The Bible and Separation of Church and State

The Bible is the last place most people look for a solution to the Church/State discussion. It is like turning to the Koran to determine if Mohamed was a prophet of God. The Bible cannot be an objective source, can it? Surprisingly, the principle of Church and State separation has a theological background. Roger Williams, founder of the first American Baptist Church in 1639, was banished from Massachusetts for his views on Church/State separation. His convictions were rooted in biblical theology. In fact, religious freedom in America would be considerably different were it not for pioneering ministers like Roger Williams. He believed, as did our forefathers, the Bible teaches a clear separation of Church and State. Where is this teaching in the Bible? And, why aren't more Christians referencing the Scriptures when discussing the issue?

Separation and Jesus

The longer Jesus ministered, the stronger His opposition. In Luke 20:19-26 the chief priests and scribes sent spies to follow Jesus for the purpose of destroying His public influence and having Him arrested. The spies pretended to be disciples hungry to hear the Lord's words. Seizing an opportunity, they asked Jesus, "Is it lawful for us to give tribute unto Caesar, or no?” The Lord's enemies were confident His answer would condemn Him. If Jesus said "yes", He would be supporting the enemies of the Jews. He would be telling His people to pay a tax which supported the Army occupying their land. If Jesus said "no", the chief priests and scribes could accuse Him of treason and turn Him over to the Roman authorities for prosecution. Jesus responded without hesitation, "Show me a penny. Whose image and superscription hath it? Render therefore unto Caesar the things which be Caesar's, and unto God the things which be God's." Verse 26 records the final outcome, "And they could not take hold of His words before the people: and they marveled at His answer, and held their peace." What was so startling about Christ's answer? Simply, He drew a line of separation between Caesar and God. The coin bore the image of the Roman emperor. Temporal things were under his control. However, the Jews bore the image of God. Their lives were under His control. They could pay taxes to Caesar while being committed to God.

It is this simple yet profound principle that gives Christians direction through the maze of Church/State relations. We are commanded to obey the government realizing that, "... there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God"(Romans 13:1). Our subjection to the State, ultimately, is subjection to God. But, there are limitations. When jealousy motivated princes in Darius's kingdom to create a law forbidding prayer, a law the king signed, Daniel continued his daily practice of bowing before his Lord. When the Jewish Council demanded a halt to the apostles’ preaching, Peter's response was, "We ought to obey God rather than men." Any law compelling a Christian to disobey God is a law he/she is forced to disregard. Is this a license to practice anarchy? Absolutely not. Both Daniel and Peter become examples for us to follow. They disobeyed the law of the land in order to obey God. They were willing to accept the legal consequences for their behavior. They were not rebel rousers. They were children of God understanding divine priorities.

Separation in the Biblical Purposes of Church and State

The Bible defines the respective roles of both Church and State. In the words of The Westminster Confession of Faith’s Shorter Catechism, "Man's chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him for ever." A strong case can be made for this statement applying to both Church and State, however, it specifically applies to the Church. The Apostle Paul wrote to the Church of Corinth, "Whether therefore you eat, or drink, or whatsoever you do, do all to the glory of God."(I Corinthians 10:31) Under this broad principle there are three distinct ministries of the Church. First, the Church is to proclaim God's truth to the world(Matthew 28:19-20). Second, the Church is to aid converts in growing and maturing in God's truth(Ephesians 4:11-16). Third, the Church is to be a preservative and testimony in the world(Matthew 5:13-16). All of these ministries involve proclamation of God's truth through consistent living and verbal communication.

The State's purpose is summarized in Romans 13:1-4. The State's responsibility is to protect the social order by enforcing the laws of a nation. It is to protect the rights of its citizens. It has a mandate to preserve the social structure in order to permit peaceable living and freedom of worship. Paul instructed Christians to pray to that end, "I exhort therefore, that... prayers... be made... for kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life..."(I Timothy 2:1-2).

One major difference between Church and State is the instruments used to accomplish their respective purposes. The Church's tools are prayer and proclamation. On the other hand, God has given the State a "sword"(Romans 13:4). The State has the right to physically coerce obedience to its laws. The Church has no such right. In fact, when Jesus stood before Pilate He declared, "My kingdom is not of this world: if My kingdom were of this world, then would My servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews..."(John 18:36). Children of God are to be people of prayer, praying for opportunities to dispense the truth to listening ears. Coercion is never permitted to advance God's kingdom.

Summary

The Bible teaches a separation of Church and State. The State is to protect and preserve basic values which engender social order, such as, Justice, Mercy, Compassion and Equality. The Church is to be God's messenger to a world in desperate need of His truth. God's people are to communicate what God has revealed in His Scripture. The Church affects the State as individual citizens are influenced by God's eternal principles. The State affects the Church by providing a society in which people are free to explore, discuss and choose from the "marketplace of ideas."

Pastor Dennis Clark