Put No Confidence in Princes!

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When considering politics, Christians should remember God’s clear command: “Put not your trust in princes” (Psalm 146:3). Or even sing this verse in its metrical translation, and sing it loudly: “PUT NO CONFIDENCE IN PRINCES!”

The Legitimacy of the State

This is not to deny the importance of the political sphere. With authority established by God, the state acts as “an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:4). By making laws and governing the civic sphere, the state not only shapes the material circumstances of a people, it also exercises a moral and religious influence on that people, often for the good.

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There are abundant blessings when a state is grounded in the law of God and guided by the gospel of Christ. The Church must always be ready to share God’s revelation with any “king” who would “be wise” (Psalm 2:11). We must continue to warn the princes of this world to “kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way” (Psalm 2:12). And genuine love of neighbor leads us to share the good news of the Son, that “blessed are all who take refuge in him” (Psalm 2:13). In a democracy, Christians should speak about these things, and vote for them.

But the sword of the state cuts both ways, for good and for ill. When the civil law is far removed from the law of God, Christians feel a tension between their own convictions and their social condition. This tension between Church and state is nothing new. Recall that Christianity first emerged in the context of the Roman Empire, an explicitly polytheistic state, whose legal and moral principles stood in stark contrast to God’s law and the teachings of Christ. After all, it was the Romans who crucified Christ!

Even in this Roman context, the leaders of the Church called for obedience to the state. Peter instructs the church to “be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him” (1 Peter 2:13-14). Paul teaches that “every person be subject to the governing authorities” (Romans 13:1). Jesus himself told his disciples to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” (Matthew 22:21).

The Limitations of the State

The call to political obedience is not absolute, however. Jesus says not only to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,” but also “to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21). Thus, in the context of the Roman Empire, early Christians would not give to the gods the worship that belonged only to the Lord. Recognizing this, the Roman governor Pliny devised a test to see if an accused person was really a Christian, as described in his letter to Emperor Trajan from 112 AD, requiring that they:

“invoked the gods in words dictated by me, offered prayer with incense and wine to your image, which I had ordered to be brought for this purpose together with statues of the gods, and also cursed Christ – none of which those who are really Christians can, it is said, be forced to do.”

Moreover, Anglican history provides multiple examples of the limitations of state power over the Church, even in the context of an established, national church. The most striking case is that of Thomas Cranmer, the 16th century Archbishop of Canterbury. For most of his career, Cranmer accepted the authority of the British Monarch in both ecclesiastical and political matters. Thus, under Henry VIII, Cranmer was only able to advance his Reformed principles to a limited degree. It was not until Henry died, and his son Edward took the throne, that Cranmer could publish the Book of Common Prayer.

When Edward died, Cranmer faced a fundamental test of his loyalty to the state. Queen Mary came to the throne, and quickly stamped out the English Reformation, by burning Bibles, Books of Common Prayer, and the Reformers who had promulgated these texts. Cranmer’s life was temporarily spared in the hope that he would recant. Mary’s clergy reminded Cranmer of his life-long commitment to the authority of the crown. If Cranmer was consistent in this principle, they argued, he must now revert to Roman Catholicism out of obedience to the state.

At first, Cranmer agreed, and signed multiple recantations, each going further in refuting the principles of the Reform. Finally, Cranmer was taken to the University Church in Oxford, to give a sermon in which he would publicly affirm his recantations. Cranmer’s sermon text was submitted in advance, officially approved, and later published. But in the pulpit, Cranmer departed from his approved text, taking back his recantations, and returning to the gospel. He was pulled down from the pulpit, dragged out of the church, and immediately burned at the stake. He died with immense dignity and courage, putting his right hand in the flame first, to punish it for signing the recantations. In the end, Cranmer served the gospel over the state. He died a traitor to Queen Mary, but a martyr for Christ.

The Light of the World (Is Not The State)

Cranmer’s death demonstrates that the state does not have ultimate power over the Church or the conscience of the Christian. True, the state wields the sword with the power of life and death. And to secular sensibilities, this may seem to be the ultimate power. Certainly it seemed that the state was snuffing out Cranmer’s light. But Christians know that the true light cannot be put out. Christians know that crucifixion is not the end.

We worship a resurrected Lord, one who demonstrates in his own body the triumph of life over death. Jesus Christ thereby relativizes, for all time, the power of human princes. For in light of the resurrection, the state no longer has ultimate power. As Jesus teaches, we ought “not be afraid of those who can kill the body, but who cannot kill the soul” (Matthew 10:28). Rather, we are to fear God, to repent of our sins, to believe the gospel, to receive God’s grace, to grow in holiness, to worship the Lord, to serve our neighbor. In this way we radiate the light of the world.

Jesus said, concerning himself, “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12). He also said, concerning the Church, “You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14). In other words, Jesus gives himself to the Church, both commissioning us and promising to remain with us, that we might carry his light. In blessed circumstances, this light illumines the state. But the state is not the light, nor should we expect it to be.

We put no confidence in princes, because our confidence is in the Prince of Peace, the Son of God, the crucified and resurrected Lord, Jesus Christ.

Published on

November 10, 2022

Author

Peter Johnston

The Ven. Dr. Peter Johnston is the Ministry President of Anglican Compass. He is a priest and archdeacon in the Anglican Diocese of All Nations and the rector of Trinity Lafayette. He lives with his wife, Carla, and their seven children near Lafayette, Louisiana.

View more from Peter Johnston

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