By Stephen W. Hiemstra
The relationship between church and state evolves during the history of the Protestant Churches as reflected in the reformation confessions. The creeds recognize Christ’s persecution. The reformation confessions recognize tension between church and state but argue for separation of the secular and religious domains following Luther. In the twentieth century confessions, the old separation of the church and state is clearly breaking down with the increasing power of the state relative to the church and increasing secularization of society. The twentieth century confessions themselves reflect both new intrusion by the state designed to redefine of the role of the church in society.
In the discussion that follows I focus on the creeds and confessions adopted by the Presbyterian Church (USA).
The suffering of Christ under Pontius Pilate is the only overt mention of a relationship between church and state in the Nicene and Apostle’s Creeds (PCUSA 1999, 1.1 and 2.1). The persecution is known from scripture but not explained in these creeds.1 Both creeds use the enigmatic phrase, a “holy catholic church”, but the need to emphasize the church’s unity (catholic) and being set apart (holy) is not explained. It could be read to separate the church from the secular world, including the state, but we are not told explicitly.
The Reformation Confessions
The reformation confessions codified this separation in Luther’s distinction between church and state. The Scots Confession, for example, reads (The Civil Magistrate):
We confess and acknowledge that empires…are ordained by God’s holy ordinance for the manifestation of his own glory and for the good and well being of all men. We hold that any men who conspire to rebel or to overturn the civil powers, as duly established, are not merely enemies to humanity but rebels against God’s will (PCUSA 1999, 3.24).
Elsewhere we read (The Works Which Are Counted Good Before God):
To honor father, mother, princes, rulers, and superior powers; to love them, to support them, to obey their orders if they are not contrary to the commands of God, to save the lives of the innocent, to repress tyranny, to defend the oppressed, to keep our bodies clean and holy, to live in soberness and temperance, to deal justly with all men in word and deed, and, finally, to repress any desire to harm our neighbor, are the good works of the second kind, and these are most pleasing and acceptable to God as he has commanded them himself (PCUSA 1999, 3.14).
Knowing that these divisions and relationships were entirely new during this period, the confessions do not so much codify existing relationships as establish new ones. In this sense, the reformation confessions may have provided the template for the relationship between church and state that inspired the U.S. Constitution (Smylie 1996, 57-61).
The reformation confessions are more than political manifestos. Because the protestant churches broke away from the Roman Catholic Church, they needed to develop more comprehensive statements of their beliefs, including statements of metaphysics, epistemology, anthropology, and ethics. The different confessions each cover these topics, but they cover them in different orders. For example, The Scots Confession starts with a description of God (metaphysics), then moves to discuss the creation of humanity (anthropology), followed by sin (ethics), and later by scripture (epistemology; PCUSA 1999, 3.01, 3.02, 3.03, and 3.19).
The Twentieth Century Confessions
The nineteenth century cast a heavy shadow over the twentieth century as the enlightenment was already past its prime. In Russia and later in China, the overtly atheistic philosophy of communism became the official doctrine leading to persecution of Christians outside of officially sanctioned churches. Belief in God waned in the western nations and the growth of new technologies led to the rise of state power relative to the church.
Official doctrine in the twentieth century still separated church and state, but religious skepticism combined with material wealth increasingly limited the influence of the church over public law and private mores. This skepticism included attacks on the metaphysical and epistemological assumptions of the Bible. The twentieth century confessions accordingly differ from the reformation confessions in that they neglect to provide their metaphysical and epistemological foundations and focus on anthropological and ethical prescriptions. While we might assume that they are grounded in the metaphysical and epistemological foundations of the reformation confessions, the twentieth century confessions stray from theological orthodoxy even in what is said.
The Theological Declaration of Barmen.
The growth of National Socialism in Germany in the 1930s led the government of Adolf Hitler to propose an officially sanctioned church of “German Christians” with overt political objectives. Representatives of the Lutheran, Reformed, and United Churches met May 29-31, 1934 and drafted The Theological Declaration of Barmen. Key participants in this confession were pastors Hans Asmussen, Karl Koch, Karl Iraruer, Martin Niemoller and Karl Barth (PCUSA 1999, 246-247).
The Theological Declaration of Barmen rejects six false doctrines:
1. Holding up other doctrines as of equal importance with God’s revelation in scripture.
2. Suggesting that parts of our lives are not subject to the reign of Christ and are subject to other lords.
3. Ordering the doctrine of the church to current ideologies and political convictions.
4. Vesting special powers to leaders who rule over the church.
5. Giving the church absolute control over people’s lives beyond the church’s special commission.
6. Placing the Word of God and the work of the church in their service of any arbitrarily chosen desires, purpose, or plans.
The Theological Declaration of Barmen organized no new churches or other bodies to implement the declaration, but simply asked the churches for prayer and support for participating pastors. With no official power, The Theological Declaration of Barmen attempts to persuade believers and thereby limit the ability of Nazi government to manipulate the church. (Barth 1959, 160).
The Confession of 1967.
If the Theological Declaration of Barmen responded to an external threat to the church posed by the State, then The Confession of 1967 responded to an internal threat to the church posed by the encroachment of modern and postmodern culture.
The Confession of 1967 builds on part of a single verse: “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor 5:19). The verse focuses on reconciling the world to God (evangelism) while the confession refocuses on reconciling us to one another (social ministry). In refocusing this verse, the confession crafts a four part mandate for the church:
In each time and place, there are particular problems and crises through which God calls the church to act…discrimination…reconciliation…ending poverty in a world of abundance…anarchy in sexual relationships … (PCUSA 1999, 9.43-9.47).
Nothing is left out. The summary statement for the confession reads: God’s redeeming work in Jesus Christ embraces the whole of man’s life: social and cultural, economic and political, scientific and technological, individual and corporate (PCUSA 1999, 9.53).2 Meanwhile, the Supreme Court’s decision in the Roe versus Wade case in 1973 and rule changes increasing the availability of contraceptives intruded deeply into the personal lives of Christians rendering church interpretation moot. Even further, the Obergefell v. Hodges decision in 2015 redefined marriage to include same-sex marriage causing deep splits within many denomination over how to respond.
The weight of these changes was to establish a precedent whereby the State could intervene into matters previously reserved for the Church. This reversed a consensus about the separation of church and state that had prevailed since the reformation and allowed new voices to be heard on questions of morality that oppose even the participation of the church in public debate. Having overturned the separation that prevailed on matters of moral conduct, the State has increasingly injected itself into church benevolences, personnel policies, and property rights.
A Brief Statement of Faith.
The breakdown of the division between church and state established during the reformation appears complete in the merger of the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America and the Presbyterian Church in the United States in 1983. The merger itself can be seen as an attempt by the church to consolidate influence already lost to postmodern culture.
The newly formed Presbyterian Church (USA) crafted a Brief Statement of Faith consisting of only eighty lines which focuses on the humanity of Christ and a stateless world where we stand almost alone as individuals before God. For example, confession writes:
In a broken and fearful world the Spirit gives us courage to pray without ceasing, to witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior, to unmask idolatries in Church and culture (PCUSA 1999, 10.4, Lines 65-69).
Here the private work of believers is to deconstruct (unmask) idolatries in the church and culture equally, suggesting that the church itself is suspect in our relationship with God rather than an instrument of the Holy Spirit.
It is fair to conclude from The Brief Statement of Faith that the separation of church and state assumed since the reformation no longer exists. The culture, acting through the State as a secular religion, has intruded on the private life of faith and brought it into the public domain. The public crusades of The Confession of 1967 have become private crusades in The Brief Statement of Faith perhaps explaining the new emphasis in pastoral care and the psychological hermeneutic in ministering to a broken and fearful world.
Where Jesus contended with intrusion of Mosaic Law, the Church today contends with an activist, secular State within its very walls rendering the concept of a division of church and state entirely anachronistic.
1 More detail is, for example, in the Heidelberg Catechism (PCUSA 1999, 4.037-4.039).
2 While innovative, the confession followed rather than led major changes in society, such as Second Vatican Council of the Roman Catholic Church (1962–65) and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Barth, Karl. 1959. A Shorter Commentary on Romans (1940). Richmond: John Knox Press.
Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA). 1999. The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)—Part I: Book of Confessions. Louisville, KY: Office of the General Assembly.
Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA). 2011. The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA): Part II: Book of Order 2011/2013. Louisville, KY: Office of the General Assembly.
Smylie, James H. A Brief History of the Presbyterians. Louisville: Geneva Press, 1996.
Church and State in the Confessions
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