Separation of Church and State?

What do you think of the idea of separation of church and state?

It all depends on what you mean by it. If you mean, “Do I believe the government of the church should be kept separate from the government of the state”, then yes I’m all for it. The church should not be a department of the state nor the state a ministry of the church. Each has its own officers and its own sphere of responsibility.

But if you mean, “Do I believe in the separation of God from government”, which is what most who cry “separation of church and state” mean, then no, I don’t believe it for moment. The state, no less than the church, has a responsibility to acknowledge God and to be subject to him.

Now therefore, O kings, be wise;
be warned, O rulers of the earth.
Serve the Lord with fear,
and rejoice with trembling
Kiss the Son,
lest he be angry, and you perish in the way,
for his wrath is quickly kindled.
Blessed are all who take refuge in him (Ps. 2:10-12)

Those who hold office in civil government have a responsibility not only to live faithfully as Christians in their private lives, but also to govern faithfully as Christians in their public office, publicly acknowledging the Lord and governing in terms of his word. Much of the Bible, in fact, is given as instruction to those who hold public office—the case laws of the OT, for instance. God tells Moses, “These are the judgments [i.e., rulings] that you are to set before” the elders and judges of the people (Ex. 21:1; cf. Deut. 1:17). Civil magistrates are not to rule on their own authority, but are to look to God’s law as a guide in terms of the proper scope of government, as well as in terms of specific pieces of legislation, and in terms of how to rule in criminal cases.

Not only this, but much of the material in the prophets is a denunciation of kings and princes and judges for failing to uphold God’s law. And the prophets call the rulers to repentance.

Church and state each have their own particular spheres of responsibility. The state has two chief responsibilities. First, it is to defend its citizens against foreign invasion. Second, it is to maintain domestic order by enforcing laws against what God defines as criminal behavior.

The church, on the other hand, is to teach the word of God and be a center for his public worship. So church and state each have their own responsibilities, but both are under the authority of God and his word.

Leaders in civil government ought to be members of the church who listen to the teaching of God’s word and faithfully apply it to their calling as public officials. This was, in fact, a requirement in the early days of our nation. The colonies, and later, after the War for Independence, the states, had religious tests for public office-holders. As a part of the swearing in ceremony officials had to swear that they believed in the Christian religion and in the divinity of Christ, and that they accepted the Bible as God’s own revealed word.

It is unfortunate that our nation’s founding documents are not more explicit in this respect. Our Founders seem to have shied away from requiring a religious test for national office (i.e., they didn’t require a profession of faith in Jesus Christ), not because they were hoping to establish a secular society, but because that was deemed something properly to be taken care of at the state level. The states had their own religious tests, so that those sent to Washington had to meet the state religious requirements.

The Founders seem to have taken it for granted that ours was a Christian nation and the states would send Christian men to serve in the Federal government and so they didn’t see the need to express themselves more fully on this point in our founding documents. In the Declaration we have mention made of the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” And it is said “all Men are created equal,” and that they are “endowed by his Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” In the Constitution we have an acknowledgement of the Lord’s Day, and the date of its passage is said to be “the Seventeenth Day of September in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty seven.”

So there is clearly a Christian presupposition in these documents, and the Lord is referenced. But as I say, we could wish the Founders had been prescient enough to have seen the need to give a fuller account of these things so that there would not be so much confusion today concerning their original intentions.

One of the Founders, Patrick Henry, actually protested the Constitution in part because there was not a more explicit reference to Jesus Christ and an open acknowledgement of him as the universal sovereign.


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