Calvin acknowledged the need for separation of church and state, but never considered the separation of state and God. Because God is sovereign, He should rule both church and state. However, each has its own God-ordained sphere of influence. This is a reflection of Calvin's belief in God's providence.
Calvin’s model suggests that church and state are distinct entities that serve distinct but complementary aims. The church tends to the spiritual or inner condition of the person; the state handles political or outward things. Each power needs the other. The state needs the church because without the feeding of the soul that the church attends to, there is no basis for public peace. The church needs the state because without the peace, order, and justice civil government imposes, religion cannot thrive.
Calvin identified three components of civil authority:
- The Magistrate – charged with enforcing the laws in order to maintain justice and equity
- The Laws – “…the souls, without which the magistracy cannot stand, even as they themselves have no force apart from the magistracy.” (4.20.14)
- The People – “…with hearts inclined to reverence their rulers, the subjects should prove their obedience toward them, whether by obeying their proclamations, or by paying taxes, or by undertaking public offices and burdens which pertain to the common defense, or by executing any other commands of theirs.” (4.20.23)
What then is my duty as a Christian toward government? Calvin says that I should be thankful for it, recognizing that it is as necessary to my life as “bread, water, sun, and air.” And, respecting the existing political structure, I should make use of and participate in the structures it puts in place (I pay taxes, I make use of the courts – but judiciously), and I should be obedient to its rule. What responsibility does the ruler have? He or she is responsible to God, who is the source of all authority. God will punish unjust rulers, but private citizens cannot take that task on themselves. Under certain constitutions, tyrants can be resisted and overthrown using the proper constitutional means. But in no instance can a Christian go outside the law to resist duly constituted political authority.
While Calvin didn’t generate much controversy charging government with the protection of life and property, he didn’t stop there. “It [civil government] does not, I repeat, look to this only, but also prevents idolatry, sacrilege against God’s name, blasphemies against his truth, and other public offenses against religion from arising and spreading among the people…” (4.20.3)
My question is, should civil authorities be involved in the enforcement of the first four of the Ten Commandments? Do I want this much involvement in secular government without Christian leadership?