Separation of Church and State

The final part of the answer to the question, “What makes Baptist churches different from others churches?” relates to the principle of individual responsibility that I explained a few articles ago. Specifically, we found that Baptists believe every Christian has been given the right to enter boldly into God‘s presence and the responsibility to answer directly to God for his obedience. And if it is the individual’s responsibility to answer to God for how well he has obeyed Scripture, then it is not for the church to establish an order of priests to whom we must give account. But it is also not for the government authorities to ensure that everyone is obedient to the faith, or even that everyone has faith in God, nor do church leaders have the right to exercise civil authority in any way exceeding that of the other citizens of the state.

For much of church history and among many denominations, this principle has not been upheld. With the conversion of the Roman emperor Constantine in the 4th century, Christianity became a legal religion, and as the emperor began to offer legal benefits to the church he also began exerting influence as its judge. Thus began the merger of the church and the state, a partnership which lasted for more than 1,000 years without facing any significant challenge. Sometimes it meant that the government exerted strong influence over the church, and other times the church leaders (especially the Roman Catholic popes) exerted control over the affairs of government. Often this took the form of legalized persecution of anyone who refused to submit to the authority of the church. This relationship between the church and state continued even through the Reformation, with Protestant churches simply replacing the Catholic church in its relationship with the civil authorities. The powers of the civil magistrates were used to force compliance with the dictates of the church, both to fight against heresy and to defend Christianity. Even in North America, the early colonies were dominated by church-state partnerships in which dissenters were persecuted and those who refused to faithfully attend and give to the church were punished severely and often had their property confiscated.

This kind of church-state relationship is fundamentally flawed, however. Any formal merger of the church and state threatens to obliterate the rights of every individual to obey the Lord according to the dictates of his conscience, knowing that he must answer to God for his actions. Since it is the right of every believer to come boldly into the Lord’s presence, it is not possible for the civil government to regulate worship or doctrine for the church. And furthermore, since it is the responsibility of every person to answer to the Lord for what he has believed and how he has lived, the civil authorities do not have the right to exercise judgment over the spiritual life of any man. As Baptists, we affirm that God’s word is the true and perfect standard of righteousness for every man, and anyone who rejects it does so to his own peril, but we will defend his right to do so and leave the judgment of such things in God’s hands. For this reason, Baptist believe in the separation of church and state.

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