We hear a lot these days about the separation of church and state, especially from those who do not wish for Christians to impose their moral values on others via civil government. And there are some who would use the powers of civil governments to force ministers and churches to say nothing against the commonly accepted morals and values held by society. Here, we look at what God says regarding the proper roles of church and state.
Both the church and the state are ordained of God — the church for the eternal salvation of men, and the state for the maintenance of external righteousness and order among men in this world.
When Jesus asked the disciples who they believed Him to be, Peter replied: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16); and Jesus said that, upon this truth which the Father had revealed to Peter, Jesus would build His church; and the gates of hell would not prevail against it (v. 17-18). Jesus also said: “If you remain in My word, then you are truly My disciples. You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free” (John 8:31-32).
On the other hand, the Scriptures say of the government: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. Rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil works. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from him, for he is the servant of God for your good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain, for he is the servant of God, an avenger to execute wrath upon him who practices evil” (Rom. 13:1-4); and, “Submit yourselves to every human authority for the Lord’s sake, whether it be to the king, as supreme, or to governors, as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and to praise those who do right” (1 Pet. 2:13-14).
While the state — civil government — bears the sword to maintain order, punish evildoers and wage just wars, the church uses and is ruled by the Word of God.
The Bible says: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord” (Col. 3:16); and, “But continue in the things that you have learned and have been assured of, knowing those from whom you have learned them, and that since childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise unto salvation through the faith that is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:14-17).
In order that men might be saved, the church has been commanded to preach the Word of God and proclaim Jesus Christ crucified as the Savior of mankind. Jesus commanded His disciples to “go into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. He who believes and is baptized will be saved. But he who does not believe will be condemned ” (Mark 16:15-16; cf. Rom. 1:16-17; 10:15,17).
To maintain civil order and righteousness in this world, civil governments have been given power and responsibility to enact just laws, punish evildoers (including the use of the death penalty), and to wage just wars (1 Pet. 2:13-14; Psalm 82:1-4; Gen. 9:6; Rom. 13:3-4).
As Christians, we reject as contrary to the Holy Scriptures attempts to confuse the powers of the church and the state, such as using the power of the sword in an attempt to force people to accept the teaching of God’s Word or using laws and threats of punishment to restrict the faithful preaching and teaching of the Bible (cf. John 18:11,36-37; 2 Cor. 10:4-6; Eph. 6:10-18). Rather, civil governments are to use the power of the sword to promote what is good and right and to punish evildoers, and the church is to use the Word of God to proclaim God’s truth, call sinners to repentance and to offer and give to penitent sinners the promises of the Gospel, namely, the forgiveness of sins and life eternal through faith in Jesus Christ (cf. Luke 24:46-47; John 5:25; 6:63; Rom. 1:16-17; 10:17; Isa. 55:10-11).
When civil governments depart from their God-given duties and forbid what God commands or command what God forbids, Christians must obey God rather than men even if they must suffer the earthly consequences (Acts 4:19-20; 5:29; Luke 12:4-5).
And we have ample examples of a Christian response when governments require what God forbids or forbid what God requires. In Daniel 3, the king commanded that people fall down and worship the golden image he had made. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego refused to disobey God’s commandments (Ex. 20:3-6) and chose to obey God rather than men even if it meant death in a fiery furnace. In Daniel 6, when the king foolishly issued a decree that forbade prayer to the true God, Daniel continued to pray even though it meant being cast into a den of lions. In Acts 4 and 5, when the apostles of Jesus were commanded to no longer speak in Jesus’ name, they chose to suffer a beating and to risk death rather than disobey their call to proclaim the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.
So, how do we apply these principles in regard to our duties as citizens of the kingdom of God and in regard to our duties as citizens of the United States of America?
Based on these principles, we recognize that our first and primary duty is to God, for He created us and gave us life, He redeemed us with the precious blood of His own dear Son, He brought us to faith through Word and Sacrament and gave to us life and salvation in His Son, and He, through the Son, will judge us on the last day. We apply the words of our Lord Jesus to ourselves: “I say to you, My friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body, and after that can do no more. But I will warn you whom you shall fear: Fear Him who, after He has killed, has power to cast into hell. Yes, I say to you, fear Him” (Luke 12:4-5). Thus, we seek to obey God and live in accord with His Word in all things.
We also apply to ourselves Jesus’ words in Mark 8:34-38: “If any man would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever would save his life will lose it. But whoever would lose his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul? Whoever therefore is ashamed of Me and of My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.”
First of all, we pray for our government and our rulers. Paul wrote to Timothy (1 Tim. 2:1-4): “Therefore I exhort first of all that you make supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings for everyone, for kings and for all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceful life in all godliness and honesty, for this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”
Secondly, we obey our civil rulers whenever and wherever we can without sin and acknowledge that their authority is from God, for the Bible tells us in Romans 13:1-7: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. Rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil works. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from him, for he is the servant of God for your good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain, for he is the servant of God, an avenger to execute wrath upon him who practices evil. So it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for the sake of conscience. For this reason you also pay taxes, for they are God’s servants, devoting themselves to this very thing. Render to all what is due them: taxes to whom taxes are due, respect to whom respect is due, fear to whom fear is due, and honor to whom honor is due.” And we read in 1 Pet. 2:13-14: “Submit yourselves to every human authority for the Lord’s sake, whether it be to the king, as supreme, or to governors, as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and to praise those who do right.”
Thirdly, we disobey civil authorities when they command what God forbids or forbid what God commands for “we must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). Like Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, Daniel, and the apostles, this is not done in disrespect for civil rulers but in faithfulness to our God — they did not seek to overthrow their rulers but obeyed God and willingly suffered the consequences as a testimony to the truth.
Fourthly, we testify to the truth revealed in God’s Word, calling sin — including the sins of governments and rulers — sin and meriting God’s wrath and eternal punishment. The Bible plainly tells us in Jeremiah 23:28: “He who has My word, let him speak My word faithfully.” Therefore, we call abortion murder and contrary to God’s commandments and we make it clear that all who partake of this sin or support and promote it also share in its guilt and punishment. The same is true in regard to perversions of God’s institution of marriage (Gen. 2:18-25; Matt. 5:27-32; 19:3-9; Lev. 18-19; Rom. 1:18ff.) or any other sin against God’s revealed Word.
Fifthly, when rulers repent of their errors, we proclaim to them the Gospel of Christ and announce to them the forgiveness and life offered them through faith in Christ Jesus (cf. Mark 16:15; Matt. 28:18-20; John 20:23).
Sixthly, as citizens of the United States, we seek to be responsible citizens and use the privileges granted to us by our government in order to promote good government — government which punishes evildoers and promotes what is good and right “that we may lead a quiet and peaceful life in all godliness and honesty” and proclaim the saving Word of God (1 Tim. 2:1-3). Thus, we exercise our rights to vote for good and honest candidates, we consider serving in government offices, and we do all in our power to preserve and promote a government and rulers which use their God-given authority rightly.
Finally, as citizens, we seek to legitimately remove from office rulers who fail to do their duties, abuse their authority, or promote what is evil and ungodly, and to nullify laws (or court rulings) that command and promote what God forbids or that forbid what God requires.
This is, perhaps, the most difficult to rightly apply. And, adding to this difficulty is the question of what to do when government rulers do not follow the laws of the land or when they pass or enforce laws that contradict the very foundation of our government, the Constitution and its Bill of Rights. Then the question may arise in regard to which document we obey, an act of Congress, an executive order, or the Constitution itself. And Christians often disagree on the appropriate response because we get into the area of human opinion in regard to the application of the above principles.
Below I offer my opinions and some points to remember in our response to a government that has become corrupt and evil.
The Christian’s duty is to advance the Kingdom of God and that can only be done through the faithful preaching of God’s Word and the right administration of the Sacraments. Winning political or military battles will make no one a Christian and will bring no one into the kingdom of God, though it could possibly promote peace and safety in this world.
I would also add the note that winning a political or military victory will not necessarily change the views of the people, meaning a new government would likely be no better than the old and could even be worse.
To what extent do we take the writing of the founding fathers and the Declaration of Independence? Do these writings give us the right or duty to seek to overthrow our present government and establish another? We must weigh our answers in light of the Scriptures cited above and be careful not to put these documents on par with or above the Word of God.
In dealing with those who practice or promote what is evil, we have God’s command to testify to the truth but would be hard-pressed to find a command of God to take up arms against them.
In my opinion, it would be better to pursue a path of objecting to and refusing to obey laws that run contrary to God’s Word and willingly suffering the consequences (we have Biblical examples of this). We have in God’s commandments the right to defend ourselves and others against evildoers who would take life and property from us, but I don’t see any authorization in the Bible for us as individuals to take the law into our own hands and use force to punish evildoers or overthrow rulers.
Also, in my opinion, should one legitimate government entity separate itself from another or be attacked by another, or should a new government be established and replace another, Christians may take up arms in service of a legitimate government in defense thereof.
It should not be surprising to us that human governments would oppose God and His Word and persecute the faithful (cf. 2 Tim. 3:12-13; John 15:18ff.; Matt. 5:10-12; Psalm 2; Rev. 11).
In all this, it is wise to remember where your true home is, where Jesus is even now preparing a place for you that He might come again and take you to Himself (cf. John 14:1-6).
In closing, I think of the words of a hymn by Thomas R. Taylor, written in the early 1800s, “I’m But a Stranger Here, Heav’n is My Home,” LSB # 748:
1 I’m but a stranger here, Heav’n is my home;
Earth is a desert drear, Heav’n is my home.
Danger and sorrow stand Round me on ev’ry hand;
Heav’n is my fatherland, Heav’n is my home.
2 What though the tempest rage, Heav’n is my home;
Short is my pilgrimage, Heav’n is my home;
And time’s wild wintry blast Soon shall be overpast;
I shall reach home at last, Heav’n is my home.
3 Therefore I murmur not, Heav’n is my home;
Whate’er my earthly lot, Heav’n is my home;
And I shall surely stand There at my Lord’s right hand;
Heav’n is my fatherland, Heav’n is my home.
Thomas R. Taylor, 1807–35, Public domain
[Scripture is quoted from The Holy Bible, Modern English Version. Copyright © 2014 by Military Bible Association. Published and distributed by Charisma House.]