In Christianity there seems to be lots of ways to look at “Separation of Church and State”. In some traditions it seems they believe in a Theocracy and others don’t allow any participation in gov’t. What’s the right way a Christian should relate to gov’t?
Theocracy is a part of the Old Testament system that God put in place temporarily as preparation for what He would do in the coming of Jesus. God gave the nation of Israel a law and a culture to survive, to stay separate and cohesive until the time this nation could bring in the Christ. I talk about how giving the law and covenant gave them a culture to preserve them here. So in terms of government this was a time where God was supposed to be their king, ruling through his Law and priestly class. It’s important to note however, that this was NOT God’s ideally ordered society. (This one idea is super important, since it has sweeping implications for what NOT to apply from the Old Testament in Christ’s Kingdom after that temporary period had passed).
So, that theocratic period was simply a temporary order that was put in place as a governor on human passions run amok and wild with sin. The ideal order is not external law at all but rather that God rules from inside of his people, no longer from the outside. The Old Testament looked forward to this coming Age when God said:
“This shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; . . . I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people.”Jeremiah 31:33
OK, so Jesus comes and fulfills this dream. He calls a people who love and follow him and he lives inside them by his Spirit. They don’t need a gov’t to tell them to be good, they are all now motivated by grace to “love their neighbor as themselves” (Romans 13:5-10). Furthermore, the people of God are no longer Jews only. They are all those invited into the Kingdom of Jesus from ALL Nations. So it’s no longer a thing where God’s people gather into one nation state with geographic boundaries and make a country for themselves with their own special rules, No. They instead are to follow Jesus as their highest loyalty and to become the best citizens of any country in which they are found.
They do this by obeying the laws of those countries, and paying taxes and doing good to everyone and practicing enemy-love (Romans 12:8-13:7). So Christians see God involved in ALL gov’ts (yes even the bad ones!), as even very non-Christian gov’ts are still run by people made in the Image of God, who have natural revelation of God’s basic moral code and they use the instruments of civil power to restrain evil and reward good. This happens in America, in Gambia and even in places like China. Obey Chinese authority? By and large, yes! Because even the atheist State of China, despite it’s abuses, officially condemns things like murder and stealing. Paul is making no blanket endorsement of every edict from every tyrannical regime (he was acquainted with the line of Caesar after all!).
Therefore, if gov’ts produce laws that are antithetical to Christian teaching, then the Christian citizen is obligated to dispense with the normal operations of obedience and submission to State and practice civil disobedience (Acts 5:29). There’s been a long tradition of this since the time of first Christians not stopping their Christian worship when told to in the 1st century, or Roman Christians not burning incense to Caesar in the 2nd century, or those not agreeing to Nazi conscription in the 20th century etc.
But the general rule is set: Obey the state, pray for your rulers, live quiet lives that honor the “King” which gives us the best chance of spreading our incredibly good news about freedom in Jesus. (1 Tim 2:1-5)
Now, believing God has sanctioned the State to be his instrument of moral order, to reward of good and restraint of evil (Romans 13:1-7), Christians came to believe that it would not be wrong for Christians to participate in that realm. That would mean hold office, join the military, etc. There is no record of Christians in the military before the 2nd century, so strong were their pacifistic leanings, but already in the Apostolic period Christians were being seeded inside gov’t (Phil 4:22).
What would Christians be doing there in the realm of Caesar? Well, hopefully operating for the good of everyone through the lens of their Christian conscience. I say “hopefully”, because at times the wedding of Christians with State power was not good for either the Church or the State. It tended to actually be worse for the Church than the State, because the State always makes demands for its favors. So involvement in the public square did often corrupt the purity of the Church’s message when it married civil power.
That’s the worst case scenario of Christian relationship to Power. But the best case scenario is when the Church is an independent force in a society, not beholden to the State, and acting as a conscience for the culture. Imagine a world where Christians pray for their civil leadership, work with that leadership (if possible) for the common good, participate in the public square with their uniquely Christian conscience intact. Yet, imagine doing so while reserving their highest loyalty and interest for God’s Kingdom rather than the Kingdom of the World, believing their great mandate is to make citizens of heaven not the state.
When they’ve gotten this relationship with gov’t right, Christians have changed the ball game in the last 2000 years. Checks on tryrants and monarchies, the abolition of slavery (twice), human rights legislation, laws against slave trading, widow burning, foot-binding, infanticide, child abandonment, laws against religious persecution – all these came as a result of Christians uniquely and humbly entered the public square. Notice these specific activities were NOT to impose Christianity. Using the power of the state to compel the Christian religion is not a Christian goal or ideal. That’s where we affirm the “separation” part of separation of Church and State. But if “separation” means Christianity or (religious impulse in general) is scrubbed out of the public square entirely, this is also not a Christian goal or ideal.
As the salt of the earth, the disciple’s goal or ideal is to permeate all of society including gov’t structures to work for the common good. An early example of this was when Constantine (the first Christian Emperor, 4th century C.E.) issued the Edict of Milan. This was the first true declaration of religious tolerance in the history of the world. There were many other times in this complicated relationship to State that were not so wonderful – usually when the “separation” wasn’t maintained; when, by the intoxications of Power, Christians forgot their primary mandate to make disciples.