churchstateOne of evangelicalism’s dilemmas during the late 20th and early 21st centuries has been to define the relationship between church and state. The late 20th century witnessed the rise of the “religious right”, a movement that attempted to resolve social issues by means of a theological intervention into civic affairs. The movement failed miserably.

One of the reasons for its failure was that the movement maintained a distinction between church and state. This distinction, brought about through the rationalist/modernist ideas of the past several centuries[1], would be resolved by establishing theological dominance over secular institutions. What was missing from the approach taken by the religious right was, as I see it, a lack of perspective on how we got into this situation in the first place. The solution should not have been to re-establish Christendom but instead to reconsider the theology of our times which fed into the problem.

In the early 20th century came the “fundamentalist” movement. Though popular media might suggest that the term connotes something violent nothing could be further from the truth regarding this movement. Fundamentalist evangelical Christians, a movement which began in the northeastern U.S., reacted to the loss of doctrinal integrity of several denominations. Their response was to draft a core doctrinal statement. It was that simple.

One of the reactions of this doctrinal statement was the rejection of the “social gospel” of theological liberalism. The reaction was, unfortunately, over-reaching. Fundamentalism first concern was, as with the revival movement of the 18th and 19th centuries, the salvation of the individual. This took many evangelicals one step further from the concept of God being sovereign over all institutions.

Dispensationalism seemed to contribute to this. Preaching in churches concentrated on the soon return of Christ. Imminence was the theme for most of a century. But forty years after the establishment of Israel has not seen the return of Jesus Messiah to establish His eternal kingdom. Imminence seems to have lost its impact[2].

There seems to be a systematic structural problem in dispensational theology. It has to do with the relationship between the kingdoms of this world and the heavenly kingdom. It is the problem of two-kingdoms theology.

Two-kingdoms theology presents us with a dualism of sorts. There is the heavenly kingdom of God and the earthly kingdom ruled by man. For some these are non-overlapping or barely-overlapping magisterium. That is, each has its own venue, its distinct scope of authority and responsibility.

For others the relationship is hierarchical, though still two-kingdom. We are first Christians and members of the heavenly kingdom, while secondarily part of the kingdoms of this world. The institutions of society are not seen as being under the church as kingdom. This is where individuals live.

The results of the two are the same. The church has little influence on the institutions of society. The rise of the modernist/rationalist separation between church and state remains unresolved.

There are of course other contributors to this problem. One’s study of the fractured state of protestant theology with reference to its implications regarding church-state relations will make this clear. Dispensational theology is not the sole source of the problem. It is merely one of this day’s contributors to our condition.

There are also other Christian theological systems which do not have this problem. But in the US it is my fear that, while they are held to with great clarity, in practice these Christians treat the authority of the government in the same fashion as do the dispensationalists. It appears that perhaps we have a problem with our state of mind which equals our theological issues.

Let’s go a little further with the separation issue. The fundamentalist rejection of the liberal construct known as the “social gospel” had the unfortunate effect of reducing social engagement. Churches were about preaching the gospel and that meant getting people saved. It was a calendar question that was taken in isolation from the rest of the story. Of course our salvation changes us and our behavior here and now.

But we live in time. So easy grace, or “easy believism” as it has been called, ruled the day. We were in a hurry to get people saved before Christ’s soon return. Eternity was the imperative.

That left little time for social engagement. Little time to be a social prophet to government and to call sin sin. Little time to call for repentance and a return to ethical behavior. The question might have been phrased like this: “Do we worry about a few in government and temporal institutions or do we help people escape the horrors of eternal punishment to live in the presence of God?” And so the dualism grew legs and began to walk.

It seems time that dispensationalists reconsider the issue. Can we maintain a two-kingdoms theology and also exert influence on society, both in business and government, for the furtherance of the Kingdom?

To do this will force us to reconsider also the doctrine of ecclesiology. This long-forgotten doctrine of the church will present us with some challenges. What is the place of the church as an institution? Or is its work simply to call individuals?

We made the mistake, in the era of the religious right, of adopting a “postmillennial” view of society[3]. We were working to create God’s kingdom. That’s not consistent with premillennial and dispensational theology.

As we continue to treat the church as autonomous rather than associative and cooperative it will continue to lose ground. Lack of coordination in its efforts leaves it isolated from society. People are not coming into the church to hear the gospel. That ended decades ago. Christians must be sent out with the gospel in all its breadth and depth. We cannot be satisfied with 2 or 3 new believers each year.

Our class-based view of society needs to be clarified. Many churches do a great job helping the poor. But there is an untapped field in the middle which is ripe for the harvest. Think about the average blue-collar community where parents and students struggle. How many ministries might happen in that community? Tutoring? Other educational cooperative perhaps? Safe locations for after-school while parents work? Think in terms of practical assistance for struggling families rather than charitable hand-outs. Let people maintain their pride and dignity while standing alongside.

The gospel is not about getting saved. It is about redeeming the world. Revelation ends with a new heaven and a new earth. We are not creating that now. But we are building a church, a body of believers, which will be called to live in that newness. It is a grand mission.


[1] This idea is discussed in detail in William Cavanaugh’s The Myth of Religious Violence, where he documents the changes in terminology use over the past two millennia.

[2] I accept imminence but have gotten bored with the theme’s persistence. The millennial fever of the 19th and 20th centuries has grown old to me. Right now I am more interested in serving the advance of the gospel and the church than holding back form long-term influence.

[3] The postmilliennial influence of the religious right came from the Kuyperian theological heritage and was seen popularly in R. Rushdoony, with hints appearing in the works of Francis Schaeffer. Though Schaeffer was premillennial he translated Kuyper’s cultural (or creation) mandate onto more popular terms. Some pseudo-historians liken the problem to racism in the American South. This misses the history and associates Burkean conservativism to American southern Democrats and libertarians. It is a convenient misuse of history for political ends.