Back to top

The Reformation Herald Online Edition

At the Crossroads

Separation of Church and State
Eli Tenorio

Separation of church and state is a matter misunderstood by many. As religion and politics affect the lives of all of us, it is important for us to understand the necessary separation between the church and the civil government.

Some people completely rebel against all forms of government. Others even misuse the Bible to wrongly defend their reasons for not paying taxes and for disobeying authorities.

The Bible Is not anti-government

The Bible states that God is above any earthly authority and therefore, if we are required by governments to disobey God, we would not be able to submit to such requirement.

For example, when the early apostles were ordered not to teach the gospel to the people: “Then Peter and the other apostles answered and said, We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).

“When its [human government’s] claims conflict with the claims of God, we must obey God rather than men. God’s word must be recognized as above all human legislation. A ‘Thus saith the Lord’ is not to be set aside for a ‘Thus saith the church’ or a ‘Thus saith the state.’ The crown of Christ is to be lifted above the diadems of earthly potentates.”1

The Bible is not anti-government. On the contrary, it tells us that rulers are ministers of God for good and we are supposed to submit to kings and governors as long as this submission does not require for us to disobey God:

“Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme; or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well” (1 Peter 2:13, 14).

“For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: for he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil” (Romans 13:3, 4).

One of the circumstances in which Christ showed respect to the state was when He made it clear that we as His followers are supposed to faithfully pay our taxes to the government.

Jesus responded to His challengers: “Tell us therefore, What thinkest thou? Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar, or not? Shew me the tribute money. And they brought unto him a penny. And he saith unto them, Whose is this image and superscription? They say unto him, Caesar’s. Then saith he unto them, Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:17, 19–21).

The purpose of the state

According to the Bible, the state is ordained of God: “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God” (Romans 13:1). Government is ordained of God for the purpose of keeping order and granting peace to its citizens. The apostle Paul makes the appeal: “I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; for kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty” (1 Timothy 2:1, 2).

To fulfill God’s purpose, the state must give its citizens freedom to worship God and to exercise their faith without governmental interference.

Worldly governments deal with the temporal affairs without tampering with the God-given rights of its citizens to worship the Creator according to their faith—or not to worship Him at all if they so choose. God does not force anyone to worship Him and He does not give authority to anyone to force the conscience of others.

Government on earth is established to fulfill God’s purposes and any government will last only as long as the Omnipotent One allows it to. “He changeth the times and the seasons: he removeth kings, and setteth up kings: he giveth wisdom unto the wise, and knowledge to them that know understanding” (Daniel 2:21).

Is the church allowed to receive assistance from the government?

The Bible gives quite a few examples where God’s church in the past benefited from assistance provided by worldly governments, who were moved by God Himself in order to assist His people. The Spirit of Prophecy comments on some of these circumstances, explaining that the church is supposed to impart to the world the truth God has entrusted to it—and in its turn, the church is also supposed to receive from the world that which God moves upon them to do in behalf of His church to advance God’s cause:

“O that Christians might realize more and still more fully that it is their privilege and their duty, while cherishing right principles, to take advantage of every heaven-sent opportunity for advancing God’s kingdom in this world.”2

“Just as long as we are in this world, and the Spirit of God is striving with the world, we are to receive as well as to impart favors. We are to give to the world the light of truth as presented in the Sacred Scriptures, and we are to receive from the world that which God moves upon them to do in behalf of His cause. The Lord still moves upon the hearts of kings and rulers in behalf of His people, and it becomes those who are so deeply interested in the religious liberty question not to cut off any favors, or withdraw themselves from the help that God has moved men to give, for the advancement of His cause.

“We find examples in the word of God concerning this very matter. Cyrus, king of Persia, made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom, and put it into writing, saying: ’Thus saith Cyrus king of Persia, The Lord God of heaven hath given me all the kingdoms of the earth; and He hath charged me to build Him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Who is there among you of all His people? his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and build the house of the Lord God of Israel.’ A second commandment was issued by Darius for the building of the house of the Lord, and is recorded in the sixth chapter of Ezra.

“The Lord God of Israel has placed His goods in the hands of unbelievers, but they are to be used in favor of doing the works that must be done for a fallen world. The agents through whom these gifts come, may open up avenues through which the truth may go. They may have no sympathy with the work, and no faith in Christ, and no practice in His words; but their gifts are not to be refused on that account.”3

“I have repeatedly been shown that we might receive far more favors than we do in many ways if we would approach men in wisdom, acquaint them with our work, and give them an opportunity of doing those things which it is our privilege to induce them to do for the advancement of the work of God.”4

The example of Nehemiah

“Nehemiah did not depend upon uncertainty. The means that he lacked he solicited from those who were able to bestow. And the Lord is still willing to move upon the hearts of those in possession of His goods, in behalf of the cause of truth. Those who labor for Him are to avail themselves of the help that He prompts men to give. These gifts may open ways by which the light of truth shall go to many benighted lands. The donors may have no faith in Christ, no acquaintance with His word; but their gifts are not on this account to be refused.”5

Receiving gifts from outside sources

“You inquire with respect to the propriety of receiving gifts from Gentiles or the heathen. The question is not strange; but I would ask you, Who is it that owns our world? Who are the real owners of houses and lands? Is it not God? He has an abundance in our world which He has placed in the hands of men, by which the hungry might be supplied with food, the naked with clothing, the homeless with homes. The Lord would move upon worldly men, even idolaters, to give of their abundance for the support of the work, if we would approach them wisely, and give them an opportunity of doing those things which it is their privilege to do. What they would give we should be privileged to receive.

“We should become acquainted with men in high places and, by exercising the wisdom of the serpent, and the harmlessness of the dove, we might obtain advantage from them, for God would move upon their minds to do many things in behalf of His people. If proper persons would set before those who have means and influence the needs of the work of God in a proper light, these men might do much to advance the cause of God in our world. We have put away from us privileges and advantages that we might have had the benefit of, because we chose to stand independent of the world. But we need not sacrifice one principle of truth while taking advantage of every opportunity to advance the cause of God.”6

According to the Bible examples and the inspired statements above, we understand that the church can accept assistance from anyone as far as no conditions are imposed to compromise our beliefs—and if by so doing the church is not infringing upon the necessary separation that must exist between the church and the state. Keep in mind that all that is in this world belongs to our Creator. “For every beast of the forest is mine, and the cattle upon a thousand hills. I know all the fowls of the mountains: and the wild beasts of the field are mine. If I were hungry, I would not tell thee: for the world is mine, and the fulness thereof” (Psalm 50:10–12).

Why is the separation between church and state necessary?

Since religion and politics must be separate from each other, the church and its members cannot get involved with politics:

“Those who teach the Bible in our churches and our schools are not at liberty to unite in making apparent their prejudices for or against political men or measures, because by so doing they stir up the minds of others, leading each to advocate his favorite theory. . . .

“The Lord would have His people bury political questions. On these themes silence is eloquence. Christ calls upon His followers to come into unity on the pure gospel principles which are plainly revealed in the word of God. We cannot with safety vote for political parties; for we do not know whom we are voting for. We cannot with safety take part in any political scheme. . . .

“What are we to do, then?—Let political questions alone.”7

The state with its politics is supposed to take care of the temporal affairs of its citizen, including granting them religious freedom. To the church is given the task to preach the Bible Gospel, thus providing for the spiritual needs of the inhabitants of this world. Even the welfare ministry given to church, to provide for the temporal needs of less fortunate, relieving their suffering, is a spiritual connotation as it has also the goal of revealing God’s love and presenting His kingdom to humanity.

“In the name of the Lord I would say to the teachers in our schools, Attend to your appointed work. You are not called upon by God to engage in politics. ‘All ye are brethren,’ Christ declares, ‘and as one you are to stand under the banner of Prince Emmanuel.’ ‘What doth the Lord thy God require of thee, but to fear the Lord thy God, to walk in all His ways, and to love Him, and to serve the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul, to keep the commandments of the Lord, and His statutes, which I command thee this day for thy good?”8

Keep in mind that there were many abuses by the government in the time of Jesus. His solution was not political but spiritual. “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (John 3:5).

“The government under which Jesus lived was corrupt and oppressive; on every hand were crying abuses—extortion, intolerance, and grinding cruelty. Yet the Saviour attempted no civil reforms. He attacked no national abuses, nor condemned the national enemies. He did not interfere with the authority or administration of those in power. He who was our example kept aloof from earthly governments. Not because He was indifferent to the woes of men, but because the remedy did not lie in merely human and external measures. To be efficient, the cure must reach men individually, and must regenerate the heart.”9

Uniting the church with the state becomes a problem

When religion is used for political purposes or when the state interferes with the way people worship God, they lose their God-given purpose and become illegitimate agents of wrongly acquired power. “[King] David’s power had been given him by God, but to be exercised only in harmony with the divine law. When he commanded that which was contrary to God’s law, it became sin to obey.”10

It is contrary to the will of God when church and state unite to compel people by force to attend or support any religion or cause them to be punished for their religious opinions or beliefs. This is exactly how the leopardlike beast of Revelation 13 began its existence. “It was by departure from the Lord, and alliance with the heathen, that the Jewish church became a harlot; and Rome, corrupting herself in like manner by seeking the support of worldly powers, receives a like condemnation.”11

In the past, when a fallen church controlled the state, it used both religious and state power to impose its false doctrines. And it is going to happen again:

“And let it be remembered, it is the boast of Rome that she never changes. The principles of Gregory VII and Innocent III are still the principles of the Romish Church. And had she but the power, she would put them in practice with as much vigor now as in past centuries. Let the principle once be established in the United States, that the church may employ or control the power of the State; that religious observances may be enforced by secular laws; in short, that the authority of church and State is to dominate the conscience, and the triumph of Rome in this country is assured.”12

“The dignitaries of church and State will unite to bribe, persuade, or compel all classes to honor the Sunday. The lack of divine authority will be supplied by oppressive enactments. Political corruption is destroying love of justice and regard for truth; and even in free America, rulers and legislators, in order to secure public favor, will yield to the popular demand for a law enforcing Sunday observance. Liberty of conscience, which has cost so great a sacrifice, will no longer be respected. In the soon-coming conflict we shall see exemplified the prophet’s words: ‘The dragon was wroth with the woman, and went to make war with the remnant of her seed, which keep the commandments of God, and have the testimony of Jesus Christ.’ [Revelation 12:17.]”13

“Heretofore those who presented the truths of the third angel’s message have often been regarded as mere alarmists. Their predictions that religious intolerance would gain control in the United States, that church and State would unite to persecute those who keep the commandments of God, have been pronounced groundless and absurd. It has been confidently declared that this land could never become other than what it has been, the defender of religious freedom. But as the question of enforcing Sunday observance is widely agitated, the event so long doubted and disbelieved is seen to be approaching, and the third message will produce an effect which it could not have had before.”14

False religion uses civil power, but sincere souls will accept the truth

Despite the difficulties faced by the faithful believers who will be falsely accused, fined, persecuted, and imprisoned, God’s people will remain faithful and the truth will reach sincere souls who will take their stand to keep all the commandments of God. Thus the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ will triumph:

“As the controversy extends into new fields, and the minds of the people are called to God’s down-trodden law, Satan is astir. The power attending the message will only madden those who oppose it. The clergy will put forth almost superhuman efforts to shut away the light, lest it should shine upon their flocks. By every means at their command they will endeavor to suppress the discussion of these vital questions. The church appeals to the strong arm of civil power, and in this work, papists and Protestants unite. As the movement for Sunday enforcement becomes more bold and decided, the law will be invoked against commandment-keepers. They will be threatened with fines and imprisonment, and some will be offered positions of influence, and other rewards and advantages, as inducements to renounce their faith. But their steadfast answer is, ‘Show us from the Word of God our error,’—the same plea that was made by Luther under similar circumstances. Those who are arraigned before the courts make a strong vindication of the truth, and some who hear them are led to take their stand to keep all the commandments of God. Thus light will be brought before thousands who otherwise would know nothing of these truths.”15

“Servants of God, with their faces lighted up and shining with holy consecration, will hasten from place to place to proclaim the message from Heaven. By thousands of voices, all over the earth, the warning will be given. Miracles will be wrought, the sick will be healed, and signs and wonders will follow the believers. Satan also works with lying wonders, even bringing down fire from heaven in the sight of men. [Revelation 13:13.] Thus the inhabitants of the earth will be brought to take their stand.

“The message will be carried not so much by argument as by the deep conviction of the Spirit of God. The arguments have been presented. The seed has been sown, and now it will spring up and bear fruit. The publications distributed by missionary workers have exerted their influence, yet many whose minds were impressed have been prevented from fully comprehending the truth or from yielding obedience. Now the rays of light penetrate everywhere, the truth is seen in its clearness, and the honest children of God sever the bands which have held them. Family connections, church relations, are powerless to stay them now. Truth is more precious than all besides. Notwithstanding the agencies combined against the truth, a large number take their stand upon the Lord’s side.”16

Praised and blessed be the Lord our God for always providing for all the needs of His church, for sustaining it with His power and keeping His people separated from politics.

And may the Lord in His mercy give each one of us wisdom and strength to be “wise as serpents, and harmless as doves” (Matthew 10:16).

References
1 The Acts of the Apostles, p. 68.
2 Christian Service, p. 168.
3 Counsels on Stewardship, p. 183.
4 Testimonies to Ministers and Gospel Workers, pp. 202, 203.
5 Prophets and Kings, p. 634.
6 Testimonies to Ministers and Gospel Workers, pp. 197, 198.
7 Gospel Workers, pp. 391, 392.
8 Fundamentals of Christian Education, p. 477.
9 The Desire of Ages, p. 509.
10 Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 719.
11 The Great Controversy, p. 581.
12 Ibid., pp.580, 581.
13 Ibid., p.581.
14 Ibid., p.592.
15 Ibid., p.605.
16 Ibid., p.607.
17 Ibid., p.612.