The Church and the State
The State is a divine institution, and as such has Scriptural authority for its existence. “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.” The State is the whole body of people under one government, and is composed of the recognised subjects of a country, whether they be men, women or children. It is the will of God, clearly revealed in the Scriptures and declared in the constitution of human nature, that men ought to associate in civil society for the Divine glory and individual and social good. Civil government, therefore, is not merely the suggestion of necessity, nor is it the invention of man; it is the moral ordinance of God, and civil officers are the ministers of God for good. Their function is to punish those who do evil and to secure the protection of those who do well. The State, as a Divine institution, is responsible to God to acknowledge His lordship in all things.
THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THE CHURCH AND THE STATE
Church and State are two distinct institutions, each independent in its own particular sphere, but co-operating for the glory of God and the welfare of society. In a truly
Christian State such co-operation would aim at the advancement of the Kingdom of God. The duty of the State in relation to the Church is to encourage and maintain conditions favourable to the spread of the Gospel (1Tim.2:1-4). The Church’s responsibility to the State is to preach the Word of God, to identify and protest against national sins and to provide instruction in principles of righteousness. While God has entrusted to the State physical means of enforcement, the Church employs sanctions which are purely spiritual. Civil officers, as such, have no right to exercise authority over the Church, although they have authority over the members of the Church in their civil relations. The Church possesses spiritual independence under Christ, being subject to Him alone.
CHRIST’S KINGSHIP OVER THE STATE
Nations, as such, by the immutable decree of God the Father, have been given to Jesus Christ that He may rule over them as their supreme Lord. They are, therefore, required to acknowledge and serve Him in all their ways, and submit to His mediatorial authority insofar as it has been revealed to them.
The nations of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland are in serious breach of this requirement. Many of their laws are in blatant contradiction of the Law of God. In defiance of scriptural injunctions (Exod.18:21; 2Sam.23:3), no moral or religious qualifications are demanded of those who aspire to political office. There is no adequate recognition of Christ as King of the nation. This exclusion of the Lord Jesus from national life is in breach of a solemn covenant engagement undertaken in 1643 on behalf of England, Ireland and Scotland and known as the Solemn League and Covenant.
Where the government of a nation thus flouts the authority of Jesus Christ, the rendering of unqualified allegiance to Him by Christians will require them to withhold their unqualified allegiance to the State. They will have to separate from the State where the State separates from Christ. The only position consistent for the Christian is the position of dissent from any constitution or form of government which refuses or neglects to own allegiance to Jesus Christ, since professing Christians in nations, which give moral support to such constitution or form of government, share in the responsibility for its anti- christian character. (Matt.6:24; Acts 4:19; Exod.23:2; Ps.94:20; 2Cor.6:17; Eph.5:11).
The Reformed Presbyterian Church of Ireland holds that the Church must explain the teaching of the Word on national responsibility, in order that there may be an awareness of the guilt which rests upon a Christ-rejecting, covenant-breaking people. Politicians, too, need to be instructed that they derive their authority from Jesus Christ, that they are obliged to exercise it in complete conformity with His revealed will, and that they will answer to Him for their stewardship at the day of judgment.
While fully entitled by the civil law to all the rights of membership in the governing society, Christians, because of their primary allegiance to Christ, ought not to avail themselves of the exercise of those rights when they conflict with His supremacy. In particular, Christians should vote only for candidates for political office who recognise the kingship of Jesus Christ by:-
(a) giving evidence of consistent Christian character;
(b) promising to frame all their policies in accordance with the Word of God and to resist all pressures of political expediency and party discipline which might compromise such obedience;
(c) making an explicit declaration of dissent from everything within their sphere of government which is contrary to the Word of God and pledging themselves to work for public and national recognition of Christ;
(d) refusing, where applicable, to take the present oath of allegiance, and making instead an affirmation of loyalty which would specifically safeguard their primary loyalty to Jesus Christ.
Covenanters have a most positive contribution to make to national life. They recognise their responsibility to honour and pray for those in government, to submit to the powers that be, to pay taxes and serve the country to the best of their ability. Political dissent is a painful sacrifice, made only because of the demands of a higher loyalty. The position of the Church is an expression, not a denial, of our patriotism. The greatest service which one human being can perform for another is to lead him or her to the Lord Jesus Christ. That is precisely the service which Covenanters wish to perform for their beloved nations.
THE STATE AND CAPITAL PUNISHMENT
The State as a divine institution is given the responsibility of protecting the lives of its subjects. This is its supreme task in that God has placed a very high value on human life. It is the duty of the State therefore to impose the severest sanction on those who would take away human life by murder.
The sanction to be imposed upon the murderer is that which God himself has prescribed. In Genesis 9:5,6, we read, “whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed.” Here the verb may be future or imperative, and taken in isolation this passage may be interpreted as a command or a prediction. Most expositors take this passage in its context as a command. This position is reinforced when we bear in mind that in its Mosaic application it was understood as a command. The alternative interpretation which sees Genesis 9:5,6 as a prediction, is weak because not everyone who commits murder shall himself be murdered. The interpretation of the passage in Genesis as a command is further reinforced when we take into account the principle that the Old Testament is relevant to the subject, and when we recall the unique reason given in Genesis 9:6b for the sanctity of life – “for in the image of God made he man,” it is clear that God sanctions the death penalty, capital punishment, for murder.
When the children of Israel were constituted a nation at Sinai, God gave them laws which imposed the death penalty for crimes other than murder, i.e., adultery, blasphemy and Sabbath-breaking. But these laws were in force only until “the time of reformation.” They belonged to the ceremonial and judicial laws which God gave to the Jews in the time of Moses. The ceremonial laws partly prefigured the redemptive work of Christ and partly enforced certain moral duties. The judicial laws related to the Jews in their political capacity, i.e., as a nation, and applied to their civil government, at a time when God was establishing a theocracy in which He was supreme Lawgiver and Head.
The ceremonial laws are, to quote the Westminster Divines, “abrogated under the New Testament” (Col.2:16,17; Eph.5:16), and the judicial law ceased to apply with the disintegration of the Jewish nation. The ceremonial and judicial laws of Israel were of limited and temporary use. The moral law contained in the Ten Commandments is of perpetual obligation. (Westminster Confession of Faith chapter 19).
The rending of the Temple veil and the dispersion of the Jews after the destruction of Jersualem in A.D. 70, plainly indicate that the ceremonial and judicial laws of the Mosiac period are no longer binding, “not obliging any other now, further than the general equity thereof may require” (Westminster Confession of Faith). But the law protecting human life by the death of the murderer was given by God to Noah (Gen.9:6) and stands independently of the ceremonial and civil regulations delivered to the nation of Israel in the time of Moses. There is no indication anywhere in the Bible that it has been cancelled.
Further evidence in support of capital punishment is found in two New Testament passages: Acts 25:11 and Romans 13:1-4. In the former Paul says, “If I be an offender, or have committed anything worthy of death, I refuse not to die”, thus showing that he would not resist capital punishment were he guilty of such a crime and that there was an authority with the right to execute the death penalty in certain circumstances. It should be noted that Paul was appearing before a Roman tribunal, not a Jewish court. It cannot be argued that he was merely acknowledging a Jewish law. In Romans chapter 13, the use of the sword, which must involve the extreme penalty, is stated to be the prerogative of the civil magistrate – “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.” Thus this passage sanctions capital punishment as the penalty the State must impose upon the murderer.
We are profoundly conscious of the solemnity of this punishment which matches in justice the ultimate crime in human society; and if it be asked what right have we to administer this penalty, we would reply in the words of Martin Luther, “Therefore if such a person is killed, even though he is killed by the human sword, he is nevertheless correctly said to have been killed by God” (comment on Gen. 9:5,6). God says “Thou shalt do no murder”; and God decides the penalty. So solemn a subject must be viewed against the background of God’s righteousness, which He never abandons, as the Cross so eloquently declares.
God did not impose the death penalty in cases where the killing was unintentional. Nevertheless, as the Scriptures serve to indicate, the taking of life unintentionally was viewed with extreme seriousness. While showing compassion or maybe leniency one should never minimise the fact that human life has been taken.