Friday, June 20, 2014

Denominational Division and Reformed Civil Government

The movement to strive for biblical civil government seems to be growing among Reformed circles, and this is a good thing.  The Reformed tradition has historically advocated for the Establishment Principle, which teaches that the state ought to formally recognize both the true religion as well as the true church.  Civil law and policy should be rooted in the moral law of God, and civil officers and courts should grant formal recognition to the independent authority of ecclesiastical officers and courts (just as the latter should also grant formal recognition to the authority of the former).  See here for a great article arguing for these ideas.

Among the obstacles that need to be faced in order to achieve the Establishment Principle's goal of Christian civil societies, one that stands out to me prominently is the current disunity of the church.  The Establishment Principle assumes that there is a unified body of ecclesiastical officers and courts that can be formally recognized as well as looked to as authorities in teaching the Word of God (just as the civil officers and courts in the Old Testament could look to the Levites and priests as authoritative teachers of God's Word).  But the Reformed world today is an ecclesiastical hodgepodge of divided denominations, separated from each other and often differing on significant points of doctrine and practice.  These denominations, being separated from each other, exclude each others' de jure legitimacy and authority as churches (though not necessarily each others' de facto being as churches).  If they do not recognize each others' de jure status, how could the state consistently recognize the de jure status of all of them?  This would amount to an internal contradiction in the society, just as would be the case if the state government of Utah decided to recognize a number of competing mayors over Salt Lake City.  And since the denominations differ from each other in doctrine and practice, which beliefs, values and practices is the state to uphold, endorse, and protect (in fulfillment of its biblical obligation to uphold and enforce both tables of the law of God)?  This could create some significant practical dilemmas.  For example, if one church teaches a requirement to baptize children and another teaches that children should not be baptized, which baptisms will the state recognize as valid?  If one church teaches that the church can sing hymns in its public worship while another teaches that this is a violation of the regulative principle and censures those who do it, which view will the state endorse and which censures will it recognize?  In order for a society to function properly, it must possess internal coherence.

As a member and an officer of the Reformation Party, I am committed to the promotion of biblical, Reformed civil government, but I am concerned that the disunity of the Reformed world, including among supporters of Reformed civil government, creates an insuperable obstacle to the success of this goal.  Of course, there are plenty of other practical obstacles as well, so there are lots of things that need our attention.  We have to chip away at these obstacles bit by bit, fighting on multiple fronts, in reliance on the grace of God and with trust in his guidance.  But we must not think of our disunity as anything less than the huge obstacle that it is, as if our goal of Reformed civil government can be achieved without resolving it.

In the end, the state can only recognize one church, and so the achievement of Reformed civil government is inevitably going to involve competition among the divided denominations.  The question of which specific denomination the state should endorse and establish will eventually become unavoidable, and so it is something that those of us who are working together towards Reformed civil government should be squarely facing and discussing even now, even while our goal seems very far away practically.  It may not be as far away as it seems.  We need not think only in terms of entire nations (like the United States) embracing the principles of Reformed civil government, but we can also strive to create smaller Reformed societies (such as is envisioned in the New Plymouth Project).  What will happen if we are able to establish enough of a Reformed presence in some particular area that we can begin to actually put into practice biblical principles of civil government, and then we find that we bring amongst ourselves divided denominational allegiances?  How will such a situation not end with debates between the denominations splitting what could otherwise have been a unified society?  These are things we need to be considering, even now.  As an example of a question we need to consider, should we be working towards the goals of the New Plymouth Project by trying to get people from a bunch of Reformed denominations together in one place to form a Reformed society, or should we first decide which denomination is the right one to establish and then work to get members of that denomination into one area to form a society which recognizes that denomination?  It seems to me that the latter course is the only reasonable one, given the inevitable conflict that must be involved in the former.

No regular reader of this blog (if there be any!) will be surprised that the denomination I endorse as the one our civil society should be built around is the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland.  I see my work, then, in promoting proper understanding and endorsement of presbyterian church government and the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland among Reformed people (and all Christians) as a vital part of my work in promoting biblical, Reformed civil government.  The two issues are unavoidably intertwined.

For more, see here and here, and this two-part article here and here.

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