Secularism is failing. As the West undermines its Christian foundations, it destabilizes liberty’s grounding. Western states are becoming increasingly hostile to religious liberty in general and Christianity specifically. This political reality is the backdrop of the debate within evangelicalism concerning the relationship of the Christian to the state.
Much has been written in defense of and against Christian nationalism. Yet, the debate seems stuck between two competing options—a return to the marriage between the church and state or a Secularism Lite where Christianity is reduced to one competing voice among many. The first option blurs key distinctions between two God-ordained spheres, while the second option ignores the clear implications of Christ’s lordship over everything (Matt. 28:18: Col. 1:15–20). Both options leave something to be desired. Is there another path? I believe there is, and I call it the sanctified state.
What is a Sanctified State?
A sanctified state is a national or state government set aside for service to God. Calling such a nation sanctified instead of Christian avoids the idea that people can be born into the church and the challenge of defining how an impersonal entity can be Christian. Throughout the Bible, inanimate objects are described as sanctified or consecrated to the service of God (Exod. 25–29; Lev. 8:10–11; Matt. 23:17). If utensils can be sanctified, then so can a national government. Governments are either faithful or rebellious; they serve either God or the dragon (Rev. 12:17–13:18).
Some may object, “But how can a state government serve God?” Romans 13:1–7 describes governing officials (e.g., the state) as the “servant(s) of God.” A servant serves his master. The state is God’s servant, and this reality must shape how it functions.
For a government to be sanctified, instead of rebellious, it must fulfill its God-ordained function by executing God’s justice and wrath upon evildoers (Rom. 13:4). As God’s servant, the state is endowed with authority to accomplish its specific task—no more and no less. To be a sanctified state, a government must punish evil and protect the good. A sanctified state acknowledges its God-given role and its inherent limits.
Additionally, a sanctified state should formally recognize its master. Similar to the way that the Declaration of Independence recognizes the Creator, a sanctified state should, in its founding documents, acknowledge God. While such thinking offends secularists, each of the fifty states of our nation recognizes the divine in all of their constitutions. This is part of the Western and Protestant tradition of government, and while it is not sufficient in itself, it is critical to limiting the power of the state. Faithful servants recognize their master.
If recognizing an unnamed Creator or Divine being is tolerable, then Christians should endorse rightly naming this God. A sanctified state should name the Triune God and/or reference Jesus Christ as the King of kings and Lord of lords. We should not shrink from naming the God who is there.
From Pharoah and Caesar to modern atheistic states, governments regularly seek to dethrone God. Moreover, Scripture has many examples of God’s people calling the nations and their rulers to acknowledge the one true and living God (see e.g., Exod. 5:1–3; Dan. 3:28–30; 4:34–35; Acts 26:24–29). To prevent this, the state must actively recognize that they are accountable to a higher power—almighty God. A sanctified state knows whom it is truly serving.
The Key: Sphere Sovereignty
Some will object, “This is just another form of marrying the church and state!” I fear this objection displays how much modern secularism has infected Christian political thought. The marriage of the church and state indeed led to many abuses, but so has secular nationalism. The greatest political oppressions in recent history have come from secular and atheist governments. States divorced from God’s authority inevitably lurch toward tyranny.
1. Both Nazism and Marxism find their roots in rejecting the Christian God and have led to millions of deaths. See Tom Holland, Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World (New York: Basic Books, 2019), 455–487.
A sanctified state recognizes what Abraham Kuyper (relying on Calvin) coined as sphere sovereignty—that the church and state operate in two distinct spheres established by God. The concept is rather simple—God created different spheres in life with distinct purposes and authority structures. These spheres include the family, church, state, and many more.
2. Abraham Kuyper, “Sphere Sovereignty,” in Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader, ed. James D. Bratt (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 480–490.
Each sphere informs the other, but none are to invade and take over the others. For example, just as the state makes a terrible father, so also the church makes a terrible king. Each sphere has an assigned scope and structure from God. The key is that God through Christ is sovereign over every sphere. Christ recognizes these spheres when he commands us to give to Caesar what is his, and to God what is his (Matt. 22:21). Some things rightly belong to the state, other things do not.
For example, the state is given the sword to punish evildoers, specifically those who violate the rights of others (Rom. 13:9–10). The state’s primary focus is encouraging the good and punishing evil (see 1 Peter 2:13–14). In this way, the state secures the rights (life, property, and liberty) of its people from threats, both foreign and domestic. Yet, the state is only one sphere among many ordained by God.
While a sanctified state is limited to its charge of protecting individual rights, this does not mean speech and belief become a free-for-all. The realm of belief is assigned to the spheres of the family and the church, not to the state. Blasphemy is a sin but not a crime. The church executes God’s judgment upon such sins through preaching, teaching, and church discipline. The state wields a real sword of punishment, including capital punishment. The church wields the sword of God’s word (Eph. 6:17; Heb. 4:12) and it holds the keys of the kingdom (Matt. 16:19, 18:18). Both spheres wield real authority, but they do so over different areas of life.
To prevent one sphere from becoming preeminent over the others, we must remember that Christ is preeminent over them all. Who is the head of the church? Christ. Who is the head of the state? Christ. He is the head of all things, and he possesses all authority in heaven and on earth (Eph. 1:22). Christ is, right now, the ruler of the kings on the earth (Rev. 1:4). Any governing philosophy that neuters Christ’s universal authority, especially over the state, is sub-biblical.
The separation of the church and state is a part of God’s good design for the present age. Every system has a god. The buck stops somewhere. If God himself is not recognized, the state moves in and devours all the other spheres. This was the case in the Roman Empire, and it is the direction of modern secularism.
3. Kuyper, “Sphere Sovereignty,” 469.
Without God, there is no “sphere sovereignty.” Without God, we are left to the mercy of an all-powerful, totalitarian state. Christ as Creator and Lord provides the necessary foundation for a limited view of both the state and the church. The two spheres are distinct from each other, but neither is separate from Christ. Only by recognizing God’s total sovereignty will the state remain in its proper sphere.
4. Abraham Kuyper, “Calvinism: Source and Stronghold of Our Constitutional Liberties,” in Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader, ed. James D. Bratt (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans:, 1998), 279–322.
Putting it Together
There are many advantages to this model of government. First, it takes seriously Christ’s universal authority. Of course, we must see this authority as both already and not yet. Sadly, some evangelicals behave as if Christ’s authority over the state is only not yet, and they retreat from or ignore the political process. This directly contradicts the word of God (Rev. 1:4). All things are subjected under his feet, but we do not yet see the fullness of that reality (Heb. 2:8). Our governing philosophy must reflect both the already and not yet aspects of Christ’s lordship.
Second, advocating for a sanctified state prevents us from the semi-Marcion tendency to pit the Old Testament against the New Testament. All Scripture is equal in authority since it is all breathed out by God (2 Tim. 3:16–17). All of it is profitable. We must avoid carving out a canon within a canon, even when discussing the state.
When God commands nations outside the covenant to submit to the Davidic Son (Ps. 2:7–12), that command does not disappear when the Son arrives. We move from lesser to greater realities with the coming of Christ. Christ is, right now, the King of kings, and he is the Ruler over the kings of this age (Rev. 1:4, 19:16). We have moved from anticipation toward fulfillment. The nations are his, and they are commanded to pay homage to the Son (Ps 2:10). All of this is reinforced by Scripture’s repeated assertion of Christ’s universal authority (Matt. 28:18; Col. 1:15–20; Eph. 1:10–22; 1 Pet. 3:22).
Third, Christianity and its scripture should be used in two ways—as a foundation and limitation of the state. From Alfred the Great and William Blackstone to the Ten Commandments in our courthouses, God’s law shaped our legal tradition and serves as our legal foundation. Laws do not appear out of nowhere. Laws require an adequate foundation. Americans are truly blessed that much of our legal system is still built on God’s foundation.
Natural law has a place in this discussion. As image bearers, all humans have an instinctual knowledge of right and wrong (Rom. 2:15). Yet, if natural law alone was enough to produce free and just governments, then we should expect to find many examples throughout world history. Instead, what we find are many examples of tyranny. From the human sacrifices of the Aztecs to the Reign of Terror in France, we see the suppression of natural law and the state’s tendency toward evil. Sinful man suppresses God’s truth in unrighteousness (Rom. 1:18–32; 2:16). Natural law was never intended to be sufficient. Even before the fall, God issued verbal commands to humanity (Gen. 1:28–30, 2:16–17). We always needed more than nature.
The Christian and Western traditions direct us to consider both natural and biblical law for the foundation of human laws. William Blackstone, commenting on British common law, wrote, “Upon these two foundations, the law of nature and the law of revelation, depend all human laws; that is to say, no human laws should be suffered to contradict these.” God has given us two mutually reinforcing sources of law, and Christians must use both.
A sanctified state also recognizes that God imposes limits upon itself. Acknowledging God in a nation’s founding documents does not equate to an evangelistic demand of belief from citizens. Think about it this way: the Bill of Rights is not enforced upon individuals, but it is enforced upon the state. It limits the government. In the same way, a nation should recognize God in its founding documents as the basis for liberty and the reason for a limited government.
More could be said, but a sanctified state falls squarely in the Protestant and Western traditions. It is in essence, an amplified version of the government our Founders envisioned. More importantly, it is built upon the clear teaching of Scripture. The state is God’s servant and must strive to be a faithful one.
As secularism erodes the foundations for political liberty, we must return to the first principles that secured freedom for generations. Christians need to learn from those who built Western civilization and depart from those who tear it down—those who can’t tell the difference between men and women. Such absurdity is the trajectory of every worldview and governing system which fails to recognize the universal Lordship of Christ.