The Role of Church and State in Executing Vengeance Against Blasphemy, Idolatry and Witchcraft
One of the main points of any system of covenantal theology should be the idea of “covenantal shift.” There are certain instances where Christ or one of the Apostles changed, if not the Law itself, the Law’s applicability and how it is to be enforced. In this article, I will maintain that the individual, family or church has no role in executing criminals under the New Covenant, unlike the Old Covenant, and that Old Covenant sanctions against blasphemy, idolatry and witchcraft are not to be enforced by the State under the New Covenant.
The Church is now responsible for enforcing the covenant in matters of worship, such as idolatry, witchcraft, etc. The Church may not execute idolaters, but must pray imprecatory prayers against non-communicants and must excommunicate church members who are unrepentant. By enforcing the Law through eternal sanctions, rather than temporal punishments, the Church now acts as an evangelistic agent to bring the heathen nations to repentance and salvation. Rather than being killed, the heathen are converted.
Hence, there has been a covenantal shift regarding the Law.
I will enumerate some points pertaining to this “covenantal shift.”
1. Regarding Jesus “changing” the Law
In certain instances, the Law of God has taken a different tack under the New Covenant. Theonomists, from the time of the Reformation until the current movement, have made a distinction between the moral law of God and other types of law — dietary, ceremonial — and have attempted to delineate exactly where the Law has “changed.” When I use the word “change,” I am speaking in the sense of it being fulfilled by the sacrifice of Christ and the new order that resulted from His atoning work. The Law was in no case abolished, but fulfilled. To “fulfill” is to make complete what was incomplete. Thus sacrificial laws were fulfilled by the sacrificial Lamb who died “once for all” for our sins. The sacrificial law still exists, but the penalty of the moral Law has been paid “once for all.” Sacrifice was not abolished at the death of Christ, but the manner in which it was dispensed has been changed. Christ fulfilled the Law in several ways so that the observances outlined in the Old Covenant are no longer necessary or effectual.
2. Certain civil laws were fulfilled at the death of Christ
One example: the Church is no longer represented by the nation-state of Israel, but is now a universal body of believers made up of all nations. After 70 A.D., the nation-state of Israel was destroyed, and there is no longer one nation that has the Law of God — it has passed to all nations. Under the New Covenant, we see a more pronounced division between the civil sphere and church sphere of authority. This distinction was also present in the Old Covenant through the religious authority of priests and the civil authority of elders. But this distinction has become more clear now.
Under the New Covenant, there has been a change in the relationship between the individual and the church and state. Under the Old Covenant, it was assumed that each individual within Israel was both a member of the church body and the national civil body. Under the Old Covenant, the religious sphere had one centralized government: the elders of Levi serving in the Temple at Jerusalem. However, the civil sphere consisted of a highly decentralized representative commonwealth.
Under the New Covenant, this all changed. Not every citizen of the state is a church member and not every member of a local church is a citizen of the state. Under the New Covenant, the church is made up of local representative bodies with no centralized authority. Christ Himself is both High Priest and King. The role of the civil government is decentralized and differs little from the role of the civil government in Israel.
When Christ died on the cross, He died for all nations. Therefore, the Church’s role is now to reform nation-states from the inside-out through evangelism and enforcement of the moral law of God in the civil sphere. But the work of reforming a heathen nation’s laws is often a long and arduous process.
Under the New Covenant, the civil code has changed with regard to warfare and capital punishment. The sword (death) is dispensed by the state (Romans 13:4). In fact, warfare and capital punishment were never within the jurisdiction of the religious sphere. But because of the close relationship between the priests and the elders of Israel this distinction was blurred. The notion of the universal priesthood of the individual believer was obscure, at best, under the Old Covenant.
In the New Covenant, we see more clearly that the role of priest has passed to the individual believer. We also see more clearly that it is the state’s responsibility to carry out vengeance (Romans 13:4). In addition, the Church may never execute capital punishment or engage in warfare (except when acting under the authority of a civil magistrate) and it is only under certain conditions (as outlined in the case laws of the Old Testament Law) when this responsibility falls to the individual.
Israel was to dispense the vengeance of God (“Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord”) against the heathen and against covenant breakers within Israel. However, when the Holy Spirit was given in a fuller way in the New Covenant, God’s judgment took a different tack in the manner in which it was dispensed. Now the primary job of the individual, family and church is to function in their godly roles as witnesses to convert the heathen world. The primary job of the first three spheres is to convert the heathen, who, prior to the New Covenant, Israel (the Church) was commanded to kill. Under the New Covenant, the job of execution now lies primarily with the state.
Thus, there is a more pronounced “separation of Church and State” under the New Covenant. However, this does not make the state separate from God’s moral law. The state (or civil sphere of government) has an added responsibility under God’s moral law which the Church can never fulfill. Although the state may “preach the gospel,” its primary job is not evangelism, but the dispensing of justice. This view is bolstered by the Confessions of the Protestant Reformation.
The Westminster Confession states:
God, the Supreme Lord and King of all the world, hath ordained civil magistrates to be under him over the people, for his own glory and the public good; and to this end, hath armed them with the power of the sword, for the defense and encouragement of them that are good, and for the punishment of evildoers. It is lawful for Christians to accept and execute the office of a magistrate when called thereunto; in the managing whereof, as they ought especially to maintain piety, justice, and peace, according to the wholesome laws of each commonwealth, so, for that end, they may lawfully, now under the New Testament, wage war upon just and necessary occasions.
Civil magistrates may not assume to themselves the administration of the Word and Sacraments; or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven; or, in the least, interfere in matters of faith. Yet, as nursing fathers, it is the duty of civil magistrates to protect the church of our common Lord, without giving the preference to any denomination of Christians above the rest, in such a manner that all ecclesiastical persons whatever shall enjoy the full, free, and unquestioned liberty of discharging every part of their sacred functions, without violence or danger. And, as Jesus Christ hath appointed a regular government and discipline in his church, no law of any commonwealth should interfere with, let, or hinder, the due exercise thereof, among the voluntary members of any denomination of Christians, according to their own profession of belief. It is the duty of civil magistrates to protect the person and good name of all their people, in such an effectual manner as that no person be suffered, either upon pretense of religion or infidelity, to offer any indignity, violence, abuse, or injury to any other person whatsoever: and to take order, that all religious and ecclesiastical assemblies be held without molestation or disturbance.
The Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion states:
The King’s Majesty hath the chief power in this Realm of England, and other his Dominions, unto whom the chief Government of all Estates of this Realm, whether they be Ecclesiastical or Civil, in all causes doth appertain, and is not, nor ought to be, subject to any foreign Jurisdiction. Where we attribute to the King’s Majesty the chief government, by which Titles we understand the minds of some slanderous folks to be offended; we give not our Princes the ministering either of God’s Word, or of the Sacraments, the which thing the Injunctions also lately set forth by Elizabeth our Queen do most plainly testify; but that only prerogative, which we see to have been given always to all godly Princes in holy Scriptures by God himself; that is, that they should rule all estates and degrees committed to their charge by God, whether they be Ecclesiastical or Temporal, and restrain with the civil sword the stubborn and evil-doers. The Bishop of Rome hath no jurisdiction in this Realm of England. The Laws of the Realm may punish Christian men with death, for heinous and grievous offenses. It is lawful for Christian men, at the commandment of the Magistrate, to wear weapons, and serve in the wars.
The Belgic Confession states:
We believe that because of the depravity of the human race our good God has ordained kings, princes, and civil officers. He wants the world to be governed by laws and policies so that human lawlessness may be restrained and that everything may be conducted in good order among human beings. For that purpose he has placed the sword in the hands of the government, to punish evil people and protect the good. And being called in this manner to contribute to the advancement of a society that is pleasing to God, the civil rulers have the task, subject to God’s law, of removing every obstacle to the preaching of the gospel and to every aspect of divine worship. They should do this while completely refraining from every tendency toward exercising absolute authority, and while functioning in the sphere entrusted to them, with the means belonging to them.
And the government’s task is not limited to caring for and watching over the public domain but extends also to upholding the sacred ministry, with a view to removing and destroying all idolatry and false worship of the Antichrist; to promoting the kingdom of Jesus Christ; and to furthering the preaching of the gospel everywhere; to the end that God may be honored and served by everyone, as he requires in his Word. Moreover everyone, regardless of status, condition, or rank, must be subject to the government, and pay taxes, and hold its representatives in honor and respect, and obey them in all things that are not in conflict with God’s Word, praying for them that the Lord may be willing to lead them in all their ways and that we may live a peaceful and quiet life in all piety and decency. And on this matter we denounce the Anabaptists, other anarchists, and in general all those who want to reject the authorities and civil officers and to subvert justice by introducing common ownership of goods and corrupting the moral order that God has established among human beings.
Thus, we see clearly that the reformers held to the idea that the civil government’s role is markedly different from the role of the other spheres of government. I use this same ideology in arguing against individuals, families or church authorities wielding the sword (dispensing God’s vengeance) against the enemies of God.
3. With regard to an individual taking vengeance
The civil law is to be fulfilled only by the civil magistrate — not by church authorities, heads of the families, nor by individuals. The case law from Exodus 22:2,3 demonstrates that an individual may still use force as self-defense within the household. For instance, Exodus 22:2,3 does not deal with murder at all, but self-defense in order to secure private property. This portion of Scripture deals with “case laws” which are specific applications of the Ten Commandments to hypothetical situations that may have arisen in Israel. The Hebrew people were commanded to meditate on the Law of God and the case laws in order to obtain wisdom in how to live by the Law and how to dispense justice in different circumstances. Case laws still apply today unless they were specifically fulfilled by Christ’s atoning work on the cross. The case law of a thief breaking and entering in the night is still used as the basis for an individual’s right to “kill” an intruder and be free of blood-guilt.
Why the emphasis on the dark of night versus the light of day? This is a distinction still in use today. For instance, in many states, breaking and entering in the night time is a first degree felony, while breaking and entering in the day time is only a misdemeanor. The safety of the family sleeping in the home is the criterion for judgment here. A thief entering a house while the family is sleeping could potentially murder the person who is unfortunate enough to be awakened by the intruder. In such a case, it is perfectly legitimate for the family member to use force, if necessary to subdue the thief. If a death results, the action is not considered murder, but legitimate self-defense. A thief entering in broad daylight would only do so if the family were away from the home. However, if he did so with the expressed purpose of killing or maiming a family member, then it is perfectly legitimate to use force in order to stop this from happening. This is always the case, whether the incident occurs within the home or outside the home. In the Mosaic case laws, manslaughter differs from murder in the cases of premeditation and self-defense.
Justice under the New Covenant can only be dispensed by the civil magistrate, unless the individual is seeking to subdue a would-be murderer and accidentally kills him in the process. This is considered manslaughter and not murder. Vigilantism is also precluded.
4. With regard to family members taking vengeance
In the Old Testament, a family member could turn himself into a vigilante and pursue a family enemy. However, Jesus specifically altered (or fulfilled) the need to take vengeance when he said: “You have heard it said: and eye for and eye and a tooth for a tooth, But I say to you do not resist him who is evil…. But you shall turn the other cheek” (Matthew 5:38,39). Jesus also changed the law with regard to hating our enemies, which we are commanded to do under the Old Covenant simply because the heathen and the covenant breaker were enemies of God. We are not to kill our enemies, but to work for their conversion. A Christian may also forgive and love an enemy of God in an effort to bring him to repentance rather than seeking the justice of the criminal law system. This Good News has now gone out to the whole world and not only to covenant keepers among Israel. However, a civil magistrate may enforce the death penalty in order to bring covenant-breakers to justice.
The case law of Exodus 22:2,3 is one example from the Old Covenant which would preclude vigilantism. In other circumstances, a family member might have acted as a “blood-avenger.” But an individual could not pursue and hunt down a killer under any circumstance and be guiltless under the Law of God. The only way in which an individual could dispense justice is by acting under the authority of a civil magistrate. In the Old Covenant this “deputy-role” of an individual member of the nation-state acting under the authority of the civil magistrate is assumed. A family member was directly accountable to the elder (civil magistrate) of his family group or tribe. However, since the nation-state role of the Israel (the Church) has ended, it can no longer be assumed that each individual is acting under the authority of the civil magistrate in order to bring an individual to justice. An individual may still non-violently arrest and turn a suspect over to a civil magistrate, but the authority to execute vengeance lies only within the sphere of the civil government.
Also of interest, is the modern vs. biblical definition of the “family,” as meaning only blood-relation. The Old Covenant definition of family had more to do with authority than blood-relation. The family sphere refers not only to blood-line, but to all those living under the covenantal authority of a head of a household. The practice of taking the name of one to whom an individual submits is to this day a common practice in Asian and Mediterranean cultures. The word, “father,” does not refer to husband, wife and children only, but to the head of a clan or “family.” A father is one who protects and succors.
Note that the Sicilian Mafia still uses the word “family” to denote a crime organization headed by a “godfather” or crime boss. This is a perversion of God’s natural order, yet it has the same cultural roots as the Hebrew understanding of “family.” The Mafia also uses an Old Covenant form of taking vengeance for harm done to family members which denies the supreme authority of the state or civil magistrate in enforcing justice in these matters.
5. With regard to church-related organizations seeking vengeance
True Christianity does not take up the sword, kill those who refuse to obey the Gospel, nor create an exclusive group to which others may not belong. It makes a mockery out of heathen systems of justice. As R.J. Rushdoony pointed out, the Apostle Paul began this revolution when he told the Christians at Corinth to set up their own courts to try cases pertaining to civil disputes. Evidently, Corinthian church members were suing each other before heathen judges and were getting rulings that were ungodly. This was a reproach to the testimony of Christ. Ecclesiastical courts grew with the Church and at the time of the fall of the Roman Empire several hundred years later, they were the only existing courts dispensing justice. Thus, the kingdom of God gained a measure of dominion through the Church’s role in enforcing the Law of God in society.
The error that the Roman Catholic Church entered into after this point was to erect a Holy Roman Empire — a church-state ecclessiocracy — to replace the collapsed Roman world order. In doing so, the Roman Catholic Church defied the godly separation of powers. However, it has always been the position of Reformed theology that powers ought to be limited given the total depravity of the human heart. Thus, even ecclesiastical courts are to be suspect and distrusted.
In a true theocracy, civil and ecclesiastical powers must be separate and limited. The state may raise armed forces to defend national borders, appoint judges and punish violations of the civil and moral Law of God. The church may hear cases pertaining to certain moral violations, defend biblical doctrine, and hear certain civil cases between local church members. The Apostle Paul maintained that the responsibility to wield the sword (execute the death penalty as punishment) is given primarily to the state (Romans 13:4). The Church may never act in this capacity. Individual Christians may do so only when acting under the authority of civil law.
Modern theonomists may disagree as to exactly what matters this pertains. However, we agree that the standard is God’s Law — not man’s law. We also agree that only the civil magistrate has the authority to wield the sword.
6. With regard to the State trying witches, idolaters and blasphemers
Finally, we have arrived at the main point of this article. May the State enforce sanctions against witches, idolaters and blasphemers? Some believe that the State may do so.
The Belgic Confessions states: “And the government’s task is not limited to caring for and watching over the public domain but extends also to upholding the sacred ministry, with a view to removing and destroying all idolatry and false worship of the Antichrist….”
However, the Confession is referring to the Roman Catholic Church, which was not just a religion of the day, but also a political power to be warred against only by another political power. Today, the Roman Catholic Church has no such civil authority in any nation. When we speak of idolatry today, we are speaking of idolatry coming from the religious sphere, not the State.
In short, we should maintain that the State has no business in interfering with matters pertaining to worship. This is the sole responsibility of the Church.
7. Regarding the Church’s role in applying sanctions to the idolater
It is the role of the Church to oppose idolatry with all our might, even to the point of publicly condemning certain idolaters (if they refuse to repent) through imprecatory prayer proclamations. Sorcery is condemned throughout the Bible [see Ex. 7:11; 8:7,18; Isa. 47:9,12]. Sanctions are imposed on sorcerers who refuse to repent [see Acts 13:6,8; Gal. 5:20; Rev. 9:21;18:23]. As the Church, our correct response is to condemn the practice of witchcraft and sorcery and to preach salvation to those who would repent. But the Church may not execute physical vengeance. It may only excommunicate.
Therefore, the two avenues of resistance to idolatry — ecclesiastical and civil — can never result in the execution of the idolater.
8. On whether idolatry should be made illegal by our civil government
Since the civil government is not a church-state ecclesiocracy, the state should not try witches, idolaters and blasphemers. Our local community governments would be correct, however, in enforcing local ordinances against private house meetings of heretics in order to stop the undesirable effects of paganism from spreading in the surrounding community. This strategy was effective in Presbyterian Scotland and Puritan New England. The local civil government could hold all religious groups accountable to these same ordinances, knowing that those groups ordained of God will be obedient to the civil magistrates and will flourish.
The danger lies not in church or state persecuting religious groups. The real danger is when either oversteps its God-given authority, or when one tries to be the other. That is what leads to tyranny and oppression. Idolaters, such as witches and pagans, certainly can hold their beliefs and practices in private. There can be no civil law against that as long as it doesn’t interfere with public sphere of life. Private faith is an issue of the conscience. In fact, civil laws against paganism practiced in private would be unenforceable. The state of the human soul and matters of internal religious faith are matters which only God himself can judge.
One of the mistakes that modern theonomists sometimes make is in assuming that man’s government may punish all sinful activity. It may not. The vast majority of sins against God are to be dealt with by the sovereign God either in time or eternity. It is also a mistake to make no distinction between “crimes” and “sins.” All sins are crimes against God’s government. All sin is punishable by hell and death. But God does not allow man’s government to deal with all sin. Given the depravity of man, this would lead to tyranny — a hell on earth. God, in His infinite wisdom, is a better dispenser of vengeance, justice, mercy and grace than man’s government may ever accomplish.
The problem of idolatry in our society today is rooted in the deep spiritual decline of our churches. God in His sovereignty will deal with all unrepentant idolatry in time or eternity. We cannot enforce inner righteousness from the top down. Righteousness begins with personal regeneration. Therefore, it is the role of the Church to repent, reform ourselves, and preach salvation to those who have ears to hear. Judgment begins in the house of God.
Yet we should not neglect our duty as Christians in the civil sphere to enforce outward morality — and to enact laws against immorality — i.e., abortion, public nudity, drug abuse, the erecting of pagan statues, homosexual parades, or any other displays of pagan religion — or anything which is being publicly promoted due to a root source of idolatry (creature worship). Christians must do everything possible using the avenue of civil law to stop the immoral influences of idolatry from spreading in local communities.