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Religion and Society

It is characteristic of modern secular society that the primacy of religion over all other things has been displaced. Any role conceded to religion is bottled up in the spheres of individual belief, family life and places of worship. Even the churches have acquiesced in this outlook, concluding that the only word Scripture has for the civil order in our day is a call to respect moral values in social relationships.

The Reformation had a notably different concept. It held that the main goal in life is the pursuit of religion, worship, and the inner life of communion with God. Moreover, the reformers believed that not only the individual standing alone, but also individuals together in their corporate identity as a society, have an obligation to acknowledge the one true God. Each institution in society is to carry out its role in subservience to the primacy of religion as that which is of ultimate significance. Therefore civil government and public policy are to espouse the true religion and aim at promoting it.

This view of religion's place in society was surrendered in the face of eighteenth-century Enlightenment scepticism that there can be certainty in matters of religion, as well as a misguided plea that the individual's right of private judgment as recognized by classical Reformed writers would be incompatible with a society's endorsement of the true religion, and concerns that an establishment of religion would be abused or the spirituality of the church compromised. Two centuries ago, populations that were personally attached to biblical religion called for civil constitutions which would make no acknowledgment of the true religion. It was inevitable that moral and spiritual waywardness would transpire when societies accepted a public policy that did not take its compass from the true religion, or give religion the primacy in man's calling.

Today the church's indictment of the civil order should go beyond a call to repent with regard to discrete areas of moral decline in social relationships. These are but symptoms. There is need to confront the root sin in the vision of modern secular society, which is its denial that man's chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.

In a further nod to secularism, some theologians have suggested that man's primary task is the development of culture. Though this is said to be a redemption of the culture and to be done for the service of God, nevertheless the premise borrowed from secularism is that man is to give himself fundamentally to social and cultural endeavor in this present world, rather than finding the goal of his life beyond creation, in the pursuit of religion, worship and the inner life of communion with God. The classical Reformed persuasion articulated by Augustine and Calvin is that the Christian is a pilgrim on his way to a heavenly city, that the social structures of the earthly city do not represent the coming of God's kingdom, and that the vision of a society should be to direct man to what is transcendent.


Thomas M'Crie: Brief View of the Evidence for the Exercise of Civil Authority About Religion
William Cunningham: Relation Between Church and State
William Cunningham: The Westminster Confession on the Relation Between Church and State




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