by Canon Mark A. Pearson
The Relationship of Church and State: Two Extremes
The question of the relationship between Church and State has had a checkered history with examples of extremes and attempts at balance.
On the one extreme we can cite the example of Pope Boniface VIII in 1302. His “bull” (named after the lead seal — bulla — appended to the end in order to authenticate it) “Unam Sanctam” affirmed the authority of the Pope over all human authorities, spiritual and temporal. Spiritual power, according to the bull, rests with the Church. While temporal power belongs to kings and soldiers, it is to be exercised only as the Church permits.
At the other extreme Revolutionary France of the 1790s closed down churches and seized their buildings for secular purposes, took away from nuns the right to teach children, and subjected to increasing penalties (including death) priests who did not give first allegiance to the Revolution and lay people caught practicing their faith.
The Relationship of Church and State: Attempts at Balance
A moderating position was advanced by Martin Luther during the sixteenth century Protestant Reformation. In his book On Secular Authority, Protestant Reformer Martin Luther wrote: We are to be subject to governmental power and do what it bids, as long as it does not bind our conscience but legislates only concerning outward matters…. But if it invades the spiritual domain and constrains the conscience, over which God only must preside and rule, we should not obey it at all but rather lose our necks. Temporal authority and government extend no further than to matters which are external and corporeal.
Similarly, America’s founders sought something better than either extreme noted above. Is there a balance?
Many of the founders of the United States knew the dangers of too close an entanglement of the State in matters of religious belief and practice. They saw the negative effects of a country having a particular denomination established as the State Church.
At the same time they reacted with horror to the venomous hostility of the French Revolution towards the Church.
Our founders and framers sought a middle way in matters of Church and State.
While the phrase, “separation of Church and State” occurs nowhere in the founding documents of the American nation (it is not in the Declaration of Independence of 1776 or in the Constitution, ratified 1788), its sentiments expressed were in the hearts and minds of our founders.
Almost immediately after the adoption of the Constitution, ten amendments were added — “The Bill of Rights.” The First Amendment contains two clauses regarding religion.
The Establishment Clause — Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion — states there shall be no official State Church. It does not mean, as modern atheists and agnostics want it to say, that the state cannot give any positive help to religious groups.
The Free Exercise Clause — or prohibiting the free exercise thereof — says that government cannot dictate how a religious group worships or what a religious group believes and teaches.
In 1802, President Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to a Baptist association in Danbury, Connecticut on this subject. Almost immediately it was printed in a Massachusetts newspaper. He wrote: Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ““make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.
The Relationship of Church and State: Jesus Statement to the Pharisees
In one of their attempts to trap Jesus, some Pharisees wanted Jesus’ answer on whether a good Jew was obligated to pay taxes to the occupying Roman government. Jesus took a coin, showed them whose likeness was on it and said,
“Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” (Luke 20:25). Jesus’ answer suggests that there are two legitimate governments with authority over Christians: Church and State.
In His “High Priestly Prayer,” Jesus describes the disciples as being “not of the world [system].” And yet, He adds, “I do not ask you to take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one” (John 17:14-15).
Unless one is specifically called to a monastic life, a Jesus follower is not to leave civilization for a closed community in the wilderness but remain in the civic community with all its ways of doing things, as long as one is not in conformity to things that are sinful.
In today’s situation, a Christian is to stop at stop signs, pay taxes, and wear a mask when told to, but you are not to conform when your employer (or the government) asks you — to give a few examples — to affirm that all religions are equally true, or to lie, cheat, or assist in an abortion.
The Relationship of Church and State: The Apostles Paul and Peter
Paul said, “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities…. The authorities that exist have been established by God” (Romans 13:1).
Peter wrote, “Therefore submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, whether to the king as supreme, or to governors, as to those who are sent by him…” (1 Peter 2:13-14).
The government of which they are speaking, please remember, is not a modern two party democracy, but the Roman Empire.
The Relationship of Church and State: When Christians Must Disobey
While noting what Jesus and two apostles said about conforming to the State, the authority of the State over the Christian disciple is not absolute.
The authorities reprimanded early Church leaders, “We gave you strict orders not to teach in [Jesus’] name. Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching….” But Peter and the other apostles replied, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:28).
What We Have Done at Trinity Church
When Trinity Church built our new building, we came under the authority of the town for various codes, permits and inspections. I am glad we did. I have seen new buildings collapse in third world countries because blue prints were not reviewed, building codes were not followed, and inspections were not conducted.
During the crisis, we followed all the best practices health codes of washing/ sanitizing hands upon arrival, wearing masks, keeping six foot social distance, using one-use liturgy-and-music handouts and the like. When the initial protocols called for services with a maximum of ten people present, we multiplied the number of services and signed people up for one.
However, had either the town or the State attempted to dictate how we worship or what we teach and preach, we would have politely but firmly refused.
As it turned out, I, as both the pastor of a church and a state legislator sitting on the House Health, Human Services and Elderly Affairs Committee, was one of the three who developed the recommendations that went to the Governor and New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services for further opening up church services. Our proposal acknowledged both our rights as people of faith and our responsibilities as socially caring citizens.
Those Old Extremes Never Die Out
I mentioned earlier the extremes of the Medieval Church and of the second phase of The French Revolution. When it comes to the relationship between Church and State these extremes are ever lurking in the shadows in our day, waiting for a time to express themselves anew.
We have seen nationally examples of what a friend of mine calls “Patriot Pastors,” those who believe the state has no authority over their church in anything, including health codes. Misapplying Peter’s statement in Acts 5:28, and ignoring the two Epistle quotes, they state, “I don’t listen to man. I listen only to God.”
Whenever someone makes that kind of statement, I usually respond, “Well, then listen to Him! Scripture says the State does have some (but limited) God-given authority over both you and your congregation.”
On the other hand, in some states interventions of the courts were necessary so that restrictions would not be applied unfairly to churches. We are probably accurate in concluding that some political leaders have been deliberately discriminating against the Church because of statements they previously made about religion and religious groups.
Trinity Church receives favor from the people and government officials of our area because we regularly demonstrate that we love them by such things as raising vegetables on our property to help the local food pantries, and, during the pandemic, following the various health protocols.
We do not know when the COVID-19 crisis will be over nor do we know when its successor will arrive. In the meantime brush up on the rights and responsibilities of both Church and State. Share these with local “Patriot Pastors” — if they’ll listen. Clergy, preach a sermon or two on this subject and discuss with your lay leaders. And, if your State government has demonstrated it will use a crisis to try to harm the church, shout out and maybe run for political office. +