Nine Consequences of a State Church Structure

A student recently sent me the photo of a page in a book seeking my advice. This author said:

“There are no records of Paul reproving a church for not growing, or even giving commands and exhortations concerning personal evangelism. This is all the more striking when we remember that Paul sharply reproved churches for division, heretical teachings, and immoral behavior.”

As I read these lines several reasoning came to mind:

  • The author seems to lack a full understanding of the use of New Testament verbs related to evangelizing.
  • The author highlighted two points important to a state church: (1) avoid division at all cost and (2) safeguard against heretical teaching.
  • State church constructs have rarely or almost never been supportive of personal evangelism within their realms. These negative predispositions to personal evangelism taint everything they touch: histories, theologies, commentaries, and lexicons.

Several hours later, in meeting with this student, I was surprised to find that the book was written by a Baptist for Baptists—who have a long history of being persecuted dissenters, primarily due to their emphasis on personal evangelism!

The several lines of this author cited above, led me to consider how differently the Scriptures can be read, whether from a state church perspective or from a freedom of conscience perspective. As the Scriptures are translated, printed and disseminated, a worldview is sometimes injected or imposed upon the text. For the greater portion of Christian history, a state church interpretation has been the dominant worldview.

However, in order to understand how a state church worldview might influence Bible translation and the broader culture, it may prove helpful to extrapolate consequences of a state church religious system on Christian doctrine and practice. The following nine statements posit points of compliance resulting from the acceptance of a state church arrangement.

(1) Moving toward a General Atonement

The first obvious result of a state church was enshrined in the 1525 Diet of Spier: “Whose Region, His Religion.” Accompanying the concept of a state church was the belief that the entire population within a geographic region was automatically under obligation to submit to the system of religious persuasion of its political leader. Hence one religion, and only one religion, for everyone in a given region. This dictum offered a level of legality to the massacre of Baptists across many parts of the Continent of Europe.

With a universal belief system logically follows the necessity for a universal salvation for those living within those political boundaries. Hence, general atonement naturally proceeds from the state church construct.

In the early development of the state church system, there was a little known council, the A.D. 473 Council of Arles. At that Council a series of recantations were drawn up for a certain errant Lucidus by Bishop Faustus of Riez. One of the teachings Lucidus was to recant was, “That says that Christ our Lord and Savior did not undergo death for the salvation of all.” It appears that Lucidus was not teaching in favor of general atonement, and he was reprimanded for his departure from both a general atonement view, and the larger state church consensus.

(2) Unified Doctrinal Guidelines

As elaborated in the point above, in order to properly manage a state church, rules and regulations are required. For the “Orthodox” churches of the time, the Nicene Creed became their foundational document. Let it be noted that the Nicene Creed did not hinder the state church from fully accepting a sacramental system of salvation.

In a sacramental system of salvation, an evangelist is not needed to preach repentance toward God and faith in Christ. Rather, in a sacramental system, a priest is needed to bestow the graces of Infant Baptism, the Eucharist, and the other prescribed means of grace as determined by the consensus of the leadership of the state church.

(3) Centralizing Authority

Along with controlling the church doctrinally, lines of authority are needed that follow the precedent of political lines of authority. If the state government is centralized, then a centralized church authority is needed to properly associate the state church construct with the many levels of leadership of the state. The pages of the Bible were mined for passages tending toward a focus on centralized authority. In this light, Deuteronomy 17:8-13 proves helpful to require absolute submission to a centralized religious system.

(4) Developing Hierarchies of Roles and Offices

With the borrowing of the organizational structures of the state, titles were needed for different levels of leaders. The pages of the New Testament were therefore scoured to find leadership titles to reflect the organizational hierarchies of the state. From the New Testament were drawn terms such as apostle, bishop, deacon, doctor (teacher), elder, and pastor (shepherd). Soon New Testament church titles did not suffice to fill in the state church flow chart. So, other titles were drawn from the Old Testament, such as patriarch and priest. These titles filled in the elaborate hierarchies being applied to the church, even though they represented an organization quite foreign from what is found in the Book of Acts. They came to exist as the state church sought to align its leaders with their political counterparts. Later titles were invented from outside of Holy Writ (archbishop, archdeacon, cardinal, pope).

Interestingly, two less used New Testament titles are evangelist and prophet.

The use of a term as a state church office title is very hard for a reader to shake off. For example, the title Bishop carries with it cultural connotations related to the state church office of a Bishop. The meaning of a state church title becomes enshrined in the linguistic jargon of a people.

(5) Monopolizing Christ’s Ordinances

In order to control its religious identity and monopoly, the state church quickly gravitated to controlling the application and uses of the ordinances of Christ. They could not allow that just anybody could obey the command of Christ, “Do this in remembrance of Me.” Their state church role was to oversee that only those who upheld a correct (Orthodox) understanding of the ordinances should be authorized to administer the ordinances of Christ. There must be seriousness and unity in the application of the Lord’s Supper, as well as in the administration of Baptism. These two ordinances must be controlled—and they were!

In the case of Roman Catholic Tradition, the names of the ordinances became “Sacrament,” “means of [receiving] grace”—or the reception of holiness based on the root meaning of the Latin sacrum (something consecrated, a holy thing, holy place, etc.). Therefore, the reception of the gift of God’s grace was conferred by these two ordinances, to which five other ordinances were added. Foot washing not being considered one of the Seven Sacraments.

As a follow-up to controlling the ministration of the ordinances of Christ was the extension of church membership into the state-church all those who were “rightly baptized.” The concept of “right baptism” was somewhat fluid as it included Arian Visigoths, a self-baptized Jew from Metz, France, and all those baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit by whatever method or in whatever church. The caveat to this extended church membership was that church discipline [and state discipline] could therefore be applied all who were considered church members by “right baptism.”

(6) Controlling the Preaching Offices

Even as titles were being conferred and the ordinances administered, the preaching office of the church also needed state church oversight. Without state church supervision, how could heresy be kept from the pulpits and from the streets. The regulatory machinery of the state church complex began to decide who could and who could not preach.

In so doing, there is a valid question if state church leaders usurped the authority of Christ, who said, “So send I you.” As in most of the above points, it appears that the true leadership of Christ in His church was being substituted for the leadership of the human hierarchy of the state church.

It was at this juncture that a strong distinction was made between laity and clergy. Soon, in the Western State Church, being considered clergy meant submitting to the state of celibacy. Lay people get married. Clergy remain celibate.

(7) Discrediting Freedom of Conscience

As more and more control was gathered in the state church leadership structure, the right of the people to think religiously for themselves was greatly diminished. As mentioned above, “Whose Region, His Religion.” The state church construct had the tendency to remove all freedom of conscience from their citizens in areas of spirituality and religious practice.

Controlling freedom of conscience is controlling conversion. Persons were not allowed to decide for or against Christ for themselves. At Infant Baptism they had chosen Christ as taught by the state church, and that decision was immutable. The idea of adults willingly repenting and confessing Christ was popularized in English lands through the First Great Awakening—and that not without significant cultural upheaval.

(8) Controlling Bible Translations

The Bible received the highest scrutiny from the state church. After all, the Bible is the one document that provides the followers of Christ with their unified religious constitution. The Bible catalogues the very words of God.

As state churches enlarged their regulatory oversight, after the invention of the printing press in A.D. 1455, Bible publishers and printers of religious materials came under special scrutiny. It appears that one of the factors leading King James to authorize the English translation that bears his name was to quiet the impact of former English translations, such as the Wycliffe, the Tyndale, and the English Geneva. After the formation of the British and Foreign Bible Society in 1803, some Continental state churches were not amenable to the free distribution of Bibles in their lands.

(9) Prohibiting Evangelism

Along with controlling the preaching offices within the state church complex, outdoor preaching of the gospel was strongly discouraged, especially by untitled individuals. Only clergy received training to preach, and only clergy were allowed to preach. Obedience of Christ’s Great Commission was restricted to ordained clergy only, which in the case of the Western Church meant that they also had to be celibate.

The two clearest hindrances to evangelism and evangelists throughout the history of the churches have been state-controlled clergy and Infant Baptism. Through Infant Baptism, all the citizens of cities, towns, and parishes were already “born again.” There was no need for an evangelist to come through town and preach, “You must be born again!”:

“Preacher, everyone is all right in this town. We’re all baptized. Leave us and go elsewhere.”

“What, Baptism is not enough? Why, you must be a heretic!”

It was the A.D. 529 Second Council of Orange that formally linked the reception of grace with [Infant water] Baptism.

All These Are Enshrined in a State Church Reading of Scripture

As projected by the quote of the certain author above, these nine consequences of the state church construct run deep in the veins of our English culture. They are very hard to shed or move beyond. Yet the absolute authority of God and His Word, the Bible, demands that we seek to allow Christ to rule His church and our hearts.

Therefore, are there any “commands and exhortations concerning personal evangelism” in the New Testament?

  • How about, “Follow Me and I will make you fishers of men”?
  • Or how about, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation”?
  • Or again, “I have sent you to reap”?
  • And, “You shall be witnesses to Me”?

I have several hundred pages of notes on New Testament verbs directly related to evangelism. For example, Paul used the verb “evangelize” (εὐαγγελίζω) 23 times in his writings, and Luke used that same verb 25 times. These are almost never translated evangelize in English, except for the brief season that the Holman Christian Standard did so (1999-2016):

Acts 8:25, “Then, after they had testified and spoken the message of the Lord, they traveled back to Jerusalem, evangelizing the many villages of the Samaritans.”

Acts 8:40, “Philip appeared in Azotus, and passing through, he was evangelizing all the towns until he came to Caesarea.”

Acts 14:7, “And they kept evangelizing.”

Acts 14:21, “After they had evangelized that town and made many disciples, they returned to Lystra, to Iconium, and to Antioch.”

Acts 16:10, “After he had seen the vision, we immediately made efforts to set out for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to evangelize them.”

Rom 15:20, “So my aim is to evangelize where Christ has not been named, in order that I will not be building on someone else’s foundation.”

1 Cor 1:17, “For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to evangelize—not with clever words, so that the cross of Christ will not be emptied of its effect.”

There’s something about seeing “evangelize” in the text of the New Testament! In parallel form, Paul exhorted Timothy, “Preach the word!” However, Paul was wise to use the first person when he wrote of evangelism, allowing the reader to transfer the application to himself.

As regards the second part of the quote, “Paul sharply reproved churches for division, heretical teachings.” The state church complex vested within itself the role of doctrinal oversight. Anyone not accepting their particular doctrinal distinctives was deemed divisive and heretical.

Ultimately here comes the question of authority and who has the obligation to obey the commands of Christ to “Take heed,” “Be on the alert,” and “Keep watch.” Eventually each individual will stand before God for himself. And each individual must obey the commands of Christ to “Take heed,” “Be on the alert,” and “Keep watch.” Obedience to these commands cannot be deeded over to a state church.

This essay is being written using the English language. Along with the English language comes a cultural use of church titles and a history of Bible translation related to areas such as evangelism. Knowing that certain predispositions exist can enable us to see beyond them and seek to shed them as we may deem necessary in light of our future accountability to Christ.

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2 thoughts on “Nine Consequences of a State Church Structure

  1. I liked the way you allowed scripture to have a final word without much extrapolating. You mined and highlighted just the right amount of relevant historical facts, out of a plethora of them, to present the potential consequences. Further you warn about the slanting of certain bible translators which is necessary to take into account if we hope to receive and present a proper exegesis of God’s holy word. Good presentation.

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