The Bahnsen Option

Is the visible church part of the temporal order? The spirituality-of-the-church answer would suggest that because the church is inherently a spiritual institution with spiritual means for spiritual ends, then it is not part of the authority in charge of temporal affairs.

But if you are John Calvin and are a civil servant by virtue of being one of Geneva’s (company) pastors, your spirituality-of-the-church conviction translates into a spiritual Constantinianism. That is, the church, though spiritual, is part of the established political order.

I guess this is what Jake Meador is trying to identify when he writes:

The reformed believe that God presently rules over a spiritual kingdom through his lordship over the hearts of his people. But there is also a second kingdom, sometimes called a visible kingdom and sometimes a temporal kingdom. To this kingdom belongs the many social institutions that define daily life—family, local economies, government, and, according to Calvin, the visible, institutional church as well. Not only that, the institutional church is not the pure, sectioned-off community only for the true believers. It is a community of wheat and tares, an institution whose chief concern is not with marking out the outer boundaries of the church but with consistently and clearly articulating its center through the preaching of the Gospel and administration of the sacraments.

Does this mean, though, that Meador believes (or advocates) an established church? Or is he trying to say that churches are simply part of associational life in civil society — that broad range of institutions that lives and moves and has its being between citizens and government?

If he wants to avoid the Bahnsen Option (read theonomy), he should try to be more precise about institutions — involuntary (federal, state, local), voluntary, educational, economic, familial — and clearer about the differences between Calvin’s Geneva and modern Calvinists’ political liberalism (read separation of church and state). Otherwise, simply waving the wand of the temporal kingdom over such diverse spheres as business, families, churches, and city councils could land you in some sort of theocratic arrangement where the Lordship of Christ implies Christians “running everything.”

I suspect that Meador is only reflecting the imprecision that generally afflicts neo-Calvinists and transformationalists. After all, he insists that to avoid the Benedict Option we need an ecclesiology that produces a rationale for Christians to serve the common good:

A reformed ecclesiology provides a basis for that way of thinking. It helps the individual Christian understand how they are both a child of the church and a member of the broader commonwealth—and that those two things do not exist in competition with one another. Other ecclesiologies, which see the visible church as some sort of special institution existing in some cordoned off reality removed from all other institutions, have a far harder time providing a rationale for that sort of work in the broader commonwealth.

Well, sometimes they are at odds. Ask Jesus or the apostles when faced with either obeying God or (the) man.

What Meador and other expansive Reformed types may want to consider is that a narrow view of the church and its activities is precisely the best rationale for Christians to engage in all walks of life. The spirituality of the church was the Benedict Option before the Benedict Option. If the church’s footprint is big, then the church has to do everything — like the ministry of dog catching and garbage collecting. But if the church’s scope is spiritual — word, sacraments, prayer, discipline — then Christians have six days of the week for all sorts of legitimate work, and lots of freedom to form any number of organizations for pursuing such activity. None of which, by the way, advances the kingdom of grace (WSC 102).

15 thoughts on “The Bahnsen Option

  1. The narrow view of the Church I’ve seen presented here sometimes comes with too narrow a definition of sin.

    Let’s face it, 2Kers and transformationalists have lessons to teach each other. And when we deny that, we start to engage in a theological tribalism.


  2. I believe Newbigin has something to say on this: “(The local church) will be a community of truth. …. A Christian congregation is a community in which, through the constant remembering and rehearsing of the true story of human nature and destiny, an attitude of healthy skepticism can be sustained, a skepticism which enables one to take part in the life of society without being bemused and deluded by its own beliefs about itself. …. it will be a community where men and women are prepared for and sustained in the exercise of the priesthood in the world. … (!!!) It is in the context of secular affairs that the mighty power released into the world through the work of Christ is to be manifested. (!!!) The Church gathers every Sunday, the day of resurrection and of Pentecost, to renew its participation in Christ’s priesthood. But the exercise of this priesthood is not within the walls of the Church, but in the daily business of the world. It is only in this way that the public life of the world, its accepted habits and assumptions, can be challenged by the gospel and brought under the searching light of truth as it has been revealed in Jesus.” He goes on to lay out how such a church would be strategically oriented (The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, p. 228ff). I fear that positions which essentially ground Christian vocation in the external, secular world, under the heading of the “second Kingdom of Christ” and root its fundamental operations to that which Christians have in common with Non-Christians (i.e. natural law and reason) are essentially building a semi-gnostic Christianity that divorces the material world from the spiritual in a manner that is never advocated in either the Old or the New Testaments.


  3. Arch Van Devender, what NT do you read?

    Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. 17 For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, 18 as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.


  4. D.G.,
    You’ve assumed that corporate salvation is a necessary condition for corporate to exist. However, you have neither shown the implication from the scriptures nor have you answered questions about why when groups perform what is sinful actions for individuals, they are not committing group sin.

    Again, when Nazi Germany invaded its neighbors like Poland, did Germany do what was immoral? Did Germany sin then?

    Along with you r theology saying that Germany did not do what was immoral and sinned when it invaded its neighbors, you, using your theological model, claim that my view of salvation is too narrow. Besides not answering questions, do you see your problem yet?


  5. Curt, you’re doing your impersonation of Mermaid. The issue is not mine. It’s yours. You bemoan corporate sin. I asked if there is redemption for Germany on your scheme. chirp chirp chirp chirp


  6. D.G.,
    You are simply tryng to distract from the question. You have deductively arrived at the conclusion that there can be no national sin. But it would seem that what we can conclude deductively, can be verified inductively. I am simply asking a yes or no question, did Germany sin and do what was immoral when it invaded its neighbors? If your deductively theology is correct, you should have no problem answering the question


  7. Curt, I oppose what Germany did but not on your simplistic grounds.

    I am still wondering why you proclaim national sin but have no national gospel.


  8. Everytime the church has enforced orthodoxy and orthopraxy tru civil government it produced evil. Even the Reformers werent exempt from this. The very thing Luther fought for, freedom from anyone binding man’s conscience except God alone. Jesus was clear, my kingdom is not of this world. America, the first composite society, and is blessed vecause of it. K


  9. What exactly, then, shall the civil government of the U.S. use as the basis of law if a “Separation” dichotomy is forced on a legal system originally founded on Christian presuppositions?
    Would we suppose that people in favor of such a spiritual vacuum in legal doctrine will be friendly to Christians? We have the sure witness of recent bloody history to give correction to such errors. Revolutionary France, The Bolshevik Russian revolution, its stepchildren in China, Cuba, Vietnam, and other SE Asian countries, and the German disaster of 1933-1945 give ample millions of dead bodies as evidence to the consequences, as Catholic, Orthodox, Evangelicals and Jews were by “law” to be suppressed. Note that all those European countries mentioned uprooted whatever branch of Christianity held a consensus, and in new law and practice made adherents persona non grata. So we may draw a conclusion that the same will happen here.

    1833, Harvard’s Joseph Story, in his Commentaries on the Constitution gives this view:
    “The promulgation of the great doctrines of religion; the being, and attributes, and providence of one Almighty God; the responsibility to him for all our actions, founded upon moral freedom and accountability; a future state of rewards and punishments; the cultivation of all the personal, social, and benevolent virtues; — these never can be a matter of indifference in any well ordered community.

    It is, indeed, difficult to conceive, how any civilized society can well exist without them.

    And at all events, it is impossible for those, who believe in the truth of Christianity, as a divine revelation, to doubt, that it is the especial duty of government to foster, and encourage it among all the citizens and subjects. This is a point wholly distinct from that of the right of private judgment in matters of religion, and of the freedom of public worship according to the dictates of one’s own conscience.”

    Any comments?


  10. Russell, you beg the question. Story’s God and “nature’s” God is not exactly the God of Scripture. Also, if you’re worried about bloody history, you should worry about the religious certainty that allowed Americans to kill each other in the Civil War.


  11. D.G.,
    It’s nice of you that you oppose Germany’s iinvaions. But do you oppose them simply because they were unwise or because they were immoral?

    Also, you have never proved that national salvation is necessary for national sin to exist. And, again, while you have deductively ruled out national sin, the problem of acts like Germany’s challenges your reasoning. For something to be true, there can be no counterexamples disproving it. And that is the problem all of Reformed Christians have. We tend to use deduction too many times in determining reality that we lose credibility when what we say is challenged by facts on the ground.


  12. Curt, Germany violated international law. That’s enough for me. But if you want to get all holy about it, ratchet up.

    I’m not the one trying to prove or disprove national sin. All I’m showing is that you’ve got no remedy for national sin. For you, it’s all guilt, death and judgment.

    Have a nice day.


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