“I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.”
– Thomas Jefferson
If you have ever had a discussion about the application of biblical law in our country’s legislation, you have most likely heard the argument, “That is a violation of the separation of church and state!” Many of those who make this argument will point to various horrific points throughout history where church and state were merged, and then claim on such basis that any biblical influence on legislation will inevitably result in persecution of unbelievers, heretics, and supposed witches. Then often comes the comparison to ISIS and Sharia Law, and so on. The only biblical support offered is generally, “Christ’s kingdom is not of this world,” ignoring the fact that Christians are also said not to be of this world, while at the same time being in it. If we are to truly be bereans, whose worldviews are grounded in solid biblical truth, then these arguments do not contain ample evidence to convince us. On the contrary, according to scripture and the original intent of our country’s founding fathers, we find a much different sort of separation than that which is preached by the atheist or pietistic Christian. Instead of a prohibition of all interaction of the two, we will rather find that the separation of church and state is the biblical doctrine of two separate institutions that are both under the direct authority of God.
It has been the belief of many that the United States is a Christian nation. While it is certainly true that many of our nation’s founders were protestant Christians, belief in Christ was quite certainly not unanimous. But what is clear is that our nation’s founding fathers were nearly unanimously theistic, whether Christian or not. The Declaration of Independence and Constitution are both written with the presupposition that there is a God, under whose direct authority are the individual, the church, and the state. This idea stood in stark contrast with the idea which had dominated the West for centuries, that the institutional church had to mediate for individuals and the state. In order to avoid a repeat of the persecution that they had endured from the Church of England, this revolutionary idea sought to keep the state from enforcing a specific religious affiliation on its citizens. This did not mean that politicians could not pass legislation from a theistic or Christian perspective, as this would have made the Constitution itself unlawful. Rather, it simply made sure that the church and state remained separate institutions, as is intended by God.
The Biblical Doctrine
Regardless of what the founding fathers thought, the primary reason we should believe the idea of separation of church and state is because its basis is in scripture. While the words, “separation of church and state” are not found anywhere in the Bible (just as the word “trinity” is not), the doctrine is certainly there. In Romans 13, Paul says, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God… for [the person in authority] is God’s servant for your good” (Romans 13:1,4). This makes clear that government is not a separate kingdom from that which God presides over, but is rather an institution given to humanity by God, by his common grace. Those in authority are called servants of God, which implies, quite obviously, that they are intended to serve God. They are directly under His authority, and must rule according to His righteous judgements. They are to reward good and punish evil. And in regards to the church, we are commanded here to obey the governing authorities. This implies that there is certain authority which the state is given that the church does not have, but instead must submit to. This does not imply complete obedience, as there comes a point at which the church must say, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). But as far as the civil magistrate does not contradict the law of God, his words are to be obeyed as if they were themselves the law of God.
On the other hand, Christ said to the church, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19). There is a sort of authority which is here given to the church, which is separate from that of the state. It is a spiritual sort of authority. We do not have the power to execute vengeance on our enemies, but rather are called to love our enemies (Matthew 5:44) and overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21). Instead of the state’s approach to restraining evil, which is the sword, we respond with the gospel of the kingdom. This is a far more powerful authority. Through the proclamation of this gospel, we bear the power for salvation to all who believe. It raises dead men to life, and turns enemies into brothers. Additionally, we have been given the authoritative word of God. And we are commanded to take that authoritative word and teach it to the nations, making them disciples of our Teacher and King. Furthermore, it is the task of the church to care for widows and orphans (James 1:27), and to be willing and cheerful in generosity (2 Corinthians 9:7). This implies that it is not the role of the state to care for the needy and enforce generosity through higher taxation, but rather that needs in the community are the responsibility of the church.
Where The Two Meet
So, now that we have defined the nature of the separation, we must now see how the two overlap. Lutherans believe in a doctrine called “Two Kingdoms”, in which the church and state are two separate kingdoms of God. This always leaves me scratching my head, wondering where Christ ever said, “Repent, for the two distinct kingdoms of heaven are at hand!” Instead, the church and state are two separate institutions within one kingdom. And being within the singular world-wide precinct of Christ’s reign, the two must often interact with one another. While the two are never to take on the authority of the other, they are not called to pretend the other does not exist. The state is to be a servant of God for the good of its citizens, protecting their God-given rights, including the freedom to worship and believe as they may, and to give approval to those who do good.
In regards to the church, having the authority of the written word of God, it is to be the conscience of the state. Some may object that if the state takes the advice of the church, then it is enforcing religious beliefs, and therefore violating the “wall of separation”. But this person is ignorant to the fact, as many are, that all laws imply a moral standard. And all moral standards stem from a worldview, whether atheistic or theistic. Therefore, by their definition of the separation, any law is unlawful, as any law presupposes a certain worldview. But based on the idea of separation, when understood properly, the church has the authority, in the word of God, to challenge any law and call legislators to repent. In fact, the state cannot function as it must unless the church does so. As Paul writes, “How are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” (Romans 10:14). The state cannot know their responsibilities if the church is not preaching the word of God to them, and consistently holding them accountable. Martin Luther King Jr. rightly said, “The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority.”
Christ As King of kings
All in all, next time you are presented with the “separation of church and state” argument when discussing attempts to pass God-honoring legislation, bash ‘em over the head with biblical truth… in a gentle manner. And to those whose Christianity has up to this point been confined to a private, personal religion, I exhort you to look to Christ not only as Lord of your heart, but also Lord of all the earth. All thrones, dominions, rulers and authorities were created through Him and for Him (Colossians 1:16). All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Him (Matthew 28:18). Therefore, do not be afraid to stand before kings or governors or presidents in interposition for the oppressed. Rather, go and boldly proclaim Christ as King of kings before all men.
What Is The Relationship Between The Church And State? by R.C. Sproul
A Christian Manifesto by Francis Schaeffer