Should we seek separation of Church and State?

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By BibleAsk Team


The relationship between the church and the state has been a complex and often contentious issue throughout history. For Christians, navigating the boundaries between their faith and civic responsibilities involves understanding biblical principles, historical context, and contemporary implications.

Biblical Foundations for Separation

  1. Jesus’ Teachings on Earthly and Heavenly Authority

The New Testament provides key insights into how Christians should view the relationship between their faith and governmental authority. One of the most cited passages is Jesus’ response to the question of paying taxes to Caesar.

  • Matthew 22:21 (NKJV): “They said to Him, ‘Caesar’s.’ And He said to them, ‘Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.'”

In this statement, Jesus delineates a clear distinction between civic duty and spiritual devotion. By acknowledging the legitimacy of secular authority (“the things that are Caesar’s”) while also affirming the sovereignty of God (“the things that are God’s”), Jesus establishes a principle of dual responsibility without conflating the two realms.

  1. Paul’s Teachings on Government Authority

The Apostle Paul further develops this concept in his epistles, emphasizing the role of government as ordained by God for maintaining order and justice.

  • Romans 13:1-7 (NKJV): “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves… Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor.”

Paul underscores the importance of respecting and obeying governmental authorities, viewing them as instruments of God’s order. However, his writings do not suggest that the church should control the state or vice versa; rather, he acknowledges their distinct roles.

Historical Context

  1. Early Christian Persecution and Independence

In the early centuries of Christianity, the church existed independently of the state, often in opposition to it. Christians were persecuted under Roman rule, which demanded allegiance to the emperor as a divine figure. The refusal of Christians to worship the emperor underscored their commitment to the sovereignty of God over earthly rulers.

  1. Constantine and the Edict of Milan

The relationship between church and state took a significant turn with Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity and the Edict of Milan in 313 AD, which granted religious tolerance throughout the Roman Empire.

  1. The Medieval Church and Political Power

During the Middle Ages, the church amassed considerable political power, often competing with secular rulers for control. The papacy wielded influence over kings and emperors, exemplified by persecution to the heretics and the Crusades. This period demonstrated the conflicts that arise when religious and political powers are entangled.

  1. Reformation and the Rise of National Churches

The Protestant Reformation in the 16th century further altered the union of church and state. Reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin advocated for a return to biblical principles, often challenging the authority of the Roman Catholic Church over the conscious of individuals and advocated for freedom of individuals in religious matters.

The Case for Separation in Contemporary Context

  1. Preserving Religious Freedom

One of the primary arguments for the separation of church and state is the preservation of religious freedom. When the state endorses or controls a particular religion, it can lead to the suppression of other faiths and the erosion of individual religious liberties.

  • Galatians 5:1 (NKJV): “Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage.”

Paul’s exhortation to maintain spiritual freedom can be extended to advocate for a political environment where individuals are free to practice their faith without state interference or compulsion.

  1. Avoiding Corruption and Abuse of Power

History shows that the intertwining of church and state often leads to corruption and the abuse of power. Religious institutions can become compromised when they wield political power, and governments can misuse religion to justify unjust policies.

  • Matthew 23:3-4 (NKJV): “Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do, but do not do according to their works; for they say, and do not do. For they bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers.”

Jesus criticizes the religious leaders of His time for their hypocrisy and misuse of authority. This caution applies to any religious institution that might gain political power.

  1. Focusing on the Mission of the Church

The church’s primary mission is spiritual, focusing on spreading the gospel and serving the community. When the church becomes entangled in political affairs, it can distract from its mission and compromise its witness.

  • Matthew 28:19-20 (NKJV): “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

The Great Commission emphasizes the church’s role in spiritual matters rather than political governance.

Addressing Common Concerns

  1. Moral Influence Without Political Control

Some argue that the church should influence the state to uphold moral values. While Christians can and should advocate for justice and righteousness in society, this can be achieved without direct control over political institutions.

  • Micah 6:8 (NKJV): “He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?”

Christians can promote justice and mercy through their actions and advocacy, influencing society while respecting the boundaries between church and state.

  1. Participation in Civic Life

The separation of church and state does not preclude Christians from participating in civic life. Christians are called to be salt and light in the world, engaging in political processes to promote the common good.

  • Matthew 5:13-16 (NKJV): “You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt loses its flavor, how shall it be seasoned? … You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden.”

Christians can bring their values into the public sphere without seeking to merge church and state, advocating for policies that reflect biblical principles of justice and compassion.

Practical Implications for Modern Christians

  1. Advocacy and Social Justice

Christians are called to advocate for social justice and care for the marginalized, reflecting God’s heart for the oppressed and disadvantaged.

  • Isaiah 1:17 (NKJV): “Learn to do good; Seek justice, Rebuke the oppressor; Defend the fatherless, Plead for the widow.”

By working within the political system as advocates rather than rulers, Christians can contribute to a just society without conflating their religious and civic roles.

  1. Building Bridges Across Divides

The separation of church and state can foster a pluralistic society where diverse beliefs are respected, promoting peace and mutual understanding.

  • 1 Timothy 2:1-2 (NKJV): “Therefore I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men, for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence.”

Praying for leaders and working towards peace allows Christians to contribute positively to society while upholding their spiritual commitments.

The Separation of Church and State in America

The right to freedom of religion is so central in American democracy that it was established in the First Amendment to the Constitution. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion….” is the founding principle along with other fundamental rights such as freedom of speech and freedom of the press. In order to guarantee religious liberty, the founders of America mandated the strict separation of church and state.

It is interesting to note that the words, “separation of church and state” are not found in the Constitution. The idea of church/state separation came from a letter written by Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson aimed at protecting religious liberties from an intrusive government! Because of this prohibition against endorsement of religion, different faiths have thrived in America since the founding of the republic.

State-sanctioned churches become puppets of the government. Under such regimes, the traditions of men often take precedence over the Word of God. When the state heads the church, the integrity of the gospel is all too easily compromised. Therefore, to the Christian, the separation of church and state is a very important thing.

We live in a constitutional republic rather than a theocracy. Some Americans reject this concept and promote the idea that the government should endorse the religious values of certain members of the community to the exclusion of others.

The Ten Commandments (God’s moral standard for man, Exodus 20:1-17) were written by the very finger of God twice on two tablets of stone (Exodus 31:18). The first tablet, contained the first four commandments that deal with man’s relationship toward God. The second tablet contained the six commandments that deal with man’s relationship towards man.

While all the laws of the majority of world’s governments are founded on the last six commandments and must be enforced by law to ensure peace, safety and order. The first four commandments that deal with our relationship with God must never be enforced by law because man is created free to choose to worship His Maker or not to worship Him. Man’s conscious should not be forced. Freedom is a divine right that God has given man. The Lord says, “choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve” (Joshua 24:15, NKJV).

When governments force religious laws on its citizens, this only leads to religious persecution and tyranny. Forced religion is simply a violation of conscience, not a voluntary response to God. The best way for citizens to protect their constitutional right to be free from religious coercion is to become educated and educate others about the separation of church and state.

It is important to keep in mind that our founding fathers did not seek to cancel religion in America. The majority of those who signed the Declaration of Independence were men of faith. The founding Fathers and framers of the U.S. Constitution didn’t work to restrict Americans’ religious activities. The institutional separation of church and state does not mean the segregation of religion from politics or God from government. It does not mean that people of faith are restricted from public speaking. It only means government cannot pass laws to force religion.

Conclusion

The principle of the separation of church and state is rooted in both biblical teaching and historical experience. Jesus and Paul acknowledged the distinct roles of civic and spiritual authority, while history demonstrates the dangers of conflating the two. Modern Christians can support the separation of church and state to preserve religious freedom, avoid corruption, focus on the church’s mission, and promote justice and mercy in society.

  • Matthew 22:21 (NKJV): “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

By adhering to this principle, Christians can engage in civic life, advocate for righteous causes, and respect individual consciences, contributing to a just and pluralistic society while faithfully following Christ’s teachings.

In His service,
BibleAsk Team

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