles be transferred to the New Covenant at all. Defenders of the establishment principle argue that they can and set forth the analogy of the doctrine of infant baptism. But the analogy fails under closer examination. While it is true that Baptists mistakenly argue that the principles underlying infant circumcision in the Old Testament no longer apply it can be shown that this error stems from confusing the distinct Biblical covenants. While Baptists are correct in arguing that Old Testament has been put aside when by that they mean the Sinaitic Covenant, they are in error in thinking that circumcision was a national sign related to Israel under the Sinaitic Covenant. Rather as Christ taught, circumcision is not of Moses but of the fathers (i.e. Abraham). And if circumcision is of the Abrahamic covenant the principles underlying it are still in effect. Paul argues strongly in Galatians that we are not under the Sinaitic Covenant (the Law) but rather under the Abrahamic (the Promise) and that by faith we are children of Abraham and heirs of the promises made to him. But in the issue before us that we are debating is whether principles of civil establishment of religion and enforcement of religious matters by the sword of the civil magistrate as found in the Sinaitic Covenant is obligatory upon Gentile nations in the present day. Clearly if these principles had been present in and required under the Abrahamic Covenant the argument that unless they are specifically repealed in the New Covenant would be a valid one. But the scriptures clearly teach that the Sinaitic Covenant has been set aside (Jeremiah 31:31-33; Zechariah 11:10-14; Galatians 4:21-31; Hebrews 8:6-13) and therefore the silence of the New Testament with respect to authorizing the civil magistrate to enforce the first table of the law is not due to historical circumstances that make it inappropriate to practice but rather because such authority, which never existed outside of Israel as a unique covenant community, now no longer exists anywhere. This is confirmed by Paul’s ministry, particularly on the island of Cyprus where the Roman deputy (governor) was converted to Christianity (Acts 13:4-13). This would have been a most appropriate time for Paul to act and for the sacred record to reveal to us that it was the responsibility of this convert to use the authority of his office to advance the cause of Christianity. However like Joseph and Daniel in the Gentile nations of the Old Testament, so here we find not a hint that the magistrate so used his authority, and as in the cases of Joseph and Daniel, not a hint that he should have.
As we have noted above it is all a matter of authority. God is a jealous God guarding his prerogatives and declaring that vengeance on sinners is his. If he has not given authority to the civil magistrate in matters of religion and infractions of the first table are such sins as idolatry and blasphemy etc. to go unpunished in this life? The answer is not at all. For not only can God, and does God, punish sinners by his providential dealings with them in this life but as we shall see he has set up another authority to punish the aforementioned sins. The covenant community that once enforced God’s will in these matters was the Hebrew Commonwealth as constituted under the Sinaitic Covenant. But this has been replaced with the New Covenant. And with who is the New Covenant made? As Dr. Butler has so cogently argued in his Master’s thesis the New Covenant of Jeremiah 31:31 is made with the church, the true Israel of God. And as has been noted by others the church is styled by Peter, “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people”. And it is within this “holy nation” that the first table of the law is still enforced. And it is to this “holy nation” that God delegates the authority to punish the offenses of the first table such as idolatry and blasphemy etc. To the officers of this “holy nation” he has given “the keys of the kingdom of heaven” so that “whatsoever they bind (hold guilty) on earth is bound in heaven and whatsoever they loose (forgive) on earth is loosed in heaven” (see Matthew 16:18-19; Matthew 18:17-20). As Paul states the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but could we ask for more powerful weapons without despising God’s provision? And what is truly more fearful? Christ himself taught “Fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul” (Matthew 10:28). And who truly has more to fear, the Apostle Paul from the wrath of Nero with his civil sword, or the Annanias and Sapphira’s who have to face the curse of God pronounced by his servants, a curse that Christ has promised to uphold on judgment day? And so Paul acted when dealing with blasphemers as in the case of “Hymenaeus and Alexander; whom I have delivered unto Satan, that they may learn not to blaspheme” (I Timothy 1:20). With such weapons the church does not need to return to the beggarly elements of an old dispensation and seek the support of the civil sword.
Secondly there is not only the matter of authority but of jurisdiction. It is not enough to have authority to enforce God’s law and apply the divine penalties but one must have jurisdiction over those one would discipline. It is my belief that the first table of the law, though obligatory upon all men, can only be enforced, whether by civil or ecclesiastical elders, on those who are within the covenant. In other words only those who have covenanted to keep God’s law are under any human enforcement in matters of faith and worship. This is borne out by observing the situations under both the Sinaitic Covenant and the New Covenant. Under the Sinaitic Covenant there are clear distinctions between how the law applied to Israelites and to strangers and sojourners in the land. Strangers and sojourners were obviously not under the ceremonial law. The middle wall of partition kept them out. This exclusion was enforced by the death penalty as seen in such verses as Numbers 3:10 and 3:38. The law of the passover in Exodus 12 forbade strangers to partake of it. Similarly strangers were exempted from the dietary laws (Deuteronomy 14:21) and the prohibition on usury (Deuteronomy 23:20). There are numerous statements in the law however that state that there “shall be one manner of law” both for the stranger and the Israelite. On the surface this might seem to place every stranger and sojourner directly under all the implications of keeping the first table of the law under the Sinaitic economy or suffering the civil consequences. However these statements can be clearly divided into two categories. One category is where the context is clearly speaking to an enforcement of second table offenses (Leviticus 18:16-30; Leviticus 24:17-22). The other category is clearly speaking of strangers who have become religious proselytes (Numbers 9:14; Numbers 15:14-16; Numbers 15:26-30). This then clearly allows for a distinction in the jurisdiction that the civil magistrates of Israel had over Israelites that were within the covenant and the jurisdiction that they had over strangers and sojourners in the land. Over the latter they had only jurisdiction with respect to the second table of the law. They clearly were not required to publicly worship God according to the requirements of the Sinaitic Covenant and in fact were specifically forbidden to so. It would have been a great contradiction to have used the civil sword to compel them to do so. They were in fact allowed to worship as they pleased in private as long as they kept the second table (i.e no human sacrifice etc.). What they were not allowed to do was commit public acts of blasphemy, witchcraft, and idolatry (Leviticus 24:16). In a theocracy, as Israel then was this is quite understandable. Jahweh was King of Israel, and so to blaspheme him was akin to treason and therefore punishable as a political offense.
Let us now compare this with the New Covenant. The church is now the true Israel of God. Paul states it very eloquently in Ephesians 2. This is the exact counterpoint to Exodus 12. There the stranger was without the covenant and the obligations that the covenant entailed. But now we are within the covenant and the middle wall of partition is broken down. Paul even uses exactly the same Greek words for the various classes of strangers found in Exodus 12 as does the Septuagint. It is the church, now in covenant with God under the New Covenant, that stands in the place of Israel of old. And within that covenant community the first table of law is again enforced. But that enforcement is strictly by ecclesiastical censures and not by the sword of the civil magistrate.
Violation of these precepts lead to serious and sad consequences as witnessed in Calvin’s Geneva in the case of Servetus. Servetus had committed sins against the first table while in Vienna and other locations outside the jurisdiction of the civil magistrates of Geneva. He was travelling and had no intention of passing through Geneva and was forced to detour there to avoid a battle going on. He was in Geneva on the Sabbath and kept the law requiring church attendance by attending Calvin’s church. There he was spotted by Calvin and arrested, tried for his heresies, and burnt to death. But he had committed no public crime in Geneva of either table and they did not have any jurisdiction over him. This kind of vexing and oppressing a stranger was exactly what God forbade Israel of old. Servetus couldn’t win. Whether he attended church or whether hid didn’t he was condemned either way. It was like a stranger in the Israel who faced death if he crossed the middle wall of partition and also faced death if he failed to worship in the temple or tabernacle on the Sabbath.
Ultimately we have to decide if the Church of Jesus Christ is to be an assembly of saints, of called out ones, of God’s elect, or a mixed multitude dragooned together by the civil sword. Israel of old was to be holy nation, a peculiar people, separated from the nations and consecrated to the service of Jahweh. Strangers were forbidden to sit at her feasts and approach her altars. Even unbelieving Israelites were to cut off from their people and pruned off like the unbelieving branches of Romans 11. Ultimately we must decide if we want a gathered church or an established church because the two are at cross purposes. If there is only one church and it is established by the state and upheld by the sword it will inevitably, as it did in Scotland, become a civil issue what she should believe and who can be a member. The church will then indeed have sold her birthright for a mess of pottage. If we believe in the doctrine of election we must needs believe in a gathered church. The church is not of the world but is called out of it. To build that church we need no alliance with the state but rather to go forth as the Apostles did, preaching the gospel, in the hope that the Lord hath much people in this city.