The Separation of Church and State


The Separation of Church and State

The separation of church and state is a phrase that predates the Constitution and Bill of Rights.  The phrase is a philosophical concept often attributed to Thomas Jefferson. The words themselves were actually a “wall of separation between church and state” in a letter from Jefferson to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802 when he was explaining the application of the First Amendment (Freedom of Speech).  The actual words are not in the Constitution or the Bill of Rights.  The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment did place the idea on paper, but limited the wording to, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” 

However, prior to that, the idea was present in the new colonies and stemmed from a Puritan minister, Roger Williams, after he was expelled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony, a Puritan theocracy, in 1636.  He advocated for religious freedom, separation of church and state, and tried to end slavery.  Somewhat flipping the idea, Williams believed that any government involvement in the church would corrupt the church. Two years later he founded the First Baptist Church in America in Providence, Rhode Island. 

Well before even Williams’ declaration of separation, Martin Luther in 1528 preached on the two kingdoms model: the kingdom of law, or the State, and the kingdom of grace. John Locke, the English philosopher, expounded on the idea in the late 1600’s. Much of the liberty associated with the Constitution derived from Locke’s writings.  Locke wrote about the concept of separation of church and state at a time when Protestantism was England’s official religion. He stated that the State cannot judge religious virtue because it cannot look into man’s soul.  He also stated that civil laws are to protect life, liberty, and property while religion is to protect one’s soul.  He argued that a state cannot rule on matters of religion because there can be no civil punishment that would cause a person to have faith. No amount of laws or force can save a man’s soul.  Yet the Christian religion has tried since nearly the beginning of time to have an earthly authority over people’s hearts and minds. 

It is my belief that the idea of the separation between church and state goes clear back to Old Testament times.  In 1 Samuel 8, the back and forth dedication of the Israelites had worn poor Samuel down and he was old in age.  The people asked Samuel to appoint a king to rule over them.  Their excuse was that it was good enough for other countries so it would be good for them.  Samuel asked the Lord.  The Lord told Samuel that the people didn’t reject Samuel, they were rejecting the Lord as their king.  The Lord agreed to give them a king but told Samuel to warn them. 

11 “This is how your king will treat you,” Samuel explained. “He will make soldiers of your sons; some of them will serve in his war chariots, others in his cavalry, and others will run before his chariots. 12 He will make some of them officers in charge of a thousand men, and others in charge of fifty men. Your sons will have to plow his fields, harvest his crops, and make his weapons and the equipment for his chariots. 13 Your daughters will have to make perfumes for him and work as his cooks and his bakers. 14 He will take your best fields, vineyards, and olive groves, and give them to his officials. 15 He will take a tenth of your grain and of your grapes for his court officers and other officials. 16 He will take your servants and your best cattle and donkeys, and make them work for him. 17 He will take a tenth of your flocks. And you yourselves will become his slaves. 18 When that time comes, you will complain bitterly because of your king, whom you yourselves chose, but the Lord will not listen to your complaints.”

Later in chapter 12 the people realized the mistake of asking for an earthly king, an authority other than God alone. 

Even at Christ’s birth, the people were looking for a king that would save the nation of Israel.  At the time, the Roman government controlled the land with a heavy hand.  King Herod was nervous about the announcement of the birth of the Jewish King. 

At the last supper, the disciples argued about how the assumed earthly kingdom would look and what their positions would be in the new kingdom after Jesus had been talking about the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God.  As stated in Luke 22:24-26 (also Reference Matthew 20:20-28):

24 “A dispute also arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest. 25 Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. 26 But you are not to be like that. Instead the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves.”

In John Gill’s Exposition of the Bible, he states, “for otherwise Christ’s kingdom would appear like the nations of the world, and to be of a worldly nature; whereas it is spiritual, and does not lie in worldly pomp and grandeur, and in external superiority and pre-eminence of one another; but in the spiritual administration of the word and ordinances.”

And as a final example, let’s look to Christ’s temptation. In Matthew 4:8-10, at the third temptation when Christ was led to the top of the mountain and shown all the kingdoms of the world, Satan said, “All of this I will give you if you bow down and worship me.”  Jesus’ response was, “Away from me Satan? For it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.” Christ knew that becoming an earthly king would not accomplish God’s purpose.  He made it clear that we are to only serve God.

With all of these examples, why does the Christian seem so bent on getting into politics?  I have had very strong political beliefs over the years.  But the more I study, the more I realize the error of my ways.  It is clear to me in the Bible that the Church and State are to be separate, even to the point of abstaining from involvement in politics altogether as Jesus told the Disciples that they were “not to be like that.”  As God warned Samuel, it was wrong for the people to ask for a king to rule over them.  In 1 Samuel 12:19, the people said they had added to their sins by asking for a king to the point of even calling it evil.  Unfortunately, the devotion and worship of the State has increased way beyond simply asking for a ruler other than God.  It is even my conviction that voting is the same as asking for a ruler other than God, which is why I abstain from voting.  For clarity, I am not telling you that it is a sin to vote, for we are all called to work out our own salvation.

Somewhere in our past the American churches seem to have developed a sense of elitism thinking that the United States is God’s new chosen people. America is not the promised land.  God loves all his children, even those in Russia or North Korea or Afghanistan or Iraq or Cuba or Venezuela.  If someone in China believes and accepts Christ as their Savior, they do not automatically become American Christian Republicans at the same time.  They become citizens not of this world (Ref. Philippians 3:20). 

I look at the United States as a mission field and not a place for changing a broken system of government.  If a missionary goes to any other country, they go to change the hearts and minds of the people by introducing Jesus’ love to them.  Yet in America, the Church seems intent on affecting change in government and the nation.  I’m not sure I understand that.  You cannot legislate morality.  And you cannot legislate Christian principles, salvation, or devotion.  The election of a particular leader will not cause a soul to be saved.  That is not the job of a government.  It is the job of the Christian. As Locke stated, “the care of souls is not the magistrate’s business.”  By praying for a particular candidate to win in an election, is the Church, like the Israelites of Samuel’s days, rejecting the authority of the Lord as their King?

If the Christian is meant to be involved in the political process, why didn’t the Ultimate Authority of Christ accept the offer to rule over all the kingdoms of the world?  He knew that He already owned the kingdoms.  However, if it wasn’t the right way for Christ to rule the earthly kingdom through earthly authority, it is not the right way for His followers. Christ knew that people’s hearts and minds would be more affected by personal experiences with Christians and not through laws or regulations. 

Like the inefficiency of any government program, there is a huge inefficiency of placing so much time and money in the election of a candidate that historically will not effect change for the American church. Think of the changes that could be made to the hearts and souls of the people not just in America, but the world over, if we used that time and money for His kingdom.  What if the Christian made a total separation from the State and made every effort to show Christ’s love through action to those across the aisle, those across town, those in the house next door, or those friends online?  

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4 thoughts on “The Separation of Church and State

  1. Well written and thought provoking! Thanks also for the history behind that phrase…very interesting.

  2. Jacob
    This is a well thought out position on the separation of church and state. I would like to counter on a couple of points. First, there is a vast difference between Israel under a theocratic government and a democratic republic that we live under. While I wholeheartedly agree that God’s original plan was for man to live solely under the reign and rule of God alone, this is obviously not what exists today. So, we are faced as believers to exist and thrive under the form of government that exists in the US. Tremendous examples of believers could be offered of how the influence of believers changed the state by their thought and actions of faith. I would suggest Martin Luther as one such example.
    Second, your decision to not vote is strictly your decision. I would suggest that God has provided the believer the opportunity to affect change by their vote. After all we are voting for representative government and not our Sovereign King. I liken it to the availability of beneficial drugs to treat the sick. We can choose to not take the medicine and we are free to do but we must live with the consequences.
    Last, I look at Christians involved in politics as a part of an apologetic effort. Much like Paul in Athens giving a defense of the gospel, so too Christians are given the opportunity to enter the public forum and to engage the culture by advocating biblical principles. I am not advocating American principles here but biblical principles such as the definition of biblical marriage.
    Thanks again for your position and thought to this subject.

    1. Sean, it is absolutely great to hear from you!! I hope all is well. I truly appreciate your comments and how well on-point they are. This is why I chose the forum of a blog rather than the drive-by comments of Facebook. So for me, and I know how tiny of a minority I am in, the form of government does not change the Word of God. Granted I would much rather live under a free form of government than an oppressive form, but even under an oppressive form, Paul and Peter and others like them were able to spread the Good News like wildfire. And those people like Martin Luther, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and even Martin Luther King, Jr., used the power of the pulpit to effect social change to move society, and thus hopefully the individual soul, closer to God rather than the forceful arm of government. For that we are in absolute agreement. And we are in agreement that we can change culture through biblical principals. I just feel that more can be achieved for the Eternal Kingdom by loving the opposition and truly showing that love rather than trying to win one for the team. Man! I miss our college “chats”. Love you! Hope the family is well.

      1. Jacob
        Yeah it is great to talk to you as well. Miss our conversation and time together. We were just talking about you and Heather a few weeks back following Marsha Lindenmuth’s funeral. Keep writing my friend. Wonderful stuff. Love you guys and miss you

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