The American Declaration – An Introduction and Defense
We live in an age of widespread confusion concerning the roles of church and state.
Most Americans believe, correctly, that church and state have distinct roles to play in society. But what are those roles? Who defines them? How binding are those roles, and how inflexible are the boundaries that separate them?
And – perhaps the most pressing question for today – how should Christians respond when the state oversteps its bounds and intrudes into the proper sphere of the church?
In order to respond clearly to such questions among Canadian Christians, a small group of Christian leaders gathered in Canada’s Niagara region in the fall of 2020 to create a declaration that would clarify the roles of church and state. Their goal was to unite the church, across denominational lines, through a declaration that would accurately express the Biblical and legal standing of the church with regard to the state in Canada. By publicly clarifying the church’s standing, these believers sought to better preserve the liberty of Christians across Canada.
At a time that has seen the introduction of significant worship restrictions justified by the spread of the Covid-19 virus, the imposition of speech restrictions as safeguards against insurrection, the nullification of laws designed to protect freedom of religion and freedom of conscience, and the enshrinement of legal protections regarding aberrant sexual and gender choices, The Niagara Declaration arose as a much-needed statement for the churches in Canada.
A similar unifying and clarifying statement is no less necessary for Christians who crave continued religious freedom in the states south of Canada.
To that end, and with the gracious permission of the primary authors of The Niagara Declaration, we have created The American Declaration to clarify for churches in the United States the rights, duties, freedoms, and responsibilities which God has given and which our Constitution aims to preserve for the churches in the United States of America.
We encourage leaders of churches and Christian organizations in the United States to carefully read, evaluate, discuss, and sign this statement. Our hope and prayer is that, by means of The American Declaration, our churches may be encouraged and emboldened to use the freedoms we have been given, exercising the calling God has laid upon us to be a light, shining in the darkness of an unbelieving world.
However, it seems crucial that we demonstrate from God’s Word the need for such a declaration. Not infrequently, in recent months, we have heard Christians being chastised by their fellow believers with the admonition that Romans 13 demands absolute submission to the governing authorities. Such admonitions generally allow for exceptions only if the authorities explicitly prohibit the proclamation of the Gospel. Some even go so far as to excuse government restrictions on Gospel preaching, if the reasons seem sufficiently weighty.
That view is both simplistic and dangerous.
To understand the church’s proper response to governmental authority, we need to wrestle with the distinct callings God has given to the church and to the governing authorities.
The church’s calling is threefold. First, we are commanded to worship God. This is a worship that depends both upon the Holy Spirit and upon the truth God has revealed in His Word (John 4:23-24). It’s a worship that focuses on Christ, with the preaching of Christ at its heart (2 Tim. 4:1-2; Rom. 10:11-17), calling believers to gather as the family of God in order to worship Him with confession, prayer, singing, offerings – and, above all, with the faith that transforms hearts and lives (Rom. 12:1-2). Along with worship, the church is called to make disciples of the nations. By witnessing to the Gospel both corporately and privately, by the development of relationships, and by the preaching of God’s Word, we are called to serve as instruments in God’s hand who lead people out of the darkness of unbelief and into the light of faith in Christ. Finally, we are called to bear fruit through our good works, thereby revealing the image of God. Christians are commanded to reveal the love, the power, and the holiness of Christ through our works, both in our mutual service and in our individual lives. That involves comforting those who are in need, like widows and orphans (James 1:27); giving help to those who suffer from physical needs (Matt. 25:31-46); ministering in a Christ-like way toward the people in our life (Rom. 12:9-21); and doing our best to make God known, both in Word and deed, that men might be led to glorify God (Matt. 5:13-16).
Three tasks: worship, make disciples, and reveal the character of God through our lives. But those three tasks include far more than any one of us can hope to accomplish in this life!
The governing authorities, on the other hand, are given a relatively simple and narrowly circumscribed calling by God. Above all, they are to exercise God’s wrath against those who do evil (Rom. 13:1-4). God has given the authorities both physical power and legitimate authority to enable them to restrain the evil that comes naturally to sinful people. In doing this, those who exercise authority are commanded to act with upright judgment, upholding true justice as servants of God (Psalm 82). Those who exercise their authority unjustly will be held accountable for their sin (cf. Psalm 109); and He has supplied His Word to ensure that they understand what justice and uprightness are (Deut. 17:18-20; 2 Tim. 3:16-17). And the primary purpose for his peace-keeping exercise of authority is that the people of God may lead a peaceful and quiet life, serving God and spreading the Gospel for mankind’s good and for God’s glory (1 Tim. 2:1-3).
In short, God designed the governing authorities of this world – even those rooted in false religion – to serve and protect the Kingdom of God. And the church, as the manifestation of God’s Kingdom, is called to support, encourage, and instruct the governing authorities.
In the United States, governing authority is not entrusted to one person. The federal government comprises three branches – legislative to make the laws, executive to enforce the laws, and judicial to address alleged violations of the law. (Most state governments are arranged in a similar pattern.) The men and women who occupy those offices are not absolute rulers. They derive their authority to govern from the U.S. Constitution – a document designed to define and limit the authority of the government. Our founding fathers understood the natural depravity of man and recognized how tempting it would be for the authorities to amass to themselves extensive, even absolute, power. Therefore the Constitution and its amendments define the limits of the authority entrusted to those who govern.
Laws which transgress those Constitutional boundaries are illegitimate. Rather than a proper exercise of authority that binds the citizens, unconstitutional laws and orders are illicit – exercises of tyranny that need to be resisted. Likewise, laws which promote what is evil, as defined by God’s Word – the only infallible standard of truth – are illegitimate commands, the enforcement of which constitutes ungodly tyranny.
But that doesn’t mean individual citizens have the right to rebel against those tyrannical rulers. God has entrusted authority in varying measures, creating “lesser magistrates” as well as “greater magistrates.” When a tyrannical ruler imposes unconstitutional or evil (and therefore illegitimate) orders, it is the right of a Christian citizen to disobey that illegitimate order – recognizing, as he does so, that the penalty for disobedience may be painful (as the apostles discovered when disobeying the order of the Sanhedrin, Acts 5:14-18). However, it is the calling of lesser magistrates to actively oppose the illegitimate order, such as Daniel did in publicly praying to the true God when this was outlawed (Daniel 6). It was this principle that justified the actions of the governing authorities of the American colonies in leading the people against the tyranny of the English king, thereby precipitating the American War for Independence. The men who signed the Declaration of Independence were acting as those entrusted with governing authority over the citizens of the colonies, “an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (Rom. 13:4). In this case, the “wrongdoer” who had earned God’s wrath was the king with his illicit tyranny.
What does that mean for the church today, when one who serves as a governing authority seeks to interfere with the church’s worship, preaching, proselytization, or other matters properly entrusted by God to the church? It means that God’s people have a calling with several aspects.
First, we are called to recognize that our foremost duty is to obey God, even when men of high rank may seek to undermine or prohibit that calling (Acts 4:19-20; 5:29). Thus, the Christians in the early post-Apostolic era refused Rome’s requirement that all men confess the divinity of Caesar. Thus, too, the Christians of Reformation-era Europe gathered to worship and distributed Bibles contrary to the commands of their kings. These acts of disobedience were good and proper, as they constituted obedience to God, despite the edicts of men.
Second, we must strive to serve as the conscience of the magistrate. In Exodus 18, Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, wisely advised God’s prophet to appoint able and godly men to judge the people, consulting the prophet in great matters – i.e., those that would set significant precedent. In other words, the church was called to advise the state concerning the proper path to be taken. In similar manner, when David went sinfully astray concerning Bathsheba and her slain husband Uriah, the prophet Nathan came and rebuked the king for his tyrannical abuse of power. Thus we see that the church is called to rebuke those authorities who abuse their power, while advising and encouraging those who have authority to oppose the tyrants, even if their authority is of a “lesser station” (e.g., county sheriffs exercising authority to nullify a governor’s unconstitutional executive orders). In this way, the church enables the governing authorities to understand the good they are to defend and the evil they are to oppose.
Third, God’s people must take great pains – especially when acting institutionally as the church – to act in a Godly and upright manner. When Paul asserted his rights as a citizen in Philippi, he spoke forcefully but respectfully – and then he heeded the subsequent request of the city magistrates (Acts 16:36-40). Consider, too, the character of Paul’s behavior when arrested in Jerusalem, as described in Acts 22-23. While not hesitating to exercise his rights as a citizen, neither did Paul speak or act disrespectfully. Always God’s people must remember our calling to be salt and light (Matt. 5:13-16) as we act in the sight of a watching world!
Finally, as much as possible, the people of God should strive to act in unity. There are many distinctives that separate the churches of America today, from their denominational history, to differing practices with the sacraments, to distinct theological emphases. But what unites us is far greater: we are one body filled with one Spirit, called to the one hope of Christ; “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:4-6).
That we might honor God as we strive to serve Him, we should strive to walk in agreement with one another (Amos 3:3). That means we need to consider these matters of church and state carefully and prayerfully, privately seeking to understand together what God’s Word says – and then uniting our hearts in the truth He has taught us.
It is our prayer that this American Declaration will assist the churches of Christ in walking together, presenting the God-glorifying witness of the communion of the saints being unified by the wisdom of the one, true, undoubted Word of God.
To Him be all the glory!