Are The Roles of Church and Government at Odds?

Unless you’re a news junkie like the members of my family, you are probably having a difficult time keeping track of the numerous government attempts to profoundly infringe upon the first amendment rights of the American people. The most recent attempts can be summarized by a simple question currently facing the government, a question that will overwhelmingly affect what the church looks like in years to come. This question that the government is asking is this:

“Is religious freedom being used to discriminate?”

Already the government is starting to answer this question, and lines are being drawn. At the state level, state representatives find themselves strongly divided on this issue. For example, Governor Nathan Deal of Georgia vocally opposes a proposed bill that protects pastors from performing marriages that violate their religious freedom.  On the other side of the fence, in Missouri, a constitutional amendment was proposed to allow religious business owners the freedom to deny services for same-sex weddings.   As long as the country views religious institutions as attempting to “marginalize the minorities,” states all over the country will demand some type of government intervention along these lines. Therefore, the government is already in the early stages of drastically limiting church ordinances. On the other hand, churches are calling for a complete and distinct separation. For the church, this certainly begs a question we must be able to answer:

“Does the Bible present the roles of the church and the government as being antithetical to one another?”

In other words, how should we, as Christians, view these roles within a proper biblical framework? To gain a better understanding of these distinguished functions, let us look no further than our dear Anabaptist brother Balthasar Hubmaier. During an era when this same question was being asked, Hubmaier explained how both church and government were created to operate separately for a reason.

The 16th century Anabaptist wrote a book (On The Sword: Anabaptist Writings) detailing what he believed Scripture teaches regarding the roles of both church and government. According to Hubmaier, since the Fall, these two institutions have been fleshed out in Scripture. They are acts of God’s graciousness (on a number of levels) extending toward man. In his writings, Hubmaier explains that Scripture undoubtedly indicates a distinction between both institutions. He says the Bible clearly shows that God entrusted to the office of government a “physical sword” and to the church a “spiritual sword.”

Government

Hubmaier writes that God entrusts the office of government to wield what Scripture calls a physical sword. This is made evident through Paul’s writings in Romans 13. This physical sword not only comes with authority from God (Rom. 13:1-2), but those who wield this authority are also given a heavy responsibility. At a fundamental level, Hubmaier affirms that they are tasked with keeping order, protecting the pious/innocent, and punishing the wicked.[1]

The responsibility of an orderly government (as outlined in Romans 13) is actually more simplistic than many perceive. The office of government maintains this order by swinging the physical sword against those who are disorderly and wicked within the physical realm. The physical sword was meant for those who do evil, and Scripture asserts that governing authorities do not bear this sword in vain (Rom. 13:4).

One example Hubmaier gives of the physical sword is shown in Matthew 26. When Jesus is approached by an army of soldiers, Peter immediately reaches for his sword. Jesus commands Peter, “Put your sword back into its place; for all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword.” Notice here that Jesus does not condemn Peter for having a sword, nor does He forbid Peter from ever wearing a sword. Rather, He indicates that, while there is a time and place when the physical sword is needed, this is not such a time, for the use of a sword at this time would be contrary to what “the Scriptures [say must] be fulfilled” (Matt. 26:54). Accordingly, when drawn at the right time, the sword is designed for “men [who] are pious, good and orderly, [that] they will bear the sword for the protection of the innocent, according to the will of God, and for a terror to evil-doers, according as God has appointed and ordained.”[2]

Church

Hubmaier writes that God entrusts the office of the church to wield what Scripture calls a spiritual sword. This argument centralizes around two passages, 2 Corinthians 10:4-5 and Ephesians 6:17. The spiritual sword was given to the church by God to handle matters of the soul. According to Hubmaier, “For to the Ephesians and Corinthians Paul speaks of a spiritual sword, and says himself, ‘it is the word of God, with which one shall destroy that which lifts itself against the knowledge of God’”[3]

No better example can be found than in Jesus’ being led into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit. In Matthew 4, Jesus walks into a spiritual battle with the enemy. Notice that, when stepping into this battle, instead of wielding a physical sword, Jesus uses a totally different form of warfare. The physical sword would be of no help, for this fight is not against flesh and blood. Thus, Jesus wields the spiritual sword to not only protect but to fight anything “against the knowledge of God.” This is exactly how Satan attacks Jesus and is how he continues to wage war against the church.

This spiritual sword is described as the Word of God (Eph. 6:17) given to the church to fight off the evil one. Hubmaier states, “Of that sword Paul speaks here to the Ephesians and Corinthians what Christ himself says, ‘I have not come to send peace but a sword.’”[4] The sword referenced here is the Word of God fulfilled through Jesus and given through the Holy Spirit. This spiritual sword given to the church is to be used for protecting, challenging and waging war for the lost souls on this side of heaven.

Separate For A Purpose

This is how Hubmaier, working from the Scriptures, defined the roles of both church and government. Historically, when government has perceived the church’s role as being a threat toward those considered pious and innocent, governing authorities have swung their physical sword against the church, and many within the body of believers became martyrs as a result. In today’s context, those within governing offices are not necessarily swinging a physical sword but rather are trying to usurp the God-given role that, from the beginning, was bestowed upon the church.

The two swords were never meant to swing against one another. The two institutions most certainly were never designed to abdicate their roles to one another. Why did God design it this way? At the root of Hubmaier’s teaching, he strongly affirms that one can never change the spiritual state of man with the physical sword. That can only be done by swinging the spiritual sword given by God to the church. Accordingly, when placed in perfect harmony under the will of God, these two institutions echo the order, justice and grace exuding from the Father.


[1] Balthasar Hubmaier, On The Sword (Anabaptist Writings):  Page 10.
[2] Ibid, 8.
[3] Ibid, 21.
[4] Ibid, 22.

Joshua Clayton

Joshua Clayton

Executive Assistant to the Vice President for Strategic Initiatives & Communications at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
Joshua serves as the Executive Assistant to the Vice President for Strategic Initiatives & Communications and Managing Editor for Theological Matters. He is married to Taylor Ruth and is currently pursuing a Master of Divinity (concentration in Biblical Counseling).
Twitter: @jclay8332
Joshua Clayton