A Controversy Revisited (2) – Jim Packer

(I’d wish to emphasise this post should be read in conjunction with the previous post on Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ part in the controversy; actually I’ve noticed the Lloyd-Jones post seems to be consulted quite often, and I feel people aren’t getting a fully balanced view without this other aspect of the controversy.  I’ve edited the Lloyd-Jones post to draw attention to this one, and correspondingly, if you’ve come here first I encourage you to read the other post too…. )

I described in the first of these posts the controversy raised by Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ call in 1966 for evangelicals to withdraw from doctrinally lax denominations, particularly the Anglicans and Methodists.  Leading Evangelical Anglicans like John Stott and Jim Packer resisted this call, and there was a particularly painful breach between Lloyd-Jones and Packer who previously had worked closely together in various Puritan-related projects.  I now want to look at Packer’s position.  As with Lloyd-Jones, Packer is one of my heroes, I’ve learned much from him and I own quite a few of his works.  Nevertheless in this case I think he was wrong….

As I said, Packer was broadly right in the general idea that one should not abandon doctrinally lax churches/ denominations but seek to reform and revive them from inside; provided, that is, that they remain formally evangelical in doctrine.  But what he seems to have failed to recognise is that the Anglican Church’s position as a state church is itself a serious contradiction of biblical doctrine and compromises the very nature of the church;  thus by Packer’s own criteria evangelicals should come out of Anglicanism.  Not perhaps precipitately, especially at present when change seems more likely than it ever has, and a peaceable disestablishment might be achieved in a reasonable time; I would accept that evangelicals who are already Anglican might at present see their duty in staying in Anglicanism to help the church through disestablishment and then reform it as a non-state church.  But I can’t see a case for evangelicals staying within the church while accepting its established status, because as far as I can see, that would not be biblically faithful and so not evangelical.  Nor can I see a case for staying in a deeply unbiblical church forever once aware of the defect.

Why doesn’t Packer see that point?  Knowing Packer’s usually incisive mind, I was puzzled when I first started reconsidering the controversy, and then I found in a charity shop a copy of the symposium “God’s Inerrant Word” to which Packer was a contributor.  In his essay on “Sola Scriptura” I found the following assertions (omitting, I hope fairly, points not relevant to the current argument and on which I broadly agree with Packer – check the full argument on pp55-57 1974 edition);

“….one finds that the main theological issues that have divided Protestants who hold to sola Scriptura have been these;….(4) how the churches should be related to the state – the issue in debates about establishment throughout the world since the seventeenth century; (5) whether churchmen’s children may properly be baptised in infancy or not – the issue between Baptist and all other Protestant churches; …..[i]

What are we to say to these matters of debate?  First, that whatever divisions they may have occasioned in the past it is very arguable that, being in reality secondary questions, they need not and ideally would not have this (divisive) effect.  Second, that it is also very arguable that in each of these cases unexamined assumptions brought to the task of exegesis, rather than any obscurities arising from it, were really at the root of the cleavage.  The trouble was that presuppositions were read into Scripture rather than read out of it, as follows; ….(4,5) The fourth and fifth debates reflected the presupposition that Scripture must legislate on the issues in question, even though no biblical author addresses himself to either. ….  (My underlining – SL)

It is a confusion to blame the principle of sola Scriptura for conflicts which sprang from insufficient circumspection in exegesis”.

On finding these words of Packer’s I was just a bit gobsmacked!  For starters how could the issue of establishment not be divisive in all kinds of ways especially when in the past it has led to Christians persecuting one another or fighting outright wars?  But even more, that comment about ‘…the presupposition that Scripture must legislate on the issues in question even though no biblical author addresses himself to either’ is simply wrong – there’s no need of any ‘presupposition’ because lots of biblical authors actually do address the issue of establishment, and that includes places in the Gospels recording the words of Jesus himself!  Of course they do not address the problem in the modern form that has developed since Constantine – why should they address something which hadn’t happened yet and which they clearly didn’t expect or believe should happen[ii]?  The NT authors simply expound how the church is supposed to normally work – as a non-established body – and make lots of statements which to say the least are hard to reconcile with the idea of an established church.

I’m not going to go into great detail on those scriptures here – I either have covered or will cover many such cases as this blog goes on – but just a few comments.  The whole idea of being ‘born again’ through faith speaks against ‘Christian countries’ because while you can legislate for superficial conformity and threaten people into it, you can’t by legislation achieve real genuine new spiritual birth.  Wesley had somewhat to say about this (though it seems he never quite saw the full implications for the establishment).  Asked by a bishop “Why do you talk of the success of the gospel in England, which was a Christian country before you were born?” Wesley responded “Was it indeed?  Is it so at this day?  – If men are not Christians till they are renewed after the image of Christ, and if the people of England, in general, are not so renewed, why do we term them so?  ‘The god of this world hath’ long ‘blinded their hearts’.  Let us do nothing to increase their blindness; but rather recover them from that strong delusion, that they may no longer believe a lie”.

Quickly a few others – Jesus before Pilate saying among other things, ‘My kingdom is not of this world’; Peter describing his hearers as ‘resident aliens’ (there is a word in I Peter which appears to translate as exactly that) and not expecting that to change before the Second Coming, and far from telling his readers to take the state over, telling them to be ‘subject to’ the state authorities and not to be ‘allotriepiskopoi’ – managers of other people’s affairs;  Paul saying ‘Come out and be ye separate’ and ‘our warfare is not with physical weapons’ (unlike umpteen religious wars in Jesus’ name including the English Civil War and the Ulster Troubles)… there are many more….

I’m still a bit puzzled (understatement!) that Packer could be so wrong; but I also remember that at the time in the 1960s evangelicals felt embattled and saw it as important to maintain evangelical unity.  I certainly valued groups like the Crusaders Union (nowadays ‘Urban Saints’) and the University Christian Unions where it was possible to ignore differences to a large extent precisely because of the large extent of our Bible-based agreements[iii].  Also the long custom of toleration in England seemed to have made establishment comparatively irrelevant at a practical level, and the ecumenical movement had us all looking for ways to work together between the churches.  Issues over Ulster and non-Christian religions including Islam, which brought the question of religious establishment back to the top of both British and global concerns, were still in the future in 1966, and even now far too many people, in and out of the churches, haven’t fully realised the implications.

One obvious comment is that if Anglican Jim Packer couldn’t find support for establishment in the New Testament, there certainly can’t be any clear teaching in favour of it.

But essentially, all the leaders in the 1966 controversy were arguing over the wrong thing, and failed to realise that the issues around state churches were very relevant to the doctrinal laxity issue and that they were also more important on a far wider scale.  It’s perhaps understandable that they got things wrong in the then climate of British religious affairs; for us now, after over 40 years of the Ulster troubles and decades of problems around Islam and the Middle East, it’s a great deal less understandable that we mostly continue to ignore the issue.  Let’s repair that error ASAP!!


[i]  I don’t really want to consider the baptism issue in detail here; I only included it because as you see, Packer’s lumping baptism together with establishment in the second paragraph meant I had to include both bits of the first section for clarity.  I do by the way object slightly to the implication that it is only the one Baptist denomination which disagrees with all other churches on that point.  The practice of believer’s baptism (‘credo-baptism’?) is far wider than just the Baptists as such, and significantly is usually adopted by churches founded from the Bible alone without awareness of other traditions!

[ii] There is an argument that the evil effects of establishment are shown in ‘coded’ form in some of the prophecies in Revelation about false religion in the end-times.  But there is certainly no teaching favouring ‘Christian states’, and much to say otherwise.

[iii] In contrast the various denominational societies at our university, mostly of liberal theological leanings, had so attenuated a ‘gospel’ to agree on that their denominational distinctives and disagreements were almost all they had to uphold, so they couldn’t easily agree….

A modern case supporting ‘Christendom’

Some time back I came across a book called ‘A Higher Throne’, proceedings of sessions of the eleventh ‘Annual School of Theology’ of Oak Hill College, an Anglican institution in the UK.  Among the essays was one by David Field, in which he argued for a ‘Christendomite’ view of ‘confessional Christian states’, derived from the arguments of Samuel Rutherford’s book Lex Rex from the Stuart era.  Early in the essay he sets forth the kind of thing he has in mind, as seen in the following quotes

….Those who want … a Christian nation … could be identified as those who assert;

The first line (paragraph? SL) of the constitution of each and every nation on earth should include a statement such as ‘The triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is the one true living God and he is the maker, ruler redeemer and judge of the world.  The Bible is his infallible and altogether authoritative Word.  Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is King of kings and Lord of lords and has all authority in heaven and on earth.’ 

And later

In summary then, Samuel Rutherford’s arguments in ‘Lex, Rex  are intended to provide a defence of taking up arms against the tyrant and are founded upon an exposition of the  purpose, origin, nature and raw materials of civil government.  That same exposition also shows how Rutherford would straightforwardly be a supporter of what might be called the covenanted Christian nation, or the confessional state. 

Three Questions may be asked about the relationship between the lordship of Jesus and the kings of the earth;

  1. 1.       Is Jesus Christ the ruler of the kings of the earth?
  2. 2.       Is it desirable that the kings of the earth should acknowledge this?
  3. 3.       Is it desirable that the kings of the earth qua kings should publicly confess this? 

Non-Christians and Christians are of course distinguished by their answers to the first two questions, but those who support and those who oppose the Christian confessional state are distinguished by their answer to the third.  Rutherford and the covenanting tradition answer the third question with no less a ringing and confident ‘yes’ than they give to the first two. 

Given the purpose, origin, nature and stuff of the human person, it is clear and important that each human being confess the triune God, recognise Jesus as Lord, and live with the Word of God as his or her supreme authority.  To Rutherford and the covenanting tradition it is no less clear and important, given the purpose, origin, nature and stuff of human government, that each human ruler also confess the triune God, recognise Jesus as Lord, and live with the Word of God as his or her supreme authority. 

In referring to ‘the kings of the earth’ Field means all kinds of human rulers, not just those who have the specific title ‘king’.  I must admit I’m not quite clear how he regards democracy; he does later describe ‘pluralist democracy’ as being a ‘tyranny’ – I kind of see why he says that (material for a future post perhaps), but I also think he is misconceiving how plural democracy is supposed to work and to think of itself.  I am guessing that he would find acceptable a democracy which was not pluralist but was limited by that specifically Christian opening to its constitution – but he doesn’t fully face some of the implications of that either. 

Looking at those ‘three questions’, yes, Christians believe that Jesus Christ IS the ruler of the ‘kings of the earth’ whether they acknowledge it or not, and overrules for ultimate good even their worst and most ungodly actions, which they can only do at all by divine permission anyway. 

Clearly it is desirable that everybody, king or not, should personally acknowledge Jesus’ rulership; after all those who don’t accept him as Lord are putting their souls at risk, and that is clearly undesirable.  However I’m not sure that this point is quite as clear-cut as Field seems to suggest; if a person who is a king or other ruler accepts Jesus as Lord, he will in many cases find it at least difficult to both follow Jesus and to be a regular-type worldly ruler.  There is quite a bit to be worked out here.  Following Field’s suggested path is an easy solution at first glance, but has its own problems as we will see!

In the third question the expression, rarely used nowadays, ‘qua kings’ means in this case the idea that the ruler doesn’t just as an individual person acknowledge Jesus’ authority; he also acknowledges it in his office as ruler, and so in the way he rules his subjects.  That is, he becomes an explicitly Christian ruler who rules the state as a Christian state based on a Christian constitution like the one quoted above, to which the subjects are expected to conform.  

The logic of these three questions seems impeccable; but it is actually severely flawed.  In the first place, it overlooks some issues about what is really desirable and really practical given the purpose, origin, nature and stuff of the human person and given the purpose, origin, nature and stuff of human government.  And in the second place and even more importantly, the New Testament doesn’t teach this Christian country solution at all, but proposes a very different way to bring people to acknowledge that “the triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is the one true living God and He is the maker, ruler redeemer and judge of the world.  The Bible is his infallible and altogether authoritative Word.  Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is King of kings and Lord of lords and has all authority in heaven and on earth”.

Thing is, the only power that can make people Christians is the power of God himself.  Human power, be it king, emperor, president, or dictator, cannot achieve spiritual rebirth; the biggest army can’t make people Christian – not even with the threat of nukes – nor can threats of torture, or for that matter offers of worldly advantage for those who profess faith.  The most that such human power can achieve is a superficial conformity, an external acting out of Christian profession and rituals, from either fear or other worldly motives.  To compare it to education, it’s fairly straightforward to make and enforce the rule that all pupils must wear their school ties; but it needs a lot more than such rules and external conformity for children to actually learn their lessons, let alone learn willingly and joyfully!   

And part of the trouble is that the superficial conformity imposed in the ‘confessional state’ can actually work against people truly coming to faith.  It is all too easy for the status of ‘Christian country’ to be taken for granted so that everyone just assumes they are Christian, and they don’t see the need to be born again and truly personally reconciled to God; as Wesley found out, even bishops can fall into the error of thinking that preaching of the new birth is just unnecessary because ‘England has been a Christian country for centuries’.  Infant baptism and the idea of a magical ‘Christ-ening’ thereby can reinforce such assumptions.  At the other end those who realise the basic falseness of the situation may be put off faith altogether; they may continue external conformity through fear or desire for a quiet life, but again superficial conformity is all it will be.  In other cases this underlying dissatisfaction may eventually lead to open atheism and rebellion against the faith and the power structure of the state that upholds it.  Others will conform through fear of consequences, or hypocritically for the worldly advantages of it.  Desirable as it is for people to acknowledge Jesus as Lord, it is undesirable for that to be muddied by these false situations. 

Also important – the Church is supposed to be the fellowship of believers; but how real can that be when there are lots of people formally in the state church, even at ministry level, who haven’t been born again but are only conforming because the state is a ‘confessional Christian state’, people who are ministers because it’s a profitable and respected career?  OK, even the best church on earth will probably have a few hypocrites or other not-quite-Christians, but in a state privileged church those may be the majority, whereas when there is no special social benefit to a profession of faith it is much more likely that church attenders will be sincere.  Of course if the state actually compels church-going this situation will be even worse.  It is hypothetically possible to imagine a formally ‘Christian country’ that doesn’t contain a single true born-again Christian – indeed England got uncomfortably close to that situation just before the Wesleyan revival.

Then there’s an interesting point; Charles I, opposed by Rutherford and the Scots Covenanters as a ‘tyrant’ was not a bloodthirsty evil pagan like Nero, or the likes of Hitler and Stalin.  No, he would have seen himself as a Christian king, indeed a Protestant king; as far as I can discover, he too would have quite happily adopted Field’s suggested ‘first paragraph of the constitution’ as the position of the state, and would have given a rousing ‘Yes!’ in response to all three of Field’s questions.  He would have seen himself as a king, ‘qua king’, publicly confessing Christ as his ruler, and aiming in his rule to confess the triune God, recognise Jesus as Lord, and live with the Word of God as his supreme authority.  The only problem was that he wasn’t supporting the exact flavour of Christianity favoured by Rutherford and the Covenanter party, but was seeking to suppress their version – basically he saw himself as doing the will of God and the opponents as the tyrants!  Rutherford, it should be pointed out, actually wrote a book against the ‘pretended’ liberty of conscience and probably would have imposed a narrower version of the faith than Charles (though I grant slightly more biblical)….

One thing you can be sure of about the nature and stuff of humans, and so of their governments – “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God”, and even those who have become Christians face a lifetime of temptation and occasionally getting it wrong.  You simply can’t guarantee that the ruler will get Christian things right; you can’t guarantee that he will actually be the Christian he professes to be, let alone be himself a competent theologian.  You can’t guarantee that about the ruler’s advisers, and in the superficial conformity of the ‘confessional state’, you also can’t even guarantee that about church leaders.  What you can be pretty sure of is that the rulers of state and state church will be subject to the temptations of worldly power and also the spiritual temptations from believing that God is on their side in what they do, and that they are therefore entitled to use their powers to impose conformity on others – partly by bribes and influence offering benefits to those who conform, but ultimately by the state force of police and army.  And others who have the same kind of belief in state religion, but disagree with the particular ruler – well, whether they are right or wrong where they differ from the ruler’s beliefs, they too will think it’s all right to resist by force in order to impose their better version of the Christian state, to ‘take up arms against the tyrant’ as Field puts it.

In simple terms, the ‘Christian state’ though aiming at unity, is all too likely to lead to war and division between Christians in practice, even persecution of Christians by other Christians using the power of the state[i].  This started even in the time of Constantine, with the tragedy of the Donatist rebellion – classic case, as in modern Ulster, of both sides really being wrong, though as an Anabaptist I think the Donatists came out marginally better when they eventually challenged the state church by asking “Quid est imperator cum ecclesiae?” – in modern terms “since when is the Church the Emperor’s business?”  Being ‘Christian’ led to religious wars between and within nations; but it also didn’t stop ‘Christian’ nations warring against each other for the other traditional reasons of human greed, pride, etc. yet claiming often to do it in God’s name.  The claims on all sides in the First World War to have God on their side in the carnage was arguably a major cause of modern disillusionment with Christianity and ironically the decline of ‘Christendom’. 

And just there is the beginning of an argument why this whole approach is wrong in Christian terms; because Paul, for example, clearly said (II Corinthians 10; 3) “…we do not war with carnal weapons.  For the weapons of our warfare are not physical…”  And Jesus said his kingdom is not of this world, and ordered Peter to put up his sword, and Paul clearly said in Romans (and Peter in a parallel passage in I Peter) that Christians are not to rebel against the state authorities, even when in Paul’s and Peter’s day the ‘authorities’ meant Nero himself.   Yet neither the establishment nor defence of the ‘Christian state’ is practical without those ‘carnal weapons’!  Just from that text alone Field’s thesis seems to be unravelling….

I commented above that ‘the New Testament doesn’t teach this Christian country solution at all’.  Field’s lecture/paper/essay has just over 30 pages expounding his Christian confessional state – and yet offers very little biblical evidence.  It’s all logical argument and assumptions.  Now there is truth behind some of these assumptions, even biblical truth.  But as the saying has it, ‘assume’ makes an ‘ass’ out of ‘u’ and ‘me’; does the actual teaching of the NT about state and church match the assumptions in this case?

Specifically it is very obviously true that in preparing the first advent of Jesus, his coming into the world to make atonement for our sins, God used the nation of Israel and did indeed set it up as a ‘confessional state’.  It is an easy assumption that after Jesus came, the same pattern would continue, of God’s people manifesting in yet more earthly religious nations under earthly religious rulers, but Christian/Messianic rather than Jewish. 

It is also true that ultimately Jesus will be recognised as king of kings and Lord of lords – and ultimately every knee will indeed bow to him.  Again, it’s an easy assumption that God wants this to be realised in the here and now with Christian kings ensuring that their subjects bow the knee.

But if so, the New Testament is strikingly silent about these ‘obvious’ ideas, these easy assumptions.  If you check out doctrinal standards and statements of faith like the Anglican 39 Articles or the Westminster Confession, you’ll find that they don’t offer many ‘proof texts’ for the establishment/Christian country’ position, and most of what they do offer are Old Testament generalities, not the specific instructions of the NT for the Church.   Furthermore on close examination the texts generally don’t actually prove the Christian country idea; more a case of you can interpret them in line with that position if you already hold it for other reasons – which reasons don’t seem to be found in the NT!  I’d also suggest that if you check such texts out for yourself you’ll probably agree with me that they’re being, shall we say, stretched a bit; and that they can also be interpreted comfortably in line with the anti-establishment position, and in many cases more so!  In more recent times many Anglicans and other ‘Christian country’ types seem to have given up the idea that there is NT proof; for example, I’ve just been taking part in an online discussion forum in which a few of the participants seemed to think the Bible didn’t express an opinion either way.  Again a few years ago I found an essay from well-known Anglican evangelical JI Packer including the following (heavily but I hope fairly edited to isolate ‘establishment’ from four other issues in a long passage)….

“….one finds that the main theological issues that have divided Protestants who hold to sola Scriptura have been… (4) how the churches should be related to the state – the issue in debates about establishment throughout the world since the seventeenth century

What are we to say to these matters of debate?    … The fourth debate reflected the presupposition that Scripture must legislate on the issue in question, even though no biblical author addresses himself to (it).” 

I think Packer is wrong here; he is right in that no biblical author positively teaches the establishment of the Christian church, but wrong in that they do address the issue – to present a positive alternative view.  It is both surprising and sad that Packer, normally so acute, should have failed to notice this. 

What the New Testament positively teaches?  I’m only giving an outline here – and at that a sketchy one; for more details and (so far just the beginnings of) biblical exposition see various other posts on this blog and especially the ‘But Seriously’ strand which deals with this topic .

Starting with Jesus’ disciples, God has been calling people out from the nations of the world, not to the forced and grudging superficial conformity of an institutional state ‘church’, but to a loving relationship with Jesus based on a living faith, and also a loving relationship with others who have heard and followed Jesus’ call.  When the state and its coercive power isn’t involved, those who hear and freely follow that call join God’s real holy nation on earth, the Church itself, the worldwide community of their fellow-believers.  In turn by the power of God’s Word and Spirit these voluntary believers call others to repent and believe, and to worship God freely ‘in spirit and truth’, not just turn up to go through the motions of worship because the law says so or because they are offered worldly benefits to conform outwardly[ii].

Christians live in the state – even the state which is their native land – as ‘resident aliens’ whose primary citizenship is the kingdom of heaven.  To be sure they respect the state they live in, and they are ‘subject to the authorities’ as both Peter and Paul say; but in the last resort if there is conflict between the demands of state and kingdom of heaven, Christians will ‘obey God rather than man’.  Contrary to Field’s and Rutherford’s suggestion this disobedience does not lead to ‘taking up arms against the tyrant’, instead Christians follow the example of Paul, Peter, and indeed Jesus himself by submitting to the state’s punishment even though that punishment is ultimately unjust.  Christians do not need worldly power, Christendom as a ‘kingdom of this world’, to advance God’s agenda of true reconciliation between God and man; on the contrary worldly power can compromise God’s work.

 OK, I too think those two paragraphs are sketchy; but I want you to go back to the New Testament itself and check it out.  Over and over the NT speaks against worldly power and merely physical weapons, and in favour of that worldwide spiritual unity of Christians that the state is powerless to bring about, a church of those ‘called out’ from the world and ‘gathered together’ by God as Jesus’ disciples and friends.  (The Greek word for ‘Church’, ekklesia, combines those two ideas of ‘called’ and ‘gathered’)

Jesus’ kingdom is ‘not of this world’; we must resist people like Field and Rutherford who can’t see beyond the superficial conformity of state religion.


[i] There are also issues of all kinds between Christian states and states committed to other kinds of religion, particularly Islam at present, and often those issues are adverse to the spread of the gospel. For this post I’m not going there – this is already one of my longest essays – but hopefully you’ll see some of those aspects in other future posts.

[ii] These days with freedom of religion in most western countries even where there still is a state religion, we probably see most church members being such voluntary believers, in whatever denomination.  But in a country so long formally Christian, and still offering some respect and social status to churchgoers, there is still a confusing legacy of nominal Christianity for worldly and social reasons, not only in the state churches but among non-conformists as well.  Worryingly, seemingly in reaction to the challenge of Islam, I’m seeing increasing numbers of people who seem to have little understanding of biblical faith and whose profession of Christianity seems to be more an assertion of British/English national identity against ‘immigrants’.  This is particularly problematic when you realise that according to the New Testament Christianity is meant to be very anti-racist, a faith where ‘in Christ’ racial differences do not matter.   Another place where the notion of a ‘Christian country’ distorts Christianity itself….