The Separation of Church and State


Christianity and Politics (1)

Christianity and the State
Christianity has been a critical element in the development of political and economic thought in the Western world, though few people are aware of this. This article is the first in a series that will explore the impact of Christianity on our ideas about politics and economics in the West, and particularly how it provided a set of assumptions about human society that informed the work of the Founding Fathers of the United States.

From its earliest days, Christianity has had a complex relationship with the state. Jesus was clear that His kingdom is not of this world (Jn. 18:36), and therefore that His work was not about political power. He also taught that we are to give to Caesar (i.e. the government) the things that are Caesar’s, which means that Caesar has a legitimate claim on us (Mark 12:17).

At the same time, however, that claim is not all-encompassing: we are to give to God, not to Caesar, the things that belong to God.

This is where things get complicated. One of the earliest Christian confessions was “Jesus is Lord.” Most people today do not understand how significant and radical that statement was in the context of the Roman Empire. The Imperial confession was “Caesar is Lord,” that is, that he is sovereign in this world. Confessing Jesus as lord therefore had unmistakable political overtones that could not help but sound treasonous to Roman ears.

This was further complicated by another aspect of Roman culture. In Rome, deities were the supreme authorities in a particular sphere of life or of the world. Thus, for example, Neptune was sovereign over the seas, and when you went out on them you needed to acknowledge Neptune’s authority by performing a sacrifice to him.

In the political world, the supreme authority was the emperor. This means that he was periodically viewed as a god, and that acknowledging his authority was always done through some form of religious ritual, such as burning incense to his statue. Jews had special rights that exempted them from this, but Christians did not, particularly when the Church was increasingly made up of Gentile converts.

For Romans, burning incense to the statue of the emperor had little more significance than saying the Pledge of Allegiance today. But to Christians, it was idolatry, giving to Caesar the things that are God’s. So although they did their best to “live quiet and peaceable lives” following Paul’s exhortation (1 Tim. 2:2), they adamantly refused to participate in worship of pagan gods or of the emperor.

To put this in different terms, Jesus’ own teaching led the Church to the idea that government has its place but that its authority is limited. Add this to the confession that Jesus as Lord, and you have a recipe for persecution in the power obsessed world of ancient Rome.

Christianity continued to grow despite the persecution.

The Church’s situation changed radically when the Emperor Constantine converted and issued the Edict of Milan, which decriminalized Christianity, in 312 AD. This isn’t the place to join in the endless discussion of whether Constantine’s conversion was genuine or whether the legalization of Christianity was good for the Church (though no one seems to ask whether it was good for the persecuted Christians). For present purposes, the important issue is the implications of all this for relations between Church and state.

Church and State
Church and state are separate institutions. Jesus’ words in Mark 12:17 suggest this, even though they do not necessarily lead to this conclusion since they are not directly about institutions. But the fact that the Church was persecuted on and off for centuries means that it can exist without state support.

In fact, Christianity is the only major world religion that arose and grew without governmental sponsorship.

At the same time, the confession that “Jesus is Lord” means that Christianity is an inescapably political religion. Even if Jesus’ kingdom isn’t of this world, it has an impact on political life in this world.

Mark 12:17 indicates that both Caesar and the Church have legitimate spheres of authority. As we have already seen, this means that government authority is limited. The government cannot take on the responsibilities that properly belong to the Church and vice versa.

This immediately raises the problem of distinguishing the state’s responsibilities and authority from the Church’s. This showed up in a number of ways already in the decades after Christianity was legalized. It had been the traditional role of emperors to mediate in disputes that occurred within the different cults in the empire, so following Roman precedent Constantine thought it a part of his responsibilities as emperor to call the Council of Nicea to settle the Arian controversy. This implied a certain degree of state authority over the institutional Church.

On the other hand, Bishop Ambrose of Milan excommunicated the Christian emperor Theodosius for initiating a massacre in retaliation for the murder of one of his officials in Thessalonica. This implied that the Church could call the emperor to account for actions that would traditionally been seen as judicial or political.

The distinction between Church and state thus set up an inevitable tension between the two concerning their proper roles. Sometimes one side got the upper hand, sometimes the other, but finding the proper balance between the two has been one of the driving forces of the Western political tradition, one that was only made possible by the distinction between religious and secular authority that is found uniquely in the Christian tradition.

Limitations on Government
But if government authority is limited with respect to the Church, it raises the possibility that there are other spheres where the government also cannot legitimately trespass. This possibility led to the development of civil society in the West through the creation of intermediate institutions that stand between the individual and the state. These range from the natural institution of the family, which had been largely recognized by Rome, to the emergence of guilds, confraternities and other charitable agencies, business consortia, schools, etc., in the middle ages and beyond.

The theory behind this would eventually crystallize in the idea of sphere sovereignty, which states that society consists of a number of independent spheres that properly regulate their own affairs. These include government, religion, family, education, business, labor, and others.

Although each of these areas should govern its own affairs, sometimes they don’t: family structure collapses, schools fail to teach, businesses act unethically, labor organizations become corrupt. When this happens, the temptation is for the government to step in to fix the problem rather than to work to revitalize the failing sphere(s).

Unfortunately, government is ill-equipped to solve problems in spheres outside of its competence, and so it is likely to do a poor job at it. Further, whenever a government oversteps its sphere in this way it moves closer to tyranny, since it is usurping power that properly belongs to another institution. Eventually, this leads to totalitarianism, as the state claims supreme authority over all areas of life.

The separation of Church and state and the ideas of sphere sovereignty that flow from it is thus a critical bulwark against the totalitarian and tyrannical impulses of government. Protecting religious liberty is therefore of prime importance for a free society.

But why should we worry about government? Is it necessarily so grasping and power hungry? Isn’t this view too negative and conspiratorial? We will look at the reasons for the distrust of government in the Christian tradition in the next article.

Next steps

The HHS mandate, enacted this summer, appears to many Christians to be an example of government overstepping its legitimate bounds to dictate the terms of religion. What do your Christian friends think about this? Talk with a few of them, and consider what you might do together in order to make your concerns known in this matter.


For more insight to the relationship between Church and state, order Chuck Colson’s book,
God & Government, from our online store. You might also read the article, “The State of the Nation,” by Chuck Colson.




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