A Proper Understanding of Separation of the Church and State
Today’s application of the principle of separation of church state reflects neither the Biblical or U.S. Constitutional design or intention. It is vital to properly understand what proper and accurate separation of the church and state looks like.
Biblical Principle of the Separation of the Roles of the Church and State.
The separation of the roles of the civil government and the church can be traced back to Moses and Aaron. “When God established civil government for His people Israel, He placed Moses over the civil affairs and Aaron over the spiritual ones (Leviticus 8, Numbers 3)—the nation was one, but the jurisdictions were two, with two separate leaders over each” emphasis added (The Founders Bible, 2012, p. 683). This clear and distinct division of roles continues throughout the rest of the Bible.
There is no limitation of religious influence upon the civil government.
There are a large number of examples of Godly influence upon those in civil government roles; never are these influences painted in any way but positive.
Kings were required to copy the entirety of the law they were tasked to live in accordance to and expected to enforce (Deuteronomy 17: 18-20).
Samuel advised and confronted Saul; Nathan advised and corrected David; numerous priests and prophets were directed to confront wayward Kings; many wise Kings went before the Lord through priests and prophets for guidance; Joseph made no attempt to hide God’s influence when advising Pharaoh; and Daniel advised and provided counsel to three significant world leaders (Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, Darius of the Medes, Cyrus of Persia).
Jehoiada the Priest intervened to protect King Joash from Queen Athaliah when she tried to murder royal offspring and usurp the throne. Jehoiada continued to counsel the king until his death. King Joash did well so long as Jehoiada was alive and influencing; after Jehoiada died and his influenced stopped, the King turned completely to evil and wrong doing (2 Kings 11 – 12; 2 Chronicles 22-24).
This pattern of religious influence continued in the New Testament through John the Baptist confronting King Herod, Philip converting the Ethiopian official, and Paul going before numerous government leaders.
God clearly wants and condones religious influence upon the government.
There were limitations placed upon civil government interfering with church affairs.
There are clear limitations upon civil government leaders as shown by those who overstepped their roles.
King Saul’s reign was brought to an end because he offered a burnt offering outside of his authority (1 Samuel 13: 8-14)
King Jeroboam created a perverted religion as a means to hold onto power (1 Kings 12:25-13:10) and the northern tribes of Israel never recovered (1 Kings 14:15-16 and 2 Kings 17: 7-14).
King Uzziah suffered permanent physical disability as a result of his overstepping his role and burning incense in the temple (2 Chronicles 26: 16-21)
Whenever civil leaders overstepped their role into church-related issues there were serious consequences.
What Did Jesus Say on the Issue?
Jesus confirmed the general principle that civil government has a role and we are to honor that role. In the same statement he also confirmed that there is a division or separation of the role of the civil government from other roles as established by God.
“Then he said to them, ‘Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’” – Matthew 22:21
Romans 13: 1-6
Romans 13: 1-6 lays out one clear principle and defines three clear roles for civil government.
“1 Everyone must submit to governing authorities. For all authority comes from God, and those in positions of authority have been placed there by God. 2 So anyone who rebels against authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and they will be punished. 3 For the authorities do not strike fear in people who are doing right, but in those who are doing wrong. Would you like to live without fear of the authorities? Do what is right, and they will honor you. 4 The authorities are God’s servants, sent for your good. But if you are doing wrong, of course you should be afraid, for they have the power to punish you. They are God’s servants, sent for the very purpose of punishing those who do what is wrong. 5 So you must submit to them, not only to avoid punishment, but also to keep a clear conscience. 6 Pay your taxes, too, for these same reasons. For government workers need to be paid. They are serving God in what they do.”
Principle: Civil government and government officials are under the authority of God and are servants of God. As such, they will be held accountable by God for their actions.
– Honor good/right behavior.
– Punish bad behavior.
– Collect fair taxes to pay for services provided.
Civil government has a clear role distinct from the church. It is to administer justice and punish bad behavior thus rewarding good behavior. As such the church thereby does not have the authority to administer justice and dole out capital punishment.
The roles of the civil government and the church intersect when civil government leaders fail to understand or fail to execute their role as God’s servants and/or when civil government fails to punish those who do wrong or worse start to punish those who do right by God’s standard.
Constitutional Intent of Religious Freedom and the Relationship Between the Church and the State
The words “separation of church and state” appear nowhere within the U.S Constitution nor the Declaration of Independence. The Constitution most closely addresses this concept through the First Amendment and specifically in the words “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;…”
Historical Context for the First Amendment
What follows is a sizeable portion from an article located in the Founders’ Bible entitled “Separation of Church and State: Its Original Intent” (The Founders Bible, 2012, p. 683).
“In the first three centuries of Christianity, there had been no attempt to merge the two separate and distinct God-ordained institutions of State and Church, but that changed when Roman Emperor Theodosius I unilaterally assumed control of the Church and assimilated it in the State, decreeing Christianity as the official religion of his massive empire and declaring all other religious illegal. With that edict, the State crossed the boundary God has established, and Christianity became coercive, thus repudiating the voluntariness infused into it by Christ Himself.”
“Thereafter, emperors of the State regularly made themselves officers of the Church. It became a time of ‘the secularization of the Church and the depravation of Christianity’—a time when State leaders wrongly ‘believed that one of the chief duties of an imperial ruler was to place his sword at the service of the Church and orthodoxy.’ Because State and Church became one, a Church leader thereby became a State official and answered to State authorities, being required to enforce any religious doctrines the State decreed.”
“Understandably, widespread atrocities marked this period, and civil and religious rulers (often one and the same) were frequently ruthless, ever inventing new sadistic tortures and inflicting death…of countless thousands of Christians by these so-called Christian leaders.”
“Because the Church had been taken over by the State, it was Bible-based ministers who finally stood up and demanded that the State separate from the Church. In fact, English clergyman Richard Hooker was the first to use the phrase. King Henry VIII had wanted a divorce, but the Church properly refused to give him one, so he started his own national church (the Anglican Church), and after decreeing new state-established doctrines, he gave himself a divorce. The English Parliament also passed laws stipulating who could take communion and who could be a minister of the Gospel, thus governmentally controlling and directing what should have been purely ecclesiastical (church) matters. The Rev Hooker knew it was wrong for the State to establish religious doctrines and dictate beliefs and practices for the Church, so he called for a ‘separation of…Church and Commonwealth’.”
“Other Bible-centered ministers also spoke out against the intrusion of the State into the jurisdiction of the Church, including the Rev. John Greenwood who started the congregation attended by many of the Pilgrims when they still lived in England. At that time, Queen Elizabeth I was head over both the State and the Church, but Greenwood asserted ‘that there could be but one head to the church and that head was not the Queen, but Christ!’ He was eventually executed for ‘denying Her Majesty’s ecclesiastical supremacy and attacking the existing ecclesiastical order.’ Then when Parliament passed a law requiring that if ‘any of Her Majesty’s subjects deny the Queen’s ecclesiastical supremacy…they shall be committed to prison without bail,’ most of the Pilgrims fled England to Holland. They subsequently moved from Holland to America, where they boldly advocated separation of Church and State, asserting that government had no right to ‘compel religion, to plant churches by power, and to force a submission to ecclesiastical government by laws and penalties’.”
The Puritans were not the only religious groups to flee to America to escape religious persecution and to seek the freedom to exercise their religious beliefs without the oversight or the persecution of a civil government. Other groups included Puritans and Quakers from England, Jews from Portugal, Anabaptists from Germany, Huguenots from France, and Lutherans from Austria.
The importance of freedom of religion and freedom from government mandated religious practices was clearly understood by the Founding Fathers and resulted in the First Amendment. “The entire history of the separation doctrine had been to prevent the State from meddling with, interfering against, or controlling the Church’s beliefs and religious expressions” (The Founders Bible, 2012, pp. 686-687).
The Simplicity and Clarity of the First Amendment
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;…” – First Amendment to the US Constitution
Based upon this historical context the First Amendment was written in a clear and direct way with a specific purpose of keeping the government out of the affairs of the church.
“The first part of the Amendment is now called the “Establishment Clause,” and the latter part, the “Free Exercise Clause.” The language in both is clear; and both clauses are pointed solely at the State, not at the Church. Notice that the Establishment Clause prohibited the State from enforcing religious conformity, and the Free Exercise Clause ensured the State would protect (rather than suppress, as it currently does) citizens’ rights of conscience and religious expression. Both clauses are prohibitions on the power of Congress (the government), not on religious individuals or organizations. This was the meaning of “separation of Church and State” with which Thomas Jeffers was intimately familiar, and it was this interpretation that he repeatedly affirmed in his writings and practices, not the modern perversion of it” (The Founders Bible, 2012, p. 688).
The First Amendment wording is clear. When historical context is added, the wording and intent becomes even more clear.
The Fallible, Imperfect Supreme Court
The Judicial branch, led by the Supreme Court, was intended to merely be but one branch of government with a very limited role of evaluating laws according to the U.S. Constitution, using the original intent as the guiding principle.
The power and authority of the Supreme Court would be shocking to the Founding Fathers. It has taken on power and authority to be the final say on any issue they rule upon; making themselves the most powerful branch of Federal Government, superior to the Executive and Legislative branches. They have started to legislate through their rulings and overrule legitimate Executive authority in other actions. This was never meant to be; and shouldn’t be.
This eventuality is not surprising as our Courts are composed of fallen human beings who reflect the character and the moral foundation of the people. Judges no longer look to the original intent of writers of the U.S Constitution but insert what they see as the advanced wisdom on an increasing godless nation into a document strongly shaped by Christian values.
The U.S. Constitution has been changed, not through the intended amendment process, but through judicial activism. Justices change the intent of the U.S. Constitution by inserting their opinion and declaring their opinion binding to future decisions through the use of precedent. They make one ruling that changes the wordings intent and then use that ruling as a basis for future rulings; thus all but ensuring further erosion and destruction of the original intent. This works because Congress has failed to act as a check and balance and judicial activism has been accepted as standard by a powerless people.
The Re-Interpretation of the First Amendment
The current use of the phrase “separation of church and state” came about through a 1947 case called Everson v. Board of Education where the Court announced “The First Amendment has erected a wall between church and state. That wall must be kept high and impregnable. We could not approve the slightest breach.” The intent of this statement was to flip the First Amendment to mean the church should no longer have any impact upon civil government or those entities overseen by the civil government, such as public schools. As David Barton notes, “Following this declaration, the Supreme Court – and numerous lower courts – began striking down religious activities and expression which had been constitutional for the previous 150 years” (Barton, 2005, p. 13).
The source of the phrase quoted by the Supreme Court came from a letter in response to the Danbury Baptist Association from President Thomas Jefferson. The deeper context of this conversation was the Danbury Baptists were concerned that a national denomination might be legislated by the Federal government and they were seeking assurances this wouldn’t happen. They also expressed a clear concern of governmental overreach into church affairs.
Thomas Jefferson, reaffirming the intent of the First Amendment assured them the Federal government couldn’t overstep into these concerns. In his response he stated “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ʺmake no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,ʺ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State” (The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, 2018).
Thomas Jefferson’s response once again affirmed the civil government would not encroach in church affairs. Interesting, President Jefferson did not scold or ignore the political influence these Christians were exercising in their correspondence to the President of the relatively new civil government. If there were a separation of church influence over the state wouldn’t President Jefferson have made the point?
“One further note should be made about the new infamous “separation” dogma. The Congressional Records from June 7 to September 25, 1789, record the months of discussions and debates the ninety Founding Fathers who framed the First Amendment. Significantly, during those debates not one of those ninety Framers ever mentioned the phrase “separation of church and state.” It seems logical that if this had been the intent of the Founding Fathers for the First Amendment – as is so frequently asserted – then at least one of those ninety would have mentioned that phrase; none did” (Barton, 2005, p. 48).
It is clear, in 1947 the Supreme Court twisted the phrase out of context to completely change the application of the First Amendment as we see it today.
Reclaim the First Amendment
The separation of church and state narrative in America is gravely damaged but not without hope. It will take committed Christians (and others religious groups) willing to speak to the issues and not be silenced. You will experience the effort of people, trying to silence your voice, by shouting “separation of church and state.” You must press on and not allowing this bullying tactic to silence our voice or the influence of God.
The same amendment that assures religious freedom also assures freedom of speech, freedom of the press, the freedom to petition the government, and the freedom to assemble. If we allow religious freedom to continue to fall the others will also become fair game for perversion and destruction.
It is time to reclaim the right for Christians to influence the civil government boldly and without apology while simultaneously pushing back against any civil government into church affairs. It is time to reclaim the original intent of the First Amendment.
There is a Biblical principle of separation of church and state that clearly limits the civil government’s influence in church affairs.
God clearly requires Christians to be influences upon the world, including influencing civil governments and officials.
Our Founding Fathers understood this principle very well, especially by observing the failure of many European civil governments who failed to exercise proper separation and who overextended their authority into the church.
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution places clear limits the civil governments influence over church affairs.
The Supreme Court, through recent rulings, has flipped the meaning and intent of the First Amendment; errantly creating the belief the church should have no influence over the civil government.
It is important to reestablish and understand the proper roles of church and state.
It is even more important to exercise our God-mandated, and Constitutional-reaffirmed right to influence.
 Note: The author acknowledges this article’s focus is on the concept of the separate roles of the church and state. It does not fully address the social contract established through the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution where we the people gave the civil government additional roles and responsibilities.
 I encourage you to read the whole of the letters which can be found at http://www.billofrightsinstitute.org/founding-documents/primary-source-documents/danburybaptists/.