One of our local intoleristas recently wrote the following:
“Wilson believes that God has a relationship with the Church in which the state cannot interpose. The relationship between God and any one individual is secondary to the relationship between God and, essentially, the whole of Christendom. The Church therefore has a divinely ordained right to certain forms of coercion: the Church is to maintain the moral order of the world. That means that the Church, with the sphere of moral order, is divinely ordained to have the power of coercion, including lethal coercion. When Wilkins (the co-theologian of the Auburn theology) defends Cotton Mather in the Salem Witch Trials, he is defending the right of the Church to maintain moral order by executing those who break it.”
There is more, but you get the drift. There are five sentences here, and they are, reading from left to right, true, false, false, false, and false. If this were a pop quiz on what Wilson actually thinks, our friend would have earned around a 20 percent. And he is one of the sharper kids in the class.
It is true that I believe that the state cannot come between God and the Church when we are talking about things that are in the Church’s appointed sphere (Word and sacraments). But I do not believe that the relationship between God and any one individual is secondary to the relationship between God and Christendom, and am left wondering where he got this stuff. I hotly deny that the Church has any right to participate in the business of coercion. Coercion and clerics go not well together. Our weapons are not carnal, St. Paul says. The Church has no right whatever to lethal coercion, a right that God has given exclusively to the civil magistrate, and not to the Church at all. And when my good friend Steve Wilkins defends Cotton Mather’s behavior in the Salem Witch Trials, it is to the extent that Mather opposed certain godless features of the trials, such as the admission of spectral evidence.
While we are on the subject of the Salem Witch Trials, let us mention a few things about that, things that are too little discussed around these here parts. One day, the charter for the colony of Massachuetts ran out, expired, kaputed. The colony was without any authorized colony-wide government, and they sent a delegate back to England to get their charter renewed, papers stamped, or whatever it was that was necessary. In the meantime, no civil government at all. During this period, some religious nutcases in Salem spun out of control and started up the witch trials, executing a number of innocent people. The trials were godless, evil, wicked, vile. But there was no civil government to intervene. When the messenger guy got back from England, and legitimate government was reestablished, one of the first things that happened was that the vast majority of Massachusett’s Puritan ministers applied pressure to have the trials suppressed, which is what happened.
The ministers did not have the authority to coerce. They did have the authority to appeal to the magistrate (once they got one) to do the right thing, which they did. And the right thing was to suppress the witch trials, not to suppress the witches. I believe that ministers have the moral and spiritual authority to appeal to the magistrate to do the right thing, according to Scripture. “Aha!” my confused interlocutor might say, “See? He wants ministers to deliver their ‘moral’ agenda to the civil authority and call upon them in the name of the Lord to do the ‘right thing.'”
You bet. Of course I want them to do that. And so does he. What would he say if the governor was reestablished in Massachusetts and the ministers did not say anything to him one way or the other about all the innocent people being railroaded down in Salem? “Not our business,” said they, shaking their heads. “Trying to anticipate the separation of church and state. All we care about is going to heaven when we die.”
Here is how the arguments with intoleristas go. I say something like “ministers should declare the way of righteousness to the magistrate, and appeal to him to follow it in the course of his duties.” This is heard as “ministers should demand that the magistrate start clubbing baby seals.” Do I defend the Puritans in the Salem Witch Trials? Well, which ones? I defend the Puritans who opposed the judicial murders in the name of Jesus, and I oppose the Puritans (falsely so-called) who conducted their judicial murders in the name of Jesus.
In any serious conflict, one of the basic weapons used is the old staple of “the atrocity story.” When it comes to any discussion of theonomy or theocracy, the two basic atrocity stories are the burning of Servetus and the Salem Witch Trials. War breaks out, and as the proverb has it, the first casualty is the truth. But as I am fond of saying, these issues are inescapable, and we can figure out the truth if we are committed to it. For a follower of Christ, the only alternative back then to the burning of witches on bogus evidence was to oppose (in the name of Christ) the burning of witches on bogus evidence. And if certain scoundrels had a witch tied to a stake, wood piled at her feet, and they looked up and saw some interfering ministers approaching them with a suppression order, what should they say about it? “Oh great. Here comes the sanctimonious religious right. Meddling with our autonomous choices again.”