Updated: Oct 20, 2020
The “Separation of Church and State” is, perhaps, the most misunderstood political phrase of all time. It is frequently quoted to advocate the removal of religious values from public life. But is this accurate? Interestingly, the term first appears in a letter by Thomas Jefferson, one of the American Founding Fathers, to the Danbury Baptists. In it, he reassured them that their right to practice Christianity would not be restricted by government legislation.
Originally, the idea of the separation of Church and State comes from the Bible. It teaches that God established three unique “units” of government: family government, the civil (political) authority and the Christian church structure. The confusion arises, principally, from the two different definitions of the word ‘church’. Firstly, in the Bible, the Church is called Jesus’ body and bride. It is a worldwide collection of born again Christians. The second definition is not directly found in Scripture. It is a modern invention gleaned from the structure of Church leadership laid out in the New Testament. This definition refers to the “institutional” Church or the “corporate” Church and is probably what you think of when the word is used. This is the definition of the word “Church” that the famous phrase is using. Primarily, the separation Thomas Jefferson speaks of addresses the association between the institutions of Church and State, not between Christians and the Government - a separate subject altogether.
While no particular event can claim full credit for bringing about the famed church and state conflict, the most significant was probably the AD 380 Edict of Thessalonica, when emperors Theodosius I, Gratian, and Valentinian II made Christianity the Roman Empire’s state religion. People often believe, incorrectly, that Constantine, the first Christian Emperor, was responsible for making Christianity Rome’s “state religion”. This is false. Constantine, in the Edict of Milan, allowed for Christians to worship without fear of discrimination from the government. The Edict of Thessalonica was penned almost half a century after his death. Essentially, this resulted in a state takeover of the institutional church.
In the age of the early church, Christians lived under intense oppression from the authorities. Eventually, however, attitudes began to change and soon there were even Christians amongst the aristocracy and civil leadership. The most significant difference between before the Edict of Thessalonica and after it was this: beforehand, the institutional church was a clearly separate entity to the secular government. Afterwards, it was simply a part of the civil government - or as Charles Colson calls it, a "department of spiritual affairs". The principle of separate institutions lines up with what Scripture teaches: the government is a distinct unit “ordained by God” to “administer justice.” It is necessary to note, however, that nowhere does the Bible prohibit or even discourage individual, principled Christian involvement in, or lobbying of, the civil authority. In fact, even the corporate church is called to be, as Martin Luther King put it, the state’s “conscience”. Unhappily, over time the union of the Catholic Church in the Roman government developed to a point where the two were virtually indistinguishable.
During the Medieval age - when the alliance of church and state was at its worst - many civil/religious dilemmas emerged. Eventually, because of its close association, the church was incapable of becoming an effective force for moral virtue within the government. Why? It had been infiltrated from within. Author and scholar, David Bentley Hart describes the conflict as a ‘constant struggle between the power of the gospel to alter and shape society and the power of the state to absorb every useful institution into itself.' The church was recognised by the civil authority as a “useful institution” because it would enable them to dominate the minds of the masses. The government had clearly overstepped its Biblical boundaries.
On occasion, Christian influence within the church and government was a force for good. For example, during the witch-hunts of the 14th and 15th centuries. Hart explains that: “British laws making sorcery a capital offense were passed only in 1542 and 1563, well after Crown and state had been made supreme over the English church…In 1542, the Concordat of Liege, [published] under the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (1500-1558), placed the prosecution of sorcery entirely in the hands of secular tribunals. This was also, perhaps not coincidentally, precisely the time at which the great witch hunt began in earnest.” Sadly, more often than not, the church’s policy was absorbed into that of the government to a point where its moral convictions were cast aside in the face of populist, pagan superstition - fueled by secular authorities. Throughout history, Christianity has been an indispensable part of the fight for moral progress, however, as discussed here, church institutions have often been hijacked by secular governmental forces.
Today, there is a visible divide in opinion amongst Christians as to the purpose of the Church in the political process. More than ever before, the prevailing view is that Christians should avoid anything to do with government. People of this conviction cite verses like Titus 3:9, which says to “avoid foolish quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless.” As a direct result of this withdrawal, countries like Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand and many European nations have experienced a distinct, steady decay in ethical standards. Often, this anti-political stance stems from the aforementioned confusion surrounding the meaning of the word “Church”. The United States is an intriguing exception to this trend as its Christian population have been actively involved in lobbying the government on moral issues.
Interestingly, while many of the founders of the United States were not Christian Theists, they did recognise the importance of Christian ethics in the public square. Even in America, though, an increasingly antagonistic anti-Christian lobby has succeeded in shutting down much of the Church’s influence - effectively silencing the state’s “conscience”. Particularly in public schools and other government institutions, state representatives are expected to work in a "secular" fashion. Nevertheless, in light of rising hostility, the western Christian Church is beginning to take a stand and is becoming increasingly vocal on matters of Biblical significance.
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