After my last post on this topic, “Can ordained ministers hold civil office?”, some proponents of answering that question in the negative responded to me saying that I was wrong on some important points. In this post, I will address their criticisms.
It was suggested to me that I had misrepresented Greg L. Bahnsen’s teaching in Theonomy in Christian Ethics (TICE). I had argued that Greg was not saying that a man ordained in ecclesiastical office could not also separately hold a civil office, but rather was only arguing for the general separation of church and state and for the civil officers’ duty to enforce God’s law. While those brothers who disagreed with me here did not provide any direct refutation of this, they told me that my alleged error is made clearer by one of Bahnsen’s lectures, “GB268 – Church and State 1.” So, I went and listened.
It’s been a while now since I listened to that lecture, and while I offered my thoughts on it privately back then, I thought now that some would find it beneficial to have them in public as well.
While it was alleged that this talk refutes my claim regarding one man holding multiple offices, it simply does not. Similar to the original suggestions made regarding TICE, more is being read into Bahnsen’s teachings than the proponent says. Bahnsen in this talk says nothing exceeding what I have already dealt with in the article, and nothing that contradicts, let alone refutes, my claim that Scripture does not prohibit one man holding both civil and ecclesiastical office.
Two main aspects of the talk were urged in this regard: a reference to Uzziah, and one to Jehoshaphat (2 Chron. 19). In neither of these, however, does Bahnsen address the point in question, but rather again reiterates only the undisputed points: 1) that a man cannot unlawfully usurp either office, and 2) the general separation of church and state.
Just as in TICE, Bahnsen’s contextual emphasis is entirely different than that which would be helpful to answering the specific question in dispute. Just as before, he is particularly keen here to refute the mistaken notion posited by many Christians that there is no separation of church and state in the Old Testament. This is why he says, “I get a little upset with the lack of scholarly precision on the part of people who argue in these ways” (50:40 ff.). Then, just a bit later, “In my book Theonomy and Christian Ethics in the chapter on separation of church and state I go into some detail just to belabor the point that there were differences between the officials of the church and the state in the Old Testament—differences in their duties, differences in their regulations” (52:01 ff.).
No mention is made in this whatsoever about whether the same man could serve in both roles. This is merely about the much broader point of the general separation of church and state under the Old Testament (the point that is so often denied).
Bahnsen then moves on to Uzziah’s usurpation of the role of priest. The key point here is that Uzziah was not ordained to both offices (like Samuel, for example, was, et al). Thus, Uzziah’s attempt to do the work of the priests was unlawful usurpation, and God judged him for it.
Bahnsen’s point is that in the Old Testament, there was indeed a separation of church and state. No dispute here. But there’s also nothing more here.
Bahnsen then uses an analogy to show just how serious God Himself was about usurping the office. “If a president of the United States tried to preach a sermon today, would he be struck with leprosy?” (52:30 ff.) It was mistakenly suggested to me that this was a “modern illustration” by Bahnsen—as if it were a direct application to modern times. But Bahnsen’s question was not an illustration, it was rhetorical. The implied answer to his question is not “Yes! It would be like that today!” It was instead, “No, a President today would (most likely) not be stricken with leprosy.” His point was to emphasize just how seriously God took the separation back then under the old Covenant (by comparison, far more strictly even than we do today), and thus, yes, there was indeed a separation of the institutions back then (which, again, is the point so often denied, and which made Bahnsen “a little upset”).
Even if this was a “modern illustration,” it would still not be to the point because, again, Uzziah did not hold both offices to begin with, and the presumed President in the analogy would not either. To assume, therefore, that this answers the question of whether or not someone could hold both offices in any lawful way and function in them separately is therefore the fallacy of begging the question.
Regarding the reforms of Jehoshaphat, again, Bahnsen is quite right to see a separation of church and state in general in verse 11. Is he, however, arguing that this means there must be a “separate and distinct . . . officer” in the sense that it in all circumstances forbids one man from holding two offices and serving in the separate capacities? Neither Bahnsen nor the passage goes so far. In fact, it says the opposite. Just back up and read the rest of the passage, beginning in 2 Chronicles 19:8:
Jehoshaphat appointed certain Levites and priests and heads of families of Israel, to give judgment for the Lord and to decide disputed cases.
Jehoshaphat set up the whole group, including priests and Levites and family heads, on courts for judgments and settling civil cases (v. 8). You could say he divides their jurisdictions in verse 11 (and that is right as a general norm, of course), but he does not do so in verse 8 (which is consistent with the so-called “supreme court” of Israel mentioned in Deut. 17:8 ff.). The full reality of both of these verses must be taken into account. It also just so happens that the full reality of both of these is consistent with the position I have already stated: under God’s law, men can in fact serve in multiple offices (ecclesiastical and civil) concurrently.
In short, this talk from Bahsnen does not refute my position. In more than one way, rather, it confirms it.
This is not only consistent with what we saw from TICE Chapter 20 before, but also with the testimony of former students and friends of Greg Bahnsen with whom I have spoken. When once faced during his lifetime with a specific case example of a well-known, ordained minister running for civil office, Bahnsen said that he did not think it was ideal, but nevertheless did not condemn it or forbid it.
This means he understood the biblical passages we’ve reviewed clearly and logically, and did not read anything further into them. This also means that for the purposes of the original discussion, my original post represents Bahnsen’s views correctly.