Updated: Dec 21, 2022
What did the separation of church and state look like during the so-called "dark ages" – the mediaeval period? The answer is not straightforward. It is one of conflict and confusion.
To answer it, we need some background on the usage of the term "separation of church and state" as well as its historic development as a practice.
The Separation of Church and State
“The separation of church and state” may be the most misunderstood political phrase of all time. It's frequently invoked to support the removal of religious values from public life.
But is this usage accurate?
Interestingly, the term first appears in a letter by Thomas Jefferson, one of the American Founding Fathers, to the Danbury Baptists. In that letter, he reassures them that their right to practice Christianity would not be restricted by government legislation.
He references a "wall of separation" between the church and the state to illustrate his point.
Biblical Ideas: Two Kinds of "Church"
Arguably, the idea of the separation of Church and State originally comes from the Bible. Many Christians hold that the Bible recognises different unique “units” of government, including family government, civil (political) authority and the internal Christian Church structure.
There are two ways that Christians speak of the 'Church', and both have their roots in the Bible.
Firstly, in the New Testament, the Church is called Jesus’ Body and Bride. On this understanding, the Church is a worldwide collection of Christians – of those who follow Jesus.
The second understanding of 'Church' is not directly found in Scripture. It is a later invention deduced from the pattern of Church leadership laid out in the New Testament. According to this usage of the word, the Church is an institution or a corporate, physical manifestation of the worldwide Church.
The second meaning of the word is the one that is dominant today (particularly in secular circles). This is the understanding we are drawing on when we speak of the church building as 'Church' and when we say that we are 'going to Church'. It is also the concept in mind when we refer to different denominations – i.e., the 'Catholic Church', the 'Episcopalian Church', etc. – as 'Churches'.
It appears that it is also this second definition of the word 'Church' that is used in the phrase, "the separation of church and state". Hence, the term was originally referring to a separation between the institutions of the Church and the State. This is consistent with the Biblical understanding of the separation.
Similarly, the separation Thomas Jefferson speaks of addresses the association between the institutions of Church and State, not between Christians and the Government.
Conflict Between Church and State: A History
No particular event can claim full credit for bringing about the famed church and state conflict. However, 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.
FACT CHECK: People often mistakenly believe that Constantine, the first Christian Emperor, was responsible for making Christianity Rome’s “state religion”.
This is false.
In the Edict of Milan, Constantine allowed Christians to worship without fear of discrimination from the government.
On the other hand, the Edict of Thessalonica was penned almost half a century after Constantine's death. Although its effects would not be felt fully for centuries, it eventually led to what can be described as 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 even some of the aristocracy and civil leadership converted to Christianity.
One of the most significant changes in the Roman Empire following the Edict of Thessalonica was that the Church became simply a part of the civil government – or, as Charles Colson calls it, a "department of spiritual affairs".
Over time the union between the Catholic Church and the Roman government developed until the two were virtually indistinguishable.
During the Mediaeval Age, when the relationship between Church and State was at its closest, many civil and religious dilemmas emerged. Eventually, because of its close association, the church was incapable of becoming an effective force for moral virtue within the government.
It had been effectively 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 Biblically-understood boundaries, but by then the Church had become too corrupt to see its error.
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.
Church and State Today
Today, there is a visible divide in opinion amongst Christians regarding 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 the 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 transformation in ethical standards.
This anti-political stance often stems from the confusion surrounding the meaning of the word “Church”. People invoke the separation of Church and State to argue that Christians and other religious people should stay out of politics altogether.
The United States is an intriguing exception to this secular trend as its Christian population has 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 what many believe to be 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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