Separation of Church and Statism

Pastors and church governing bodies: your job is not to avoid making waves. It is to stand true to the Lord who demands that his assembly (ekklesia) assemble.

Dear friends and supporters:

In my articles “We Are the Hollow Church,” and “What the COVID-19 Drama Has Revealed About Our Institutional Character,” I outlined the failure of much of the church during the now seemingly endless Covid crisis. But today I want to delve more deeply into this issue from a different perspective.

Separation of Church and State

No more hackneyed expression plagues the dispute over religious liberty in the United States than “separation of church and state.” Anyone who has spent even a scintilla of time investigating the phrase knows it derives from a letter from Thomas Jefferson to Baptists in Danbury, Connecticut clarifying his interpretation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. He writes that the clause “build[s] a wall of separation between Church & State.” Properly understood, this interpretation is correct, both historically and biblically. A little historical background is essential.

England, our mother country, had an established church (Anglican). “Established” means that this mildly Protestant church was the nation’s official church; in fact, the king (or queen) was the highest figure in the church, it was supported by national taxes, and major decisions were overseen by the state. There were two classes of churches with respect to this arrangement: Anglican and “dissenting” or “non-conformist” churches, which operated outside the authority and protection of the established church. Dissenters often suffered hostility from the state for their non-conformity.

The majority of the earliest permanent religious settlers in North America were either dissenters (“Pilgrims”), or Puritans, who dissented from Anglicanism but remained within it to try to purify it. There was little theological difference between the two. Both were unhappy with the established (national) church.

In late the next century, the Founders bypassed this problem entirely by simply disestablishing the church on a national (federal) level. This in fact is just what the Establishment Clause means: there will be no federally established church, no U. S. version of Anglicanism (no established Episcopal church, for example). The Free Exercise Clause means that the federal government is prohibited from interfering in any exercise of religion, as a nationally established church does by its very nature, the legal and financial preference of one church over another.

Feds’ hands off the states

But it meant something else. As John Harmon McElroy notes, Jefferson understood that the First Amendment equally prohibited the federal government from interfering in the states’ religious establishments. That last detail might seem jarring. The fact is that half the newly formed states (previous colonies) had religious establishments, and most had official religious (Christian) preferences of some kind.

This, in fact, lay at the heart of the letter from the Danbury Baptists. It was a complaint against the Christian preferences in Connecticut state law (Puritan Congregationalism had been the established religion in the Connecticut colony). The Baptists wanted Jefferson to use his influence as president to assure full-fledged religious liberty in the states just as there was at the federal level.

Jefferson politely demurred. He was no orthodox Christian, but even if he had been, his commitment to states rights that are presupposed in the Constitution prohibited federal interference in the various states even for the creditable purpose of assuring full religious liberty.

“Separation of church and state,” therefore, does not mean the president cannot call national days of prayer and thanksgiving and repentance (which he has), or that the Supreme Court cannot invoke the Lord’s name or biblical truth in their decisions (which it has), or that Congress may not craft laws with explicit reference to God’s moral law (ditto).

It means that Congress cannot establish a national church or denomination, and that it cannot interfere with the religious decisions of the various states.

This is what “separation of church and state” means — at least what it meant to the U. S. Founders.

Separation of God and State

This view is entirely in line with the Bible, which assumes what has been called sphere sovereignty: major God-established human institutions like family, church, and state operate within their own unique sphere with their own calling and authority and limitations. The church and state should be no more merged than the family and state should. Ideally, all should work separately, though cooperatively, toward the biblical kingdom of God. This is a legitimate separation of church and state.

But what secularists and even many Christians mean when they use the expression is actually the separation of the state from God, an altogether different matter. To say that the church and state should be institutionally separate is not to say that the state is immune from biblical truth, particularly God’s moral law appropriate to the political sphere (for example, the protection of life, liberty, and property).

Whenever Christians (and others) argue for the criminalization of abortion, for example, on moral grounds, secularists are quick counter with the moniker “violation of separation of church and state.” They are either embarrassingly ignorant of or deliberately misconstruing Jefferson’s language. The Constitution forbids ecclesial establishment, but assumes moral establishment. This arrangement preserves the best, and evades the worst, of both political worlds. William McGurn writes in the Wall Street Journal (January 26, 2016, A11):

The beauty of the American approach is that it avoided the aggressiveness of both extremes: the throne-and-altar alliance of the ancien régime on the one hand, and the militant secular state that emerged from the French Revolution on the other.

Testimony of the Founding

President John Adams declared famously to the Officers of the First Brigade, Third Division of the Militia of Massachusetts (1798):

Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious [he means a generically Christian] people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.

John Quincy Adams, our 6th president, and John Adams’ son, wrote in a letter on April 27, 1827:

The highest, the transcendent glory of the American Revolution was this — it connected, in one indissoluble bond, the principles of civil government with the precepts of Christianity. [italics in original]

More recently, here are the words of a 20th century Democratic president who lacked a credible profession of Christianity :

The fundamental basis of this nation’s laws was given to Moses on the Mount. The fundamental basis of our Bill of Rights comes from the teachings which we get from Exodus and St. Matthew, from Isaiah and St. Paul. I don’t think we emphasize that enough these days.… [President Harry S. Truman, Attorney General’s Conference, February 15, 1950]

Seventy years later, it is hard to imagine any president of any political party making this statement, but it accurately expresses the Founders’ view of the influence of God’s moral law on American law.

To repeat: separation of church and state: yes. Separation of state from God and his law and morality: no.

(continued below)

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Separation of Church and Society

Because secular statists (for a definition, see below) increasingly identify the state with the society of which it is a part, and because they champion a false view of separation of church and state, they charge any attempt by Christians to influence society (not merely politics) in a distinctively Christian way as illegitimate and perhaps even illegal. Thomas Molnar argued that the increased dominance of secularism has led to a change in “public vocabulary.” Christian language and ideas, once the mainstay of American moral conversation, are no longer permitted in polite “public” discourse. To claim that homosexuality and the Sexual Revolution are “immoral” is not a part of the valid public vocabulary. “Heteronormativity,” “intersectionality,” and “toxic masculinity,” on the other hand, are widely distributed verbal currency. Christianity is permitted in few places beyond anybody’s two ears.

Many churches have invested in this “separation of church and society” paradigm. Not only must the church be separate from the state. It must not influence society in any distinctly Christian way. For the church to articulate biblical truth about the environment, education, science, medicine, politics, entertainment — or epidemiology — is to stray from its hermetically sealed safe house. Individual salvation and sanctification and church growth and global evangelism are valid areas of church interest, but not much more. Leave that the secularists or, at least, to Christians who do not try to “impose” Christian values on society.

They seem not to grasp that a value-less society is impossible, and the refusal to “impose” Christian values invites the imposition of contra-Christian values. As the church has retreated from its obligation to assert Christian truth in society under the logic of “separation of church and society,” our nation has succumbed to “union of secularism and society.”

An illicit, tacit league

Ironically Christians and secularists agree about this church separation and secularist union. Secularists say, “Christianity should stay separate.” Christians respond, “We agree.” Secularists say, “Christians should stay out of politics.” Christians respond, “We agree.” Secularists say, “God’s word has nothing to say to our society.” Christians respond, “We agree.” Secularists say, “Unbelievers should be calling all of the shots in society and culture.” Christians respond, “We agree.” Secularists say, “The church should be separate from society and society should unite with secularism.’” Christians respond, “We agree.”

This is an odd and unsettling league in opposition to Christianity. It needs to stop.

Separation of Church and Statism

While the church should be institutionally separate from the state, it is even more important that it stay separate from statism. A workable definition of statism is the notion that there is no social problem for which increased political control isn’t the best solution. Any social problem (poverty, drug addiction, uneducated youth, wealth disparities) is really a political problem that just doesn’t know it yet. Statism requires a continual expansion of the state, because statist solutions always create additional social problems that in turn must be solved by politics. For example: statist lockdown orders tanked the economy, so statist economic stimulus is the demanded solution. Statism breeds more statism.

One of the many disappointments of the church during the Covid drama has been its capitulation to statism: the state demands lockdowns, including severe restrictions on church meetings (“church” in the Bible actually means “assembly” or “congregation”), and the church unquestioningly submits, often invoking Romans 13.

This default reflex is a failure, well-intentioned though it may be. Not that the church should act in presumption. God’s law forbids tempting him (Dt. 6:16). Our stance during any plague may never be: “I can flout practices of safe hygiene because God will protect me.” Wisdom is an indispensable component of faith. Therefore, the church may and should encourage hygiene practices and implement relevant policies (caution about personal contact, adequate spacing). This is common (Christian) sense.

But the church enjoys its own independent authority (Mt. 16:18–19; Eph. 1:19–23). The church is charged to decide how it will respond to Covid just as the state and family are. It is not inextricably bound to the decisions of the state any more than the state is to the church. When the governor mandates that the church cannot meet during a time of plague (even when that plague’s mortality rate is minuscule and when the church takes wise hygienic precautions), the state tramples on church sovereignty, and the church must resist the state and obey God.

The church stands under civil authority, just as politicians stand (or should stand) under church authority. For the church to submit unquestioningly to politically mandated Covid restrictions is to surrender what is not its to surrender. The church is the Lord’s and its ministers only the caretakers of his flock (1 Pet. 5:1–3). The church is not theirs to surrender to the state’s whims.

This past Tuesday, Californians received this cell phone text:

This Sunday, be assured that attending church is an essential activity. Unless sick or otherwise providentially impeded, plan to attend church. In person.

For the church to capitulate to statism during Covid is to compromise the chief tenet of the Christian faith — the Lordship of Jesus Christ.


The Bible never promises that churches standing for the Lordship of Christ will face no opposition. It promises precisely the contrary (Mt. 10). The state wields the divinely authorized power of the sword (coercion), even when it wields it in a contra-biblical way. Both biblical and church history are permeated with this conflict. It is often not a conflict between between church and state, but between church and statism.

This was almost always the case in the 20th century. In Soviet Russia and Red China and North Korea and Saudi Arabia and Nazi Germany, the church did not oppose the state as an institution; it opposed the state’s overstepping its bounds to trample on the church. The church paid a heavy price, but it was a price worth paying. Better annoy the state than disobey God.

Pastors and church governing bodies: your job is not to avoid making waves. It is to stand true to the Lord who demands that his assembly (ekklesia) assemble. If this means disobeying an oppressive governor’s mandate, make sure you obey the heavenly mandate of the world’s Governor (Is. 9:6–7).

One of the central themes of the book of Revelation is that eventually God will crush the persecuting state and exalt his faithful people. The God-defying state is temporary. The God-glorifying church is permanent.

To summarize: separation of church and state, properly defined, is correct. Separation of the state from God and church from society are forbidden. And separation of the church from statism is imperative.

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