Summary: Exploring the relationship of church and state from the biblical model presented by Paul in his Letter to Roman Christians.
“Rulers are not a cause of fear for good behaviour, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil.”
Roger Williams was a graduate of Cambridge University, where in order to receive his degree he was forced to sign articles declaring that the king was by right the head of the English Church, that worship according to the Book of Common Prayer and church government through bishops were lawful, and that the official creed of the church expressed true doctrine.
Later, his open and bold Separatist convictions got him into trouble. Upon being compelled to leave England for Massachusetts colony, Williams wrote, “It was bitter as death to me when Bishop Laud pursued me out of this land, and my conscience was persuaded against the national church and ceremonies and bishops.”
To his dismay, Williams discovered that the religious climate was not much better on this side of the Atlantic. His ideas of freedom and worship were contrary to those in the established church of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. He curtly turned down the invitation to be the teacher of the largest church in the colony because the people were “unseparated,” that is, the people of the congregation were not distinctly Christian and they were clearly undistinguishable from their non-Christian neighbours.
The smug, strait-laced fathers of the colony were infuriated when Williams went among the Narragansett Indians. The Puritans did not count the Native Americans whom they called “aborigines” as among God’s elect. To their dismay, Williams told the Indians that the Great Spirit was the Creator of us all, and that like a parent the Great Spirit cared for his children. The Great Spirit wanted men and women to treat one another as brothers and sisters.
Rather than allow himself to be deported back to England for his convictions, Williams left Salem for the wilderness. Leaving his wife and two daughters, Mary and Freeborn, to trudge through the bitter cold and snow of the New England winter of 1636, he negotiated the purchase of land from the Indians on a site adjacent to Narragansett Bay. There, he established what would eventually become Rhode Island Colony.
Williams named his settlement Providence Plantation, because he believed the providence of God led him there. In Providence, he organised the first Baptist Church in what was to Europeans the “New World.” Roger Williams is remembered as a man who stood against the illicit power of the state exercised against the conscience of those who would worship God according to the dictates of their heart. He stood for religious liberty, and we remember him for his stance to this day.
This example from Baptist history in the New World reminds us in dramatic fashion that government—especially government that is allied with church—bears considerable power to compel agreement with its will. The message today seeks to understand the power of government over the citizenry and the role of Christians before the power of the sword. In previous studies we discovered that the power of government is not absolute—there are limits to the submission that can be rendered by conscientious Christians to governmental dicta.
In the verses before us this day, we encounter what I believe to be the most difficult portion of this entire passage. Paul seems to take no account of the possibility that government may be tyrannical—that it may reward evil and suppress good. It would be but a few years after Paul penned the words of this book that Nero would launch a pogrom against the people of Christ. Multitudes would lose their lives, paying dearly for their Faith. During the ensuing years, various emperors would lash out against Christians unleashing repeated waves of persecution that stretched over two centuries. Persecutions came not because of the Christians’ good works, nor even directly because of their Faith, but rather, as Stifler observes, because of “the mistaken notion that the peace and safety of the state were imperilled by the Christians’ refusal to honour the Gods.”
THE POWER OF GOVERNMENT TO ENFORCE ITS WILL — Preaching on the matter of relations between church and state imposes the need for thoughtful contemplation for each of us. In the message two Sundays past, I gave my understanding of Scripture. I taught you from Scripture that a Christian is obligated to resist giving obedience to unjust laws. Those laws which proscribe evangelism, pervert morality, distort ethics, restrict the freedom of peaceable assembly, limit the freedom of speech or regulate the freedom of worship must be resisted by the conscientious Christian.