Practical Reasons to Maintain Establishmentarianism in a Time of Ecclesiastical & Societal Declension

If something is true but not practical, is it really true? In other words, certain ideas may sound right and attractive and yet, when it comes to everyday life, if we do not have any hope of them being implemented in our time, why hold to them? 

Something of the same could be asked of those who hold to establishmentarianism. What is establishmentarianism? Basically, establishmentarianism teaches that the civil government has two religious obligations: 1) to defend and preserve the church of Christ and 2) to uphold and enforce the moral laws of scripture (as summarized in the Ten Commandments).[1]

Since our culture is in love with democracy and the vast majority (including most Christians) want nothing to do with a government that would promote and legally require a morality based on the scripture, why should we care to teach it or hold to it? If public religion is considered a relic of the past, and tolerance of all religions is a given, then how can we even entertain that our governments recognise any unique status to the Christian church?

The short and simple answer to this question is that if it is based on scripture, it ultimately does not matter. Nevertheless, it is important for us to see the practical implications of a doctrine since Christians are called to believe sound doctrine as well as to walk in godliness. So in this post I would like to explore several reasons from scripture why this teaching remains relevant and practical for our time, even if we have no hope that it would be implemented in our day.

  1. As a witness to unbelievers about the kingdom of God. One of the reasons that the kingdoms of the world should recognise the church of Christ is that it is the only kingdom that will prevail to eternity (Daniel 2:44; 1 Corinthians 15:24)
  2. As a witness to the headship of Christ over his church. The church is found within the various kingdoms of the earth and believers are subject to the commands of men, but only Christ is head of his church (Ephesians 5:23ff.). Therefore, the nations must never presume to interfere in the relationship between the bride and his bridegroom. 
  3. As a witness to the uniqueness of the visible church. Men belong to many clubs and organisations which obligate them to various duties as well as grant them certain privileges, but only the church exercises the keys of the kingdom (Matthew 16:19, 18:18). Potentially any person can be a legitimate subject or ruler of an earthly kingdom, but only Christ rules his kingdom and only those who submit to his rule are his subjects. Only the church has the promise of Christ’s “own presence and Spirit” (WCF 25.3). 
  4. As a corollary, this strengthens the Christian’s obligation to the visible church in a time where it is ignored and even despised by so many professors today. Church membership is a duty as well as a wonderful privilege.   
  5. As a witness to the importance of God’s moral law. By upholding the first table of the law along with the second, we promote the superiority of submission to the true God and his Christ, over public niceties (Deuteronomy 10:12; Matthew 22:36-40). Indeed, it teaches us that we must get our hearts right with God first and man secondly.
  6. As a witness to God who holds nations responsible for sin along with requiring repentance for individuals. Certainly God will punish those nations who oppose his Christ and his church (Psalms 2:9, 83:6ff.; Luke 1:71; Revelation 16, 18:1ff.) which is not a fate that Christians should wish upon a nation for whose peace they pray (Jeremiah 29:7 & 1 Timothy 2:2). 
  7. As a witness to Christ being the way the truth and the life (John 14:6). Christians only worship and follow Christ and know that man’s eternal salvation depends on their recognition of this great truth (John 3:36).
  8. As a corollary to this, we testify against the nameless faceless god(s) of our constitutions and pour contempt on the lip-service given to the Creator in the name of religious freedom (Isaiah 29:13).
  9. By this teaching we are moved to mourn that God’s law, by families and government, is flagrantly broken (Psalm 119:136).
  10. As a reminder to magistrates and nations to protect God’s church in times of persecution.
  11. As a witness to future generations of Christians that they may uphold the whole counsel of God’s Word (Acts 20:27).
  12. As a witness against the sin of denominationalism and the fractured state of the church (John 17:23; Ephesians 4:4).

1. Compare to Westminster Larger Catechism Q. 191. What do we pray for in the second petition? A. In the second petition (which is, Thy kingdom come,) ..the church furnished with all gospel officers and ordinances, purged from corruption, countenanced and maintained by the civil magistrate: that the ordinances of Christ may be purely dispensed, and made effectual to the converting of those that are yet in their sins, and the confirming, comforting, and building up of those that are already converted: that Christ would rule in our hearts here, and hasten the time of his second coming, and our reigning with him forever: and that he would be pleased so to exercise the kingdom of his power in all the world, as may best conduce to these ends.

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