Sermon of the week
Exploring the origin of separation of church and state
Because opportunities to attend services may be limited for several weeks, the newspaper has invited local clergy to submit sermons for publication here.
Pastor, Peabody United Methodist Church
We all have heard the phrase “separation of church and state.”
It has been cited in thousands of courtrooms in the past few decades, arguing for the removal of the Ten Commandments, crosses and nativity scenes from public spaces, public prayers and quotes from Scripture in school events, religious symbols from city seals, and words and phrases from the exteriors and interiors of public buildings.
As Christians and Americans, what shall we say? Are these examples of proper application of the whole witness of Scripture, or of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution? Does the American legal system’s application have it right? What do we know about the history of this idea of “separation of church and state”?
Recent history from “The Founder’s Bible” by historian David Barton: The person we most commonly associate with the phrase “separation of church and state” is Thomas Jefferson. But he was a latecomer to the concept. It was championed throughout the 1500s in England and throughout the 17th and 18th centuries by immigrants to America.
Early American Methodist Bishop Charles Galloway agreed with many ministers and colonists supporting the idea of a separation of the state from the church as an ideal relationship between civic and religious life.
“The separation of the church from the state did not mean the severance of the state from God, or of the nation from Christianity,” he wrote.
The so-called “separation doctrine” was never used to secularize the public square, but rather it existed to protect the public assembly of citizens for religious gatherings and events.
Hundreds of thousands of immigrants affirmed this sentiment, including Jews from Portugal (1654); Huguenots persecuted in France (1685); Lutherans from Austria (1731); Quakers from England (1860); Anabaptists from Germany (1863), among others.
These groups didn’t fabricate their conclusions about separation on their own. Where did it start?
When God chose a people and instructed them how to set up their civil government and legal code, God chose Moses to sit as the civil ruler and his brother, Aaron, to preside over religious duties. Moses wasn’t an atheist, and Aaron wasn’t anti-government. The nation of Hebrews was united, but there were two separate jurisdictions. God insisted that the two remain separate.
After that time, the most glaring biblical case for separation is made when Saul is king in Israel. In 1 Samuel 13, King Saul arrogantly takes it upon himself to assume the role of priest, offering sacrifices to the Lord.
God’s prophet, Samuel, tells the king, “You acted foolishly. … You have not kept the command the Lord your God gave you; if you had, he would have established your kingdom over Israel for all time. But now your kingdom will not endure.” (1 Samuel 13:13-14.)
God abandons Saul, anointing David to succeed him as Israel’s king.
In 2 Chronicles 26, we come to King Uzziah. He is known for his economic prowess and powerful military. He develops instruments of combat and defensive strategies that are unequaled by neighboring enemies. God blesses and strengthens him.
When Uzziah becomes powerful, he is filled with pride. In his arrogance, he acts wickedly when, as the leader of the state, he burns incense inside the temple, placing himself in the role of priest over all Israel.
Immediately, 81 priests confront Uzziah, ordering him out of the temple. God inflicts him with leprosy as a witness against him for his actions. His rule is finished.
What shall we conclude about Saul and Uzziah? It was appropriate to honor God in their kingdom rule. It was appropriate for them to worship God. When they crossed the line, God made a profound example of them.
Christianity adhered to that standard until the fourth century, when Theodosius I assumed leadership of both the Roman Empire and the church. Christianity was now the official state church, and all other religions became unlawful. Christianity was forced upon the people, eliminating the voluntary characteristic that Christ himself established.
Separation became one of the key issues during the Reformation of the 16th century, when heads of state commonly appointed themselves to positions of authority within the church. This continued the secularization of the church because state leaders committed their militaries to the service of the church, theological orthodoxy and moral law. They altered theological beliefs and practices and appointed priests to their liking. The church, empowered by the state, carried out widespread corruption and atrocities.
America gained its independence primarily through the ideals of reformed groups that grew out of the Reformation. They sought a biblical church and faith and also a new nation founded upon biblical principles that keep the state out of the church’s business.
Eventually, this idea made its way into the First Amendment of the Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”