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“When the righteous thrive, the people rejoice; when the wicked rule, the people groan.” (Prov 29:2)

What Separation of Church and State?

By Frank Kacer

Few bumper sticker phrases have been used and abused more than the dreaded “Separation of Church and State”.  To the ungodly and the misinformed it is the final argument, the self-evident truth, the last defining word that trumps any Christian influence in the nation’s political affairs at any level - whether local, national or international.  Contrary to this, I contend there is a proper understanding and usefulness of this phrase in our current socio-political environment.  To illustrate this, I intend to address in four parts what separation of church and state means for us today.  For those interested in the historical context of this phrase, and its abuse in recent years by our United States Supreme Court, there are a number of excellent books and resource materials available that I would encourage the reader to pursue.

Let me begin by saying I believe there is, and should be, a separation of church and state.  To many, the phrase means the removing of every vestige of Christian influence from the public domain.  To me, however, there are strong Biblical, historical and practical reasons to believe church and state are separate realms, yet have intrinsic relationships that define their mutual responsibilities towards each other.  Part 1 below explores what “separation” means from the perspective of what the church does not do.  One note of clarification, when I say “church”, I’m referring to not only the Christian community in general, but the organized Christian church specifically as it implements its Biblical worldview to all of life.

Part I: What Churches Are Not To Do

First, the church is not to appoint public, government leaders.  Unlike other times throughout history, the church is not to anoint rulers over us.  To do so would make all governmental systems subservient to a particular religious belief system, with the eventual result being intolerance for any alternative views or beliefs.

Secondly, the church is not to wage war.  By this I mean armed conflict.  Biblically, the church has been engaged in spiritual warfare throughout its existence, but it is not called to achieve the advancement of its kingdom by use of force.

Third, the church is not to establish national policy.  By this I mean those laws, rules and regulations that specifically govern our relationships with other nations as well as the implementation and execution of domestic policies governing the functioning of our society.

Fourth, the church is not to create or enforce civil laws.  Although authority within a church is to be exercised in a godly fashion towards its own members in order to maintain its purity, it does not have the authority to legislate civil and criminal laws applying to all of society.  Nor does it have the authority to enforce obedience in society through police actions, judicial procedures and criminal punishment.

Fifth, the church is not to levy taxes.  Although many Christians may have the impression tithes and offerings are a form of taxation, Biblically, giving is to be from the heart and not coerced.  Relative to society in general, the church has no authority to levy and collect taxes of any kind.

There may be a host of other areas the church is not specifically to exercise authority in our society, but the above is a starting point listing some of the most critical. Conversely, the church can influence society and government (at any level) for good that are not only its right, but its duty in our national context.  These are addressed in Part II below, followed by responsibilities and limits on government relative to the church.

Part II: What Churches Are To Do

First and foremost, the church is commanded to pray for those in authority over us (1 Tim 2:1-2).  This covers a lot of territory when all having legislative responsibilities at the local, State and National levels are considered, including those charged with exercising criminal justice.  Individual and church-wide prayer for public servants regardless of their spiritual status is our privilege and duty.  By praying, we become sensitive to the responsibilities our leaders carry, and whether they fulfill those duties in a manner pleasing to God.  It also prompts us to directly communicate to them our concerns and thankfulness as decisions, actions and circumstances dictate.  Although their ultimate accountability is to God, we are accountable to encourage and correct as needed, as well as bring spiritual truths and blessings to them.

Second, the church can and must speak out on the moral issues around us.  If a friend came to you and asked for advice - wouldn’t you want to help?  In the same way, our government is designed to solicit our counsel on what constitutes good (acceptable) or bad (unacceptable) legislation.  We can’t expect government to always know what is right and just, but we can give our opinion on what action would be closest to God’s standard and best for the common good.  The church environment provides the best equipping ground for Christians to understand the times we live in, and the need to influence authority to fulfill their God-ordained responsibilities.  If we don’t do this, you know who will - and I can almost guarantee you won’t like the answer.

Third, the church is to influence society for good.  As we become better equipped in the ways of righteousness in our own lives and families, in our jobs, in our interaction with people and how we conduct our affairs, we set an example for others to emulate.  This provides credibility for us to effectively evangelize as well as inform and influence others for the common good.  I realize only a changed, converted heart will have eternal significance.  However, our salt and light mandate (Matt 5:13-17; Jer 29:7) provides a powerful incentive to persuade others to reject corrupting decisions and chose ones that result in enhanced good for all.  Since God’s pattern for living brings great blessings, we can easily use moral persuasion, logic and facts to influence as many as possible for good.  In this process, greater pressure is on government occurs since a broader moral consensus exists.

Fourth, the church should equip leaders for public office.  Where’s a better place to grow the next generation of public leaders than within Christ-centered churches?  How do we expect men and women to gain the necessary knowledge and skills to govern and legislate in a godly way if the church doesn’t equip them for the difficulties they’ll face?  What standard will they base their decisions on if they don’t have God’s standard constantly before them?  Churches are a fertile ground to identify and mentor those that have aptitude and desire to serve in public office.  Is this a priority within your church?  If it’s not, why isn’t it?  Second Timothy 3:16 declares God’s word is useful to equip for every good work - isn’t godly governance in the public realm a good work, as well as a testimony to the non-Christian that moral standards, exercised properly, will yield rich blessings for all.

Fifth, the church should equip its members to be godly citizens.  Besides contributing to common societal good, Christians should responsibly exercise their duty to vote.  This means studying the issues surrounding every ballot measure from a Biblical perspective, and supporting candidates that will accomplish the greatest good consistent with a Christian worldview - preferably selecting sincere believers.  Where better to address these decisions than within the church environment, debated with a common moral standard?  Obviously, a church has a few restrictions on what it can legally do, but there are many activities that can be done that most churches currently ignore.

Now it’s time to address the state’s responsibilities towards the church.  It’s particularly important to understand what our government’s role should be since it is so powerful and intrusive in literally every facet of our lives, including our religious freedoms. 

Part III: What Government Should Not Do

First, the government must not establish a religion.  This is a well-known fact, and is clearly embodied in the first amendment to the Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”  The original intent of our founders is well documented; this amendment was to prevent the formal recognition or establishment of a national Christian denomination.  States on the other hand, were originally free to acknowledge or promote religious activities as they saw fit.  This is a far cry from where we are today when judicial activism at all levels can show open hostility to any vestige of Christianity in the public arena. Allowing the presence of Christian faith in its varied manifestations is not the same as establishing a religion.  Government is not to force religion on its citizens, but by the same token, it must not demand only humanistic or atheistic beliefs be present in the sphere of government.

Second, the government must not define church government.  A casual look at the incredible variety of church governments illustrates our freedom to organize according to a particular Biblical understanding of how the church is to operate.  We see for example: large complex denominations, independent churches, conventions, senates, fellowships, affiliations, etc.  Inside individual churches we find pastors, elders, deacons, priests, lay pastors, ministers, bishops, vicars as well as examples of no recognized leadership at all.  In this, government is not to impose its will on how the church organizes or structures itself – it must allow that to occur according to the dictates of its member’s own conscience in light of scriptural truths.  To do otherwise would result in the church becoming an extension of a soulless bureaucracy, with devastating consequences.

Third, the government must not establish doctrine.  Government has no right to define spiritual truth or what constitutes valid, basic beliefs of a person or a church.  It is incapable and ill equipped to do so, and must reframe from doing so.  The dictates of one’s own conscience and understanding of scripture form the foundation of our individual beliefs and church’s statements of faith.  When government assumes this role, tremendous persecution inevitably follows toward those that do not subscribe or adhere to the dictates of the state.  One possible exception is when the exercise of religious convictions violates necessary civil law concerning obvious health and safety issues.  But even here, in my opinion, government cannot rule of the validity of the belief, but only on it’s impact upon life and health.

Fourth, the government must not rule on spiritual matters.  What constitutes sin and what Biblically is needed to reconcile a person to God and to others is not a government role to define or enforce.  It responsibility falls within the church and a believer’s convictions.  There may be consequences for violation of civil law independent of church actions (such as the exercise of church discipline), but the government is not to determine what is a violation of God’s commands.  It is to enforce civil law as established for the good of everyone, and not spiritual law.

Fifth, the government must not appoint church leaders.  Those who occupy positions of authority within a church are to demonstrate qualifications consistent with Biblical requirements for leadership, not some government standard.  For the government to appoint church leadership in any capacity, as it has done many times throughout world history, would be devastating to the nature of the church and its spiritual health.  How could a secular bureaucracy ever be competent to assign spiritual leadership within an area it is incompetent to even understand?

Our freedoms in this nation are built on a Biblical worldview.  Though this foundation protects our religious freedoms, we cannot take it for granted.  This is particularly true given growing court hostility towards the presence of our faith in all realms of life, including governmental realms.  Though the above may overlook some limits on government, it’s important to remind ourselves of these to remain vigilant of government’s attitude and actions towards us.  We cannot assume government has our spiritual health and freedoms at heart, or that it is doing all it can to provide an environment conducive to our “free exercise thereof”, much less be capable of understanding spiritual matters. 

The final part covers what I consider fundamental responsibilities of government towards the church.  Government has assumed far ranging authority over our lives and every institution we hold dear, including the church.  The imposition of government authority into the exercise of our faith doesn’t end with issues of safety and health, it includes granting of incorporation status, approving tax exemptions, and limitations on a church’s freedom of speech and use of resources to accomplish political objectives.  The merit of any particular restriction or granting of privilege can be debated, as well as if government should have any responsibility at all relating to the church.  However, I believe there are clear roles for the government that are a manifestation of God’s common grace towards the church.

Part IV: What Government Should Do

First, government must recognize its accountability to God.  Government is a natural consequence of the fall of mankind, and though it can be abused, it’s intended for our good (Rom 13:1-5).  The United States is rather unique in that the Declaration of Independence declared independence from England, and at the same time dependence upon God.  Our national Christian roots clearly show the use of God’s Biblical standard as the foundation upon which all government responsibilities should be judged.  It is not a matter of might making right, but of government doing what is right before the ultimate Judge of the universe.  Those in authority over us are put there by God and are accountable to God, whether we understand the specific reasons or not. 
Second, government must commend what is good.  To commend is to uphold, highlight, and even encourage.  Government is not to put stumbling blocks in the way of promoting and cultivating moral purity and virtue, justice, strong families, the sanctity of life or ministries of compassion.  It is to complement the righteousness the Christian community strives for in our culture for the common good.  Government can do this without establishing a formal religion or trying to force its citizens to believe certain articles of faith.  For our part, Christians are responsible to ensure government fulfills its duties consistent with the Biblical standard for what is good for our society.  Incidentally, the standard does not change, although its application may vary depending on the cultural demands of the time.

Third, government must punish evil.  In our topsy-turvy world, many define obvious evil as good and what is good as evil.  Euthanizing a person is thought of as death with dignity, killing unborn babies for any (or no) reason is a legal right, while perverted sexual practices, adultery, and sexual promiscuity are seen as sexual freedoms and “rights” independent of destructive consequences   Again, who defines what evil needs to be punished (or discouraged) if we don’t?  Government is not to mirror the worst of society, it is to enforce criminal and civil laws and apply a high standard of virtue, integrity and morality consistent with God’s standard.  In this way, government maintains peace and order for the good of all.

Fourth, government must protect free expression of religion.  Basic Christian teaching tells us we cannot impose faith on someone else, they must respond to the dictates of their own conscience.  This belief is integrated into our national thinking through the First Amendment to the Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”  This principle ensures government will not establish a religion (or denomination) to the exclusion of all others, and that varieties of Christian or other religious beliefs will not be made illegal or impeded.  Of course, this does not give license for religious “actions” that clearly violate common moral standards comprising criminal actions. Also, government should have no right to regulate churches through taxation, since this would unnecessarily constrain the good churches are called to do.  Remember, the power to tax is the power to destroy. Why is freedom of religion so important – I believe one reason is that it allows us to exercise our beliefs in a full, open and public manner which will result in Christian/Biblical principles and truths being proven to be the best for all.

There are two giant influences in our nation, the government and the church.  Though they exist to fulfill different purposes, we that comprise the church are also the government.  We determine what values and standards government implements and enforces.   This same government is to encourage and protect what is good, and enforce law and order.  Our challenge is to continually refine the government’s role to ensure fulfillment of its Biblical purpose towards everyone it serves throughout this nation. 

Information Provided by C3 of San Diego, a 501(c)3 Non-Profit Religious Corporation

For more information contact

C3 Vision Statement:

“The Christian Citizenship Council (C3) of San Diego exists to encourage and equip Churches and believers to apply biblical principles to all spheres of the culture around us, and to all of life”
(Matt 5:13-16; 16:18; 22:39; Jer 29:7)

“When the righteous thrive, the people rejoice; when the wicked rule, the people groan” (Prov 29:2)

First published in a series of articles in Good News Etc., February – May 2005

E.g. WallBuilders ( provides exceptional materials addressing the Christian roots of the nation, including: “Original Intent - The Courts, the Constitution, & Religion” by David Barton