A couple of days ago I posted about why Christians should not be "magistrates", i.e serve as civil authorities, from the Anabaptist or Radical Reformation perspective. I want to look at the other side of the Reformation, commonly known as the magisterial Reformation or to those unfamiliar with the time period just the Reformation.
One of the most well-known of the many Reformed creeds/confession is the Westminster Confession of Faith. In chapter 23, section 3, we see the view of those in the early days of the Reformation regarding the power of the magistrate in the affairs of the church (emphasis mine).
III. 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; yet he has authority, and it is his duty, to take order that unity and peace be preserved in the Church, that the truth of God be kept pure and entire, that all blasphemies and heresies be suppressed, all corruptions and abuses in worship and discipline prevented or reformed, and all the ordinances of God duly settled, administrated, and observed. For the better effecting whereof, he has power to call synods, to be present at them and to provide that whatsoever is transacted in them be according to the mind of God.
Try to imagine that in our modern context. Imagine the police coming into your church service and taking notes while your pastor was preaching or even arresting those present because they were congregationalist or were baptists or premillenial. Nobody likes heresy and I abhor it to the point of being perhaps overly sensitive but I certainly don't want the government picking sides over doctrinal issues and then persecuting, jailing or putting to death those who are out of theological favor.
The power of the sword, the power to coerce, to enslave, is a corrosive, corrupting power. It is precisely because of its nature that we do not see Jesus calling His followers to seize earthly power but rather to shun that power and embrace the love of enemy and the power of weakness. I was reminded as I read this of how many in the church seem to desire to once more take up the sword, with good intentions no doubt but with universally disastrous results. John Piper wrote about the most extreme version of this which goes by the name "Dominion Theology" or "Reconstructionism" but his warning applies to all who seek the power of the sword:
The closer we get to Dominion Theology the closer we get to living by the sword. Jesus said, "My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world my disciples would fight." This seems to mean that we are not moving toward a true understanding of the kingdom of God in this world as we move toward a greater and greater use of the sword to authorize kingdom values.
It is not the priests who are given the sword but the magistrates. And the magistrates rule not by virtue of their claim to revelation but by virtue of their claim to providential authorization. In some cultures this providential authorization has been through a line of kings, in other cultures through various contests, and in our own culture through a democratic representative process.
It seems that the theocratic ideal of Israel in the Old Testament was specifically abandoned in the New Testament as the Gospel ceased to be focused on an ethnic and political reality called Israel (Matt. 21:43) and became a multicultural, multiethnic worldwide movement without ethnic or political definition. It will be fitting, when Christ returns, that he be given the right to establish a kingdom of more specific political boundaries. But in the meantime we do well to exert our influence in ways that do not put the sword into the hands of the priests.
In other times those words would have gotten John Piper imprisoned perhaps or even cost him his life. Times may have changed but human beings have not. For all our self-congratulatory wisdom we are just as prone to ask for what harms us and recoil from what benefits us.
Brothers, stay clear of the sword. Avoid it at all costs. Once we get a taste of what that power can bring, history and human nature bears witness that it will inevitably corrupt us. Better to instead lay down the sword and take up our cross as our Lord demonstrated and commanded. The magistrate has no standing and no place in the church. We therefore have no right to seek to use the power of the world to live by the sword in a cheap imitation, a perversion of the non-coercive life transformation that only the Gospel of peace can bring.