Collision between the Spiritual and Civil Laws on Marriage

James Bannerman discusses the relationship between the church and the state, arguing that if they are not cooperating with each other, even if the state attempts neutrality toward religion, the result would be harmful for both institutions. A powerful example he uses is marriage. Note how profound is his case, though writing in 1868. His insight may be helpful for the church’s thinking about either the redefining of marriage stateside or the efforts to legalize no-fault divorce in the Philippines.

III. In the third place, I would refer to the law of marriage as another of those cases which illustrate the general position, that the civil and religious elements are so connected together in human society, that where they do not meet and unite in friendship and mutual co-operation, they must inevitably tend to the serious or fatal injury of one or the other.

Marriage is one of those institutions which, although not of grace but of nature, is yet adopted into the system of Christianity, and regulated by the rules which Christianity has laid down. The law of marriage has its origin in nature, and not in revelation; and yet the duties and rights connected with it, together with their exact nature and limits, are matters with which revelation deals. In so far as these involve moral or religious duties, we are to seek in the Bible for the code of law by which they are prescribed and determined. But marriage is, in another sense, a civil matter, coming under the province of the ordinary magistrate, and necessarily requiring to be dealt with in the way of civil enactment. There are civil rights intimately connected with it, in such a manner that the state cannot avoid the duty of legislating in regard to it, and regulating them by positive statutes and rules. In short, the institution of marriage is to be viewed in two lights,—either as a moral observance, falling to be regulated by the law of Scripture, or as a civil observance, falling to be regulated by the law of the state. And with this twofold character which it sustains, and this twofold legislation to which in every civilised and constituted society professing Christianity it is subjected, how, it may be asked, is a collision between the spiritual and the civil enactments on the subject—fraught, as it inevitably would be, with deadly consequence to the peace, if not the existence, of human society—to be avoided or prevented? If the state recognise the Bible as the Word of God, and the law of the Bible as the law of God, then it will take that law as the guiding principle for its own legislation, and make the enactments of the magistrate in regard to marriage coincident with the enactments of Scripture. But if the state do not recognise the Bible as the Word of God, there can be no security that its regulations shall not come into conflict with the regulations of Scripture as regards the institution of marriage, in such a manner as to put in peril not only the peace and purity of domestic life, but also through these the highest and holiest interests of human society. The ordinance of the family lies at the very foundation of civil society. It is the unit of combination around which the wider and more public relations of civil life associate themselves. Destroy or unhinge the domestic ordinances, unloose or unsettle the family bond, and no tie will be left holy enough or strong enough to bind up the broken and disjointed elements of human life. And yet, unless there be on the part of the state a distinct acknowledgment of the Word of God as the law to which its own laws must be conformed, there can be no security against the danger of the enactments of civil society on this vital point running counter to the appointment of God. The degrees of relationship or consanguinity within which marriage is valid or invalid,—the terms on which it is to be contracted or dissolved,—the rights which it confers on children, and the claims of succession,—all these are questions that fall to be determined both by the law of Scripture and the laws of the state, and any difference or conflict in regard to which must tend to unsettle the very foundation of human society. From the very nature and necessity of the case, if the state is not here at one with religion, it must be a difference deeply, if not fundamentally, injurious to the one or the other.

—James Bannerman, The Church of Christ (1868) loc. 2361-2393

Note especially that if the state does not align marriage law with the law of Scripture, there can be no security for marriage. Consequently, human life as we know it is in danger. Bannerman asserts, back in 1868, that the very foundation of human society will be destabilized. And that is exactly what we see happening before our eyes, today. The church has seen this coming, and yet it’s coming true.

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5 Senses of Church

What are the different meanings of the word “Church” in the New Testament? You are probably thinking invisible and visible. And you would be right. But are there more than just these two meanings? I thought for a long time there were only these two. Church either means the elect of all times and places, which only God knows, or those who are outwardly united to other believers in the visible church.

However, James Bannerman in The Church of Christ observes five uses of the word “church” in the New Testament:

I. The word Church signifies the whole body of the faithful, whether in heaven or on earth, who have been or shall be spiritually united to Christ as their Saviour.

—loc. 279

That’s easy. The universal, invisible church. I think any Protestant would affirm this one right away.

II. The term Church is made use of in Scripture to denote the whole body throughout the world of those that outwardly profess the faith of Christ.

—loc. 309

This is visible. Those who outwardly profess faith, in all places. These are those “externally connected with Christ”, known by the world by their profession of faith and by the practice of the ordinances Christ has given for worship.

III. The term Church is frequently employed in Scripture to denote the body of believers in any particular place, associated together in the worship of God.

—loc. 354

Bannerman notes that Scripture speaks of congregations as churches even before the ordination of officers and establishment of church government (Acts 14:23).

IV. The word Church is applied in the New Testament to a number of congregations associated together under a common government.

—loc. 369

What? Church is not just used of one congregation, but for multiple congregations “connected together under one common ecclesiastical arrangement.” Don’t think so? Recall the church at Jerusalem: way too big to meet in one location. No building could have contained the thousands of the “church at Jerusalem.” Case closed.

V. The word Church is applied, in the New Testament, to the body of professing believers in any place, as represented by their rulers and office-bearers.

—loc. 394

Representative. Oh yes. “Tell it to the church” (Matthew 18:17). But it doesn’t say “representatives”!, objects the congregationalist. I’ll include Bannerman’s note of historical context:

. . . the command of our Lord is to “tell it to the Church.” In such an injunction our Lord referred to the synagogue Court known and established among the Jews, which had its elders and officers for the decision of such matters of discipline; and in the expression “the Church,” which He made use of, the Jews who heard Him must have understood the authorized rulers, as distinct from the ruled, to be the parties who were to determine in such controversies.

—loc. 402

Now, not everybody will like the above meanings of church. So, as a bonus, I’ll include two examples Bannerman gives of groups that deny certain meanings:

 the Romanist sets himself in opposition to the first of those meanings which we have found to be attached in Scripture to the term Church. He is prepared to deny altogether, or, if not to deny abstractly, yet practically to set aside, the idea of an invisible Church as the primary and fundamental one, and to substitute that of a visible Church in its stead.
—loc. 424

Didn’t know that, did you? Cultural Protestants and Roman Catholics are probably equally unaware of their contradicting ecclesiologies. No, we are not the same. Roman Catholic theology collapses the body of those spiritually united to Christ into the visible institution of the Roman Catholic church. If you are not in the Roman Catholic church (the visible communion), you are not saved. That’s in the books. Outside the church there is no possibility of salvation.

Bannerman gives another objector:

Or, take another example from the case of the Independents. Independents deny the second of the five meanings which we have found ascribed to the word Church in Scripture. They repudiate altogether the idea of a visible Church, sustaining a real, although external, relation to Christ, and composed of His professing people. . . . In like manner the Independents reject the fourth and fifth meanings of the word Church.

—loc. 435

If Rome is the extreme of visible church only, then the “Independents” represent the opposite extreme of invisible church only. Here, the theoretical (invisible) never becomes concrete (local, particular, visible). Logically then, they would also deny any particulars of ordinances or officers or government, and certainly would reject a multiplicity of congregations sharing the same structure. All those defining characteristics would be relative at best (everyone is free to do what they want), or detrimental at worst. All those details about form, ordinances, officers, government, structure, they just get in the way and are a distraction to real spirituality. This is the anti-institutional error.

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