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Separation of Church and State

By October 10, 2006June 6th, 2014No Comments

Where do we draw the line?

by Scott Greening

A fire recently gutted a historic and culturally significant church on the South Side of Chicago. In the aftermath of the tragedy, the governor of Illinois committed one million dollars in state funds to aid in the reconstruction of this still active church. Immediate outcries erupted from the media and Illinois residents; the federal law regarding the separation of church and state had been violated.

In Pennsylvania a federal judge ruled that public school curriculum on the subject of Intelligent Design is creationism in disguise and therefore cannot be taught in the classroom. The basis for this judge’s decision was the constitutional separation of church and state. One of the groups that helped bring about the lawsuit is known as the Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Incidents like these continue to highlight one of the historic distinctives of Baptist heritage: separation of church and state. Attempts have been made from either side of the issue to distort the true historic understanding of this important doctrine. As Baptists, we must promote in our churches the historic Baptist conviction of separation of church and state.

Promoting a conviction of the church’s separation from the state must start with comprehending the exact parameters of separation. Some, like the Americans United for Separation of Church and State, encourage people to believe that any religious influence on matters of public policy is a violation of the separation principle. Others, like the governor of Illinois, seem to allow the state broader participation in financing church matters. The key parameters of the historic doctrine of separation of church and state can be stated in seven principles. Four assert what separation of church and state is not, and three assert what separation of church and state is.

Separation of church and state is not . . .

eparation of church and state is not a dismissal of any religious influence on the government, school boards, or other public offices. Christ’s model prayer in Matthew 6:9-13 reminds us to pray that “Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Christ’s Kingdom is a future event that will be inaugurated at His second coming, but we should still desire God’s will to be done on earth.

One way to encourage people to behave in accordance with God’s revealed will is to support laws that are consistent with the Word of God. Matthew 14:1-4 informs us that John the Baptist had been imprisoned for challenging an unlawful decision Herod had made. First Timothy 2:1 and 2 exhort that “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men, for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence.” We are to pray, focusing on a public policy that enables a quiet, peaceable, godly life.

Separation of church and state is not a call for Christians to avoid the political process.
Church members must fulfill their civic duties. Romans 13:1 affirms this: “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God.” Obedience to the government is a Christian duty. A simple illustration of this obedience is voting in elections. As individual Christians, we have a responsibility to vote for those who will best represent our Christian values. Another example is maintaining a positive attitude when serving on a jury, since jury duty is an opportunity to extend Biblical justice. Beyond these basic requirements of obedience, individual Christians should participate in the political process as much as they feel led. We need strong Christians to run for public office, serve as advisors, and support worthy candidates. However, this principle is often misapplied. Churches can encourage individual participation, but churches must not be involved in the political process as an institution. Political reform is never a primary task of the church as an entity.

Separation of church and state is not a secularization of morals.
Morality ultimately finds its origin in God. Romans 2:15 communicates that all people have “the work of the law written in their hearts.” Our government has historically held this position, as evidenced by the phrase “In God we trust” found on our currency. However, in the past several decades a significant shift has occurred. Our government generally no longer supports a God-based morality, instead attempting to base morality entirely on the secular or human. A God-based morality must be promoted in believers and unbelievers alike. Separating the church and state does not in any way prevent God’s standards from influencing public morality. It is imperative that in our churches we teach individuals what Biblical morality is so they will be equipped to recognize and support a God-centered value system.

Separation of church and state is not a permanent necessity.
Revelation 20 encourages us with our future hope of Christ’s millennial reign. Then God will physically rule the earth.

Separation of church and state is . . .

Separation of church and state disallows a government to adopt a particular religion or denomination as its state religion.
Matthew 22:21 reminds us that there are things that are Caesar’s and things that are God’s. God wants to work in people’s lives, and He has given them a will. He does not want people to be coerced by the state in the matter of faith. Incidentally, Baptist teachings have probably never been chosen by a government as an official religion. When the religion of a reformer such as Luther was adopted as the religion of a national entity, Baptist teaching was not a permitted choice.

Separation of church and state is a refusal to allow the state to provide incentives for Christianity (or any other religion).
John 18:36 and 2 Corinthians 10:3 and 4 are two passages that remind us that worldly means of persuasion are not appropriate. In the past the use of force has been utilized as a government “incentive” for religious choices. This practice must be denounced. The use of rewards must also be denounced. Government subsidies of church-based humanitarian aid such as soup kitchens and homeless shelters are not appropriate. The provision of government assistance to “faith-based” programs of any kind is also a violation of this principle. Churches should strive to have these types of mercy ministries, but government incentives or assistance in them is not Biblical. No matter how attractive the reward, churches and ministries must refuse a positive government incentive for Christianity. If a church or ministry accepts a reward, there is no argument to prevent a future reward for another religion and the withholding of the reward given for choosing Christianity.

Separation of church and state is a promotion of religious liberty.
As Baptists, we have a duty to fight virtually all religious sanctions, or boycotts. Uncomfortable as this may make us feel when a religion with which we vehemently disagree is being sanctioned, we must fight to maintain religious liberty for all. We promote religious liberty because historically when religious sanctions have been imposed, Baptists have suffered the most egregious losses of religious liberty. Examples of this fact abound. For example, in 1528 Balthazar Hubmeyer was burned at the stake because he was not allowed the liberty of being a Baptist. In 1644 a Massachusetts law was created, ultimately leading to several arrests and the whipping of Obadiah Holmes. Mr. Holmes’s crime was his Baptist convictions. We also promote religious liberty because of another distinctive Baptist doctrine: individual soul liberty (Romans 14:5, 12; 2 Corinthians 4:2; Titus 1:9).

Confusion on the doctrine of separation of church and state permeates most conversations on the subject. Some would like to weaken the meaning of separation to allow government aid to be funneled into church budgets and programs. Others would like to strengthen the principle of separation so as not to allow any religion or belief in the public forum.

As Baptists, we must have clear, confident convictions regarding this key distinctive. We must also have the strong conviction that the gospel message is the real agent of change in our world. Government reform will come when citizens of our country believe the gospel and live out its implications and standards, rather than when churches organize political lobbying and activist groups.

Scott Greening is associate pastor of outreach and discipleship at Faith Baptist Church, Mason City, Iowa.

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