Should the Church or State be Supreme on Earth? (Part I)

Should the church or the state be supreme on earth? This was a question in the middle ages; it is relevant question today, and it will need an answer in the future as the Kingdom continues to advance on the earth.

This was a real issue in the middle ages. Two events acutely illustrate how serious the question was in the middle ages. The first event was the murder of Thomas Becket on December 29, 1170 in Canterbury Cathedral. Becket had served as Lord Chancellor for King Henry II of England since 1155, and was so competent and loyal that in 1162 Henry decided to appoint Becket Archbishop of Canterbury, the head of the church in England.  

But Becket, who apparently understood what it meant to do his job sincerely, acted in loyalty to the church rather than Henry when Henry demanded he sign papers effectively acknowledging the supremacy of the crown over the church. Becket’s loyalty to the church led ultimately to Becket’s murder in Canterbury cathedral by some of Henry’s men in 1170. Whether Henry impliedly ordered or merely negligently enabled Becket’s murder will probably never be known, but Henry publicly repented, and the relationship between the church and state was temporarily restored.

The second event involved Philip IV of France, who banned clergy from participation in his administration and then sought to tax them as well.  Pope Boniface VIII responded by issuing a Papal bull prohibiting the taxing of the clergy without Papal authority and threatening the punishment of excommunication for those who did so. Philip then retaliated by prohibiting tithes collected in France to be released to the Vatican.  Philip then unsuccessfully attempted to have Boniface kidnapped, and while the plan was ultimately foiled, the the three days of captivity by the kidnappers had an adverse effect on Boniface, who died a month later. When the papal enclave could not come to a decision on a new Pope, Philip had Clement installed and insisted he move his court to Avignon, France, where the Popes resided from 1309 – 1376—during the time referred to as the Babylonian Captivity of the Papacy–until the papacy finally returned to Rome.

Both these stories illustrate the struggle in the middle ages over whether the church had authority over state or vice-versa. It was a legitimate question in the middle ages when Romans 13:1 was interpreted as conferring on heads of state the divine right of kings and the organizational church was strong enough to contend with the state for leadership.

So who was right Becket or Henry, Boniface or Philip?

Well, I believe they were actually asking the wrong question. The question is not whether the church should be subject to state or the state subject to the church, but whether the Church should be subject to King Jesus. In the next post I will explain what I mean. GS

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