Does the Success of the Church Depend on Government?

On November 1, 1860, Southern Presbyterian theologian Robert L. Dabney preached a sermon called, “The Christian’s Best Motive for Patriotism,” in which he urged his fellow American Christians to avoid war on the grounds that Christ has made his church dependent on secular governments as a secondary cause. For Dabney, a civil war would be disastrous for the health of the church; therefore, Christians should do all that they can to avoid it. Of course, Dabney would later argue that war waged against the United States was necessary on the part of the Confederacy, but that’s not my point here. I want to focus on the secondary cause comment.

Has God made the success/health of his church depend on secular governments as a secondary cause? A secondary cause is a cause which is not ultimate. For the Christian, God is the ultimate cause of all historical events. However, he also ordains secondary causes. While we can refer to God’s inscrutable will as the ultimate reason we are facing health problems, we can also point to our diet and exercise habits or perhaps the car accident we were in as secondary causes. Why are you having health problems? Because God wills. Why are you having health problems? Because I made poor health choices. Both of these answers are right.

What are the secondary causes that a church’s health depends on? This question can be answered in a few different ways. Mark Dever would argue for nine “marks” that indicate a healthy church. Throughout history, theologians have pointed to the preached word and the faithful administration of the sacraments. Biblically, it seems that God has made the health/success of his church depend on at least these secondary causes: the pure gospel preached, the whole Bible believed and practiced, and the church accountable and committed to the mission.

Theologically, it does not seem that God makes the success of his church depend on secular government as a secondary cause. The closest we get to such a notion in the New Testament is Paul urging Timothy to lead the church to pray for “all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quite life, godly and dignified in every way” (1 Tim 2:1-2). These prayers, Paul says, are good and pleasing to God “who desires all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:3). Here Paul urges the church to pray for the salvation of those in government so that Christians can live peaceful lives. Paul, at the very least, is making a connection between those ruling and the quality of life that the church is able to live.

However, a peaceful life, while preferable, is not synonymous with success. What we see in the very pages of the New Testament, is a church thriving in spite of oppressive governments. It would appear that Tertullian’s notion in the early third century that the blood of martyrs is seed for the church was strangely accurate, because the church was exploding during that time. The association of Christianity with cultural power would not occur until the conversion of Constantine in 325. With that momentous event, the church’s identity as a pilgrim community on this earth began to give way. From then until now, the church has enjoyed many privileges that come with worldly power but has also had to combat corruption that comes along with it.

My somewhat long-winded point is simply this: The kingdom of Christ is not of this world (John 18:36). If the gates of hell will not prevail against his church (Matt 16:18), neither will socialism, communism, liberalism, or Trumpism. As citizens of our democratic republic, we should all long for peace and justice as we seek the welfare of the city in which God has placed us. But as we vote and advocate for truth and dignity, we must not do so out of fear. Our God reigns. The kingdom of heaven is at hand. The day is coming when we will join the angels and sing, “The kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever” (Rev. 11:15).

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