This is an incisive, timely, needed book, because it addresses the two fundamental issues of our time. These issues constitute the proverbial elephant in the room, issues which are not to be raised in polite company. We speak of the untenability of the neutral state, and of the crying need for the public church.
There is no neutrality. The state by definition constitutes an establishment of religion. This is because the functionality of the state is centered on the administration of public justice, and the standard thereof is provided not by the state itself, but by what lies outside of the state, in an authority above and beyond it. That is, unless the state sets itself up as the ultimate authority, which no democratic state claims to do. There is therefore a standard to which the state must turn for guidance in its administration of justice. By this admission, then, the claim to neutrality is by definition refuted.
What is this standard? Human rights? Most states today claim this. But such a standard demands definitions, which in our day and age are anything but givens. What is human? What is a right? How do the various rights so derived rhyme with each other? No end of questions here.
The Christian religion provides its own standard of justice, which the state is called to uphold, by virtue of the rule of God over all of life. “The calling of the State is to administer public justice. If the State, as God’s servant in this matter, is to do this properly, as Paul clearly teaches in the New Testament (Rom. 13:1–6), what constitutes the public justice that the State is called to uphold must be defined by God’s law as this has been given to us in Scripture, and it is the duty of the State to uphold God’s law as it relates to the sphere of public justice” (p. 34).
Does this constitute violation of the separation of church and state? Not so fast. There is not yet any mention here of the church. It is religion which is being discussed, and religion is inescapable. Religion defines what is ultimate, and what is the standard of value. There is always an establishment of religion. “Whatever a society considers to be public truth will inevitably function as the religion of that society” (p. 5). Article 36 of the Belgic Confession, for example, does not speak of the church at all, but only of true and false religion, and of the duty of the magistrate to uphold true religion and to “remove and suppress” false religion.
But this by no means leaves the church out of the picture. As Perks notes, “The establishment of the Christian religion as the religion of State necessarily involves recognition of the Church as an independent public legal institution” (p. 28). How could this not be the case? The church is the body of Christ, the pillar and ground of the truth. Without recognizing it in its own right, the establishment of Christianity would be fruitless. “Ultimately there can be no establishment of Christianity as the religion of State without the establishment of the Church (the Christian ecclesia) as a societal institution with her own sphere sovereignty. The attempt to establish Christianity as the religion of State without the concrete realisation or incarnation of that religion in an historical community is ultimately meaningless…. Without any formal link between Church and State Christianity cannot be said to be established in any meaningful way” (pp. 27–28).
And this church is more than a collection of individuals, certainly more than a privatized cultic association. Modern Christianity, mired as it is in denominationalism, views the church only in this way. For it, the gospel “it does not apply to nations as nations, but only to nations as they are considered as collections of individuals. The message of the gospel is essentially individualistic. In this sense there is no such thing as a Christian politician, only Christians who are also politicians…. The New Testament is believed to have replaced the political focus of the Old Testament with a focus that concentrates on the individual and on the Church as an apolitical devotional institution” (pp. 19–20). This has not done the church any favors as far as its public witness is concerned: “The Church and her courage to resist seems to have all but evaporated…. The Church is a conquered and occupied nation” (p. 251).
This individualism finds expression in the church acting like an interest group lobbying the government for special favors. Such an arrangement ratifies the role of government as provider of largesse to the community, exchanging favors for votes and so fostering dependency. The church then finds itself ranged among the supplicants. But this is a dead end, and a denial of the proper role of the church in society. What is worse, it creates a dynamic that undermines support for Christianity. “Requiring the State to fulfil our responsibilities for us will not produce a Christian society; it will merely continue to lend credibility to an already idolatrous conception of the State under the rule of which society has become dysfunctional and is increasingly lurching towards disintegration” (p. 150).
The New Testament knows nothing of the privatized church. Rather, it speaks of the ecclesia, which, in its original Greek meaning, is anything but private. It is the designation for a citizens’ assembly. Like kingdom, church speaks to public functionality, not private. “We must recognise, therefore, first, that the Kingdom of God, the body of Christ on earth, and the Christian ecclesia, are political concepts, and second, that the realisation of these concepts in human life and society constitutes a distinctive form of political action. There is a sense, therefore, in which we can say that the Kingdom of God is primarily a political order and that the Christian faith is primarily a political faith. Politics for the Christian is not merely one aspect of life among others, but the whole of it. Christianity is about politics” (p. 79).
As such, the church speaks public truth to the nation, the Word of the Lord to rulers, who should tremble, not before the church, but before the God of Hosts (Psalm 2:10–12). And it exercises a public ministry of mercy, something which the state imitates to the detriment of itself and its citizenry. The church developed institutions of health care, education, and welfare, which later were taken over by state. “It was the work of the Church, Christian charities, private donations and endowments, and voluntary giving motivated by a Christian conscience that created the educational and medical services that so revolutionised the life of the ordinary people in modern Western society. The State did not create these institutions; it merely hijacked them once they had been created by the Christian society of previous centuries. And once it had taken over, the secular State systematically set about stripping these institutions of the Christian values and ideals that brought them into being in the first place” (p. 206).
Nowadays the state preens as if it had come up with all these things on its own; it deprecates and dismisses the church as an inconsequential throwback that in its day only repressed the people. But it has been the dismissal of the church and the arrogation by the state of this functionality which has driven society to its modern Slough of Despond. “Neither does the usurpation of the roles of these other institutions by the State create a caring society, as socialist propaganda would have us believe. Rather, it creates an un-caring society, a society in which individuals, families and communities—and alas even the Church—abdicate their responsibilities to the anonymous State. The State is then expected to shoulder all of man’s social responsibilities, a role for which it was never intended and that it is not competent to fulfil” (p. 209).
The Great Commission, therefore, is not merely a call to evangelize individuals, but to call peoples and nations to corporate obedience to God. The contemporary dismissal of this understanding is, in Perks’ words, the Great De-Commission. The culture-transforming ministry of the gospel, extending even into the public life of the nations, needs to be recovered by the church; otherwise, not only will we perish, but we will perish after having abandoned our posts and committed treachery against our Lord.
The ability of the Church, of Christians acting corporately, to transform the society of which they are a part is not a matter of mere theorising. It actually happened. It created a Christian nation—not a perfect nation by any means, but a Christian nation nonetheless. This shows that what we face is not an impossible task. Society can be changed. It has been done before by Christians taking their cultural mission seriously. And it can be done again, but only if the body of Christ, the Church as an organism (neither limited to nor excluding the institutional Church) acts with vision, conviction and determination, and is prepared to make the sacrifices that such a mission necessitates by living as a true social order. God will bless all such efforts in ways beyond our imagination. But the Church must first overcome the deadening apathy that presently afflicts her and prepare herself for the sacrifices that such a transformation of our society will require (p. 250).
These are major contributions to the current debate regarding the role of the church in secular society. The Dutch theologian P. J. Hoedemaker had similar things to say over 100 years ago. Hoedemaker spoke in the context of Dutch history: for him, it was a matter of recovering the Christian state, but also, and inextricably intertwined with this, the national Reformed church recovering its place in the public square, at the heart of the social order, expounding public truth; in Hoedemaker’s terms, engaging in the public interpretation and exposition of Scripture. The state needed to submit, not to the church, but to the Word of God; these two institutions share the public square, each with its own delimited jurisdiction, the one exercising the ministry of justice, the other the ministry of mercy.
It should be noted here that Hoedemaker developed this understanding first in cooperation with Abraham Kuyper and later in conflict with him. The two were among the original five professors teaching at the fledgling Free University of Amsterdam. There came a falling-out between them, and this came about because Kuyper turned away from the national church to form his own church, a church which no longer sought public recognition, but only the status of a private association, as one among many moral persons. Kuyper embraced the denominationalism against which Hoedemaker fought so strenuously.
This was a capital error, and one which would prove fatal to the fortunes of the church. For together with the turn to denominationalism came the turn away from the Christian state, and Kuyper championed this position as well. Already in 1878, he was arguing that the state only operated by the natural knowledge of God and made no use of revelation in Scripture.
These twin orientations underlay his newfangled doctrine of the church, in which he disconnected the “church as institute” from the “church as organism.” He did this to square the circle, as it were: the church could still exercise influence in the public square, only not as an “institution” but as an “organism” – as Christians organized politically, making use of the party structure, the ballot box, the techniques of lobbying. In this manner, the liberal secular state could be adapted and harnessed to the exigencies of a Christian politics.
In his exposition, Perks makes generous use of the institute/organism distinction, arguing repeatedly that it is the church as organism rather than the church as institute that needs to be engaged in the broader culture. But this is to fall into Kuyper’s trap. If we leave the church as institute to one side, we have yielded the public square and the broader culture to secularism, for it is precisely in the ministry of Word and Sacrament that all Christian activity finds its focus, its point of departure, and its capacity to act as leaven, as salt, and as light in the world.
Kuyper’s doctrine of the church was an accommodation to liberalism, a strategy to galvanize the church to political action within the context of the neutral state. As such, it drew the ire of Hoedemaker, who saw in it nothing but the betrayal of the Biblical calling of the church to discipline the nation as nation, the state as state, and bring both the public and the private dimensions of life under the lordship of Christ.
Instead, the “Kuyper Option” counsels the strategy of lobbying for political favors, a strategy against which Perks rightly takes umbrage. “It is not being suggested here… that all Christians need to do to practise the politics of God is to establish Christian political parties or organise Christian lobbying groups. This point cannot be emphasised too strongly. The politics of God requires us to reject the politics of man, which sees State intervention as the answer to society’s problems. Such an attitude leads to the absolutising of the State, which is a form of idolatry” (p. 97).
It was precisely the lobbying that Perks denounces, that Kuyper engaged in; more than this, that Kuyper paved the way for. Perks writes, “What Christians should not be doing therefore is lobbying government to provide services such as education according to Christian criteria, i.e. Christian schools. That is not the function of the State. If Christians are to engage in lobbying they should be lobbying government to restrict itself to pursuing the role that God has assigned to it in Scripture and limiting its collection of taxes to this specific role” (p. 150). But this is precisely what Kuyper and his followers in the Netherlands proceeded to do. For example, in education: what Kuyper achieved as prime minister was public recognition for the diplomas extended by the Free University; but more than this, he arranged for the public funding of Christian education, from elementary school to university. This dependency in education on the state, on the part of Christian schools, nowadays makes itself felt by the total dependency, not only financially but also intellectually and ideologically, on state-oriented agendas and curricula. There is a complete absence of independent thought among the Christian “volksdeel” or sub-population in the Netherlands; on nearly all matters of public import, they think exactly the same way as their secular counterparts.
This is not to beat a dead Kuyperian horse, but to show that Perks, like Hoedemaker before him, has progressed beyond the Kuyperian framework to re-embrace the classic theocratic Reformed agenda as expressed in Article 36 of the Belgic Confession, without losing the Kuyperian distinctives of the antithesis, the cultural mandate, and the need for distinctly Christian philosophy and education. This is the way forward, and both Perks’s remonstrances and his recommendations ring true to this end. The question is, what will it take for the broader church to awake from its slumber, and take the theocratic bull by the horns?
- Cf. P. J. Hoedemaker, Article 36 of the Belgic Confession Vindicated against Dr. Abraham Kuyper (Aalten: Pantocrator Press, 2019). ↑
- A more detailed critique of Kuyper’s agenda in this regard can be found in my article, “The Kuyper Option: Kuyper’s Concept of the Church in the Context of Strategic Christian Action,” in For Law and For Liberty: Essays on the Trans-Atlantic Legacy of Protestant Political Thought (Lincoln, NE: The Davenant Press, 2018 ), pp. 143ff. ↑