Unpacking “Separation of Church and State”

This article is part of the Unpacking Culture series in which we examine a well-known axiom and weigh any true or positive aspects of it against any negative or misleading connotations of the phrase.

What Is the Relationship between Church and State?

The notion of the separation of church and state is a comparatively recent phenomenon, as part of the American experiment in republican government. Historically, at least since the rise of Christendom in the wake of Constantine in the fourth century, church and state have operated with a rather close, though sometimes uncomfortable, alliance. In more recent times, however, separation of church and state has been taken to mean separation of God (or morality) and state, something that it did not mean in earlier American history, with the consequence in our times being that church and state are not only now regarded as distinct, as they long have been, but as having nothing properly to do with each other. In practice, in these especially ethically perplexing times, many seem to think that the relationship is or is meant to be hostile between the two institutions of church and state.

This more recent idea of a divorce between church and state that entails a separation of any sort of divine ethics and state is part of the secularization of culture that we’ve experienced beginning with the Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth Centuries and hastened by the flowering of scientism and post-modernism in the succeeding years. For many now, separation of church and state has come to mean a sundering of the two in a way that would have been foreign to those alive at the time of the American founding, even though many of the founders were influenced by the Enlightenment, reflecting good as well as undesirable fruit that emerged from the Enlightenment.

Empowered Witness

Alan D. Strange

In Empowered Witness, author Alan D. Strange examines the doctrine of the spirituality of the church, urging readers to examine the church’s power and limits and to repress the urge to politicize it.

We live now in a time of pervasive and vicious secularization, what one might call the flowering of the undesirable fruit of the Enlightenment, well-described by Carl Trueman and others in recent works that describe the coarsening of our culture and its discourse. All of this presents an enormous challenge to the church: How do we go forward in such a diverse culture without shared values? Our highly heterogeneous, gender-confused culture is often now openly opposed to the Christian faith as bigoted and hateful; that there is not the sort of epistemological and ethical common ground that was once assumed becomes increasingly apparent.

A Biblical Distinction

The proper distinction between church and state is biblical. It is true that the nomenclature of “separation of church and state” is of American and thus more recent origin. The notion of some sort of proper distinction between those two institutions, however, is found in the Old Testament. While biblical scholars rightly recognize an intertwining of religious and civil concerns that might seem to admit only a melding of the two institutions in the Old Testament, state and church were distinguished early on. Theologians disagree about the precise beginnings of the civil realm, with some pointing to traces of civil government before the fall (necessary even in the natural order), others arguing that the state did not come into existence until after the fall (only necessary in the face of evil), with all agreeing that it is present at the disembarking after the flood when the death penalty was enacted.

The church, as to its origins, can also be seen in Eden and afterward as well, closely associated with but not identical to the family. The distinction between the two was made clear at various points, as in Cain’s murder of his brother and his rejection by God, showing himself not to be, ultimately, a part of the church. The close association of family and church could be seen in Abel, a faithful and obedient worshipper of the true God. We see separate origins, then, for church and state. We also begin to see the relationship between the two in the Hebrew Bible—quite close but distinct.

A Brief History

As for closeness, we see that Israel had a theocracy. However, her theocracy was unlike that of the nations about her. Theocracy in Babylon or Egypt, for instance, meant that the king was divine or semi-divine, ruling as an absolute potentate, and did not necessarily clearly distinguish the civil ruler from the priestly caste. The king in Israel was clearly limited and did not rule absolutely. Additionally, the priesthood and the kingship were clearly meant to be distinguished (as when Uzziah was struck with leprosy for intruding into the domain of the priests). Thus, even in the OT theocracy, there were limits placed on the civil power and a distinction made between the civil ruler and the priesthood.

When the church was given its Great Commission, our Lord did not call on it to Israelize the world (made clear in Acts, particularly in the Jerusalem Council), even as Islam saw its task at the Arabization of the world. He did call on it to go into every nation and teach obedience to Christ, her Lord and Savior. That there was an even sharper distinction in the gospel era between church and state as institutions became immediately clear in the ten waves of persecution experienced by the ancient church as she took the gospel to the world. Christianity was regarded as an illegal religion, and the church had to develop her life separate from the state.

With the conversion of Constantine (312) and the Edict of Milan (313), Christianity went from being illegal to most favored and even established (by the edict of Theodosius I in 380). This propelled the emperor into a role that he had not had in the church, and much strife followed. Augustine, in City of God, unlike Eusebius in his Constantinian triumphalism, argued that the kingdoms of this earth, including the Roman Empire, rise and fall and that only the heavenly kingdom is eternal. Later in that century, the Empire fell in the West (476 A.D.). Into this power vacuum entered the church and particularly the rule of the Bishop of Rome, who came to be called the Pope, unrivaled as a ruler in the West until the rise of the Holy Roman Empire, with Charlemagne, Otto I, and others, in later centuries.

One cannot separate faith and politics because one cannot separate faith and anything.

In the Middle Ages, the Pope and the church came to claim authority over the state. The continuation of the Empire in the East (Byzantine, until 1453) and the East/West split of the church (1054) witnessed the rise of Caesaropapism, in which the emperor claimed primacy and the state claimed authority over the church. The Reformation rejected both the models of church over state (Western) and state over church (Eastern), embracing the notion that both institutions are under God, along with other spheres (like family, education, etc.; to use the terminology of Abraham Kuyper). The Scots, particularly, in rejecting Arminianism, Episcopacy, and Erastianism (a Protestant version of state over church) argued for the spiritual independency of the church, what would become known in the nineteenth century American context as the doctrine of the spirituality of the church.

The American Founding Fathers had various reasons for wanting not only a distinction between church and state but the disestablishment of the church, at least at the national (federal) level—witness the First Amendment to the US Constitution, providing that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” It should be noted that some states continued to have established churches—Massachusetts until 1832, albeit quite Unitarian—and some founders like Patrick Henry wanted that to continue; others, like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, wanted churches everywhere disestablished. The founders did exclude any religious test for office at the national level, raising the ire of covenanting Presbyterians, and some others, who tried then, and still try, to press the “crown rights” of King Jesus in a way that would be recognized in the founding document.

Jefferson, on the one hand, in a famous letter to New England Baptists, made it clear that he favored a “wall of separation” between church and state. Many founders, on the other hand, were quite content, as Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story noted in his famous history of the Constitution, to have no established national church but a kind of recognized generic Protestantism. This sort of general Protestant ethos was reflected in various Supreme Court rulings until more recent times when the Warren Court adduced Jefferson’s quote and many begin to speak of “wall of separation,” almost as if that’s what the First Amendment itself said. Protestantism took a hit with changing immigration patterns, beginning with Roman Catholic immigrations before the Civil War, increasing thereafter, together with Eastern European (including Jewish) immigration. Since the Second World War and immigration reform in the 1960s, we’ve witnessed an even more diverse country in which the old Protestant majority has long ago vanished.

No Way Back

We must learn how best to minister in such a highly variegated culture. To think that we can somehow turn the clock back to some “better” homogeneous time is historical nonsense and dangerous rhetoric to boot. There’s no way of “recovering a Protestant nation” without coercion, and this is certainly not something that the church should be preaching or promoting. It is important to distinguish church and state and always has been. Having said all that, one cannot separate faith and politics because one cannot separate faith and anything. The challenge is both for the Christian, who must behave himself humbly in keeping with our Lord’s teachings and the church as an institution, whose task is chiefly spiritual, in a time of so much open and obvious opposition to the message of the church. We must not and cannot adopt the coercive tactics of the world in proclaiming the good news of Christ, which stands over against this world and its ways, as we seek to live and labor in these challenging times.

Alan D. Strange is the author of Empowered Witness: Politics, Culture, and the Spiritual Mission of the Church.

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