Some readers have asked whether God’s Law in Scripture forbids ordained ministers from holding civil office. Recent discussions as well as some unfortunately hasty reading of theonomic literature have led to some controversy over the matter.
The short answer to the question is, “Yes,” an ordained minister can hold civil office. There is no Scriptural injunction against it, nor has any writer I am aware of within the Christian Reconstruction or theonomic traditions deduced any blanket or general prohibition against the practice. Certain crucial distinctions need to be kept in mind on the larger issue, of course, but the specific matter of an ordained man functioning in multiple covenantal spheres as separate spheres is not only nowhere prohibited, it is actually typified in certain ways in Scripture.
While there is certainly room for disagreement in areas where Scripture may not be explicit, we need to be very careful before drawing conclusions about what 1) Scripture actually says, 2) the teachings of Scripture entail, or 3) other theologians have allegedly concluded about the matter.
Since the writings of Greg Bahnsen have been adduced as proof that it is forbidden for an ordained minister to hold civil office, let us look at that example. In Chapter 20 of Theonomy in Christian Ethics (TICE), where he covers “Separation of Church and State,” Bahnsen states,
With respect to the relation of cult to state the division between priests and judicial magistrates (elders, heads, judges, kings) remains clear. Civil legislation was handled by the state, and religious practices performed by the priests. While the priest might have been consulted for advice, there was no blurring of the distinction between him and the civic official. When the priest was called on to interpret the law in a difficult case, the distinction between judge and priest was sharp, for only then would the conjunction of the two be meaningful (cf. Deut. 17:9). Israel was unique among the other ancient Canaanite countries in that her executive leader was the king and not the priest. . . .
The only times that the priests were involved in political matters were exceptional cases.1
While this passage could seem to support the prohibition in question, it is always crucial to read theologians in the context they wrote. Thankfully, Bahnsen tells us up front that his context is both limited and what those limits are. These greatly shape the extent to which we should apply his further comments above. Let’s look at this:
First, Bahnsen’s literal first words of the Chapter are “Brief consideration. . . .” This by itself tells us his comments are not exhaustive on the subject, and will have only limited application. He also tells us the general limitations he intends: “Brief consideration must now be given here to the relation of church and state as it bears upon the question of the magistrate’s responsibility in the current age to obey and enforce the law of God.”2 In general, then, this has to do with the limited perspective of the magistrate’s duty to enforce God’s Law—not to virtually any other related issue.
Toward this point, Bahnsen gets even more specific, more limited. He notes two specific ways in Christians (in particular, past critics of Theonomy) commonly have misunderstood the magistrate’s duty to enforce God’s law under the guise of “separation of church and state.”
On the one hand, some will hold that the magistrate cannot be ethically bound to God’s law because that would break down the standing distinction between church and state; on the other hand, appeal to the alleged union of church and state in the Older Testament is often thought to be a factor sufficient to deny the magistrate’s current obligation to God’s law.3
So, Bahnsen was writing specifically to correct the mistaken notion that calling upon the magistrate to enforce God’s justice violates the separation of church and state (it does not!), and the mistaken notion that in the Old Testament, church and state were fused.
To disprove these mistaken notions—especially the latter one—Bahnsen goes on to show that there was indeed a separation of church and state in the Old Testament, and in fact, that this very idea derives from the Old Testament. The union of church and state was actually the norm for pagan societies—not under God’s law.
By what follows in his book, then, Bahnsen did not intend to, and did not, address the question of whether, in general, someone who is ordained in an ecclesiastical office can also hold office in the civil sphere. This question is entirely separate from the question of the magistrate’s general duty to uphold God’s law, as well as from the confusion so many people have created in assuming the Old Testament did not have a functional and covenantal separation of these two spheres. To read Bahnsen otherwise is simply to read too much into his argument and his context. It is a mistake.
While there is much more we could say about Bahnsen’s teachings in detail, this much is enough to establish that the quotations above cannot be used to justify a prohibition against ordained ministers holding civil office. Bahnsen taught no such absolute separation, and was not even addressing the relevant issue when he made those comments.
But what does Scripture say?
We do not need an exhaustive look at the Scriptural doctrine of institutional jurisdiction and multiple office-holding in order to settle the question of whether Scripture prohibits it. If the question is one of a prohibition, a single exception will refute it. Ironically, Bahnsen gives us that exception in the very quotation cited to prove the opposite: the priests’ role in the highest appellate court of Israel.
This is where the previous discussion of context is so important. From Bahnsen’s limited perspective of disproving a fusion or union of church and state in Old Testament law, it is important to emphasize that the role priests’ role in appellate courts of Old Testament Israel were an exception, not the norm for all civil offices. But when the question is changed to whether Scripture prohibits any one man from participating in both offices, the perspective changes entirely along with the question. In the first context, the exception is the type of exception that does not prove a general rule. It is truly an exception. Just because priests served in special instances on an appellate court in Israel does not mean that there was a blanket union of church and state in Israel, or even that that separation of institutions was blurred. In the second context, however, the rule is not a general rule to begin with, and thus the “exception” here is the very type of exception that proves there is no such rule. The very fact that priests could be called to serve in the civil judiciary and help decide civil cases proves that there was no absolute principle against it. Case closed. And the matter is entirely solved by the context that is created by the question itself to begin with.
But we are not left only with the exception of Deuteronomy 17:8–13. Many other Scriptural examples show that the same man could hold multiple offices. Samuel was both priest and judge. For that matter, so was Eli. Eli fell under God’s condemnation, not for having held both offices, but for having failed at executing both faithfully. Priests always organized and led the military in warfare—whether or not it was a cherem war. On an even higher plane, Melchizedeck was both priest and king, and of course all of these are just typical instances of Jesus Christ—prophet, priest, and king.
Yet we cannot play the “Well, you’re not Jesus” card, because the same Jesus has made every Christian part of a royal (kingly) priesthood, and we are both priests and kings ourselves (1 Pet. 2:9; Rev. 1:6; 5:10). These spiritual realities mean that any Christian, when appropriately mature, ought to be equipped to function in the civil realm in addition to their other covenant responsibilities. Why? Because they already should be versed in the mental and spiritual work civil offices require.
While, again, more could be said, a single instance is enough in this case to disprove the alleged prohibition. Here, in fact, we have multiple instances. There is no such prohibition in Scripture.
Has the doctrine of the separation of church and state then been somehow violated? Not at all. Scripture in both Old and New Testament teaches that the jurisdictions of the spiritual sword (God’s Word) and the physical sword (civil punishment) are radically separate. The state cannot pronounce binding sentence upon people’s souls—only the church, the body of Christ, preaching Christ’s word can do that. Likewise, the church is absolutely forbidden from pronouncing binding sentence of, or especially executing, coercive punishments—restitution, bondage, corporal, death—for that is the civil government’s unique jurisdiction. Further, the are institutional processes through which each is required to perform its duties. It is the law and the process in each that is important, not so much the office-holder. The same man in one office will be held in check by the process and its laws and bylaws as he will in the other.
There are multiple examples in Scripture of God protecting this institutional separation in various ways (1 Samuel 13:9–15; 1 Kings 12:32–13:5; 2 Kings 16:12; 2 Kings 23:5; 2 Chron 26:16–21). None of these cases however address someone lawfully holding concurrent offices, but rather the unlawful usurpation of another office to which the king(s) had not been first lawfully ordained. In some cases, the punishment involved idolatry which was a departure from the churchly duty even of the lawful king to begin with. So none of these make good examples for anything other than the point that yes, there is a functional separation in jurisdictions between church and state, and God’s law rules both. Again, this says nothing about who may fill the offices lawfully.
The distinction and the boundaries of each institution say absolutely nothing about who may fill the offices in which the functions of those offices, defined as they are, are carried out.4 It only means that whoever fills those offices can only do so within the boundaries designated by the office they are performing at the time. Otherwise, the acts are unlawful.
Thus, the separation of church and state is not absolute. Gary DeMar, in his God and Government, states this best:
While there is a jurisdictional separation between Church and State found in the Bible, there is certainly no absolute separation. Both institutions have a common authority; they are both under God and accountable to His revealed word. The head of the Church is not the State. The head of the State is not the Church. Both institutions have Jesus Christ as their head. The Bible makes it clear that the dominion of Christ includes the area of civil government.5
Were we to make the distinction as absolute as some have claimed, it would prove far too much. Not only would the examples already adduced in Scripture (including Christ himself) be guilty of violations of multiple office-holding, but it would run us into other obvious absurdities. It would bar, or at the very least call into question (depending on the instance), all instances in which a religious or church oath binds one in a covenant outside of the oath of civil office. It would invalidate all chaplaincies, which are by definition both ecclesiastical and civil-state offices. It would bar ordained ministers not only from seats of judgement, but from juries, and since attorneys are technically legal officers of the court, from all practice of law as well. It would also suggest that anyone bound to a local church through a formal church covenant (popular in many circles) would be barred from all civil office as well. This would mean you could not be a member of a Baptist church and a police officer at the same time. It may even entail that one could not perform a civil office after having taken a formal marital oath. Thus, we could not function as husbands and civil officers at the same time (many wives would approve of this, btw!)
All of these angles are patent absurdities, of course, and further elucidation and clarification could potentially mitigate some of them. But they are all logical deductions from the same type of thinking that puts a blanket prohibition on an ordained minister serving in a civil capacity. Likewise, the same arguments that expose the weakness in these absurdities also expose the fallacies in barring deacons, elders, bishops, pastors, etc., from civil offices.
While there is no Scriptural prohibition against holding both ecclesiastical office and civil office concurrently, there could very well be tremendous practical impediments that would render the practice unwise or even injurious. Is he actively pastoring a flock? Is it large and/or demanding? What civil office exactly is he pursuing? What are the practical time-demands of the office. Some offices only require part-time efforts. Some, like President or Governor, for example, are all-consuming. Can even a talented man practically fulfill the demands of heading an executive branch while also tending a flock? If so, how will the change in workload be managed? But these are simply logistical questions that must be addressed by any such individual.
The only real, practical question then is whether the person seeking to hold multiple offices concurrently is fit for it. Are they of the reputation and character to know the distinction between each sphere, to maintain it, and to act according to the boundaries of the relevant jurisdiction at the appropriate times and places. For any man who is truly qualified for either office, that’s actually quite simple.
Another practical consideration is that since so many Christians have been so long trained to think separation of church and state demands that pastors refrain from civil office, or cannot think through the crucial distinctions easily for themselves, it may be worth setting aside the pastoral charge temporarily merely to meet the brethren in their point of weakness.
Since there is no biblical prohibition against holding multiple offices, these and other practical questions demand that we seek biblical wisdom in addressing them. The first thing we should not do is create prohibitions where Scripture does not, for that would be legalism. Bahnsen and other theonomists have fought just as hard against that mentality as we have against the false notions that would destroy the separation of church and state in Scripture. The key to biblical liberty is to defend biblical law for what it actually says, and no more.