Both Scriptural principle and the history of the church tell us that an officially Christian state does not provide the best place for followers of Christ to live out their faith and share the gospel. In a fallen world, the gospel is much more effective in the context of a secular state.
The Scriptures made it clear to the early Christians that they were to honor the state for its role of rewarding good and punishing evil, that they were to obey its laws, and give to it what they owed (Matthew 22:21 ; Romans 13:1-7 ; 1 Peter 2:13-17).
The early church thrived under the rule of a pagan state. 1 In the first 300 years of its existence Christianity spread without force of arms throughout the Roman Empire. Although it sometimes faced intense persecution (Christians were accused of being “atheists” because they refused to worship the state gods and put to death by torture and in public spectacles), the church grew because of what the gospel offered in response to people’s deepest questions and longings.
It isn’t surprising that many of the ruling elite were impressed by the Christian faith—its ethic, its historical foundation, and its resonance with the human heart. Yet when the emperor Constantine attempted to impose the spiritual kingdom of Christ by force of governmental power through the Edict of Milan in 313 he made a grave error.
His motivation may have been partially good. In comparison with the violence, carnality, and moral chaos of the Roman world the Christian way of life was so superior that its forceful imposition must have seemed to Constantine an act of mercy. In fact, in many ways it was. Christian rulers outlawed infanticide, gladiatorial games, and other evil practices. But while on the one hand the goodness of Christianity’s worldview and ethical outlook influenced worldly governments and enhanced their power, on the other hand the corrupting effects of worldly power perverted the church and its mission. In alliance with the state, the church institutionalized the gospel, identifying it with corrupt clergy, governors, and kings. True Christianity was soon concealed beneath layers of ritual and symbolism.
Because the church was allied with the state throughout the Middle Ages the gospel was mostly concealed. Nevertheless, the underlying Christian ethic of a nominally shared Christianity—however poorly they were applied—combined with the residual effects of Roman law to lay the foundation for the replacement of warring tribes with national states.
Approximately 600 years ago the implicit corruption of a unified church and state was exposed by Christian reformers. They introduced individualism and freedom of thought into their world on a scale that was without historical precedent. Because they shared a tradition that believed God desired the salvation and sanctification of every individual human being, they considered it the responsibility of individual people to seek a personal understanding of the gospel and of the world of nature — God’s creation. People, not the state, should be responsible for how they thought and how they lived their lives.2
The Renaissance of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries was not only a religious and scientific revolution, but a cultural and political one as well. Earlier pagan tribes had been unified into great national states under the influence of the Christian worldview. Under Christianity’s influence these national states began transferring the power of government from an elite few to the masses. Without the foundation of a commonly shared Christian vision, the secular, representative democracies of the modern world would not have come into existence.
However, the revolution that created the secular state was not without problems. The shift of power from the few to the many, an experiment that had never occurred before on such a scale, often had chaotic, even explosive, results. Many self-governing citizens understood little about the economic and political forces in the larger world. Multitudes fell under the influence of evil demagogues and destructive ideologies. Because states became more powerful and their political authority less centralized, conflict, when it came, was destructive on a much larger scale. Still, however, the process of democratization and secularization continued.
Given the negative consequences of a secular state, where should people of the church stand today? Should they encourage the continuing development of individual freedom and responsibility within a secular culture that allows people to choose their own way, even if wrong? Or should it seek to reestablish a religious state where only one set of beliefs is permitted?
Most Christians are convinced that we must continue the course toward individual freedom and responsibility through the separation of church and state. History has demonstrated the bad effects of combining religion and political power. When the church allies itself with government and imposes outward compliance, it creates inner rebellion. Even worse, the church becomes corrupted by the temptations associated with worldly power. Past abuses in the name of Christ make most modern Christians shudder.
In pursuing a continued course toward individual freedom and choice, however, Christians don’t abdicate all responsibility. By exercising the responsibilities of citizenship and even more by personal and collective example the people of the church have a responsibility to be a lighthouse and compass to the secular world—and to educate unbelievers and attract them with love and truth.
In seeking to teach individual citizens in a democracy how to live and govern themselves well, the church has a difficult task. But history has shown that citizens who choose to do good rather than being forced are the foundation for a stronger, freer, and ultimately more virtuous civilization.
- The Roman Empire in which Christianity had its beginning was not a secular state like the United States, but a pagan state that blended Roman power with Roman religion. Still, it offered the world under its authority a legacy of Roman law that would later, along with the Judeo-Christian worldview, become one of the essential components of the secular state. Back To Article
- Although Christian principles provided the catalyst for the democratic revolution, the organized church has not always encouraged individual freedom. At times it has felt threatened by the loss of control over governmental power. Back To Article