Not the Church becoming State, but the State becoming Church, mark that well.
—Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov (1880)
I am King and Priest. —Leo III, emperor of Byzantium (8th Century)
When Sacrifice Is Sin
The enemy had assembled his forces: 30,000 chariots, 6,000 horsemen, and foot soldiers “as the sand which is on the seashore for multitude” (1 Sam. 13:5). God’s people were terrified. Many fled their homes and took refuge in caves and pits; some fled beyond Jordan to the land of Gilead. King Saul knew he needed Yahweh’s blessing to see this war through. The prophet Samuel had promised to come and perform the proper sacrifices. Saul waited the seven days Samuel had appointed, but the prophet didn’t come. Saul’s army was beginning to scatter.
Saul decided upon a bold stroke. He took the required animals and performed the ascension offering himself. But before he could move on to the peace offering, Samuel arrived. Saul went out to greet him.
Samuel wasn’t happy. “What have you done?” he demanded. Saul admitted that he had “forced himself” to offer the ascension offering. But first he made a number of excuses:
…I saw that the people were scattered from me, and that you didn’t come within the days appointed, and that the Philistines gathered themselves together at Michmash… (v. 11)
In other words, Saul blamed the people, Samuel, and the Philistines. He didn’t acknowledge his own fear and unbelief. Samuel’s response was harsh:
You have done foolishly: you haven’t kept the commandment of Yahweh your God, which He commanded you: for now Yahweh would have established your kingdom upon Israel forever. But now your kingdom shall not continue: Yahweh has sought out a man after his own heart, and Yahweh has commanded him to be captain over his people, because you haven’t kept what Yahweh commanded you. (vv. 13-14)
The “man after God’s own heart,” of course, was David.
A King, Not a Priest
Saul’s offense may not be clear to the modern Christian. Weren’t God’s people supposed to sacrifice, especially in times of great need? Noah sacrificed. So did Abraham and Job. What was wrong with this sacrifice? Why did it cost Saul his kingdom?
First, we must reckon with the flow of redemptive history. In an earlier age, the head of the covenant family acted as prince and priest. He ruled his extended family or sheikdom. He also sacrificed for himself and for his family. But at Sinai, God instituted a new covenant arrangement. From then forward there would be only one legitimate altar, the one in the Tabernacle court. All of Israel’s normal sacrifices were to be offered there. They were to be offered by the priests, and those priests had to be sons of Aaron. God officially and formally separated the priestly service of sacrifice from the civil ministry of judge and ruler. Only on God’s specific orders was any judge or civil ruler to offer a sacrifice.
The unraveling of the Mosaic economy began to alter this in some measure. With the separation of the Ark of the Covenant from the Tabernacle, the place of sacrifice was no longer as important as it had been. Samuel offered sacrifices in places other than the Tabernacle court. And Samuel wasn’t a priest; he was a prophet. But he was God’s spokesman and as such had the right to approach God through sacrifice.
The king, however, was neither a prophet nor a priest. He was Israel’s high court judge and her military commander. That was all. His functions, duties, and privileges were extremely circumscribed—both by divine law and a civil constitution (Deut. 17:14-28; 1 Sam. 10:25). And sacrifice was nowhere in his job description.
Uzziah the Leper
Two centuries later another king would commit a trespass similar to Saul’s. Uzziah, a Jewish king with a good track record, went boldly into the Holy Place in the Temple and offered up incense (2 Chron. 26). The priests withstood him and ordered him out of the sanctuary. Uzziah was enraged, but before he could say or do anything, God smote him with leprosy. At that point, Uzziah’s confidence broke, and he let the priests usher him out of the Temple precincts. Uzziah remained a leper, cut off from fellowship with God’s people, until the day of his death.
The high priest’s words to Uzziah had been: “It appertaineth not to thee, Uzziah, to burn incense unto the LORD, but to the priests the sons of Aaron, that are consecrated to burn incense” (v. 18). The high priest understood that Uzziah had no authority in the Temple. Uzziah was God’s king, but he wasn’t God’s priest. God insisted on and maintained a strict separation between the two offices. But that distinction was with regard to function: the king had his duties and the priest, his. Both were God’s servants, both were to function in terms of His revealed law, and both answered to God and His prophets. The king could arraign and pass judgment against a priest guilty of civil crimes. The high priest could withstand and excommunicate a king who violated the Temple or desecrated its worship. But in the daily course of their work, their powers were quite distinct.
Church and State Under Christ
The biblical principles involved here are rooted in the transcendence and sovereignty of God. God alone is God. His authority is absolute; His word is law. No creature shares in His essence or Being. No creature is God. Only in Jesus Christ do the Creator and the creature meet in one Person, and even there the divine and the human remain distinct. This is the doctrine of the hypostatic union, the personal union of the human and divine natures in Christ.
Because Jesus Christ alone is both God and man, He alone has all authority in heaven and earth (Matt. 28:18). All human authority, therefore, is necessarily limited and subject to His law. Church and State both derive their authority from Christ and are bound to use that authority on His terms; that is, in submission to His revealed word. But Christ has assigned the ministry of grace to the one and the ministry of justice to the other. He has given them different powers and different responsibilities. The Church holds the keys of the kingdom (Matt. 16:19); the State holds the sword (Rom. 13:4). The Church preaches the word of God and is able to reach men’s hearts. The State wields deadly force and addresses men’s overt actions, their civil crimes. The one brings life through the gospel; the other brings justice to society so that life might flourish.
What Scripture teaches, then, is the administrative independence of Church and State and thus their relative separation. But at the same time, it also teaches their interdependence and coordinate authority. Both must defend the innocent and wage war against the wicked. Both ought to promote the rule of Jesus Christ in the wider society and culture. But each must do so with its own powers and in its proper sphere. When either encroaches into the other’s territory, when either usurps the other’s powers, the result is tyranny.
The public crime Saul that committed was sacrilege. He laid hold of holy things with profane hands. He was also guilty of tyranny as he usurped a power and office that wasn’t rightly his own. He violated the civil constitution. His heart sins were fearfulness and unbelief. He saw the enemy’s military might, and rather than trust the promises and power of God, he gave way to fear and pride. He lawlessly expanded State power so that he could save God’s people. Since his grasp for priestly power was illegal, it was necessarily invalid and useless. In effect, he was practicing a form of magic. And magic in God’s eyes carries sanctions, as Saul would learn in the end (1 Sam. 28).
God’s judgment on Saul may still seem harsh to the modern Christian. Where is God’s forgiveness? Where is God’s grace? Where’s the love? But we must remember that Saul never repented. He made excuses. He blame shifted. He refused accountability. Had Saul immediately confessed his sin and taken full responsibility for his sacrilege, God’s reaction would probably have been quite different. But Saul was never any good at that sort of thing, and Israel continued to suffer the consequences. In political leaders… character actually matters. In fact, fates of entire nations rest on the character of its leaders.
For Further Reading:
Peter Leithart, A Son to Me, An Exposition of 1 & 2 Samuel (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2003).
Rousas J. Rushdoony, “The Council of Chalcedon: Foundation of Western Liberty” in Foundations of Social Order, Studies in the Creeds and Councils of the Early Church (N. p.: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1972).
Rousas J. Rushdoony, “Religious Liberty” in Christianity and the State (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1986).