Keeping Church and State Separate
Essays in Response to Oklahoma State Question 790
Stating the Problem
Oklahoma State Question 790 is asking citizens to remove Article 2, Section 5, of the Oklahoma Constitution. Article 2, Section 5, reads, “No public money or property shall ever be appropriated, applied, donated, or used, directly or indirectly, for the use, benefit, or support of any sect, church, denomination, or system of religion, or for the use, benefit, or support of any priest, preacher, minister, or other religious teacher or dignitary, or sectarian institution as such.” This set of essays will provide a clear understanding of the issues and an argument why eliminating Article 2, Section 5, would be unbiblical, historically demeaning, legally indefensible, and impractical to implement.
Christians claim that the Bible is authoritative for their faith and practice. The author of Psalms 19:7-8 writes, “The law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple. The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes” (NASB). In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul encourages, “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
Therefore, this essay focuses on biblical references supporting the concepts of religious liberty and the separation of church and state. References are offered to build a foundation for each of these principles with the understanding that the biblical texts must remain faithful to their historical and literary contexts. In addition, the texts must be applicable to the issues we face in a modern era.
When God created the world, the idea of liberty was breathed into it. To live means to be free. From creatures to humanity, God instilled in each the freedom to exist and roam. However, when he kneels down in Genesis 2:7 to breath life into humanity, we are told the Creator breathes the neshamah (breath) of chayyim (life) into humanity’s lungs, implanting the life force of the Creator into the created. Once humanity takes their first breath, they are free to live. Even when placed into the garden, the Creator never restrains their freedom. As a matter of fact, he even goes out of his way to warn humanity that an unrestrained freedom can lead to the temptation of dominionism, the practice of exerting power over God and others (Genesis 2:16-17).
Herein lies the great paradox of creation. Why did God breath freedom into humanity, only to warn them about freedom’s temptation of dominionism? Why didn’t God remove all temptation enabling humanity to worship him without barriers? Why didn’t he conform humanity into beings that could only worship him and no other? Why? Because God is love and love cannot be forced upon individuals or coerced into practice (1 John 4:8). For humanity to be able to love, they must also be able to not love. Thus, religious freedom is at the heart of humanity’s creative existence.
This notion of freedom-to-love persists throughout the entirety of the Old Testament. From Abraham to the Prophets, readers of Old Testament Scriptures are witness to a fallible and sinful people falling away from God, only to return to him through love, grace, and repentance. In one of the most poignant Old Testament passages, Moses warns the Egyptian Pharaoh, “Israel is my firstborn son, let my son go that he may worship me” (Exodus 4:22-23). Yet, even when the Hebrews are free, God never stifles their freedom. Again, humanity falls away by worshipping the golden calf (Exodus 32), but God never interferes in their freedom. For God, freedom and love go hand in hand.
In the New Testament, John’s Gospel details the struggle between Jesus and the religious rulers, as they discussed freedom and conformity (John 8:31-59). The Jewish leaders exerted power and control over others by their positions of leadership and a religious system that set uniformity and nationalism over personal faith and a diverse community. They sought uniformity through coercion and conformity, because they possessed both religious and political power. Jesus claimed that true power came from God’s relationship with humanity, a humanity that was unique and diverse. Jesus proclaimed God’s love for all people, freeing humanity to love him through relationship, void of coercion and conformity to a narrow religious system.
Paul picks up on this notion declaring the importance of standing firm in freedom, without submitting again to the yoke of slavery (Galatians 5:1, 13). For the Christian, individual freedom was bought by Jesus Christ. Paul argues against submitting oneself to the yolk of religious conformity. Strict religious conformity uses coercion to mold believers into the likeness of others’ ideals. Authentic freedom, on the other hand, allows the Holy Spirit to work in one’s life so true transformation can take place. The end result should be for an individual to conform to Christ, not some human ideal. Freedom stresses responsibility and faithfulness, while coercion emphasizes submission and adherence.
For this freedom to remain a protected sacred right of humanity, then there must be a provisional ideal for this to remain a vital part of our society. Jesus, more than anyone else, understood the dangers of religious and political entanglements. Christians should never forget that the crucifixion of Jesus was at the hands of religious and political powers uniting to stifle a voice of love and liberation. Thus, the separation of church and state should be foundational for all Christians that celebrate and champion the ideals of freedom.
Separation of Church and State
The principle of separation of church and state can be derived from the examination of the biblical narratives and teachings. While no one text clearly expresses or defines the principle, there are many that allude to the importance of its practice. A careful analysis of Old Testament history offers evidence of the dangers regarding the mingling of church and state. In the New Testament, Jesus speaks directly to the matter while Paul embraces the proper role of government in the life of the believer. With the scriptural foundation, separation between church state can be built as the principle that protects religious liberty.
Many Old Testament texts after the appointment of King Saul appear to regard church and state as inseparable, but Samuel initially resisted that movement. God’s prophet laments the notion that the people would choose a king to rule over them rather than God. Walter Brueggemann states that their decision to understand their lives through a “theological reading” of life set them on a course that concluded many times in “a monopoly that (was) authoritarian, coercive, and occasionally totalitarian” (Brueggemann, 5). This course of action by the elders of Israel led to many of the Old Testament characters’ misunderstandings about God and the coming Messiah. Fusing faith and government set the stage for the context in which Jesus was born and carried out his ministry.
Throughout the exilic periods, Jewish people believed their national behavior dictated their current predicaments. Thus, prior to Jesus’ arrival in Canaan there were wars and rumors of wars circulating. The Jewish people were looking for a political, militant, and religious Messiah. They believed salvation would come through the political efforts of restoring the earthly kingdom of Israel (Bright, 416-427). Their focus was so centered on the restoration of Israel that they failed to seek redemption for their own sins. They concentrated primarily upon the socio-political efforts they believed were important and de-emphasized the spiritual realities. The Pharisees took advantage of this milieu and melded spirituality with a strict adherence to the law.
It was within this setting Jesus came into the world. David Barnett notes the importance of Galilee in the cultural background of Jesus. Herod Antipas ruled the Galilee-Paracea region as tetrarch from 4 B.C.E. to 39 C.E (Barnett, 112). The corrupt taxation upon the people was oppressive. Jews on the lower end of the socio-economical ladder were struggling under the heavy tax burden, while the Roman magistrates lived lavishly protecting the Pax Romana (Peace of Rome). These situations led to the cultural tension of the region. Jesus taught and ministered within this setting.
Jesus makes an interesting conclusion in Matthew 6:24, “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” Associating wealth with Roman influences upon the region, Jesus seems to be addressing how power and wealth can consume an individual, leaving the worship of God as a side note. Building upon this logic and combining it with the cultural setting, Jesus’ message could be directed to those Jews looking to overthrow the Roman government and restore the Kingdom of Israel. Worshippers of God must make a decision. Who is their true God? Is their God the Creator of the Universe, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Moses? Or, is their true god the enticement of power and rule?
With the premise of revolt and revolution in the background, another text displays and offers a solution to the tension between religious zealots and the Roman government. Jesus challenges his listeners in Matthew 22. Two groups formed together to entrap him. The Pharisees were a very nationalistic and theocratic group, longing for the return of Jewish rule to the land of Israel. They despised the Roman invasion and occupation. They clearly wanted Rome out of their lands. On the other hand, the Herodians sought to establish Jewish governance under the House of Herod. They felt Rome could offer them this possibility. They too despised Roman rule but knew Rome had the power to influence the region for years to come. The two groups were on opposite ends of the political spectrum, but they united to challenge and destroy Jesus’ reputation.
Their question is direct and pertinent to this argument, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?” David Garland describes this question as being “fraught with danger” (Garland, 227). A very loose answer could have doomed the efforts of Jesus and his ministry. The trap was twofold. If Jesus answered affirmatively towards Roman taxation, he would be seen as a traitor to the Jewish people (Worthington III, 411). The high Roman taxes were a sore spot with any good standing Jew. Yet, if he spoke against Roman taxation he would have been seen as a traitor to Rome. That answer meant prison and possible death. Either answer would spell certain doom.
Aware of the Pharisees’ and Herodians’ deceit, Jesus challenges their question and refers to them as hypocrites. He asks for a coin. They quickly produced a denarius. Their very actions demonstrate their hypocrisy. Carrying and using a Roman coin displayed their submission to Roman authority. Jesus builds upon this situation by asking them whose face decorates the coin. They quickly answer, “The emperor’s.” Yet, there is more to the image on the coin than just an outline of the emperor. Above the image was an inscription. According to New Testament scholar Craig Blomberg, it read, “Divus et Pontifex Maximus.” Translated to English, this means “God and High Priest” (Blomberg, 321).
The passage in Matthew clearly states the dangers of combining faith and worship with the self-serving ambitions of the political process. Jesus’ words give foundation to a separation principle. He says, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s”. This response exposes two dangers that were present in the question, as Jesus provides safety mechanisms for both. First, giving the emperor his due certainly meant that taxation was unavoidable. The government has the responsibility of governing the people, offering structure to society, and providing safety from injustice. The means by which they fund these functions is through taxation. Jesus clearly understands government’s place in the world and does not conclude that it is some evil looking to destroy God’s children. The apostle Paul concurs with this thought in his letter to the Romans (13:1-7). He writes,
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God's servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God's servants, busy with this very thing. Pay to all what is due them -- taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.
Paul also understood government as a necessity for a social people. For believers to maliciously thwart government in the name of God goes against the created order. The government was created to provide order and structure, so being a citizen of this earthly kingdom suggests that Christians should submit themselves to its authority.
A question immediately arises though, “What is a Christian to do if the government creates and implements policy directly in contradiction with the Christian conscience?” Historical evidence leads to the notion that non-violent disobedience is the course to follow. An individual’s actions, however, are not separate from the authority of the government. First century Christians refused to call Caesar, “lord.” Yet their actions had consequences and they paid with their lives. This path of resistance has even deeper roots in the book of Daniel (Chapter 13). Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refuse to worship King Nebuchadnezzar, but understand their actions will lead them into the fiery furnace. In the end, only an act of God brings about their salvation from the flames. Through their peaceful resistance, the king and his subjects give recognition to God.
The second danger Jesus alludes to in the Matthew 22 text is the danger of worshiping something or someone else rather than God. Jesus’ doctrine of God is evident in his response to the Pharisees and Herodians. His adherence to the Mosaic Laws is clear (Exodus 20:3-6),
You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.
For Jesus, there is no other God than his Father. Rendering to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s helps create a barrier distinguishing one from the other. Government has authority over civil existence, while the authority of God extends along the lines of faith practice. When government and faith are mingled together for the purpose of either, both suffer. Jesus had already made this claim in his teaching about wealth, “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other” (Matthew 6:24).
Separation of church and state stands solidly upon the Matthew 22 passage and other biblical teachings. Government has been created by God to govern the affairs of humanity, but it should never take the place of God, the worship of God, or the practice of faith in God. Believers can be enticed to believe that faith and politics are a good match but, as Jesus wisely asserted, believers cannot have two masters. The wall of separation between church and state provides a necessary barrier between the state and the church, so that one does not ever rule over the other.
The Bible is clear when it comes to the importance of religious liberty and church/state separation. Religious liberty is a gift of God, empowering humanity with the ability to love and to be loved. In addition, we are free to worship God and practice our faith as our conscience dictates. We need no other mediator than that of Jesus Christ. Therefore, this sacred gift is protected when church and state are separated. Jesus is clear on the matter, reminding us that we are citizens of two kingdoms. Both kingdoms should be respected, but they operate at their best when they are kept separate from entanglements.
Barnett, Paul, Jesus and the Rise of Early Christianity: A History of New Testament Times, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999).
Blomberg, Craig, The New American Commentary: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture, Matthew, Vol. 22, (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1992).
Bright, John, A History of Israel, Third Edition, (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1981).
Brueggemann, Walter, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. First and Second Samuel, (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1973).
Garland, David E., Reading Matthew: A Literary and Theological Commentary, (Macon, GA: Smyth and Helwys Publishing, 2001).
Worthington III, Ben, Smyth and Helwys Bible Commentary, Matthew, (Macon, GA: Smyth and Helwys Publishing, 2006).