During this election season, more than any other I can remember, I find myself struggling to think more carefully about the relationship between the church and the state. We have Obama and Hillary on the "secular progressive" side, and we have Huckabee, who is trying to appeal to cultural Christians, and McCain, who evidently can't stand the "evangelical right," on the conservative side. For me, the question is larger than the particulars of this election. The election is simply the catalyst of my anxieties.
I'm struggling to work out a coherent and consistent biblical theology of church, state, and politics because I want the Bible to govern my opinions in every sphere of life including opinions about the public square. There are two extremes among Reformed theologians: Theonomy (via A. Kuyper) and Klineanism. I'm not on board with either position, especially not with theonomy.
Theonomy is advocated by the likes of G. Bahnsen, R. Rushdoony, and G. North. This system teaches that Israel's government is the model for all civil magistrates at all times. They argue that God's law, revealed in Scripture, is the only norm for all the human spheres of relationship, including the home, the church, and the state. They say that the standing civil laws of the Old Testament along with their sanctions should be enforced by the governments of every nation.
Contrary to what one might expect, theonomy claims that the Old Testament recognizes a separation between the church and the state: Israelite priests were not to run the government and Israelite kings were not to make sacrifices. It also claims to allow for liberty of conscience and for non Christians to live peaceably within the borders of a theonomic state (the stranger within your midst).
However, theonomy teaches that the state should execute public blasphemers (Lev 24:10-16) and idolaters (Deut 13:6-18). That is, if you keep your opposition to Christianity to yourself, you may live in peace, but if you try to convert others to your non-Christian religion, then off with your head. Furthermore, theonomy claims to make allowance for all kinds of Christian denominations, but it does not allow for the advocacy of any form of Christian theology that opposes theonomy, since that would be an attack upon the establishment. Thus, I would be in trouble for writing a blog that offered any criticism of theonomy, and any denomination that opposed theonomy (such as historic Baptists) would not be allowed to exist.
So, theonomy would prohibit the free and open exchange of ideas and would use the sword of the state to punish all who argue against either Christianity or theonomy. That doesn't sound like much separation of church and state or civil liberty to me. It seems theonomy has much in common with the Islam and its ideal of sharia law, in which Muslim theologians interpret and apply the Koran to the civil government and culture. Devout Muslims believe that sharia law should be the norm for every society on earth and they have a vision for the conquest of the nations. Of course, to be fair, the Muslims see this conquest taking place through military action, while theonomists say that the conquest will come only through the advancement of the gospel and the ushering in of the millennium (most theonomists are postmillennialists).
I'm still in the process of learning about the Klinean model, but here is what I've gathered so far. Those who know the system better than me are welcome to correct any misrepresentations. The city of God (believers and the church) and the city of man (Gentile civilization) are supposed to be distinct, and the city of God should not try to conquer or otherwise "take over" the city of man because it will not work and is contrary to the gospel of Christ. The government, culture, and civil sphere in general are too weak to maintain a public Christianity. Here is their biblical-theological justification for their model.
After Cain killed Abel, Cain constructed a civilization. Cain's city was destroyed in the flood for its godlessness, but after the flood, God promised that he would never destroy the city of man again until the day of judgment. The city of man should be allowed to continue alongside the city of God until judgment day (Matt 13:36-43). After the flood, Genesis 9 teaches that the image of God in man (i.e., common grace) was the foundation of civil law for all the nations prior to the Mosaic covenant. God's moral law is in the heart of every man, and it teaches that the government should punish murderers, thieves, and other social deviants.
The Mosaic covenant, along with its civil and ceremonial laws, was a temporary covenant, intended for the nation of Israel alone. It was never for any nation/culture/government but Israel. No other nation can claim to be under that covenant, and no other nation can claim any of the legal blessings or curses promised to that nation because Israel was a chosen nation, a special people for God's own possession. God promised to do them good for obedience and to discipline them in their disobedience, but he makes no such promises for any other nation. Israel alone was placed under a heavy legal burden as an example of God's holiness to the nations and in anticipation of Christ's fulfillment of that law burden. Israel's covenant was also specially designed to preserve Israel as a nation through severe discipline until the coming of Christ. After Christ came, the Mosaic covenant was fulfilled and abolished as a covenant, such that no nation is obligated to keep the Mosaic covenant. We are free from the Mosaic law-covenant (Gal 3:15-4:7).
Not only is no nation obligated to keep the Mosaic law, for Christians to demand that any nation yoke itself to the Mosaic code is contrary to the gospel of Christ. Men must embrace the gospel voluntarily. Men become Christians when they are persuaded in mind and heart to embrace Jesus Christ. If the government comes with a "club" and an argument, men will not listen to the argument but will pretend to be Christian because of the club.
On the Klinean model, Christians should defend the liberty of conscience and the right of all men to believe and argue for whatever they wish. But, Christians should also try to persuade unbelievers of the value of keeping God's social commandments (the second table of the law), and work alongside of them to bring about justice and liberty for all. Christians should not, however, beat the city of man over the head with God's law in an authoritarian way. Instead, we should appeal to reason and to the image of God that is within everyone on the basis of common grace.
The Klinean does not hope that this present world will be transformed into Christendom. He is politically active out of love for his fellow image bearers, but he doesn't believe that political action will usher in the kingdom, nor does he believe that the city of man will ever fully or truly embrace any one of God's laws. Rather, he believes that the city of God and the city of man will exist side by side until the judgment day. It is not the role of the church to bring the state into subjection to God's law or to itself. But, by working for good in the state, and by appealing to the image of God in every man, there can be larger and smaller successes by which mercy is shown, suffering relieved, the weak defended, etc., though these "successes" will never overtake the city of man completely. Nor should they.