Book review: Protestant Concepts of Church and State

Book review: Protestant Concepts of Church and State, Thomas G. Sanders

This book was published in 1964. It looks at the various ways that Protestants have tried to make sense of the connection between church and state from the 1500s all the way up to the mid 1900s. It distinguishes five major strands:

  • A theocentric view (e.g., Lutheran tradition) – There are two realms. God works through the church according to the principles of grace. He works through the state according to the principles of law. Christians can be in politics, but if so they should use the principles of conduct that God intended to apply to the state, not those intended to apply to the church.
  • A sectarian view (e.g., Mennonite tradition) – Christians are to be separate from the world. Christians may need to withdraw from political involvement if to get politically involved would cause them to compromise their Christian principles. For example, many early Mennonites felt that it was wrong for Christians to get involved in politics at all, because to be in government was to use force, and to use force was a violation of Christian principles.
  • A pacifist view (e.g., Quaker tradition) – The state tends to use war and violence, which are against Christian teaching. However, the church shouldn’t withdraw: it should work to transform the way the state functions to be in line with Christian principles. This differs from the sectarian view in that it expects the church to be constantly trying to change the direction of the government and make it more pacifist.
  • A separationist view (e.g., American ideal of wall of separation) – The church and the state need to keep a strict wall of separation between them.
  • A transformationist view (e.g., Reformed tradition) – The church and state need a moderate amount of separation between them, but the church should also work to influence the state in more godly directions.

I’ve been thinking for a long time about what the idea church/state relationship would be, especially in a truly pluralistic society. I’m frustrated that while we have a whirlwind of activism today around the issue of how much the church should influence the state, we have very little reflection on what the ideal would be.

When I learned several years ago that that the church/state question was historically important to early Protestant churches, I decided I wanted to learn more, but I haven’t found many resources about it easily available to a layman.

I picked this book up hoping it would help, and it did. The things I most appreciated learning from it were a) the division into five traditions mentioned above, b) the degree to which early Protestants struggled with the whole idea of Christians being in government at all, and c) the degree to which Baptists and similar denominations spent the early part of the 1900s fighting for a lot more separation between church and state. The last point astonished me because we spend so much time today arguing against too much separation, as though that was always what we’ve believed. (Apparently our earlier passion to build the wall of separation as high as possible was motivated by a fear of Roman Catholicism getting too much influence.)

The one disappointing thing about the book is how old it is. So much has changed since the early 1960s! I’d love to have heard the author’s take on today’s church/state furor.

Would I recommend it? It’s a little dry, and probably impossible to find now, but I suppose, yes, I would, to anyone who is curious about the same stuff.

Would I reread it? Maybe. I think I already got most of the ideas I need from it, though.

How would I rate it? 5/10, maybe. Interesting, worth the read. It didn’t blow me away.

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