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A recurring theme on this website is the proper relationship between church and state. This important question must be resolved if Christians in the 21st century desire to continue the legacy that we are now celebrating in Boston. The men and women of the 16th century had determined a course of action, founded upon the Scriptures, that forever changed Europe and England and led to the formation of the very country where we now live. Although we are grateful for that heritage, we should also be looking to the future. The decisions that we make today will determine, 500 years from now, whether our descendants will be celebrating the thousand-year anniversary of the Reformation, or whether it will be forgotten.

Providentially, we are not left without guides to help us along this difficult path of the church’s response — and duty — to the society and the civil government that it finds itself surrounded by. We tend to think that our modern civilization has unique problems that cannot be informed by history, that we must find our own answers, and this is why the modern church has been mostly ineffectual in its calling to be an agent of change. The settings and the technology may change, but the heart of man is still the same. Man is the same sinner today that he was 500 — and 5000 — years ago. Our modern problems do not require modern solutions; they require ancient ones, the ones taught in the Bible.

Originally published in 1853, James Willson’s The Establishment and Limits of Civil Government is a remarkably timely book. Writing in a day not dissimilar to our own — one where citizens were looking for answers to civil problems of their own day — Willson’s clear and powerful exposition of Romans 13:1-7 is as relevant today as it was 150 years ago. Sounding somewhat prophetic, Willson writes this in the first chapter of his book:

The pulpit has been compelled to enter this field — long almost abandoned. An age of, at least, attempted social reformation, has driven every party in turn to seek the powerful aid of the Christian ministry, and while we cannot in many instances find much to commend in the manner in which the subject has been presented, it is still so far well, that portions of the word of God which exhibit the character, functions, and claims of civil power, are no longer regarded as forbidden ground. (p. 16)

Willson’s description of the 1850’s could well serve as a modern survey of the political landscape of 2009. It is true that the Bible is referred to rather often as a source of wisdom and authority, unfortunately it is being used to justify the welfare and social enslavement programs of the political left. Making appeals to Scripture to help the poor and the weak is certainly a right and noble thing, but using it as a means to involve the state even more in the fabric of society is certainly not. Willson rightly points out, by appealing to Romans 13 and other supporting passages from the Old and New Testaments, that government’s role is not one of provision, but of protection. 

It is not affirmed that the execution of law consists entirely in acts of punitive character… Such a notion is most derogatory to the magistrate and the government. The civil ruler would then be no more than a policeman, and government a system of police. Government has higher functions. It is a “praise” to them that do well. And, hence, it takes an interest in all that promotes a quiet, industrious and moral behavior — it provides for the education of the people — it ought to interest itself in the maintenance of pure religious observations. (pp. 69-70)

Quite unlike modern conceptions of “law,” Willson further states: “By inflicting penalties, [the magistrate] exhibits the desert of transgression, and shows that law is, indeed, law — that it is no mere nerveless utterance of the supreme power, but a thing of life and of energy” (p. 71). In other words, law in society is not only punitive, but a positive force as well; it reinforces the good while at the same time condemning the bad. Or, as Paul puts it: “For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil” (Romans 13:3-4).

As the title of the book aptly demonstrates, God has created the civil government and given it certain authority. Likewise, God has given the church a role and authority to carry out its mission. Just as God created the sea and the land and gave them boundaries that they may not cross (Job 38:8-11), God has given jurisdictions to both church and state and a society will only operate properly when those limitations and boundaries are observed. The question is not one of church OR state, but of church AND state. Both have been ordained by God.

Examples could be multiplied and this review could be as long, if not longer, than the book itself. Willson has done his task by correctly expositing the text of Romans 13:1-7, but he also did not try to write the definitive answer on the topic. His book is brief, but it effectively answers the most pressing questions and concerns about the Christian’s place in civil society. The final chapter of the book, which is its longest, anticipates and answers most of the objections that will be raised by skeptics. Amazingly, the objections that Willson answers are the very same ones that modern Christians have been voicing in the church/state debate; some things never change. Willson rightly diagnoses the issue as one of obedience and he cuts to the heart of matter with these remarks:

[Romans 13:1-7] embrace the discharge of all civil duties, the whole subject of obedience to the law; and the motives by which these are enforced are, throughout, religious. That is not true religion whose practical influence extends no farther than acts of devotion, or to relations merely domestic and ecclesiastical… The sincere Christian will be a Christian in the mart of business, in the hall of legislation, in the seat of science, in the executive chair, and in the walks of social intercourse. (p. 88)

Due in no small part to the republication of this important and practical book, may God be pleased to raise up generations of obedient and sincere Christians. The church and the country are in desperate need of them.

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Article posted July 16, 2009

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