Today's Broadcast

The Sword and the Keys

A Message by R.C. Sproul

What is the mission of the civil government? What power and authority does the church have in the world? Does the church have the right to criticize the government’s decisions? Does the government have the right to intervene in ecclesiastical matters? Dr. Sproul answers these questions in this message as he explains the role of the government distinguished from the role of the church, and reminds us who holds “The Sword and the Keys.”

From the series: Church and State

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Further Study On This Topic

  1. devotional

    The Sword and the Keys

  2. devotional

    An Instrument of Evil

  3. devotional

    The Sword and the Keys

The Sword and the Keys

We would probably resolve many of the controversies surrounding the state’s relation to the church if both church and state remembered their distinctive functions according to God’s Word. The Lord gives the church and the state specific roles, and trouble arises when the church tries to do the work of the state or the state assumes the church’s authority.

Continuing our study of Romans 13, we find in today’s passage the primary vocation to which the Lord has called the state. Human government, Paul tells us, “does not bear the sword in vain.” In other words, the state is given the right to use force for a specific end — to inflict God’s wrath upon wrongdoers (v. 4). Basically, the ruling authorities are to use the sword to promote righteousness and punish evil. They may wage defensive wars to protect their citizens and establish a police force to keep people safe from harm. This right to use the sword does not belong to the church. The covenant community, therefore, has ceased following its Lord if it embraces force as a means to evangelize. Note too that the state is never given the right to use force to promote unrighteousness.

On the other hand, the apostles and their successors, the leaders of the church, hold the power of the keys (Matt. 16:13–20; 18:15–20). The church conducts the ministry of Word and sacrament, disciplining its members when their conduct casts doubt on their profession of faith. Government errs when it interferes with the work of the church, and the church errs when it looks to the state to settle its disputes. The apostles would be appalled to see denominational authorities in our day, while professing love for Christ, sue congregations who wish to leave the denomination and take their property with them (1 Cor. 6:1–8).

When the church and state meddle in each other’s affairs, they usurp the authority God has delegated to each body. The church must be allowed the freedom to conduct its ministry in peace and speak prophetically to the government. The state must be able to punish evil and preserve the liberty of its citizens with respect to the practice of their faith. Disaster usually follows when these principles are not held dear in a given culture.

An Instrument of Evil

Several principles, such as the separation of powers and our possession of certain inalienable rights apart from government say-so, formed the basis of the constitutional vision of the Founding Fathers of the United States. Two of these ideas, which motivated many people to flee Europe for America, are the freedom of religious expression and the separation of church and state. Rightly understood according to the U.S. Constitution itself and the Founding Fathers' writings, separation of church and state means only that the federal government may not establish a state church. Yet over the past century, judicial and legislative actions have often misapplied church-state separation to mean no one can speak of God in a public, secular setting, and that the church has no right to be heard except by its members.

When the Constitution's disestablishment clause is properly understood to mean the civil government may not establish a state church, the separation of church and state is a net positive. The history of the Church of England in Great Britain proves this by way of a negative example. Union of church and state in Britain today is essentially true only on paper, but history shows that the established Anglican church often used the state to accomplish religious conformity, and the state used the Anglican Church to squash political dissent. In fact, many early Americans were Puritans who fled England to escape persecution from the established church when their consciences were bound by God's Word. Because this history is frequently overlooked today, church-state separation is regularly perverted into the separation of God and state, in effect banishing religion from the public arena.

Those who seek to separate the state from God and His authority are bound to fail. No matter how the government rails against our Creator, it never escapes accountability to Him for fulfilling its responsibilities. Yet the separation of church and state, rightly understood, has been good for the church. Today's passage indicates that the state can become a force for evil when it abandons its God-given responsibilities, and established churches have often compromised their witness by supporting or refusing to stand against such evil. The Reichskirche support of Hitler is but one example of this.

Wicked men do at times reject God's purpose for the state, transforming the good of civil government into an instrument of evil (Rev. 13:1–10). The church must never forget this, lest it be used by the state for wicked ends.

The Sword and the Keys

Key to resolving the issues regarding how the church must relate to the state is an understanding of the distinct functions Scripture assigns to each authority. Church and state are actually both ministers of God that are appointed to fulfill certain tasks. Historically, human beings have always run into trouble when the state attempts to do the work of the church and the church attempts to do the work of the state.

Romans 13 offers perhaps the most thorough summary of the state's vocation in Scripture. Paul explains that the civil magistrate "does not bear the sword in vain" against evildoers; that is, God has delegated to the state the right to use force in order to execute divine wrath upon criminals on this side of glory. Government is called to use the sword to punish evil and to promote the cause of righteousness in society. This includes such things as establishing the police and legal authorities in order to protect innocent victims from crime and adjudicate offenders. Also, the state may wage defensive wars when it faces geopolitical aggressors. The Lord entrusts these responsibilities to the state and not the church, which is why force is never acceptable as a means of evangelization. Moreover, the state's right to exercise force has limitations. The government uses force unlawfully if it wields the sword to promote unrighteousness in society.

God has granted to His church a separate vocation, namely, the right to wield the power of the keys (Matt. 16:13–20; 18:15–20). Christ's church preaches His Word, administers His sacraments, and disciplines professing believers when their sin calls their profession into question. Government must not interfere with the work of the church, and the church must not turn to the state except, perhaps, as a last resort. For example, surely it is wrong for denominational leaders to sue congregations who wish to leave and take their church properties with them, but when such happens, it is surely acceptable for departing churches to make a legal defense (1 Cor. 6:1–8).

The church and state usurp the God-appointed authority of each other when they try to exercise rights that they have not been granted. Government must allow the church the freedom of expression and the freedom to address the state prophetically. The church must not take up the sword against heresy. If these vocations are confused, disaster tends to follow.

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