In August 2001, Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore erected a 2.5-ton granite monument of the Ten Commandments in the rotunda of the state Supreme Court building—raising a storm of legal controversy that ended in the forced removal of the monument and the removal of Moore from office. In an interview with Christianity Today, Moore insisted, "The acknowledgment of God is basic to our society, to our law, and to our morality." But for others, the mixing of religion and public justice went too far.

The questions raised by this controversy—very familiar ones for Americans grappling with the separation of church and state—are some of the same questions that have faced Christians in many different historical situations. What is the proper role of the government in relation to the church? Should Christians be trying to bring about a "Christian society"? To what extent can we place our hope in politicians and political processes to accomplish this?

God has established two kinds of government among men …

These questions came to the forefront in the 16th century when Europe was caught in a struggle between the Roman Catholic Church and the emerging Protestants. We tend to think of the Protestant reformers as primarily interested in theological issues: justification by faith, the supreme authority of Scripture, and the priesthood of all believers. But in a culture where religious life and civic life were so closely linked—where the pope fought battles and secular rulers appointed clergy, and where the ordinary lives of citizens were built around the beliefs and rituals of the church—it was impossible to escape the political ramifications of breaking ties with the Catholic mainstream.

The reformers developed their views within a political framework that was very different from ours, but the principles they set forth continue to influence Christian political involvement today.

Church and state

In 1517, Martin Luther sparked the Protestant Reformation with his 95 Theses arguing against the sale of indulgences, which the church granted to reduce a Christian's punishment in purgatory. Meanwhile, ulrich Zwingli was working for reform in Zurich, Switzerland. Significant differences between these two reformers ended up dividing Protestantism into two branches, Lutheran and Reformed. Martin Bucer began as a Lutheran, moved to the Reformed camp, and then spent his life trying to bring the two sides together. Bucer significantly influenced John Calvin, who spent most of his ministry in Geneva (now in Switzerland) and became the greatest of the Reformed theologians. These four mainstream reformers are often called the "magisterial reformers" because they believed in cooperating with the magistrates (rulers) to bring about reformation.

In the 16th century, church and state were inextricably intertwined, much as the different departments of state are in a modern government. The magisterial reformers did not question this; they believed that it was proper for the government to support true religion and to suppress error. Christianity was not just a private matter but also a public matter. If the Reformation was to succeed, it would have to reform the entire fabric of society, not just the beliefs of individual Christians. In order to stand up to the highest authorities of the Roman church and bring about widespread change, the reformers needed the support of secular rulers.

Some other reformers were revolutionaries who believed that the final struggle described in the book of Revelation was about to take place and that the godly should establish the kingdom of God by force. At the opposite extreme, the Anabaptists (who rejected infant baptism) believed that Christians should not be involved in the secular government at all, because the use of the sword to maintain order and administer punishment was contrary to the example set by Christ. The true church always stood in conflict with the world.

The magisterial reformers rejected both of these extremes. But they did not always agree about how to use politics to accomplish their spiritual goals.

Luther: Two kingdoms

Luther taught that there are two "kingdoms" or "realms." The spiritual realm involves issues of eternal life and salvation, which are the concerns of the church. The temporal realm involves issues of this world, such as politics and economics, which are the concerns of government. The spiritual realm is based on Christian revelation, the temporal realm on natural law. "God has established two kinds of government among men," Luther wrote, "the one is spiritual, it has no sword but it has the Word by which men … may attain everlasting life. The other is worldly government through the sword which aims to keep peace among men, and this he rewards with temporal blessing." As long as sin exists, both gospel and government are necessary.

For Luther, it is appropriate for Christians to hold public offices: "Should you see that there is a lack of hangmen, police, judges, lords or princes and find that you are qualified, you should offer your services and seek the job." But the state has a strictly limited role to play—restraining sin (Rom. 13:4) and keeping anarchy at bay by preserving law and order (1 Tim. 2:1-2).

Christians should be loyal citizens, but they should not fall into the trap of imagining that the state can be truly Christian in this fallen world. Luther saw the state as secular—not in the sense that it is religiously neutral, nor in the sense that it should not punish those who undermine true religion, but in the sense that we should not look to it to bring about the kingdom of God.

Zwingli: The Bible and the sword

Luther was against the use of military force to defend, let alone spread, the Reformation. On a 1510 trip to Rome, he had been scandalized to see Pope Julius II in armor leading his troops to war. This was not what he expected from a Christian minister. Then he saw his fellow reformer ulrich Zwingli doing the same thing.

By 1525, Zwingli's reformation of the Church in Zurich was largely complete. The Catholic mass was abolished and replaced by a simple Communion service. His goal of a united evangelical Switzerland seemed within reach. But when he formed an alliance of Protestant cantons (Swiss states), the Roman Catholic cantons felt threatened and formed a rival alliance. The result was war in 1529. After a lull, fighting broke out again in 1531, and Zwingli was killed on the battlefield.

Luther interpreted Zwingli's death as the judgment of God. The image of Zwingli with a Bible in one hand and a sword in the other (as his statue portrays him today in Zurich) was for Luther a contradiction in terms. Lutherans in general were more subservient to the state. When rulers made demands that were against their conscience (such as imposing Roman Catholicism), they believed in passive disobedience, not rebellion. They were not pacifists—they believed in the state's right to punish heretics—but they respected the established authorities as given by God.

Many in the Reformed tradition, on the other hand, accepted the legitimacy of armed rebellion against tyrannical regimes. In the Netherlands, they fought to expel the Spanish; in Scotland, they fought to protect the Reformation; in England, they fought against a king and eventually executed him; and in the American colonies, where the (Reformed) Puritan influence was strong, they rebelled against England.

Bucer: Blueprint for a Christian society

Zwingli, Bucer, and Calvin viewed the role of the state more positively than Luther. They believed that government's responsibility goes beyond merely preserving law and order; it also has the responsibility to bring about God's rule. Christians are called to make the gospel visible in all areas of society—whether politics, economics, the arts, or the media.

Bucer spent most of his career leading the Reformation in Strasbourg, but towards the end of his life he became a professor at the university of Cambridge. His book The Kingdom of Christ, written in 1550 (a year before he died) and addressed to King Edward VI, set forth a blueprint for a Christian England. Bucer's proposals encompassed not just church life but politics and economics. He argued that the laws of the land should be based on Christian principles—namely the two great commandments to love God and one's neighbor.

For example, Bucer proposed that begging should be outlawed so that the deacons of the church could administer effective relief, meeting the needs of those who were genuinely in need—not those who were simply too lazy to work. His vision of a comprehensive safety net for the poor, including steps to restore full employment and the goal of universal education, sounds amazingly modern. At the same time, he avoided one of the pitfalls of modern welfare states by taking care not to reward irresponsible behavior.

Unfortunately, Edward VI died in 1553 and with him any chance of implementing Bucer's blueprint.

Calvin: A model city

Unlike Bucer, John Calvin did live to see his vision of a Christian society take shape, at least in part, in the city of Geneva. Forced to flee France because of his Protestant beliefs, Calvin responded to a call to reform the church in Geneva. In the process, he transformed the city.

Calvin's goal went beyond the modest Lutheran aim of maintaining law and order; he wanted to build a godly society through the combined efforts of the ministers and the magistrates. In addition to preaching and administering the sacraments, the ministers kept a close watch over the spiritual health of the people, setting regulations on dress, dancing, Sunday behavior, etc. The government, for its part, maintained good schools, enforced godly laws, and punished wrongdoers. "These two things are widely different," Calvin argued, "because neither does the Church assume anything which is proper to the magistrate, nor is the magistrate competent to do what is done by the Church." Both, however had the same ultimate purpose: to restrain sin, encourage goodness, and build God's kingdom.

Calvin struggled not to impose a theocracy but to free the church from control by the civil magistrates so it could exercise its ministry to the full. This was not always easy, and he was forced to compromise again and again with stubborn magistrates. Moreover, many native Genevans found Calvin's rigorous discipline insufferable; these people, Calvin suggested, "should build a city where they can live as they want, since they don't want to live here under the yoke of Christ."

But the city also attracted many people, including refugees fleeing religious persecution, ministerial students, and others drawn by their admiration of Calvin. The Scots Reformer John Knox declared Geneva to be "the most perfect school of Christ that ever was in the earth since the days of the apostles."

Tension and transformation

Who was right? How should the church relate to society? In 1952, Yale theologian H. Richard Niebuhr described five basic Christian positions in his classic work Christ and Culture. The magisterial reformers represent the fourth and fifth positions, "Christ and Culture in Paradox" and "Christ the Transformer of Culture."

The Lutheran stance is "Christ and Culture in Paradox," which emphasizes the sinfulness of even "Christian" governments. As Luther put it, "It is one thing to change a government; another thing to improve a government." This position has many positive features: It is based upon a biblical view of human nature and sin, it avoids unrealistic expectations of politicians, and it avoids turning the gospel into a soon out-of-date political message. But on the negative side, one of the tragedies of the Nazi era was that the Lutheran approach helped persuade much (though not all) of the German church to accept Nazi rule passively.

The Reformed stance is "Christ the Transformer of Culture," which seeks, in a partial way, to bring about God's kingdom here and now. On the positive side, those holding this position have brought profound changes to society. Reformed (rather than Lutheran) Protestantism provided the cradle for capitalism and democracy. The Dutch, English, and American revolutions profoundly affected the course of history. The 19th-century struggle against slavery and the modern struggle against abortion are both attempts to bring a Christian voice to the political arena and show that Christ is the Lord of all of life, not just the "religious" part. However, one negative result of this position has been the use of military force and worldly weapons in the name of the gospel. Also, the current boom in political theologies has led many to confuse the gospel with secular agendas, just as Luther feared. In the words of Lutheran Mark Mattes, "The most important stance that the church can bring to the political realm is the truth that the political realm is never ultimate."

Today few theologians would accept the idea that the church should stick to religion and the state to politics, which is where the Lutheran "Christ and Culture in Paradox" approach can lead. On the other hand, experience proves that the Reformed "Christ the Transformer of Culture" approach can lead to baptizing secular ideologies or to treating politics like a holy war, damaging public perception of Christians as the bearers of Good News. While "Christ the Transformer of Culture" remains the ideal, it constantly needs to be challenged by the insights of "Christ and Culture in Paradox." Both Luther and the Reformed have positive lessons for us; both point to pitfalls to be avoided.

Tony Lane is professor of historical theology at London School of Theology and author of A Concise History of Christian Thought.

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