The Holy Spirit and the rule of Christ

“There is nothing else left to say , no codicil or postscript in which the Spirit might address us with a divine claim that did not refer us to Christ’s rule.” (Resurrection and Moral Order, p. 141)

Or as Charlie Dennison used to say, “Since Jesus came, nothing is the same.” There is no law, no authority, no regulation, no sanctification, no worship, no prayer, no ethics, no politics, or anything else that is not transformed by the cross and triumph of Jesus Christ.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

They cast their crowns before the throne.

Jesus Christ is, right now, King of kings and Lord of lords. Though for many Christians the last 150 years of dispensationalist thinking may have obscured it, this is a staggeringly clear teaching of the New Testament. Furthermore, he is king not simply by virtue of being God (“the glory that I had with [the Father] before the world existed,” John 17:5), but because of his resurrection triumph and ascension. He is king as the incarnate Messiah. He achieved his throne by his cross.

This teaching is sometimes called “the mediatorial kingship of Christ,” and for much of the history of Christendom it was viewed as a basic part of the Gospel. Oliver O’Donovan points out that relationship of Jesus’ kingship to the kingdoms of the world was not “sacred” vs. “secular,” but  “eternal” vs. “secular” (understood as temporary, limited to this world).

The ancients, like Constantine and Clovis, understood this; and in many modern mission contexts the kingship of Christ seems to resound much more than it does for Westerners. There is a great king. His kingship surpasses the wildest imaginings of any earthly ruler. Because of his righteousness God overturned even the judgment of death for him. He must be reckoned with.

My own small denomination, the Reformed Presbyterian Church, traces its roots to a splinter group of Scottish “Covenanters” who maintained the political implications of Christ’s kingship long after the majority of their countrymen had given up. They asserted the kingship of Christ over nations and church, in more and less praiseworthy ways. Their American heirs have argued for two centuries over the use of this doctrine. Today we officially (and rightly, I think) have embraced a minimal prescription: we urge our members to vote only for those who uphold “Christian principles of civil government,” and maintain that no political allegiance outranks allegiance to Christ. In the meantime, an outside organization, the National Reform Association, has carried the banner of “National Confessionalism,” the idea that the US Constitution should be amended to include a reference to the kingship of Christ – best explained in this book.

(The high water mark of the National Confessionalist was during the American Civil War, when leaders of the National Reform Association gained a private hearing with President Lincoln, who sympathized but ultimately declined to further their goal. In the event, Lincoln did enact another one of their major platforms, emancipation. Later in the 19th century the Association, along with the RPCNA, became active in other areas, especially the Temperance Movement, and arguably lapsed into Social Gospel thinking. WWI knocked the feet from under turn-of-the-century Christian optimism, and the Association tumbled with it. By the late 20th century its magazine, The Christian Statesman, had become a soapbox for theonomists more than anything else. I was an enthusiastic subscriber at age 15.)

In my mind, National Confessionalism is a laudable application of the mediatorial kingship of Christ, but it is not by any stretch the sum of political application of Christ’s kingship, nor is political application the only application. After all, Christ is head over everything for the Church (Ephesians 1:22). The state is one institution among many that must shut its mouth before the cross and the throne of Jesus (Isaiah 52:15). In coming posts I hope to tackle a few of the ways the rule of Jesus Christ bears on personal sanctification, on the visible Church – starting with my own denomination, on the fine arts (I’ll be enlisting some help here), and on schools and schooling. I may go further afield as well. The question is simply this: what meaning does the Gospel of Jesus Christ, prophet, priest, and king, have for these institutions?

Another Hole in the Dike (of religious pluralism)

My wife sent along this article detailing a fraudulent “church” moving from state to state under different names, selling mail-order theological degrees, bilking creditors, abusing tax-exempt status, and even engaging in human trafficking. Yech.

But bigger than the story itself is the specter it raises of increased state oversight of religion. As abuses of religious tax exemption like this proliferate, the informal truce between the IRS (to begin with) and religious organizes starts to break down. For longstanding cultural and prudential reasons, the US and most state governments are relatively easy on churches, declining to audit nearly as often as they could, more or less respecting the autonomy of religious organizations. I tend to think there is a national feeling that religion is, on the whole, a social good, even if it’s all hooey. So the state leaves churches (and other religious organizations) alone. (I can’t find statistics on how many religious organizations are audited each year as a percentage of all religious organizations. Anyone have a pointer?) Despite the scary 1970s and 80s books and pamphlets I grew up with, religious freedom is mostly just fine, a bit like gun rights. The recent overturning of McCain-Feingold will probably serve to protect churches which engage in political speech. But if rank abuses of these freedoms by charlatans continue, do they not threaten to end this laxity? Already, financial pressures threaten tax exemption in some states. If there are many more troublemakers like the Syro Byzantine Catholic Church (or whatever it is at the moment), it could become much more difficult and expensive to run (or donate to) a church in the United States.

Even bigger than that is the way it exposes one weakness of American religious pluralism. The relatively great liberty afforded to American churches informally depends on their not abusing that liberty. And I think, on the whole, that they are good about it. Horror stories arise, and some churches at some times engage in institutional cover-ups, but zillions of congregations and denominations in America are well-behaved (if often heterodox).

There is no official relationship between church and state in the United States. The US Constitution explicitly prohibits the establishment of a national church (though it does not, despite Jefferson’s claim, impose a “high wall of separation” between church and state). Shortly after the ratification of the Federal Constitution, those states which still had official churches disestablished them. But in spite of the official godlessness, the United States was for its first 150 or so years basically an orthodox Protestant country. That self-understanding (with all its attendant blessings and problems) undergirded our sense of identity and destiny as a nation. The cultural memory of the nation reached back well beyond the Treaty of Tripoli to 17th century Whiggery; religiously tolerant, within bounds – and Catholicism was out of bounds. (This is the reason why my denomination’s Covenant of 1871 pledged participation in the nation’s public schools: Catholic parochial schools were the only significant alternative. Catholic separatism was both unbiblical and un-American. Covenanters were no longer outsiders; despite remaining shreds of political dissent they viewed this country as their possession along with other historic Protestants.)

In a paper read a few weeks ago at the Westminster Conference, William Edgar says, “For much of our history, indeed, an informal Protestant establishment of the once mainline churches continued our colonial legacy of a generally Christian public life. But in the last half century, that establishment has failed decisively, and it is now often a strong proponent of ever more startling denials of godly ethics in American life.” Edgar points out that the Supreme Court of the United States will soon contain no Protestants at all, only Jews and Catholics. That is not itself a cause for mourning, but it does reflect that an important change is taking place.

I am not into grand stories of progress or decline, but there are plenty of signs that the old relationship between liberal (in the good sense) Christianity and the public culture of the United States is petering out. What we thought was religious pluralism was simply a benevolent multi-denominational Christian hegemony; its death will mean not a pluralist utopia, but the ascendancy of some other public ethics. To say the least, that is not something to look forward to.