By Caleb Keith –
In the Western world, particularly the United States, the idea of a separation between the Church and the state is often championed as one of the highest political and social ideals. From a secular point of view, this notion is entirely understandable. A state church in its fullest sense determines the religious practices or rights of the citizens who dwell in the state. From a social standpoint, this might cause suffering, hardship, or ridicule for those who fall outside the state’s religion. In the United States, the phrase “separation of Church and state” is typically applied to situations involving Christians and some state-run program or legal situation. When Christians are seen as crossing the line by making their politics too religious, the phrase is often chanted against them. While secularists may fear Christian spiritual involvement within state matters, it is Christians who benefit the most from a separation of the Church from the state.
To understand the true benefits of a separation between Church and state in modern times, it is helpful to look at the first time the Christian Church and state had been fused. Dr. Bruce Shelley notes this occurred during the conversion of Emperor Constantine. Shelly states, “After his conversion, Christianity moved swiftly from the seclusion of the catacombs to the prestige of the palaces… Thus the Christian church was joined to the power of the state and assumed a moral responsibility for the whole of society.” Under Constantine, the Church found new power, which had the benefit of reduced persecution. With such power and position came negative consequences as well.
The primary concern of the Church is the state of sinful men before God. As such, the church’s primary function is to proclaim the forgiveness of Christ found in His death and resurrection. When the Church becomes one with the state, it also becomes concerned with temporal authority and the place of the people in the presence of such authority. Under Constantine, this indeed became the case when the Church courts were conjoined with the imperial system of justice. In some cases, both Christians and non-Christians were tried by bishops and leaders in the Church. The Church having such a legal role in secular affairs is ultimately damaging to the Gospel message of Christ. Since the role of the church is not to ensure perfect earthly obedience but to bring about and uphold salvation through Christ, it seems problematic when the Church’s responsibilities turn from Christ to culture.
As noted above, there is a serious danger to the mission of the Church when its leaders are performing secular roles. However, equal or greater damage to the Church is risked when secular rulers take control over church matters. Shelly states, “Constantine ruled Christian bishops as he did his civil servants and demanded unconditional obedience to official pronouncements, even when they interfered with purely church matters.” By exercising authority over the Church, civil rulers pose a threat to orthodox doctrine and practice. While Constantine may not have done any extreme harm to Church doctrine, that is not a universal principle which could equally be said of every emperor, pope, and future civil leader.
The Church in America can be thankful for its separation from the state. That being said, the Church should not be grateful for the same reason secularist or non-believers, in general, should be. Instead, the Church can look to the risk and damage done to the core message of the Gospel in times where the Church was fused to the state starting with Constantine and moving on progressively throughout the centuries.