CALIFORNIA, February 7, 2014 — To those who are hostile to a Biblical worldview, the phrase “separation of church and state” is a self-evident, legal truth that trumps all Christian influence in politics and public policy.
Many Christians, however, think the only hope to reverse our nation’s moral death spiral and restraint on religious freedoms is renewed national respect for Biblical principles and the godly wisdom of our founding fathers.
On this side of Christ’s return, the church and state cannot be one and the same. Each occupies a separate realm of authority and responsibility, but they also have an intrinsic and direct relationship to each other consistent with Biblical truth, wisdom and reasoning.
There’s no Biblical imperative for the church to establish and enforce criminal laws to govern society, wage war with other nations, or levy taxes on citizens. These responsibilities are relegated to secular government for the common good of all (Romans 13:3-6).
On the other hand, the church has high responsibilities towards the state.
First is to pray for those in authority, whether they’re godly or not (1 Timothy 2:1-2). Second is to counsel leaders on moral issues so government fulfills its justice mandate to punish evil and encourage good (Proverbs 25:15; 1 Peter 2:13-17). Next, the church is to influence the wider community for the common good through its salt and light (Matthew 5:13-16; Jeremiah 29:4-7) and mercy mandates (Matthew 22:39).
By emulating God’s pattern of love, the church is uniquely qualified to help people confront their sinful actions and assume responsibility for their lives. As people become more mature citizens, they will naturally want to select leaders for public office who won’t abuse governmental power for political gain. The church should be equipping and holding accountable 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 religion. Not only is this specifically prohibited by the Constitution, but a state-supported belief system would quickly become an absolute spiritual authority and hostile to any competing belief system. Likewise, government shouldn’t interfere in spiritual matters — doctrine, preaching, teaching, governance, worship, discipline, etc. — since a secular institution is not competent to rule on spiritual truth, sin, or the gospel. Even Joseph and Daniel, who had opportunity to do great harm to pagan religions, chose not to do so (Genesis 47:20-26; Daniel 2:24-30). Also, knowing that the power to tax is the power to destroy, government shouldn’t burden churches or ministries from 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 existence is dependent upon, and accountable to, an almighty God (Romans 13:1). Given that perspective, the state’s primary role is to dispense justice, protect its citizens and encourage what’s of benefit, consistent with our founders values (Proverbs 14:34). By protecting the free exercise of our faith, the state ensures its continued openness to be influenced by moral standards reflecting Biblical truths concerning the true nature of man and the need for order.
Although not an exhaustive list, the above illustrates some key, complementary relationships between matters of faith and the duties of government. Obviously, the outworking of this relationship has been ongoing since Christ’s first advent. We also know that any unhealthy balance between these two powerful entities will only breed friction and confusion. Unfortunately for our nation the incredible growth in government power in recent decades has disrupted any respectful balance to the point where faith is now routinely excluded from the public realm of governance.
The question now becomes: can a proper, healthy respect and balance be restored?
That question will be answered in the years ahead as the wider Christian community decides if it will fulfill its citizenship responsibilities — particularly since “we the people” are also the government.
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