The Political Church: A Christian Commonwealth?

Church StateFollowing centuries of Christian-on-Christian persecution, the English nation was desperate for a solution. How do we end the violence and bloodshed?

The answer came from the pen of John Locke, the Enlightenment philosopher whose work greatly influenced the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and even the Restoration Movement. He wasn’t the first to urge religious toleration, but his famous Letter Concerning Toleration, written in 1689, so clearly and brilliantly explained the necessity of religious toleration that his views eventually became law.

Since you are pleased to inquire what are my thoughts about the mutual toleration of Christians in their different professions of religion, I must needs answer you freely that I esteem that toleration to be the chief characteristic mark of the true Church. For whatsoever some people boast of the antiquity of places and names, or of the pomp of their outward worship; others, of the reformation of their discipline; all, of the orthodoxy of their faith — for everyone is orthodox to himself — these things, and all others of this nature, are much rather marks of men striving for power and empire over one another than of the Church of Christ. …

First, because the care of souls is not committed to the civil magistrate, any more than to other men. It is not committed unto him, I say, by God; because it appears not that God has ever given any such authority to one man over another as to compel anyone to his religion. … All the life and power of true religion consist in the inward and full persuasion of the mind; and faith is not faith without believing. …

In the second place, the care of souls cannot belong to the civil magistrate, because his power consists only in outward force; but true and saving religion consists in the inward persuasion of the mind, without which nothing can be acceptable to God. …

Locke concludes that the state can’t enforce obedience to God, because God only accepts obedience that’s from the heart. And if we were to make Christianity the official religion of the state, just which version of Christianity would we choose? Do we let the government decide for us?

Just so, if the state is allowed to express opinions on religious matters, history shows that the church submits to the state, rather than the other way around —

But, to speak the truth, we must acknowledge that the Church (if a convention of clergymen, making canons, must be called by that name) is for the most part more apt to be influenced by the Court than the Court by the Church. How the Church was under the vicissitude of orthodox and Arian emperors is very well known. Or if those things be too remote, our modern English history affords us fresh examples in the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary, and Elizabeth, how easily and smoothly the clergy changed their decrees, their articles of faith, their form of worship, everything according to the inclination of those kings and queens. Yet were those kings and queens of such different minds in point of religion, and enjoined thereupon such different things, that no man in his wits (I had almost said none but an atheist) will presume to say that any sincere and upright worshipper of God could, with a safe conscience, obey their several decrees. …

It may be said: “What if a Church be idolatrous, is that also to be tolerated by the magistrate?” I answer: What power can be given to the magistrate for the suppression of an idolatrous Church, which may not in time and place be made use of to the ruin of an orthodox one?

In short, if we get the state the power to prohibit non-Christian religions, the state will have the power to prohibit unorthodox religions — which today or tomorrow will be your religion.

But there is absolutely no such thing under the Gospel as a Christian commonwealth. There are, indeed, many cities and kingdoms that have embraced the faith of Christ, but they have retained their ancient form of government, with which the law of Christ hath not at all meddled. He, indeed, hath taught men how, by faith and good works, they may obtain eternal life; but He instituted no commonwealth. He prescribed unto His followers no new and peculiar form of government, nor put He the sword into any magistrate’s hand, with commission to make use of it in forcing men to forsake their former religion and receive His.

Did Locke favor a Christian nation? No. He favoured a nation filled with Christians. And this is the central historical background of the First Amendment.

Thus if solemn assemblies, observations of festivals, public worship be permitted to any one sort of professors, all these things ought to be permitted to the Presbyterians, Independents, Anabaptists, Arminians, Quakers, and others, with the same liberty. Nay, if we may openly speak the truth, and as becomes one man to another, neither Pagan nor Mahometan [Muslim], nor Jew, ought to be excluded from the civil rights of the commonwealth because of his religion. The Gospel commands no such thing.

Here we find the tap root of the First Amendment.

Locke argued forcefully to separate the church from the state so —

* The churches would stop using the power of the state to persecute one another

* The churches would be free to pursue God according to their own understanding

* The state would not suppress religion.

And he builds his argument from the gospel — finding the behavior of the church in centuries past to be in clear violation of the gospel.

This means that the church cannot look to the state for power. If we want our children to learn the Ten Commandments, it’s our job to teach them — not the job of judges and public school teachers. If we want people to acknowledge that this nation is “under God,” we need to teach them the gospel — not the Pledge of Allegiance — unless we want them to conclude that they should worship God because it’s the desire of Congress.

Prayer in school, “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, and the Ten Commandments in a courthouse do not save souls, do not persuade the lost, and will not make the world a better place. Only Jesus in our hearts will do that — and that comes from people persuading people one on one in coffee shops, not from statuary in state buildings.

Is it offensive for atheists to seek to remove all Christian symbols from public places? Yes. Does it painfully remind us of how poorly we’ve done at converting people to Jesus? Yes. Is it the reason this nation is becoming less Christian by the day? Not even close. Rather, people bring these suits because we’ve already become less Christian.

You see, it’s not the ACLU’s fault. It’s the church’s fault. Had we taught our children at home and in our Sunday schools, rather than expecting a devo over the public school PA system to convert our children, we’d not be in this mess. Had we lived Christianity before our neighbors rather than expecting them to find Jesus in a Ten Commandments monument in the Judicial Building, we’d not be in this mess.

The early church didn’t grow by gaining control of the schools and the city squares. The early church grew by leading sacrificial lives of love, by works of sacrificial charity, by treating all classes and races as equals, and by being Christian even if it meant their own death. And that’s a plan that’ll still work.

In fact, had we been anything like the early church in the 20th Century, we’d be living in a nation of Christians today — and we’d not be worried about whether this is a Christian nation.

Rather, we’re looking for an easy solution. We want the government to build our monuments to Jesus for us and require people to say “under God” at school. We want the government to solve the church’s problems — as though goverment were the solution to a lack of Jesus. We seem to start with the assumption that we can’t even convert our own children unless the government endorses our beliefs. It’s a deeply mistaken way to think. It’s very nearly idolatrous.

We need to get over being mad at the ACLU and the courts and Obama and instead get back to our roots. Rather than trying to vote Jesus into office or write him into the laws, let’s be such sold-out, radical, convicted Christians that Christianity is once again so admired that people will risk death, torture, and imprisonment to become one.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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41 Responses to The Political Church: A Christian Commonwealth?

  1. Todd Collier says:

    Hit and sunk!

  2. Ellen Williams says:

    Amen! I wish everybody would read this.

  3. Anonymous says:


  4. Gary Cummings says:

    No Muslim would call Jesus "Lord, savior, or the Son of God." Give it a rest.

  5. Anonymous says:

    No Christian would call the Qur'an "Holy”, as shown said many times.

  6. Tim Archer says:

    YES!!!! I so heartily agree that I can hardly find anything coherent to add to your words. Excellent post. (I sound like one of those spam commenters)

    The last 5 paragraphs need to be read far and wide.

    Grace and peace,
    Tim Archer

  7. Bob Harry says:

    The role of government should be limited to protecting us from foreign intervention and acting on our behalf in the time of crisis.

    We need to renew the Christian family's responsibility of bringing up our children and teaching them Christian values at home rather than depend on a well intentioned
    Sunday School teacher less than one hour per week.

    I am for a return of a strong family as most of you are also.


  8. Mike Ward says:

    The legal disclaimer on that video says it all. Even the creators of the video disavowal the claim made in the video's own title.

  9. Anonymous says:

    They did that to let each come to their own religious conclusion of the evidence.

  10. Cary says:

    Jay, this post just might be your masterpiece. Bravo.

  11. Richard Kruse says:

    Jay: Thanks for the thoughtful post.

    Gary: The Muslim expression is "The LORD Jesus Christ".

    Anonymous: To Obama's audience, it is the "Holy Qu'ran" and the "Holy Bible". They hold both books with great respect. To many, simply saying "the Qu'ran" or "the Bible", would be disrespectful. In American courts, one calls the judge "Your Honour", even if he/she is one who follows an unhonourable style.

    When President Kennedy tried to say "I am a Berliner" in Berlin, was he being anti-American? Was he declaring a denial of the USA or being American?

    Is not Obama, like Kennedy, a politician making a political statement? Please don't read too much into the statement. Also, most Muslims are cultural Muslims just like many – if not most – Americans are, unfortunately, simply cultural Christians!

    During WW 2, while pulling weeds, we made a game out of it and called the weeds "nasty Germans". Dad overheard and repremanded us for our prejudice, saying that we too, by ancestry, were Germans – even though we were all born in the USA. We remained loyal Americans – dad was active in the military at the time – even though we were historically cultural Germans.

    Unfortunately, the video promotes the prejudicial, paranoia that many view Islam. Remember, if you are a Conservative-Christian, you have an ally in Islam against abortion, abnormal homosexual behaviours, same-sex marriage, etc. If you are a preacher you share the same struggle the Imman has in getting the members to attend services!

    Richard Kruse

  12. Tim Archer says:

    By the way, Jay, we are discussing Christians and politics in the course I'm teaching at ACU. Your thoughts couldn't be more timely for our discussion.

    If I send you my syllabus, can you write things on the other topics? 🙂

    Grace and peace,
    Tim Archer

  13. Anonymous says:

    If you are suggesting the Muslim faith is the same as the Christian faith and that Christians should embrace the Muslim faith, I wholeheartedly disagree.

    When we embrace Islam, either by accepting it as equal or by refusing to take a stand and speak out, we are being bound together with them. The time is quickly coming when a comment like this will land a person in jail. In the name of tolerance we have opened our arms to their religion and they are promoted as just another way to God. They aren't, they are the wide road that leads to destruction.

    We should be tolerant of all people's beliefs, to the extent that they have the right to believe what they choose, but tolerance is wrong when it is accompanied by acceptance.

    2 Corinthians 6:14 Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion has light with darkness?

  14. konastephen says:

    Jay, I agree with all you have said—for I too see it as foolishness to fight against the growing tide of secularism without first seeing how we have failed to truly be the church. The chickens have come home to roost! But I’m curious, what do we do when we succeed in winning a nation full of Christians? For you said, The early church didn’t grow by gaining control of the schools and the city squares. […]” This is true, yet grow they did. Eventually we are controlling the schools and squares. It seems to me that either some of our ideas on how the church and state should relate are cast against a backdrop of a majority of the country remaining un-churched, or we naively assume that our private religion will only weakly affect our public lives. We want to be authentic Christians like the early church and we want to be successful at growing as a church; but we don’t want the same success of the early church, do we?

    I wonder why a return to ‘classical liberalism’ won’t eventually end up in the same place we are today.

  15. Chris Allen says:

    Anonymous, why are we discussing that here? That's way off topic. There's millions of Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, and other religions, as well as atheists, here in this country. You don't have to accept their beliefs to accept the fact they have the right to worship or not worship whatever they want. And posting conspiratorial videos of the religious beliefs of the president does nothing to advance Christianity. In fact, it turns people off, especially young people, the very people leaving churches. Let him speak for himself on his faith and stop this endless speculation about what his "true" beliefs are.

    Anyways, the post was excellent. Christians have to look in the mirror. The deterioration of faith in the U.S. has less to do with the ACLU, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Hollywood, etc than it does to the people we allow to be our spokesmen. Getting to the media and declaring that natural disasters are the result of sin, picketing funerals, and the like is why people are turned off. In short, we need more Mother Teresa's and less Pat Robertson's. People concerned with being Christ to the poor and afflicted and less concerned with culture war.

  16. Anonymous says:

    You don’t have to accept their beliefs to accept the fact they have the right to worship or not worship whatever they want.

    Did I not say that…read again.

    Do I not have the right to speak what I believe of the President, do I not have the right to speak what I believe turns people away from Christianity to such religions as Islam.

    In the name of tolerance we have opened our arms to their religion and they are promoted as just another way to God.

  17. Clint says:

    Excellent post, and I really enjoyed Locke's wit and wisdom in the quotes you provided. I'll have to read the whole letter when I get a chance.

    I think his most excellent point is in reminding us that it is not our job to force people to live a godly life, by use of the sword, laws, or any other means. Obedience for the sake of obedience is no obedience at all. It is faithful hearts that God wants.

    And thank you for the reminder that we have no one to blame but ourselves. It hurts, but we need it.


  18. Ray Downen says:

    Jay's remarks are remarkable and remarkably true. A comment from Richard Kruse: "Remember, if you are a Conservative-Christian, you have an ally in Islam against abortion, abnormal homosexual behaviours, same-sex marriage, etc. If you are a preacher you share the same struggle the Imman has in getting the members to attend services!"

    The reason Islam can't be accepted as co-equal with ANY other religion is its claim to be the only path to God. It's sharia law demands death for all "unbelievers" who reject the claim that Mohammed was godly. He was not godly. He was godless. He fought against all Jews and Christians and anyonewho was not Arabic. We cannot co-exist with ones who seek our death. As soon lie down with a scorpion or asp as to seek unity with religions which claim to be the "one true religion."

    Jay has it right that all Christians should be able to live together in peace, and we shouldn't try to force others to accept our faith as their own, nor our practices as essential to live in peace with us. The fratricide in the British Isles in former days was between those loyal to Rome and those who refused to be loyal to Rome. We today can live peaceably with those loyal to Rome so long as they accept our right to not be loyal to Rome. Yes? In the U.S.A. we do not want laws forcing us to act aginst our conscience, whether in matters of medicine or employment. We do well to resist the imposing of such laws.

  19. Jay Guin says:


    For purposes of this site, I'm only interested in politics as they relate to the church. I'm not going to allow anti-Bush or anti-Obama sentiments (although I have plenty of sentiments of my own). It's not so much a question of relevance as partisanship. I think the church needs to step out of politics and return to being the kingdom. The kingdom should engage politics only to the extent kingdom principles require it.

    I'll try to clarify my thinking in future posts, but for our present purposes, whether Obama is Muslim has nothing to do with whether his policies should be supported or opposed or outside the concern of the church.

  20. Jay Guin says:


    I'd love to see your syllabus.

  21. Jay Guin says:


    It's an interesting question because it has happened that Christians have been in power — either by having a Christian king or else by having a Christian majority in a democracy. I think we need to be careful to be true to our principles — including granting freedom of religion. Luther argued for freedom of conscience until he gained power, and then he insisted that a government couldn't operate with multiple belief systems. Locke's advice remains sound whether the church — or our kind of church — is in power or not.

    On the other hand, if we have power, we'll be able to ban certain conduct that we consider immoral, such as abortion. However, we'll also find that the legal ban does little to stop the practice. The same is true of homosexual sex. Government is not the cure for sin. Only Jesus can do that.

  22. A Christian nation, of course, would have to be a kingdom.

    Great thoughts, Jay!

  23. Gary Cummings says:

    The Religious Right had power for 8 years under GW Bush, and they did not end abortion. Why? They did not want to, as they prefer to keep it as a wedge issue to garner in the values voters to the GOP. Jeffrey Balmer discusses this well. I can't recall the name of his book, but I highly recommend it. I agree with about 75% of what he says.
    Actually the only way to end abortion, which I am for ending, is a constitutional amendment. Congress can't pass a law, and it is doubtful that Supreme Court will do a reversal on very settled law.
    Laws generally do not change hearts, but allow breathing room, as in the Civil Rights era, for minds to change. That being said, the US is a secular government and always has been. I think it was Orson Wells (maybe HG Wells), who said that when fascism come to this country, it will come holding a Bible wrapped in a flag. That well describes the religious right.

  24. bigfry2003 says:

    I know this is kind of off-topic, but I have to disagree with Gary. The "Religious Right" did not end abortion in the 8 years under Dubya because they absolutely could not. Whatever executive order or bill they might have passed banning abortion would have been struck down within hours by almost every court in America because of what you mentioned – it's 'very settled law', whether we like it or not.

    But that's not the scary thing to me; it's the very true statement that Jay made in reply to konastephen: a legal ban does little to deter the actual practice. Even if abortion is considered illegal, there will still be abortions performed in this country. (I mean, look at how well our drug laws keep people from selling and using drugs). Abortion supporters will say that's part of the reasoning used to make it legal to begin with – for the safety of the women who were having this done in back alleys in ways that endangered their lives.

    Think of it this way: in Exodus 1, Pharaoh uses a campaign of fear to eventually declare very late term abortion (killing male children at birth) acceptable treatment of the Hebrews. While detestable, that is not the worst part of that story to me; the fact that no one in Egypt had the courage to or was otherwise willing to stand up and say such a practice was wrong is the most frightening thing to me. So it seems that with or without that particular Pharaoh, the practice of killing newborn Hebrew males was acceptable to the population as a whole.

    Even with a leader in this country who doesn't support abortion and wants it struck down, without a nation of people who find the practice terrible and lend their support to such a ban, they'll just find another way to accomplish it or have it re-legalized.

  25. Gary Cummings says:

    I tend to agree with Jeffrey Balmer, in his book of how the religious right hijacked the evangelical church. I do believe the GOP wants to keep it as a wedge issue to deny votes to the Democrats. Beyond that, they do not care, it is lipservice only. Both the GOP and Dems have no corner on morality. Only a constituional amendment will outlaw abortion, and I do not see that happening any time soon.
    Abortion will continue, one way or another.

  26. Mike Ward says:

    I agree that the Republican party by and large does not care about abortion except to the extent it gets them votes. The only reason that I feel any closer kinship with the Republicans in the abortion issue is that the Democratic party has been become openly hostile towards those of us that are pro-life. The Republican party accepts us, but I don't feel that many Republican politicians are really one of us.

  27. Gary Cummings says:

    I am part of the Pro-Life Democratic section of the Democratic party. I am a member of the Dem's because they tend to be more progressive than the GOP. This is not to argue pro or con which party one belongs to, but to state that I am a Pro-life Democrat. The Dems tend to be more antiwar and anti-execution than the GOP., I try to be consistent in my prolife faith and practice: no war, no abortions, and no executions. That being said, I recommend Balmer's book and his analysis. When I find it , I will post the title, as it is relevant to the issues Jay raised.

  28. Anonymous says:

    Ok, this conversation is about politics and religion, not the exact issue Jay was on, do these posters get deleted or does mine get get put back up?

  29. Gary Cummings says:

    The issue is toleration, and there is zero proof that Obama is a Moslem. I would designate him a progressive christian, perhaps more liberal than I am in some areas.
    Politics and religion do figure in this conversation, as toleration is necessary. I do not read of the apostles seeking political power to enforce the Gosple or the Christian moral vision on non-believers. We need to be about the work of the Kingdom, loving,giving,sharing to all people.
    I would not want to live in a "Christian" country, as any country who claimed such would be an aberration of the KIngdom of God and the way of Jesus. From the time of Augustine and Constantine,, the imperial Christian state was formulated and enforced by law and torture. To be against the church was to be against the state, and vice-versa. We had the inquisitions with military force against the Montanists, Donatists, Cathari, Albigencian, Waldensians, Anabaptists, Lutherans and others. Then there were various Crusades, which were moral failures, and set part of the stage for the Christian West-Islam War of today.
    Let's not forget the theocracy of Calvin in Geneva and his consistory. He had Michael Servetus executed by the state for heresy. That is what "christianity" in power does. It has to become violent to maintain its power, as true christianity is non-violent. That is what I have against the christian right in this country. They are neither.

  30. Mike Ward says:

    I'm a pro-life independent. I'm not anti-death penalty so if you prefer you can call me an anti-abortion independent.

    I don't draw any moral equivalence between the treatment the innocent and criminals.

    For example, I think it is a great tragedy for an innocent person to spend his life in prison, but I don't oppose life in prison for criminals.

  31. Gary Cummings says:

    That is why we have a ballot box to select our leaders as best we can, and a representative congress to enact laws, an executive branch to enforce laws, and a supreme court to interpret the law. As a progressive liberal, I believe the US Constitution is a living document, and needs to be applied to each generation with new light. Back in the 1700's and 1800's, our culture and technology was quite different than it is now or in the 20th century. It is kind of like the Bible. It is impossible to go back to First Century Christianity, as even the smartest among us disagree what it was like. We live in a different age with different issues or perhaps old issues expressed in various ways. The Constitution is much the same. We get principles from it, but it did not directly address the technology and culture we have today. They had no idea about national healthcare,global warming, cultural diversity, and many other problems we face. That is why we need a diversity of belief on all of our branches of government. We need the best Christian, Jews, Jains, Moslems and others who are Americans to guide us as responsible and moral leaders.

  32. Anonymous says:

    What have most professing Christians done when it comes to abortions, they stand outside abortion clinics screaming “you’re going to hell” not knowing what’s going on with the girl, not knowing if she is being pressured by parents, being pressured by a boyfriend or husband, and not knowing if she knows Jesus. They stand out front yelling with picket signs in hands, and a lot of the girls leave out the back door hurt and scared who needs someone to hug them, and no one is there to do that in the name of Jesus.

    We act surprised when people do wrong things in a fallen world, we are more concerned about being right when it comes to abortion than we are concerned about helping the girl walking out the back door who doesn’t know Jesus and telling them they can have a personal relationship with Him.

    The solution isn’t screaming at people what they’ve done wrong in their life the solution is showing them Jesus.

    Notice that Jesus gets Simon to look at the woman, Luke 7:36-50 “Then one of the Pharisees asked Him to eat with him. And He went to the Pharisee’s house, and sat down to eat. And behold, a woman in the city who was a sinner, when she knew that Jesus sat at the table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of fragrant oil, and stood at His feet behind Him weeping; and she began to wash His feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head; and she kissed His feet and anointed them with the fragrant oil. Now when the Pharisee who had invited Him saw this, he spoke to himself, saying, “This Man, if He were a prophet, would know who and what manner of woman this is who is touching Him, for she is a sinner.”

    And Jesus answered and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” So he said, “Teacher, say it.” “There was a certain creditor who had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. And when they had nothing with which to repay, he freely forgave them both. Tell Me, therefore, which of them will love him more?” Simon answered and said, “I suppose the one whom he forgave more.” And He said to him, “You have rightly judged.” Then He turned to the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave Me no water for My feet, but she has washed My feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head. You gave Me no kiss, but this woman has not ceased to kiss My feet since the time I came in. You did not anoint My head with oil, but this woman has anointed My feet with fragrant oil. Therefore I say to you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much. But to whom little is forgiven, the same loves little.”

    Then He said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” And those who sat at the table with Him began to say to themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?”

    Then He said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.”

  33. Gary Cummings says:

    Dear Anon,
    That was a great post you wrote! Thank you.

  34. Bob Richardson says:

    I could not agree more with you on this. Although I no longer attend the services of the church of Christ…was disfellowshipped for a divorce, I am no a member of a Unitarian Universalist congregation. I am free to pursue my faith there in a way that truly lets me grow stronger spiritually. I applaud you on your efforts to teach others the "True Gospel" for lack of better words.
    Thanks again for letting me think.

    Bob Richardson

  35. Gary Cummings says:

    God bless you, Bob.

  36. Odgie says:


    I've been pleading with my brothers and sisters to take this view for years, and reading someone articulate it so effectively brought real joy to my heart. Thanks, brother.

  37. Jay Guin says:


    Glad you hear your "voice" again.

  38. Ric says:


    Absolutely terrific expression of the true role Christians should be playing. If we do our job at home, at work and in our communities, our example and witness will bring about a committed nation of Christians. This post should be sent to everyone we know.

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