Two Notes on the Nature of the Church

John T. Lewis (1876-1967)

John T. Lewis (1876-1967)

In the middle of the 1940s, John T. Lewis was in the midst of a dispute with Foy and Cled Wallace over the proper relation of the Christian to civil government and the propriety of Christians participating in carnal warfare. In the midst of all this, I have been struck by some of his comments about the nature of the Church. Here are a couple of excerpts from Lewis’ The Christian and the Government (1946) (In both of these, I have attempted to reproduce Lewis’ punctuation and syntax exactly. This may be confusing at points, but not overly so):

“The mission of the kingdom of Christ is one thing, and the mission of all temporal kingdoms, or governments is another thing. All temporal governments are restricted by geographical boundaries, and for a civil government to go beyond those boundaries means war; but the kingdom of Christ is a spiritual institution, and knows no geographical bounds, race, color, nor human creed, therefore it has nothing of earthly possessions to fight for, and therefore its weapons of warfare are not carnal. The universality of the church, its fellowship, its worship, its brotherly love, and the spirit that dwells in it, is an argument, not against carnal warfare; but against Christians engaging in carnal warfare. To say that Christians should kill each other, or even destroy the life and property of those who are not Christians, at the behest of any king or potentate on earth, is to say something that no New Testament writers ever said. And all such teaching is a gross perversion of the teaching of the Holy Spirit through the apostles, and a miserable misrepresentation of the life and teaching of Christ” (pp. 139-140).

And again:

“If the New Testament does not teach that the church, the spiritual kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, is a non-resistant institution, it teaches nothing. It is ‘also’ the only non-resistant institution, or kingdom on earth. All earthly or temporal governments are founded by the sword, and stand upon the sword. The church or spiritual kingdom was founded by the love of God, upon the death, burial, and resurrection of his Son Jesus Christ. It is made up of people from all nations, and is antagonistic to no earthly or temporal government. If it were otherwise Christians would frequently find themselves fighting and killing each other. The very thought is repugnant to the spirit and teaching of Jesus Christ. This was demonstrated in the ‘civil war’ when brothers in the flesh, and brethren in the church, fought and killed each other, and there is no absolute guarantee that the same things may not happen again in the United States, and even in a more violent form than the ‘civil war.’ If the church of Jesus Christ had always been kept separate and distinct from the state, and free from, and un-contaminated by political broils it would be the greatest moral force, and stabilizing influence in the world today. As it is, it is a nonentity, so far as the government of the United States, the greatest government on earth today, is concerned. For a young man to tell the government that he is a member of ‘the church’ means nothing so far as military service is concerned; but if a young man can prove to the government that he is a member of the ‘Society of Friends’ (Quakers), or ‘Mennonites’ he is exempted from military service, and his convictions are never questioned — the government recognizes those organizations as non-resistant institutions. Why? Because their leaders know what they stand for, and they stand for it, whereas many gospel preachers, and church leaders stand for nothing when it comes to the greatest living issues of today – The Christian’s relationship to the governments of the world, and his obligation to the government under which he lives” (pp. 179-180).

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