Close this search box.

Against Civil Establishment of Religion

Against Civil Establishment of Religion:
the God-given duty of, and limit on, civil governance

Establishmentarianism, or the civil establishment of religion or of a church, involves a certain religion’s institutions, beliefs, or practices being given exclusive legal protections or privileges by a state. In whatever way the English Dissenters/Nonconformists in the 1600s, the American Presbyterians in the 1700s, and Neocalvinists in the 1800s might have presented a Scriptural case against civil establishment of the church, or for dis-establishment, Reformed libertarians take Charles Hodge’s argument, published in 1863 [also here], to be a sound one.

Here is how Hodge summarized the Scriptural argument against civil establishment of the church, in favor of non-establishmentarianism, in 3 points. (I have given clarifying terms in brackets.)


The Scriptural argument against church establishments

First, Hodge says the proper task or duties of the church and civil governance “must be determined from the Word of God. And when reasoning from the Word of God [on these points], we are not authorized to argue from the Old Testament [old Mosaic covenant] economy [or administration] because that was avowedly temporary and has been abolished. [Instead, concerning the task of the new covenant church and civil governance in the new covenant era, we] must derive our conclusions from the New Testament. We find it there taught:

  1. That Christ did institute a church separate from [civil governance], giving it separate laws and officers.
  2. That [Christ] laid down the qualifications of those officers and enjoined on the church, not on [civil governance], to judge [which men in the church meet those qualifications].
  3. That [Christ] prescribed the terms of admission to, and the grounds of exclusion from, the church, and left with the church its officers to administer these rules.”

Hodge says, “the New Testament, when speaking of the immediate design of [civil governance] and the official duties of the magistrate, never [suggests] that [magistrates have] those functions [related to religious belief or practice that establishmentarianism proposes]. This silence, together with the fact that those functions are assigned to the church and church officers, is proof that it is not the will of God that they should be assumed by [civil governance].”

Third, Hodge says, “the only means which [civil governance] can employ to accomplish many [duties proposed by establishmentarians, such as suppressing heresy and preventing false worship], [namely, coercive means], are inconsistent with the example and commands of Christ [concerning faith and worship]; [and inconsistent] with the [liberty] of Christians, guaranteed in the Word of God (i.e., to serve God according to the dictates of one’s conscience); [as well as] ineffectual to the true end of religion, which is voluntary obedience to the truth; and [are] productive of incalculable evil.
…By enjoining [duties concerning faith and worship] upon the church, as an institution distinct from [civil governance], [the New Testament] teaches positively that they do not belong to the magistrate, but to the church.”


The issue of public morality

Some Reformed establishmentarians, however, try to argue for —not the civil establishment of a single church institution/denomination, but rather— the civil establishment of ‘religion,’ whether that is conceived in broader Nicean orthodox Christian terms, or in relatively more narrow Protestant, or specific Reformed terms. While the above summary highlights the implied concern of Hodge’s argument regarding faith and worship, I take one of the main concerns of establishment of religion to be ethics.

If we characterize part of Hodge’s argument against establishmentarianism as a sort of “exclusion” or “regulative principle” argument (namely, that discipline in faith and worship are assigned to the church, not to civil government, and therefore forbidden to civil government), and this is accepted arguendo, this nevertheless seems to leave open the question regarding ethics. The issue might be put this way: isn’t discipline regarding ethics assigned to both church and civil government, although the means of discipline differ?

For example, theft is a matter of ethics, discipline for which is assigned to the church, and yet discipline regarding theft is also assigned to civil government. So, why doesn’t this extend to some, if not all, other ethical matters, even including those that overlap with matters of faith/heresy and worship/idolatry, such as blasphemy? In light of this, we can raise this fundamental question:

Is there any Scriptural criterion by which we can discern which ethical matters are assigned to civil government for discipline (if the set of ethical matters is not simply identical to those assigned to the church)?

As I understand it, many advocates of civil establishment of religion employ a criterion of “public-ness.” The concern is for so-called public morality. So, for example, one may hold private blasphemous opinions and even privately worship in a blasphemous manner, but one should be legally prohibited from “publicly” blaspheming, say, by publishing a book that says belief in God is stupid, dangerous, and evil.


Lex talionis: the Scriptural criterion for discerning the duty of, and limit on, civil governance

The following is how Hodge’s Scriptural argument addresses civil establishment of religion and public morality.

First, as an aside, notice that Hodge includes an initial 4th point (which may be said to concern sphere sovereignty) that I do not include in my quotation above because it seems to me its character as a Scriptural point is not made explicit by Hodge. It focuses on the point of different particular ends ordained by God for these distinct institutions, so that the fact of their having the same general end does not permit the inference that they are assigned to identical matters.

I think that point can be argued in an explicitly Scriptural way. Although, I don’t suppose advocates for civil establishment of religion necessarily disagree with that point. What I think there is disagreement about is the criterion by which we should discern the respective assignments (to church and to civil government, concerning ethics), and what those assignments are.

Second, I think Hodge’s last point about the coercive means instituted for civil government is the key to recognizing the criterion by which we can discern which ethical matters are assigned to civil government. (This is so, even if Hodge does not himself draw this out explicitly, but restricts himself to how we discern what is not assigned to civil government.) Briefly stated, we may reason from Scripture on the issue as follows.

Given God’s explicit institution1 of civil governance in Genesis 9 outside of the old covenant by way of affirming the principle of proportionality in retributive justice, lex talionis, we must infer that the authorization of responsive coercion reiterated in Romans 13 is restricted to the wrongdoing of prior initiation of coercion (aggressions) against persons and property, that is, to “civil” wrongdoing. In other words, proportionality entails not only to what degree/extent coercion is used, but whether it is used at all. And to use coercion against non-aggressive immorality outside of the old covenant is disproportionate and violates the sword power authorized by God for civil governance.

Listen to episode 2 of the Reformed Libertarians Podcast for more on this.

Proportionality as epitomized in the lex talionis of Genesis 9, entailing a civil-justicial norm of non-aggression, then, is the Scriptural criterion by which we can discern which ethical matters are assigned to civil governance outside the old covenant. This is the way Hodge’s argument, although requiring that elaboration, applies to not only establishment of a single church institution, but also to establishment of religion concerning civil enforcement of ethics, or a public morality. When the Scriptural criterion of lex talionis is consistently applied, the civil establishment of religion is normatively precluded.

See The Reformed Libertarianism Statement, especially subsection 3.c., for more.


1. Civil governance, as administration of civil justice by responsive coercion, is introduced on account of humanity’s fall into sin, in light of moral, justicial, and other norms God-given at creation. After the fall, God doesn’t change His laws for creation, but He did change certain forms of societal life.


Subscribe to Email Updates

Contact & Subscribe