In a time when a ruler's religion was the only legal religion allowed in his or her territory and the use of force was an acceptable means to punish those who refused to conform, the English philosopher John Locke penned his Letter Concerning Toleration (1689).
Locke argues that "toleration [ought] to be the chief characteristic mark of the true Church." The civil magistrate has no business enforcing the practice of any one expression of the Christian religion. Corporeal punishment, imprisonment, and the killing of nonconformists - groups outside the Church of England including Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Baptists, and Quakers - is contrary to God's purpose for the state and for the church.
In order to end the abuse of power by church and state Locke advocates a separation between the two institutions for the good of all people. "I esteem it above all things necessary to distinguish exactly the business of civil government from that of religion and to settle the just bounds that lie between the one and the other." Both church and state have distinct and separate callings that should not be confused. Only those who seek to abuse power have an interest in integrating the two.
The church exists in order to regulate people's lives "according to the rules of virtue and piety." Locke quotes 2 Timothy 2:19 to demonstrate that Christians who do not pursue holiness, virtue, and meekness are not worthy of the name. Faith works "not by force, but by love." It is impossible to "persecute, torment, destroy, and kill other men upon pretence of religion� out of friendship or kindness toward them." Those who exhibit such zeal against outsiders should express the same zeal to those within their group who live ungodly lives. For sinful works of the flesh are "certainly more contrary to the glory of God, to the purity of the Church, and to the salvation of souls, than any conscientious dissent from ecclesiastical [forms]." Locke quotes Galatians 5:21 to demonstrate that those who practice these things will not inherit God's kingdom. Christians should not seek conversions by force but through tender persuasion and godly example. Jesus himself did not send out armed forces to compel conversions, but instead sent out godly messengers with a gospel of peace.
The state exists "for the procuring, preserving, and advancing" of people's "civil interests." These civil interests include "life, liberty, health" and "the possession of outward things, such as money, lands, houses, furniture, and the like." Through "impartial execution of equal laws" the state regulates the just possession of these civil interests. The state is responsible to punish lawbreakers with "the deprivation or diminution of those civil interests, or goods, which otherwise [the lawbreaker] might and ought to enjoy." In this way, the state properly uses force to maintain civil interests. This use of force is only for civil interests and should never be used in religious matters. The care and salvation of souls is not the state's duty. Locke's conclusion: "[A]ll the power of civil government relates only to men's civil interests, is confined to the care of the things of this world, and hath nothing to do with the world to come."
Locke brilliantly demonstrates how both church and state are perverted by an unholy alliance between the two. He is aware that public officials - whether civil or religious - have great capacity to abuse power for their own ends. He is concerned that the state is abusing its power by aiding the church in forcing conversions - seeking to save souls rather than preserve civil interests. He is concerned that the church is abusing its power by being more concerned about the preservation of its institution rather than the purity and piety of its members. Locke cannot fathom how an institution that claims to follow Christ could accept such travesties as persecution, torture, imprisonment, and even murder as a means to do God's will. Near the end of his letter, he reminds the church "that the Gospel frequently declares that the true disciples of Christ must suffer persecution; but that the Church of Christ should persecute others, and force others by fire and sword to embrace her faith and doctrine, I could never yet find in any of the books of the New Testament."
Locke is correct. Church and state must be distinguished. An unholy alliance between the two merely reinforces the negative traits of both. Yet, as important as it is to distinguish the two, it is also necessary that the two are not divorced from one another completely. The church exists within the state. The church consists of people with civil interests that should be preserved. Likewise, the state needs the church's message of tolerance and love to restrain it from abusing its own power for its own sake.
Church and state must be distinguished, but not divorced. The church should not demand participation through persecution, penalties, and imprisonment. Likewise, the state should not seek to "save souls" but to preserve civil interests common to all people - whether religious or not. The perpetual challenge is in navigating how they interact together. How should the principles of religion inform the state in regard to shared civil interests without demanding assent to church doctrine? How should the state support all the wide variety of religious practices and interests without hindering the free expression of religion? The issues are even more complex in our time because of the wide variety of religions that must be tolerated. In his letter, Locke himself was only concerned to advance tolerance in regard to Protestant religious groups. He excluded Roman Catholics from the list of those who should be tolerated. We must extend tolerance more widely in our day. Tolerance must now be practiced in regard to all world religions as well as the Christian religion if a just, civil, and free society is to exist.
Locke's emphasis on the need for the church to be a virtuous people of love, meekness, and tolerance is important. Unity is important to God (John 17; Eph. 4:1-3). Unity is preserved through tolerant love (Romans 14). Only this kind of unified love will demonstrate to others that we really are Christians (John 13:34-35).
The church must not seek an unholy alliance in order to gain more power. The state should not take advantage of a church that seeks peaceful unity and tolerant love. The proper balance between the two may never be achieved in this world, but the goal is still worth pursuing, for when both live in harmony, then true liberty without coercion can be experienced by all people willing to maintain common civil interests.
© Richard J. Vincent, 2004