The thesis of this essay is that Jesus Christ, the absolutely supreme Creator, Sustainer, and Ruler of the universe, intends to accomplish his saving purposes in the world without reliance on the powers of civil government to teach, defend, or spread the Christian religion as such. Followers of Christ should not use the sword of civil government to enact, enforce, or spread any idea or behavior as explicitly Christian — as part of the Christian religion as such.
It is critical to understand what I mean by the phrases “explicitly Christian” and “the Christian religion as such.” The state may indeed teach, defend, and spread ideas and behaviors that Christians support — and support for explicitly Christian reasons (and that non-Christians may support for different reasons). But that is not the same as the state’s taking on the role of advocacy for the Christian faith as such. It’s the latter, not the former, that the New Testament opposes.
The civil government may rightly pass laws that make the spread of the Christian faith (and other faiths) easier (for example, laws protecting free speech and free assembly). That is not what the New Testament opposes. The New Testament opposes Christians looking to the state to teach, defend, or spread ideas or behaviors as explicitly Christian. The sword is not to be the agent of the Christian religion as such — that is, as a religion.
Focused on Christianity, Not the Church
This essay is not mainly about church-state relations. I am concerned here with the Christian religion as such, not with any particular institutional manifestations. I say this partly because I know some join me in rejecting the notion of any given Christian denomination being established as a state church, but who still advocate for the state’s enforcement of the Christian religion, such as including the Apostles’ Creed in the US Constitution. To turn Christian creeds into civil statutes transforms them into legal codes enforceable by the sword. I will argue that this is contrary to the teaching of the New Testament. It is disobedience to the lordship of Christ.
I will argue that it is precisely our supreme allegiance to the lordship of Christ that obliges us not to use the God-given sword of civil government to threaten the punishment, or withhold the freedoms, of persons who do not confess Christ as Lord. There is no warrant in the New Testament for the church or the state to use force against non-Christian beliefs or against outward expressions of such beliefs that are not crimes on other counts.
This renunciation of reliance on state powers to establish the Christian religion as such is not in the service of so-called secular neutrality (which does not exist). It is in obedience to God’s word and in celebration of the Christ-exalting way he intends to rule the world without the weapons of the world until Christ’s return.
What the Government Does
This essay is mainly about what Christians should not look to the government to do. It is not about what we should look to the government to do. That is another essay (which many have already written). If I were to write an essay on that issue, it might begin with 1 Timothy 2:1–2:
First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.
The principle here is that the government uses its civil authority to provide a society of peace and justice where Christians (and others) are free to live out their faith without physical resistance. This passage does not warrant the view that other religions may legitimately be oppressed by government force. The principle is peace and stability and justice, not that any one religion be supported or restrained rather than another.
Christians as Influencers
Christians may serve in civil roles of authority and may be guided in those roles by their own Christian faith and biblical understanding of what is good for a society. This essay is not against Christians serving Christ through a role in government; it is against the government presuming to use its sword in the explicit aim of advancing the spiritual rule of Christ.
Christians should openly say that Christ is Lord of all, and that their Christian faith informs their political views. They may gladly say publicly which particular laws they support and oppose for Christian reasons. But that is not the same as saying that a law should be passed as an explicitly Christian act of government in support of the Christian religion as such. In other words, Christian influence in shaping a society’s conception of a just social order is not the same as Christians using state power to establish policies or laws precisely because they are part of the Christian religion.
For example, Christians rightly oppose, on biblical grounds, laws defending the killing of unborn children. And they rightly pursue, because of Christian convictions, laws protecting the lives of the unborn. And since immorality and illegality are not the same, they may also rightly debate and propose what measures of illegality, if any, should attach to the immorality of any number of perverse practices, such as sodomy, child pornography, or amputating and/or installing male and female sexual organs. Speaking biblical truth into the public square as Christians is what disciples of Jesus do. We declare the excellencies of God and his ways. Such advocacy for truth and righteousness is not what the New Testament opposes. It is against using the state to reward or punish acts because they are part of the Christian religion as such.
Christians may be involved in the political process from top to bottom as an expression of allegiance to the lordship of Christ, as they seek to “do good to everyone” (Galatians 6:10; 1 Thessalonians 5:15) in the hope that some might “see [their] good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation” (1 Peter 2:12). But seeking to serve in government as a fruit of Christian faith is not the same as using the powers of civil government as an advocate of the Christian faith as such.
We turn now to the exegetical reflections that support the preceding claims. I will focus on eight clusters of texts that lead to the thesis that Christ intends to accomplish his saving purposes in the world without using the sword of government to support the Christian religion as such — or any religion.
1. Christ’s kingdom is not of this world.
Pilate entered his headquarters again and called Jesus and said to him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?” Pilate answered, “Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world — to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate said to him, “What is truth?” (John 18:33–38)
Jesus speaks the words of verse 36 (“my kingdom is not of this world”) to clarify for Pilate that the kingly rule he does indeed bring into the world (Matthew 3:2; 4:17; 6:10) is not the kind Pilate would have in mind. He distinguishes his kingly rule from what Pilate would understand. He does so by saying that his kingdom is not “of this world” (verse 36). John uses this exact phrase thirteen times in his Gospel and twice in his letters.
“Of [or from] the world” carries a double meaning for John. On the one hand, it speaks of origin. Jesus’s kingdom does not originate from the world. He makes that explicit with the Greek word enteuthen — his kingdom is not “from here” (verse 36). But that would be a pointless observation if it did not carry the second meaning — namely, that his kingdom is not of the nature of this world. Christ’s kingdom is a kingdom unlike — not the same as — the kingdoms of this world.
We can see this meaning in John 15:19. Jesus says to the disciples, “If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.” Similarly, in 1 John 4:5–6, John says of the false teachers, “They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us.” From these texts, one can see that to be “from the world” is to be like the world — to act in a way that the world understands and approves of.
Then Jesus gives a specific example of how his kingly rule is not like the kingdoms of this world: “If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting” (verse 36). Thus Henry Alford explains that Christ’s kingdom in this world is “not springing from, arising out of this world; — and therefore not to be supported by this world’s weapons.”1 Similarly, Colin Kruse explains, “His kingdom is active in this world, and will one day come with power, but its power is not of this world; it is of God.”2
“Christ conquers his enemies by the gospel, not by the sword.”
When Christ says that if his kingdom were of this world his servants would have been fighting to keep him from being killed, he shows that his kingdom comes not by the power of the sword but by the power of the blood he is about to shed. He conquers his enemies by the gospel, not by the sword. “They have conquered [the accuser] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death” (Revelation 12:11).
I conclude, therefore, that the words of Jesus in John 18:36 are a warning to all his followers to resist the temptation to treat the sword of civil government as a Christian agent to advance the saving rule of Christ.
2. Christ’s kingdom is invisible and spiritual in nature.
He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. (Colossians 1:13–14)
In Paul’s letters, the primary use of the word kingdom is in reference to the future “kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 6:9, 10; 15:50; Galatians 5:21; Ephesians 5:5; 2 Thessalonians 1:5). But here in Colossians 1:13, Paul makes clear that before that final consummation of the kingdom (which he can call “the kingdom of Christ and God,” Ephesians 5:5), there is a present kingdom. This kingdom is the kingly rule of Christ that a person enters by God’s “deliverance” and “transferring”: “He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son” (Colossians 1:13). In other words, this kingdom is populated by people whom God has brought into fellowship with his Son (1 Corinthians 1:9). In this relationship, there is “redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Colossians 1:14).
The kingdom of Christ is the invisible rule of Christ over all those who are spiritually transferred from darkness into that rule. Therefore, neither the means of entrance nor the present reality of this kingdom should be thought of as looking to the civil government for advocacy or enforcement.
The invisible and spiritual nature of Christ’s kingdom between his two comings fits with the words of Jesus in John 18:36, “my kingdom is not of this world,” from which Jesus draws out the implication, “My disciples are not taking up arms to free me.” The weapons of the state are not to be the Christian means by which the kingdom of Christ advances in this world.
Christ’s saving rule advances by the sovereign act of God, who transfers people from the authority of darkness to the authority of Christ. The enlistment of the powers of civil government as Christian teacher, defender, or spreader of this kingdom of Christ inevitably obscures the spiritual nature of the kingdom and creates a false impression of Christ’s true mission in the world.
3. Followers of Christ are sojourners and exiles on earth.
You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation. (1 Peter 2:9–12)
If you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile, knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot. (1 Peter 1:17–19)
Many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself. (Philippians 3:18–21)
The people of Christ are those whom God has “called out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9). This group corresponds to the people who have been “delivered from the domain of darkness and transferred . . . to the kingdom of [God’s] beloved Son” (Colossians 1:13). Thus, the people within Christ’s kingly rule are the same as the people called “a chosen race . . . a holy nation” (1 Peter 2:9). These are also the ones called “sojourners and exiles” (1 Peter 2:11). And their time in this age between Christ’s two comings is called “the time of your exile” (1 Peter 1:17). This group of people is said to have its “citizenship . . . in heaven” (Philippians 3:20), over against those whose minds are “set on earthly things” (Philippians 3:19). This is a remarkable list of distinctives that set Christ’s people off from the world:
- delivered from the domain of darkness
- transferred to the kingdom of Christ
- called out of darkness
- called into Christ’s marvelous light
- constituted as a chosen race
- constituted as a holy nation
- having their citizenship in heaven
- being sojourners and exiles
- living in a time of exile
Between the two comings of Christ is a “time of . . . exile” for the people of Christ. During this time, they are themselves “sojourners and exiles.” That is, their “citizenship is in heaven,” not first or mainly or decisively in this world. This heavenly citizenship constitutes them as a “holy nation.” To quote the standard Greek lexicon, “Our home is in heaven, and here on earth we are a colony of heavenly citizens.”3 This colony in exile on earth is marked by two spiritual realities: “marvelous light” and the rule of Christ.
“Our defining citizenship, across all nations and ethnicities and races, is not an earthly citizenship.”
The depiction of Christ’s people with these dramatic distinctives is designed to distance them from the earthly structures of this age insofar as those structures would define, control, or be identified as the spiritual realities of Christ’s rule. These descriptions are designed to loosen allegiances to earthly nations and tighten allegiances to Christ’s people among all nations. Our defining citizenship, across all nations and ethnicities and races, is not an earthly citizenship (like citizenship in America, or any other earthly state) or an earthly ethnicity or race.
Until Christ comes, the vagaries and fragile existence of earthly nations do not correspond to the indestructible kingdom of Christ and his people. They have no necessary connection. Earthly nations come and go. Christ’s “holy nation” does not. It would be inconsistent with the radical distinction between the exile-reality of Christ’s people, on the one hand, and the citizenship of any earthly government, on the other hand, to think of the powers of that earthly government functioning as an explicitly Christian agent of Christ’s transnational “holy nation.” This is true regardless of how many people or leaders in an earthly nation are Christians.
4. Christians wield spiritual weapons, not earthly ones.
I, Paul, myself entreat you, by the meekness and gentleness of Christ — I who am humble when face to face with you, but bold toward you when I am away! — I beg of you that when I am present I may not have to show boldness with such confidence as I count on showing against some who suspect us of walking according to the flesh. For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, being ready to punish every disobedience, when your obedience is complete. (2 Corinthians 10:1–6)
There is no question of whether Christians are engaged in warfare in this world. The question is, What are the weapons and strategies we should use in combatting the anti-Christian forces and in exalting Christ? Paul admits that Christians share ordinary physical bodies and other human and cultural commonalities with non-Christians in this world (food, clothing, language, social structures, etc.). That is what he means when he says, “We walk in the flesh” (verse 3). The word flesh refers to what is merely human, merely natural, apart from the transforming effects of the Holy Spirit (see Romans 1:3; 4:1; 9:3, 5; 1 Corinthians 1:26; Galatians 4:23, 29). Christians share this world with unbelievers.
Nevertheless, when it comes to the battles of defending and spreading the Christian faith, Paul draws a line. We may “walk” in the flesh, but we do not “[wage] war according to the flesh” (verse 3). Or to say it another way, “The weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh” (verse 4). Even though Paul is not talking about the power of civil government in this text, the principle holds: we do not seek to defeat explicitly anti-Christian teaching by using the weapons of the flesh — namely, by wielding the sword of the civil government.
This is virtually the same as Jesus saying, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting [with the sword]” (John 18:36). In other words, “My kingdom is not of the flesh. If my kingdom were of the flesh, my servants would have been using the weapons of the flesh.” If in our efforts to advance Christ’s saving kingdom we look to the civil sword of the flesh instead of the spiritual sword of the Spirit, we disobey Christ, and miscommunicate the nature of Christianity.
“There is a great battle to be fought in this world, and Christians are to use the weapons of the Spirit-anointed word.”
So Paul says that the weapons of our warfare are not “fleshly” (sarkika) but are rather “powerful by God” (dunata tō theō). He appears to have in mind the Spirit-anointed preaching of Christian truth, which would “destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God” (verse 5).
Therefore, 2 Corinthians 10:3–5 stands against the temptation to use the powers of civil government to destroy opinions raised against the true God. For example, this text would stand in the way of using civil authority to punish blasphemy. There is a great battle to be fought in this world, and Christians are to use the weapons of the Spirit-anointed word, not the weapons of the state.
5. The kingdom was taken from a nation and given to the church.
Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation [ethnei] producing its fruits. (Matthew 21:43)
You are . . . a holy nation [ethnos hagion] . . . that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. (1 Peter 2:9)
Now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler — not even to eat with such a one. (1 Corinthians 5:11)
Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Corinthians 6:9–11)
The coming of Christ brought about a change in the way the visible people of God are constituted in this world. No longer are God’s visible people the political and ethnic people of Israel. Instead, God’s special saving action was taken away from Israel as a group and focused on the church.
This is the meaning of Matthew 21:43. Jesus interprets the parable of the vineyard as a parable of Israel’s fruitlessness and consequent loss of the saving rule of God: “The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation [ethnei] producing its fruits.” This “nation” is the church of Jesus Christ. As Robert Gundry puts it, “The church is called ‘a nation’ because it will replace the nation of Israel with disciples from all nations, blended together into a new people of God.”4 Hence Peter calls the church “a holy nation [ethnos hagion]” (1 Peter 2:9).
The changes in the kingdom moving from Israel to the church are many.
- The church is made up of all nations not just one (Matthew 28:19–20; Colossians 3:11; Romans 4:10–11; 9:24–25; Galatians 3:28; Ephesians 2:11–22; 3:6).
- All believers are priests (1 Peter 2:9; Revelation 1:6; 5:10).
- The sacrificial system ends with the perfect and final sin-bearing sacrifice of Christ (Hebrews 7:27; 9:12; 10:10).
- The food laws give way to Christian freedom (Mark 7:19).
- Circumcision is no longer required as the mark of belonging to the people of God (Galatians 2:3).
And the theocratic warrant for the civil punishment of execution for unrepentant idolaters, adulterers, and homosexuals, for example, is replaced with excommunication from the church. The hoped-for aim of excommunication is repentance and restoration, and therefore it does not look to the state to complete capital punishment for the sake of the church.
Here are texts showing the legitimacy of capital punishment for idolaters, adulterers, and active homosexuals in the old theocratic regime of Israel:
Joash said to all who stood against him, “Will you contend for Baal? Or will you save him? Whoever contends for him shall be put to death by morning.” (Judges 6:31; see also Leviticus 24:16; Deuteronomy 17:2–5)
If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death. (Leviticus 20:10)
If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them. (Leviticus 20:13)
Under the spiritual reign of Christ in the New Testament, idolatry is made more serious not by greater punishments but by being identified with the condition of the heart expressed in sins like covetousness. “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (Colossians 3:5).
The seriousness of adultery is intensified by being identified with the lust of the heart. “I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28).
Homosexual practice was classed with these sins of the “unrighteous.” And all three (idolatry, adultery, homosexual practice, in addition to others) were seen as serious enough to keep one out of the kingdom of God:
Neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality . . . will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Corinthians 6:9–11)5
Under the new-covenant reign of Christ, the way the people of God deal with the sins of idolatry, adultery, and homosexual behavior is first to seek repentance. When this happens, there is restoration. We see this in the gracious statement “such were some of you” (1 Corinthians 6:11). But if the idolaters, adulterers, and active homosexuals are unrepentant, the path forward is church discipline leading, if necessary, to excommunication.
It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you. . . . You are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord. (1 Corinthians 5:1–2, 5)
Excommunication had in view either repentance leading to salvation and, if possible, restoration (1 Corinthians 5:5; 2 Corinthians 2:6–10; 2 Thessalonians 3:14–15), or Christ’s capital punishment on the last day.
As for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death. (Revelation 21:8; see also 2 Thessalonians 1:8)
The fact that murderers, for example, are rightly punished by the state in this present age does not contradict the point here, because in punishing murderers the state is not functioning as an explicitly Christian agent of the Christian faith. This action of the state is not an aspect of Christ’s rule over his church. When the state punishes a murderer, it should not do so in the explicit advancement of religious faith — Christian or otherwise.
Jesus did not teach that the kingdom was taken from Israel and given to the civil government of each nation. He said it was taken from Israel and given to the church (Matthew 21:43). And in the process, he put in place a new way that God now rules his people until the second coming of Christ. So there can be no straight line drawn from the Old Testament laws and punishments to the present day. The state is not in continuity with Israel. And the people of Christ — the new holy nation — is a differently constituted “Israel.”
6. A ‘Christian state’ obscures the true nature of Christianity.
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. (Matthew 23:27–28)
Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin. (Romans 14:23)
Christ hates hypocrisy. He pronounces woes on those who think outward conformity to religious tradition without the inward reality of faith is a Christian aim. It misses the point to observe that hypocritical, law-abiding neighborhoods are preferable to deadly anarchy. Christians don’t operate with those options. We live and die to proclaim, “First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean” (Matthew 23:26). “Put away all . . . hypocrisy” (1 Peter 2:1). It is good when governments restrain the harm humans do to other humans. But that is not the Christian message, nor is it a strategy for advancing the Christian faith.
When the state encourages external forms of righteousness in the name of Christ and as an expression of the “Christian” way, it obscures the true nature of Christianity, and does harm to the cause of Christ. It gives the impression that such an ethic is “Christian” when the essentials of vital faith and love to Christ are missing (without which there is no truly Christian ethic, Romans 14:23). This implies that Christians should seek ways of minimizing, rather than cultivating, a cultural Christianity, which may restrain some outward evil with a veneer of Christianity, but also may lead millions into the false assurance that they are in God’s favor when they are not.
7. The sword of government is not for establishing true religion.
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed. (Romans 13:1–7)
Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor. (1 Peter 2:13–17)
In view of all we have seen about the new way that Christ governs his people under the new covenant, it would be unwarranted to infer from these passages that the civil government is intended by God to use its sword (Romans 13:4) in the explicitly Christian service of establishing or advancing the Christian religion.
It is an unwarranted leap to jump from the statement that governments are “to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good” (1 Peter 2:14; cf. Romans 13:3–4) to the conclusion that the “good” in view refers to explicit expressions of Christian faith, and the “evil” in view refers to explicit expressions of being non-Christian. In other words, the following syllogism is invalid:
Premise 1: Civil government is to reward the good and punish the bad.
Premise 2: Explicit expressions of Christian faith are good, and explicit expressions of being non-Christian are bad.
Conclusion: Therefore, the civil government should take up its Christian duty for Christ’s sake and reward deeds because they express Christianity, and punish deeds because they do not.
That is not a valid syllogism. The conclusion does not follow from the premises. It is not at all clear that the good and evil in premise 1 are the same as the good and evil in premise 2. Nor is it clear that the rewards and punishments should be bestowed as acts of Christian advocacy.
We have seen in the previous six sections that there are numerous reasons why we should not infer from Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 that governments are ordained by God to be an arm of Christianity to establish God’s kingdom with the sword. There are also pointers in these texts themselves that the good that governments are to praise does not imply they must be expressions of Christian faith. Rather, it is likely that in Romans 13:1–7 the “good work” (tō agathō ergō) in verse 3a and the “doing good” (to agothon poiei) in verse 3b refer to civic good deeds that were widely respected by non-Christians. I say this for several reasons:
These good deeds get the praise of pagan rulers (verse 3, hexeis epainon), who care nothing for Christian, spiritual reality.
Similarly, in 1 Peter 2:15 “doing good” (agathopoiountas) is designed to silence foolish pagan criticism, presumably by appealing not to their respect for Christian faith, but to their respect for civic good deeds.
These good deeds are part of the summons to be subject to pagan rulers (see the “therefore” at the beginning of Romans 13:5, dio), who would not care if the deeds were expressions of Christianity, but only that they were beneficial according to their own pagan standards.
The term “good works” (Romans 13:3) is regularly a reference to practical acts of mercy for those in need (Acts 9:36; 1 Timothy 2:10; 5:10; etc.), which the rulers would approve of as the same kind of practical helpfulness unbelievers are capable of and admire.
Submission and good behavior are fleshed out in the particulars of verse 7 (taxes, revenue, fear, honor), which from the standpoint of the pagan rulers would simply have been ordinary acts of civic responsibility, not acts of obedience to the Christian God.
For these reasons, together with the other points in this essay, it is not warranted to claim that Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 teach that civil government is ordained by God to use its sword for the establishment or advance of the Christian religion as such.
8. Christ himself will punish blasphemy and idolatry in the last day.
God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed. (2 Thessalonians 1:6–10)
The mystery of lawlessness is already at work. Only he who now restrains it will do so until he is out of the way. And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will kill with the breath of his mouth and bring to nothing by the appearance of his coming. (2 Thessalonians 2:7–8)
I include this section only to make explicit that the Christian renunciation of magisterial punishments for idolatry and blasphemy does not mean such punishments will never happen. They will be performed by the one Person who has the proper right and wisdom to do so, Jesus Christ, at his second coming.
There will be capital punishment for non-Christian beliefs. The prerogative to perform such punishment belongs to Christ. There is no warrant in the New Testament for the church or the state to use force against non-Christian beliefs or against outward expressions of such beliefs that are not crimes on other counts.
Conclusion: God’s New Administration
Jesus is Lord. In his providence, he rules all that comes to pass — from gnats to nations to nebulae. In his saving power, he rules his people by his Spirit through his word. With the coming of the Messiah, the Son of God, Jesus Christ, into the world, the kingdom of God was taken from Israel and given to the church (Matthew 21:43). In that transition, a new “administration” of God’s saving rule in the world was put in place.
Paul describes his purpose as an apostle this way:
To me . . . this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan [or administration, oikonomia] of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 3:8–10)
This new administration of God’s reign would not pursue the manifestation of God’s wisdom by using the powers of civil government as Christian enforcement of biblical faith. Rulers and authorities, in heaven and on earth, would be confronted with the spiritual power of Christ’s kingdom. But the faithful subjects of Christ’s kingdom would not look to the powers of civil government to give explicit Christian defense of or support to the Christian faith as such.6
This commitment to renounce reliance on state advocacy for the Christian faith is not in the service of so-called secular neutrality. It is in obedience to God’s word and in celebration of the Christ-exalting way he intends to rule the world without the weapons of the world, but for the glory of his name.
Henry Alford, Alford’s Greek Testament: An Exegetical and Critical Commentary, vol. 1, pt. 2, Luke–John (Grand Rapids: Guardian Press, 1976), 892. ↩
Colin G. Kruse, The Gospel According to John: An Introduction and Commentary, TNTC (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 354. ↩
Frederick W. Danker, Walter Bauer, William F. Arndt, and F. Wilbur Gingrich, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), s.v. politeuma. ↩
Robert H. Gundry, Commentary on the New Testament: Verse-by-Verse Explanations with a Literal Translation (Peabody, MA: Henrickson, 2010), 95. ↩
The point I am trying to make is not that, if the church forgives a behavior, the state may not punish it. The fact that some of the Corinthian believers had been “thieves” (1 Corinthians 6:10) does not mean that they had not rightly spent time in prison. The point is that there is no straight line drawn from the Old Testament laws and punishments to the present day. The function of the state today is not in simple continuity with the state in Old Testament Israel. And the the people of Christ, to whom the kingdom has been given (Matthew 21:43), is a differently constituted Israel. ↩
Just a reminder from the introductory section of this essay: the point of the words “as such” is to remind us that the civil government may indeed defend and support behaviors and laws that Christians approve of for Christian reasons (e.g., not to murder or steal), but that is not the same as the explicitly Christian defense and support of behaviors and laws as expressions of the Christian faith as such. ↩