WASHINGTON, May 13, 2012 — The most abused slogan in politics today is, “separation of church and state.” Why do we focus so much on the politics of church-state issues? Probably because both faith and government permeate our lives.
To those antagonistic to a Biblical worldview, church-state separation is the self-evident legal truth that trumps Christian influence in the arena of politics and public policy. Many Christians, on the other hand, hear the moral death rattle of our nation and believe the only hope for current and future generations is a national return to Biblical principles and the wisdom of our founding fathers.
There should be a separation of Church and State. However, by this I mean that each occupies distinct realms or responsibility, yet each has an intrinsic and direct relationship to the other based on Biblical reasoning and wisdom.
Let’s start with what the church (the broad Christian community and the organized church) should not do towards the state. Contrary to historical examples, there’s no Biblical warrant for the church to appoint our government rulers. This would make governmental systems subservient to a religious system, which easily leads to doctrinal orthodoxy being the measure of good standing in a society, and eventually persecution of anyone who believes differently. Also, the church is not commanded to establish and enforce criminal laws to govern all of society, wage war (armed conflict) with other nations, or levy taxes on citizens. These responsibilities are relegated to secular government for the common good (Romans 13:3-6).
On the other hand, the church has incredible responsibilities towards the state. First, we’re to pray for those in authority, whoever they may be (1 Timothy 2:1-2). Second, our duty is to give counsel to leaders on the moral issues of the day: i.e., what constitutes the evil that government is to punish (fulfilling justice), and what’s the good that needs to be encouraged (Proverbs 25:15; 1 Peter 2:13-14).
Next, we’re to influence the wider society for everyone’s benefit through our salt and light (Matthew 5:13-16) and mercy mandates (Matthew 22:39). These not only emulate God’s pattern of love, but if done correctly will instill personal responsibility to do what’s right, which will eventually affect our expectations of government. Finally, the church should be equipping the next generation of local and national leaders (2 Timothy 3:16-17) to ensure government doesn’t exceed its proper, limited, and just role.
What should the state be restrained from doing towards the church? First, it shouldn’t establish its own competitive religion. Not only is this specifically prohibited by the first amendment to the Constitution, but if established it would quickly become both the absolute spiritual authority in our nation and hostile to any competing belief system.
Likewise, government shouldn’t interfere in church spiritual matters (doctrine, preaching, teaching, governance, discipline, etc.) since a secular institution could never be competent to rule on spiritual truth, sin, or the gospel. Even Joseph and Daniel, who had opportunity to do great harm to pagan religions, didn’t do so (Genesis 47:20-26; Daniel 2:24-30). Likewise, knowing that the power to tax is the power to destroy, government should not restrain churches and ministries from thriving and doing good works by forcing them to be revenue sources for state purposes.
Finally, just as our Declaration of Independence clearly indicates, the state should recognize its very existence is dependent upon, and accountable to, an almighty God (Romans 13:1). Given that perspective, the state’s primary role is to punish evil (dispense justice and protect its citizens) and encourage what’s of benefit, consistent with the values our founders built this nation upon (Romans 13:3-4). By protecting the free expression and exercise of our faith, the state ensures it will be influenced by moral standards clearly reflecting timeless Biblical truths that recognize the true nature of man and the need for order.
Is this an exhaustive listing? Of course not. But it does illustrate some key, complementary relationships between matters of faith and the duties of a secular government. Although the details have been developing since our nation’s founding, we know that any unhealthy balance will only breed friction and confusion. Unfortunately, with the incredible growth in power in all branches government in recent decades, a respectful balance has been disrupted to the point where faith is now routinely excluded from the public realm of governance.
Can a proper, healthy respect and balance be recovered? That remains to be seen as the wider Christian community determines whether it will fulfill its citizenship responsibilities, particularly since “we the people” are also the government.
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