Separation Must be Defended
There is a significant amount of confusion regarding the relationship between Church and State. How much authority does the State have over the church and does the church have to offer unflinching obedience to it in all circumstances?
Many will cite Romans 13:1-7 as the end-all-be-all text to prove that the State deserves total compliance. Regardless if laws are just or they overreach their God-given jurisdiction, they have been placed there by God and should be obeyed. Whoever resists, is not only disobeying the State but God, for it says in Romans 13:2, “Therefore whoever resists the authorities resist what God has appointed.”
The State is an institution created and ordained by God. It is considered God’s “minister” to exercise authority in condoning good and condemning evil. Additionally, the Bible teaches that God has put it in place for service to Him and the good of the citizens (Rom. 13:4). I want to make this point very clear: The Institution of Government is a good thing. It is designed to restrain evil and enact good and righteous decrees that conform to God’s Law.
However, Romans 13 is not an excuse for tyranny. Just because the State is ordained by God doesn’t mean that it gets a pass when it uses its authority to oppress people. When the strong arm of the State squashes people’s God-given rights, condones evil and condemns good, then it has violated the principle of Romans 13. It ceases to no longer be for the good of the people and sins against God.
Some argue that at the time Romans 13 was written, Caesar ruled with unparalleled authority and Paul is exhorting these Christians to submit in a time where rights and freedoms were non-existent. Therefore, we, in 21st century America, should follow suit and pay little attention to our rights and only civilly disobey when there is outright and blatant religious persecution.
However, the same apostle who wrote Romans 13 also appealed for his rights as a Roman citizen in Acts 16:37-38, 25:10-11. To say that Paul meant for total compliance toward the State in Romans 13 while at the same time standing in defiance of an unjust ruling in Acts 16 pits the Bible against itself and makes Paul look hypocritical. Paul understood the role of government in maintaining equity for all people and that it should be challenged when they are negligent to promote that end.
The Biblical limitation of the State was the common understanding for generations of Christians. Christians for centuries have always believed that Romans 13 does not say that the Government’s authority is limitless and should be obeyed without question. Nor does it give it a license to take away the rights of the people. Commenting on this issue, John Calvin in his Institutes of Christian Religion, stated that if the State neglects to maintain the defense or is unconcerned about the rights of individuals, that they are “perfidious to their office and traitors to their country.” In other words, they must be opposed and called to repentance.
So, again, does the Government have the authority to tell a church how, when and where it should be able to practice its religious convictions?
The answer is no.
Irrespective of extraordinary circumstances, the jurisdiction of the State ends at the threshold of the church door. Only in the event when there is a clear violation of a magisterial law as outlined in Scripture (i.e. murder, rape, theft, etc.) then the State should punish evil (Rom. 13:4). Until that happens, the State has no right to infringe its will on the church in the same way that it has no right to encroach on family governance. The separation must be maintained.
Moving forward, as Christians, we have the responsibility to be good citizens and “render to Caesar what is Caesar’s.” This does not mean we unflinchingly bow the knee or kowtow to every whim of the State. Because the State is full of sinful people, there should be a healthy dose of caution regarding what it says and does. Furthermore, as churches, we need to guard ourselves against governmental intrusion. Cracking the door ever so slightly will invariably lead to the door being opened completely and then it will be too late to decry tyranny.
The church doors will always be open to any who are seeking the Lord but they will shut on anyone who infringes on the liberty to worship Christ according to Biblical convictions.