The Separation Of Church and State

By Emerson L. Flannerv

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” These sixteen words in our Constitution were unique and have proven to be most beneficial to both church and state for 200 years.

One great American jurist, David Dudley Field, in 1893 wrote: “The greatest achievement ever made in the cause of human progress is the total and final separation of church and state. If we had nothing else to boast of, we could lay claim with justice that first among the nations we of this country made it an article of organic law that the relations between man and his Maker were a private concern, into which other men have no right to intrude. To measure the stride thus made for the Emancipation of the race, we have only to look back over the centuries that have gone before us, and recall the dreadful persecutions in the name of religion that have filled the world” (“American Progress,” Jurisprudence, New York, Martin B. Brown, 1893, p. 6).

From ancient times the priests and kings jostled for top position, for total power over the inhabitants. It was a battle in which first one then the other held the upper hand. Times were most dangerous to the citizens when there was a “marriage” of priest and king (church and state), where the state carried out the will of the church. This can be clearly seen in the history of Egypt, Mesopotamian empires, pre-Christian Rome and following civil governments.

Christianity Oppressed

In its early history, Rome exhibited a great tolerance to religions. Worship of state gods was expected of its citizens; but in addition, private family cults were tolerated, as long as they did not intervene in the political arena, where the state religion enjoyed a monopoly. But by the time emperor-worship was fully established, much of this tolerance had disappeared. The Roman rulers, noting the Jews’ adherence to monotheism, burned their cities, destroyed their places of worship, and scattered them throughout the empire. Eventually they softened a bit, saying the Jews need not pray to the emperor, but only pray for him.

The early Christians, too, suffered much at the hands of the Roman rulers. Nero persecuted Christians as arsonists, but by the time of Trajan, simply to be a Christian was a criminal offense – the name itself constituting the offense! Under Valerian the church was declared to be an illicit corporation. Its property was confiscated, its meetings forbidden, its “clergy” declared guilty of conspiracy to commit treason. Finally, the Edict of Milan, 312-313 A.D., declared that “liberty of worship shall not be denied to any, but that the mind and will of every individual shall be free to manage divine affairs according to his own choice.”

The Church Becomes The Oppressor

Within seven years of the Edict of Milan the pendulum was swinging the other way, and the “church” became the oppressor. The “clergy” was freed from public burdens. They got the state to forbid heathen sacrifices. Two years later they got the state to declare the “Christian Sunday” a legal holiday, and urban citizens were forbidden to work on that day. In the year 346, all non-Christian temples were ordered closed and the death penalty was meted out to all who offered sacrifices. The “heretics” (those who do not agree with the “church”) could not build church buildings, hold religious assemblies, or even teach their doctrines privately. “The principle that religious unity ought to be imposed in one way or another dominates the whole of the Christian Middle Ages, and finds a concise and rigorous sanction in civil as well as in ecclesiastical legislation” (Francesco Ruffini, Religious Liberty, London, Williams and Norgate, 1912, p. 36). This position was pushed by Augustine, who stated, “When error prevails, it is right to invoke liberty of conscience; but when, on the contrary, the truth predominates, it is just to use coercion” (M. Searles Bates, Religious Liberty: An Inquiry, New York, 1945, p. 139).

What Augustine was saying is that in countries where the Catholics are in the minority they should be granted religious freedom because of their conscience; but in countries where they are in the majority (say Italy or Argentina) religious freedom should be denied to the minority on the grounds they arr. in “error” and that this minority should meet with coercion. (The late president Franklin D. Roosevelt believed and said the same thing, asking fundamentalist evangelists to come home from Argentina.)

Some Problems As To Separation Today

In drawing the line of separation between church and state, there are some “gray” areas – some matters of difficulty as to who has the jurisdiction. Our civil authorities observe the results of Jonesville, the falsifying by certain cults, children dying because their parents’ religion forbids blood transfusions, innoculations, radiation treatment, etc. Does “religion” have the right to force on minor children a practice that will lead to the death of the child? Has it not become a “civil” right in such cases? If so, the state should interveNow, religion has done so, and some are still doing so. But if religion should be dealing with spiritual matters, should not the discipline (punishment) be of a spiripal nature? We personally believe (and we take the New Testament as our standard in religion) that no religion, no congregation has the authority of capital or corporal punishment. The state should interfere with any religion, any church, that sought to do so. Freedom of religion does not mean the church may ignore the building codes enacted for the safety of all. The fireman should have the right to check church houses to see that they are meeting the fire codes. It seems to me, since the church benefits by police and fire protection, by streets leading to our meeting house, that we should pay our fair taxes to the state for these services. Otherwise we are preaching “separation of church and state” while asking the state to give these services as a donation to the church. As Jesus said, we must “render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s (Matt. 22:21).

Civil Government Is God-ordained

Christians ought to have a respect for civil government for it is God-ordained. Paul wrote the Christians in Rome (58 A.D.), “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. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power (government), resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. For rulers are not a terror to good, 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 a minister of God to thee for good. . . ” (Romans 13:1-4a). It is good to have civil government! Civil government was meant by God to be a terror to evil men, and a praiser of those citizens who do good. But to exist, civil government must have taxes, soldiers, policemen and civil servants. Christians ought not to oppose the government in these things, but cooperate in every way they can.

The Church Is Ordained Of God

In the spiritual realm, Christ purchased the church with His blood (Acts 20:28), and He Himself became the head of the church, having all authority (Eph. 1:20-23). His church was to be directed by elders (we speak of the local congregation) who met the qualifications He Himself laid down in His word (1 Tim. 3, Titus 1). Their oversight was limited to the one congregation that had selected and appointed them (Acts 20:28; 1 Pet. 5:2). Christ instructed the elders to feed the flock (church). They were to maintain the moral purity in the congregation by withdrawing fellowship from members who violated Christ’s teaching. Paul wrote, “It is reported commonly that there is fornication among you, and such fornication as is not so much as named among the Gentiles, that one should have his father’s wife. And ye are puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he that hath done this deed might be taken away from among you. For I verily, as absent in body, but present in spirit, have judged already, as though I were present, concerning him that hath done this deed, In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when ye are gathered together, and my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, to deliver such a one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1 Cor. 5:1-5). And in this same chapter Paul continues, “But now I have written unto you to keep company, if any man that is called a brother (in Christ, ELF) be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such a one, no not to eat . . . . Therefore put away from among yourselves that wicked person” (1 Cor. 5:11-13). So elders and congregations have been ordered by Christ through the inspired apostles to discipline members who have become “wicked persons”, and he has stated what constitutes wickedness.

Conflicts arise between church and state when either invades the realm of the other. When the state leaves the realm of civil government and gets into moral issues; approving what the New Testament condemns – abortion, homosexuality, atheism, etc. – the state cannot silence the church by claiming these are political matters, an arena the church should not enter. These are spiritual and moral matters, the very arena the church must enter and fight with all her might. When the church leaves the realm of spiritual matters and enters the realm of the political and state, then the church is out of place and a conflict is bound to occur.

Recent Lawsuits Against the Church

Did the state of Oklahoma interfere in church matters recently when the courts of that state rendered a judgment of $390,000 against the elders and the members of the Collinsville Church of Christ for withdrawing from a member who confessed to being a fornicator, according to a report in Time (March 26, 1984, p. 70)? Marian Guinn, who filed the suit, objected to the elders reading a letter to the congregation stating why she was being withdrawn from, charging it was “an invasion of her privacy, intentionally causing emotional distress and shattering her “whole world!” It is well to remember the elders dealt with a congregational matter. They did what the New Testament teaches a congregation must do in such cases (see above). It was, actually, none of the state of Oklahoma’s business, for Mrs. Guinn’s civil rights were not infringed upon. Any embarrassment she suffered was caused by her own actions. The elders had to take the action they did or disobey Christ’s teaching.

Here is the letter the elders at Collinsville mailed to Mrs. Guinn, as reported in Weekly World News (April 3, p. 5): “It is with tremendous concern for your soul and the welfare of the Lord’s Church that we exhort you to consider the impact of the results of the course you have elected to pursue. We have, and will continue, to follow the instructions set forth in the scriptures in dealing with matters of church discipline . . . We have confronted you personally; however, to date you have not responded, so you leave us no alternative but to ‘tell it to the church.’ If by the close of the worship services Sunday morning, Sept. 27, you have not indicated a penitent heart by public acknowledgment of your sin of fornication, a statement will be read aloud to the congregation, with an exhortation for each to make contact with you for the purpose of encouragement, that you might ‘hear them’ and repent. If you so choose not to heed these exhortations, by the close of the worship services Sunday morning, Oct. 4, a statement will be read by the elders, to exclude you from the fellowship of the Body of Christ, and notify sister congregations, which means not to associate with you . . . Our purpose in exercising this discipline is to “save your soul.”‘

The only punishment by the congregation was the excluding from fellowship of a member who was a fornicator and who admitted it. That is the only punishment a church can ever use in withdrawing from an unfaithful or wicked member who will not repent. Albert Barnes commented on 2 Thessalonians 3:6, which tells us to “withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly,” as follows: “We cease to have fellowship with him. We do not regard him any longer as a Christian brother. We separate from him. We do not seek to affect him in any other respect; we do not injure his name or standing as a man, or hold him up to reprobation; we do not follow him with a denunciation or a spirit of revenge; we simply cease to recognize him as a Christian brother, when he shows that he is no longer worthy to be regarded as such. We do not deliver him over to the civil arm; we do not inflict any positive punishment on him; we leave him unmolested in all his rights as a citizen, a man, a neighbor, a husband, a father, and simply say that he is no longer one of us as a Christian” (Barnes On The New Testament, 2 Thessalonians 3:6, p. 99).

The suit of Marian Guinn for $1.3 million in which the courts granted her a settlement of $390,000, is a blatant crossing by the state into church affairs. This has already spawned other suits. Such decisions will cause the churches that practice New Testament discipline among its members to lose its property, its income, its ability to function in the work of the church. A congregation cannot function without discipline. A state cannot continue to exist that does not or will not protect the civil rights of its citizens. It would not deserve to continue. There are some gray areas concerning the separation of church and state and these should be pursued. But the congregation action of withdrawing from an ungodly member is not one of the gray area issues. Let us maintain separation of church and state.

We are pleased to report $1 million will have been contributed by May 6th to enable this Oklahoma case to be appealed to the Supreme Court by the Collinsville church, and several good attorneys, some of whom are Christians, have

volunteered their services in this appeal. Let us hope (and pray) the appeal will be a successful one.

Guardian of Truth XXVIII: 15, pp. 451-452, 470
August 2, 1984