Justin Taylor, on his blog, has quoted a very helpful and thoughtful clarifying statement from John Murray on the interplay between the church and politics, but more particularly about how Christians go about doing politics as Christians and also as members of the Church. Murray states,

“To the church is committed the task of proclaiming the whole counsel of God and, therefore, the counsel of God as it bears upon the responsibility of all persons and institutions. While the church is not to discharge the functions of other institutions such as the state and the family, nevertheless it is charged to define what the functions of these institutions are. . . . To put the matter bluntly, the church is not to engage in politics. Its members must do so, but only in their capacity as citizens of the state, not as members of the church.”

—John Murray, “The Relation of Church and State,” in The Collected Writings of John Murray, vol. 1 (Banner of Truth, 1976), 255.

My initial reaction is to agree with little if no qualification. In my opinion, Murray rightly understands that the Church and State are assigned each their respective tasks—the Church, to preach the gospel; the State, to execute justice and order. And, contrary to individuals like John Yoder who would argue that God merely orders the state, but does not ordain it, Murray correctly asserts that the Church plays an important part in proclaiming the function of the State to the State itself. The Church is to stand athwart the sphere of politics and call it to its divine task. Murray’s paragraph is both concise and brilliant.

Here’s the question I have for the thoughtful readers of Mere Orthodoxy: What does it mean for members of the Church to engage in politics, but not for the Church itself to engage in politics. I believe there is no more important distinction to be made in evangelical political engagement than this qualification. Discerning the proper contours of engagement prevents Christians from over-stepping their boundaries or confusing the aim of political gains with the means of Christian proclamation.

It’s Murray’s use of “the Church” which is rather nebulous and raises important questions of ecclesiology. How, especially as Protestants, are we to understand our political actions distinct from our position as members of the Church? If the Church, collectively, is made up of individual believers, does Murray believe  we can atomize our unity only in a voting booth? When Christians enter the voting booth, what should be our primary motive in voting? And, can our motives ever be separated from how we’ve been shaped from within our individual churches? I have my own position, but I’ll save that for later. I do wonder, however, what our fearless leader Matthew Lee Anderson would have to say on the subject.

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Posted by Andrew Walker

Andrew T. Walker is an Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.


  1. I have a question… if the church is one body, how can we engage in something as individuals, but say that ‘the church’ isn’t involved? I don’t cease to belong to the church while I’m voting, or talking about politics. And if the church isn’t supposed to discharge the functions of the family, what about those who don’t have families, or whose families are dysfunctional? I’m interested to know what you think…


  2. Abby,

    No, you don’t cease to belong to the church. But you do not speak *as* the church and *for* the church when you speak politically. And therein lies the difference, I think.


    After a reread of your post, I’m not sure I’m moved by the problem you raise. Doesn’t the distinction lie in the sort of behavior we engage in? So, the church speaks as the church about political issues, but I *act* politically by tossing in my ballot. That speaking/acting distinction has to be preserved for Murray’s quote to make sense, and if it is, then I don’t think the problem of ecclesiology needs to be raised.

    Does that make sense?



  3. so, matt, how do you make the distinction between when you are and aren’t speaking *as* or *for* the church?


  4. Abby,

    Well, I don’t think I ever speak on behalf of the church. I’m not a pastor (though I just went on staff at a church last monday!), but I tend to think that whatever the proclamation of the church is, it comes from the pulpit.

    Or am I letting myself off the hook too easily? : )



  5. For me, I guess, the most difficult issue with the quote is in regarding “define what the functions of these institutions are”. So just how does the church define the functions of human government?


  6. Christopher Benson May 24, 2010 at 6:09 pm

    Andrew: I found your blog post thoughtful. Like you, I am still working out my political theology. I recently interviewed James Davison Hunter (Professor of Religion, Culture and Social Theory at the University of Virginia), author of TO CHANGE THE WORLD: THE IRONY, TRAGEDY, AND POSSIBILITY OF CHRISTIANITY IN THE LATE MODERN WORLD (Oxford, 2010), in the May issue of Christianity. His paradigm for Christian cultural engagement, named “faithful presence,” offers an attractive answer to your bold-faced question.

    We should engage politics with the post-Constantinian posture of faithful presence, which (1) “disentangles the life of the church from the life of America” and (2) “decouples the public from the private.” As Hunter writes, “The ‘political’ is just one way to engage the world and, arguably, not the most effective nor most humane way to do so. Faithful presence, then, is neither coercive nor quietistic. It is fully public, seeking to engage every sphere of the world by enacting a vision of shalom.”


  7. Casey, that’s a great question. Oliver O’Donovan’s *The Ways of Judgment* is a great place to start. It’s difficult reading, but worth the effort.



  8. matt, does he make some type of distinction between earthly or temporal justice versus heavenly or eternal justice? It seems inevitable the discussion goes that direction.

    True justice is in God’s hands and will be dealt with in the Judgment, but there is a degree of judgment and restribution on earth given to secular governments to handle now. Obviously there is a difference and line to be drawn.


  9. Casey,

    I don’t think he does, actually. At least, not that I remember. But don’t quote me on that.

    I agree with you, though, that eschatology has to be a significant aspect of our thinking about justice and the state.



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