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Established Religion

A Message by R.C. Sproul

What is the official status of Christianity in the United States of America? Is it equal with all other religions? Does the “separation of church and state” mean that the state is free from any notion of God? In this message entitled “Established Religion,” Dr. Sproul explains the dangers of misunderstanding the idea of the separation of church and state.

From the series: Church and State

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Further Study On This Topic

  1. article

    How the State Serves Salvation

  2. devotional

    The Christian and the Government

  3. article

    Separation of Church and State

How the State Serves Salvation

Jonathan Leeman

Don't put too much hope in government. But don't give up on it either. Churches need good governments. In fact, God gave the world governments so that churches can do their work in peace. The government's work is a prerequisite to the mission of the church and salvation, just as learning to read is a prerequisite to reading the Bible.

A culture and its political institutions might turn against Christianity, but Christians should strive to make an impact as long as they have opportunity. It can get worse. Just ask the Christians in China or Iran.

A Stage for Redemption

Think back to the Bible's first chapters. After the flood, God gives Noah the same commission he gave to Adam ("be fruitful and multiply"), only this time God provides a charter for government: "Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed" (Gen. 9:6).

The immediate purpose of Genesis 9:5–6 is to render judgment and keep the Cains from killing the Abels, just as the immediate purposes of highway guardrails is to keep cars on the road. But the ultimate purpose of government is to provide a platform for God's plan of redemption, just as the ultimate purposes of those guardrails is to help cars get from city A to city B.

Genesis 9 comes before Genesis 12 and the call of Abraham for a reason. Government provides a stage on which God's redemptive drama can play out.

Paul, therefore, observes that God determines the borders of nations and the dates of their duration so that people might seek Him (Acts 17:26–27). People need to be able to walk to church without getting mauled by marauders. They cannot get saved if they are dead. The work of government, in short, provides a platform for the work of the saints.

Two Kinds of Governments

Two basic kinds of governments, then, show up in the Bible: those that shelter God's people, and those that destroy them. Abimelech sheltered; Pharoah destroyed. The Assyrians destroyed; the Babylonians and Persians, ultimately, sheltered. Pilate destroyed; Festus sheltered. And depending on how you read Revelation, the history of government will culminate in a beastly slaughter of saintly blood.

Romans 13 calls governments servants; Psalm 2 calls them imposters. Most governments contain both. But some are better than others.

Bad Governments

Yes, Jesus will build His church. No, the worst governments cannot stop the Holy Spirit. Yes, God often moves underground, undisclosed to governments.

But bad governments, from a human standpoint, really do make the church's work difficult. The slaughter, evacuation, and near-extinction of Christians in portions of Iraq and Syria today testifies to this fact, as did the Muslim occupation of North Africa in the latter centuries of the first millennium.

In A History of Christianity in Asia, Samuel Hugh Moffett observes:

Sharp persecution breaks off only the tips of the branches; it produces martyrs and the tree still grows. Neverending social and political repression ... starves the roots; it stifles evangelism and the church declines. Such was the history of the church in Asia under Islam, until ... Tamerlane swept the continent with the persecution to end all persecutions, the wholesale massacres that gave him the name of 􏰀"the exterminator" and gave Asian Christianity what appeared to be its final, fatal blow.

By the same token, Christians should be concerned about those in European governments who want to classify belief in God as a mental illness, or to criminalize proselytizing Muslims, or to ban homeschooling because it allows children to be indoctrinated. Christians in America, too, should take incursions against religious liberty seriously.

What Now?

Four lessons follow:

(1) Pray. Paul urges us to pray for kings and all in high positions so that we may lead peaceful and quiet lives. "This is good" and "pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved" (1 Tim. 2:3–4). We pray for our government so that the saints might live peaceful lives and people will get saved.

(2) Engage. We render to Caesar what is Caesar's by paying taxes, yes, but in a democratic context, we also do this by voting, lobbying, lawyering, or running for office. Even in an empire, Paul, for the sake of the gospel, pulled the political levers he had. He invoked his citizenship and appealed to Caesar. Steward opportunities while you have them.

(3) Evangelize. Moffett observes that what finally killed the advance of Christianity across Asia "was not the persecution of a Tamerlane, though the permanent effects of that ravaging destruction still linger. More crippling than any persecution was the church's own long line of decisions ... to compromise evangelistic and missionary priorities for the sake of survival."

(4) Trust. Jesus will win. That is our only source of hope for tomorrow and strength for today.

Finally, let me offer thanks to the Christians who work in government, whether politicians or police men. It might feel futile at times, but you're building a stage for the drama of redemption.

The Christian and the Government

Christianity, despite the claims of many of its detractors, is not a "pie-in-the-sky religion" that leads to escapism or a shirking of responsibilities in this world. Actually, as we have seen in our study of Romans 12, our transformation by the Holy Spirit raises the bar for how we are to relate to others on this side of eternity. Believers must actively love their enemies in a manner that seeks their well-being (vv. 14-21). We must show sacrificial hospitality to other Christians (v. 13). Furthermore, as today's passage indicates, the servants of Christ must be model citizens of the civil government.

Romans 13 contains some of the most important teaching on the believer's relationship to secular government in all of Scripture. Although it might seem that Paul introduces this topic from out of nowhere, the placement of Romans 13 makes good sense in its context. First, we know that many of the earliest Christians misunderstood what it means to be free in Christ, and they attempted to live without any restraint. For example, the Apostle Paul's words in 1 Corinthians show that the church in Corinth had a strong tendency toward libertinism. Second, the teaching that vengeance belongs to the Lord (Rom. 12:19) likely led many of the first readers of Paul's epistle to the Romans to think that there was no hope in this life for seeing justice done. Romans 13 addresses both of these concerns. In calling us to submit to earthly authorities, the Apostle shows that freedom in Christ does not mean that we can do whatever we want; rather, we are to honor those in authority over us as long as they do not require us to commit sin. In describing the state's duty to punish evil, Paul reveals that there is a place for justice on this side of heaven, but that there is an ordained structure for the punishment of evildoers. In other words, we do not find in Scripture an endorsement of vigilante justice.

We have seen that submitting to authorities does not extend to obeying them when they command us to do what God has forbidden or when they forbid us from doing what God has commanded. This qualification is implicit in the words Paul chooses. Paul says "be subject," not "obey without question." To be subject, or to submit, is an act of the will to give oneself over to those in authority; it is not blind obedience. There may be points at which the state's law conflicts with the law of God. On such occasions, the Lord's commands win. Dr. R. C. Sproul writes in his commentary Romans, "If the civil magistrate calls us to sin, we must say no."

Separation of Church and State

Nicholas Needham

Western Europe was shaken to the heart in the eleventh century by the investiture conflict. It saw kings humbled by popes, popes driven out by kings, wars between armies, dissensions within the church, and, ultimately, a new Europe.

A theological dispute pulsed at the center of the conflict. To understand it, we have to step back even further in time to the development of feudalism. The Roman Empire’s disintegration in the West, from the fifth century on, gave birth to a new social landscape, where ownership of land rather than money or political office was all-important. More-powerful figures made grants of land to lesser figures, who in turn swore personal loyalty to their superiors. The Latin for “grant” is feudum — hence “feudalism.” At the top of this chain of “land and loyalty” were the king and his chief nobles. At the bottom were the peasants. In between were layers of lesser figures: minor nobles, local knights.

This social structure of “land and loyalty” had a transforming impact on the church. A local landowner would build the local church or monastery on his own land at his own expense. It was only by grant from the local lord that the church’s land and landed property (for example, the manse) belonged to the clergy. Perhaps naturally, the lord saw it as his right to choose who would manage the local ecclesiastical property as priest, bishop, or abbot.

Feudalism therefore killed the ancient tradition of clergy being elected by church members and bishops being elected by clergy and people together. When the supreme feudal lord, the king — who was, of course, a layman — appointed or “invested” the man of his choosing as a bishop or abbot, this was called “lay investiture.” It took place through a ceremony in which the king bestowed on the bishop or abbot his ring and staff, the symbols of spiritual office. The bishop or abbot then swore loyalty to the king as his lord.

Not everyone, however, was happy with a feudalized church. In the mideleventh century, the papacy began to recover its integrity and power after a long, dismal period of corruption and impotence. A series of reforming popes, backed by a strong party in the church, made the papal court once again a body to be honored and feared. The dominant genius of this reform was a Tuscan of lowly birth named Hildebrand. After administering with brilliance various positions of trust under the reforming popes, he was himself elected pope by popular acclaim in 1073. He took the name Gregory VII . The reform movement he masterminded is known either as the Hildebrandine or Gregorian reform.

Hildebrand saw life in military terms — as a raging conflict between light and darkness. The chief agents of darkness were the secular rulers — the counts, dukes, princes, and kings. They were nothing but glorified thugs, who oppressed the poor and filled the earth with injustice. To bring about justice, the agents of light — the church, headed by the papacy — must take control of these evil rulers and force them to serve the cause of God.

Hildebrand’s negative view of kingship was a radical break with the earlier medieval tradition, which saw the Christian king as the brightest hope for the creation of a society based on Christian values. In Hildebrand’s thinking, the papacy itself, not the Christian king, was God’s agent for erecting His kingdom on earth.

As pope, Hildebrand was determined to destroy the power that feudalism had given to secular rulers over the church. The point at which Hildebrand chose to strike was lay investiture. He particularly objected to the ceremony in which a king bestowed on a bishop or abbot his ring and staff. This implied that bishops and abbots owed their spiritual authority to the king — which is indeed what Western kings believed.

In 1075, Hildebrand decreed that the Holy Roman emperor, Henry IV (1065–1105), must cease from lay investiture. He picked on the emperor precisely because he was the most important of the Western monarchs, claiming to represent the authority of a reborn Roman Empire. (His territory was basically Germany.) Hildebrand knew that if he could defeat Henry, he could defeat anyone.

When Hildebrand issued his challenge, the German bishops at first supported the emperor. They followed the tradition that saw the king as the proper center of a Christian society. Emboldened, Henry summoned a council at Worms in January 1076. Here, most of his bishops joined him in rejecting Hildebrand. Henry sent an awesome letter to Hildebrand from the council:

I, Henry, king by the grace of God, with all my bishops, say to you — come down, come down from the papal throne, and be damned through all ages!

Hildebrand’s response was like a bolt of lightning. He excommunicated Henry and released all his subjects from their oath of feudal loyalty to him. The German bishops were stunned; now afraid for their own positions, they refused further cooperation with Henry. At one stroke, he lost two-thirds of his army, which came from church lands. Henry’s truculent German nobles also seized this chance to rebel. They invited Hildebrand to come to another council, where it looked as if the rebellious nobles would elect a new emperor, with Hildebrand presiding over the election.

Henry was desperate. With a few loyal supporters, he journeyed down into northern Italy to meet Hildebrand at Canossa Castle. Hildebrand had taken refuge there, protected by his wealthy friend the countess of Tuscany, because he feared Henry would take military action against him. For three days in January 1077, Henry stood outside the castle gate, barefoot in the snow, crying out to Hildebrand that he had repented. Inside the castle, Hugh the Great, the abbot of Cluny, interceded with Hildebrand on Henry’s behalf. An important figure in the church, Hugh was as opposed to lay investiture as Hildebrand, but he was also a more moderate person who wanted to see friendly cooperation between church and state.

For three days the pope hesitated, but he finally allowed Henry into the castle. Weeping, the emperor promised to cease from lay investiture. Hildebrand received him back into the church. From one point of view, this was the ultimate example of church triumphing over state: the Holy Roman emperor, supreme ruler of the Western world, lay prostrate at the feet of the pope.

Hildebrand’s forgiveness restored Henry’s power in Germany, giving him back his army from church lands. But civil war erupted. Henry’s foes among the nobility elected Rudolf of Swabia as emperor. Both Henry and Rudolf looked to Hildebrand for support; for three years, Hildebrand wavered between them as the war raged. At last, in March 1080, provoked by a highhanded demand from Henry that Hildebrand must excommunicate Rudolf, the pope came down on Rudolf’s side and excommunicated Henry again.

This time, however, the German bishops stayed loyal to Henry. They did not recognize Rudolf’s claim to the throne and saw Henry as the only hope for stability in Germany. Henry convened a council in June that deposed Hildebrand. In October, Henry won the war when Rudolf was killed in battle. The victorious emperor then invaded Italy and in 1084 captured Rome itself. Here he placed the archbishop of Ravenna on the papal throne as Pope Clement III ; Clement then crowned Henry as emperor. Hildebrand went into exile, to Salerno in southern Italy, dying there in 1085. His famous last words were: “I have loved righteousness and hated iniquity; therefore I die in exile.”

For some time, there were two rival popes, one in Rome chosen by Henry, the other in exile chosen by reformers loyal to Hildebrand’s ideals — Pope Urban II (1088–99). Urban finally ousted his ecclesiastical rival.

The investiture conflict continued unabated. Urban’s successor, Paschal II (1099–1118), was so committed to the independence of church from state that in 1110 he offered an astonishing proposal to the new emperor, Henry V. If Henry would give up all pretence of investing bishops with spiritual authority, Paschal would surrender all the church’s possessions in Germany to the emperor; bishops would live in simple poverty.

This proposal was not to the liking of most German bishops, and Paschal had to withdraw it. However, the distinction Paschal made between the spiritual and secular aspects of investiture provided the key to the settlement of the controversy in 1122. At Worms that year, Pope Calixtus II and Henry V agreed on two points:

(i) The emperor would invest a bishop or abbot with his authority over the land that went with his office.

(ii) The bishop’s spiritual superior (his archbishop) would invest him with his spiritual authority over the church — the emperor would no longer confer the ring and staff.

Such a compromise would have disappointed Hildebrand, but it secured for the church much more independence than it had enjoyed under feudalism. It also dealt a crushing blow to the idea that bishops owed their spiritual office to the king.

The investiture conflict teaches us to distinguish carefully the proper boundaries of church and state. Making that distinction can be fraught with problems. We applaud the medieval papacy for insisting on the church’s independence. But to secure that independence, the papacy often swung to an opposite theocratic extreme, wishing to control the state. Great wisdom is needed in discerning how rightly to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17). May God grant us that wisdom today.

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