Presbyterianism: The Sword and the Keys

The Sword and the Keys

The Sword 
The basic function of the state is to punish the evildoer. In Romans 12:19, the Apostle Paul quotes the scripture "Vengeance is mine: I will repay, saith the Lord". He then shows that since it belongs to God to punish sin, private revenge by individuals is wrong. (Verses 20,21).

Continuing into Chapter 13, however, since the civil ruler is the "minister of God", when sin expresses itself in open crime, God requires the ruler to execute vengeance in His name, having delegated a limited authority to him for that end.

The principle that vengeance belongs to God both prohibits private revenge and requires punishment of crime by the ruler. This duty to punish the criminal is called the "bearing of the sword", (verse 4) showing that it extends to the sentence of capital punishment. The duty of submission to rulers rests on the fact that "the powers that be are ordained of God". This means not simply that they exist in God's providence, but that civil government is His institution. It follows that His law should be the ruler's definition of right and wrong and open or and wrong and open or public transgression of that law should be the basic definition of crime. (See also 1 Peter 2:13-16).

It is the duty of rulers, not only in their personal lives, but also as rulers to submit to God and to His Christ (Psalm 2:10 - 12, Revelation 1:5, 1 Timothy 6:15). For men to act independently of the Word of God is always wrong.

The Keys 
"And I will give unto thee the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven" (Matthew 16:19). The Church's authority lies in a different realm to that of the state. The church's function relates to the gospel of grace rather than to civil justice. The church exercises the "power of the keys" by the preaching of the gospel, in which the door to the kingdom is opened. Not only in the preaching of the Word, is the line of demarcation between the children of the kingdom and the children of the world made clear, but in the discipline of the Church that distinction is applied within the limits of fallible human observation of outward profession and practice. (Matthew 18:17, 1 Corinthians 5:9- 13 etc.).

Distinct under Christ 
We conclude that church and state are both to acknowledge

Christ as King and both to submit to the Word of God. Nevertheless, they are separate institutions with different membership, functions and officers. On top of this Christ has appointed a definite form of church government in which kings and magistrates have no place.


In the Old Testament, kings were punished in Israel for intruding into the role of the priesthood (1 Samuel 13:11-13, 2 Chronicles 26:16-21). Seventeenth century presbyterians wrote at length on this subject, showing that even in Israel, civil and ecclesiastical government were distinguishable from each other. The New Testament makes this clearer still.

This means that Rome's view that for a nation to be Christian it must be church controlled is to be rejected. Likewise, the view (known as Erastianism) that the monarch at least if he is a professing Christian, should govern the church is also rejected. Church and state are distinct under Christ and our forefathers were correct when they saw resistance to state interference in the church as an expression of their loyalty to King Jesus.

The Right Link-Up 
The right connection between church and state is one of mutual obligation under Christ.

A. The State must recognise and accommodate Christ's church. 
Since civil rulers are under Christ and are to base civil law on God's law, then so far as it comes within their proper scope of activity, they must, on the basis of the first four commandments, distinguish between the true religion and the false. They are to pave the way for the Church's function of upholding and spreading the truth. This is their duty to Him who is the prince of the Kings of the earth as well as the Head of the church. Since Christ in providence governs all for the good of the church, then rulers must show their submission to him by consciously using their God-given authority in the interests of the church also. If we are to pray "For kings and all in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty" (1 Timothy 2:2), then kings are to promote that which we are to pray for.

Rulers are not to govern within the church but use their legitimate authority outside the church to facilitate the church in the exercise of its distinctive fun distinctive functions. "And kings shall be thy nursing fathers and queens thy nursing mothers", (Isaiah 49:23, see also Isaiah 60:12 & 16).

B. The church must teach the state. 
It is the church's duty to "declare all the counsel of God" (Acts 20:27). 
All that is in the Word of God is within the church's teaching function. This means that all the Word of God says about how a nation is to be governed is to be part of our testimony in the world. Also, civil rulers, like everybody else, are appropriate recipients of that testimony.

When the people, the publicans and the soldiers asked John the Baptist what form their repentance should take in practice, he gave definite answers (Luke 3:10 - 14). If Tony Blair and his cabinet repented of their sins and were asking the church what the Word of God says about running the country to the glory of God the church should be able to respond.

"I will speak of thy testimonies also before kings, and will not be ashamed" (Psalms 119:46).