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Exploring the Grievances of the Union of Church and State

Table of Contents


  1.  Introduction
  2. Discussion
    • Unsustainable to Social Justice
      • Social Justice by the Catholic Church
      • Martin Luther in the Heart of Protestantism
      • Social Justice by Modern Protestantism and Evangelicalism
      • Social Justice by Liberalism and Atheism
      • Evaluation of Definitions
    • Unsupported by History
      • The Dark Ages
      • Jean Calvin’s Theocracy
      • Considering the Liberty of Conscience in America
    • Unbiblical
      • Freedom of Conscience in the Bible
      • Lessons from Jesus
  3. Conclusion
  4. References

1. Introduction

Through the history of Christianity the relationship between church and state has been a major issue.  John Wycliffe, already in the 12th century, spoke against the Papal States, which claimed to be the visible “Kingdom of Heaven” on earth (Schaff, 1882, para. 8).  Martin Luther proceeded the protest by teaching a separation of church and state (d’Aubigné, 1846, pp. 922-923).  Later, American Protestants were able to put the “dream” of liberty of conscience into effect.

Today, it seems like the progress is going backwards.  President Donald Trump vowed to close the gap between church and state (Nesbit, 2016), and Pope Francis addressed a joint session of the United States Congress (Cook, 2015).  Both Donald Trump and Pope Francis long for revival of some type of religious morality in societies.

It is true that societies need not only law and order but sense of morality.  Churches need justice, order, and liberty in society, which state should uphold.  In turn, the state needs the gospel to civilize people, and overcome injustice and corruption, as the President of the Theological School of Geneva, Merle d’Aubigné (1846) wrote.

Even though the church and the state need each other, they cannot work together in legislation of religious laws, which force certain beliefs or worship-practices on people, because it violates the individual’s God-given liberty of conscience, and, thus, becomes illegitimate in the eyes of the Creator.  This is how the union of church and state can become a persecuting power, as the Bible and the classical “American” understanding of this union proclaim.  This paper is adducing the illegitimacy of the union of church and state in three points, which argue that (1) it is unsustainable to social justice; (2) it is unsupported by history; and (3) it is unbiblical.

2. Discussion

Unsustainable to Social Justice

Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (1981) defines Social justice as “a state or doctrine of egalitarianism”, which stands for a belief that all human beings have a similar right to freedoms and privileges.  This means that everybody’s equal right for religious liberty is a part of social justice (or should be).  Usually social justice is based on so-called natural law, but there are different understandings of this law.  These different views need to be inspected, because they affect on the origin and core of social justice, which reflects on the reasons and means of upholding justice in the world.  One could start from the Catholic Church, which is, perhaps, the most famous advocate for social justice today.

Social Justice by the Catholic Church.  The common humane values, the common good, and the social justice, which the Roman Catholic Church promotes globally, are based on Papacy’s natural law’s and human reason’s mandate.  The Church believes that human reason, not the Bible, is the ultimate authority in differentiating between good and evil (“Man,” n.d.).  Papacy teaches that the church leadership has the authentic ability to interpret the Bible and the moral natural law, which declares the will of God (Cook, 2007; Paul VI, 1969, “Sacred Scripture”, para. 20), and the authority to correct the ethical root of humanity’s problems by perfecting the society (Cook, 2007; Ellingsen, 1993, p. 113; Robbins, 1999; Sullivan, 1952).  The Catechism of the Catholic Church does say that every one has the right to make personal moral decisions in religious matters, but it teaches that conscience should be educated, and guided by the authoritative teaching of the Church, which guarantees freedom and safety from one’s own judgment (“Moral Conscience,” n.d., para. 7-10).  This is clearly seen in Pope Francis’ appeals, which suggest that religious groups can have religious freedom insofar as they change their individual doctrines to pluralistic beliefs (Perriello, 2015; Pullella, 2013).

It is true that the Catholic Church has been “advancing democracy in the last three decades of the twentieth century” (Ingram, p. 381, para. 3).  Nevertheless, its view on democracy has not changed through the years (Miller, 2003).  Pope Francis I pleaded for “international institutions” (2015, Para. 175), referring to Pope Benedict XVI, who urged for “global economy”, and a “true world political authority” (Benedict XVI, 2009).  Robbins (1999), Dr. in Political Philosophy from the John Hopkins University, exposed that the Papacy’s motive, which it has shown by its means in politics, has been to govern “all aspects of society and economy” (pp. 85-86).  How does this differ from the Protestant view?

Martin Luther in the Heart of Protestantism.  Cook (2007), Doctor in church-state studies from Baylor University, states,  “[E]arly modern exponents of natural law theory among Protestants shifted the focal point of natural law theory from man’s moral perfection to that of social peace”  (p. 70).  Even though the emphasis changed, the 16th century Protestantism did not reject the existence of a natural law, because it was based on Romans 2:14-15 (“The Defense,” n.d., para. 3).  Most importantly, Luther taught that the Bible is the sole authority in judging conscience (d’Aubigné, 1846, p. 924; Ragosta, 2013, para. 3), which is one of the most important teachings of the original Protestantism.  As Nicholas Miller, Professor of Church History in Andrews University, writes, Luther’s idea was a prominent step towards the triumph of religious freedom in history (as cited in Ragosta, 2013).  Even though Protestants saw that social justice was important, they did not believe in the Papacy’s universal-communal-sacramental-order, as Robbins (1999) described it (p. 188).  Nevertheless, today’s mainstream Protestantism has changed.

Social Justice by Modern Protestantism and Evangelicalism.  Henry (1974), Doctor, and Associative Professor of Political Science at Calvin College, argued that politics is a continuation for Redemption (p. 66), saw Romans 2 as a possibility for ecumenism (p. 81), and told that ”full gospel” includes political dimensions (p. 102), which leads to ”a new divine order” (p. 103) on earth.  Jan-Wermer Müller, Professor of the Department of Politics in Princeton University, lifted up Jacques Maritain, a 20th century Catholic thinker, as almost an “embodiment” of Christian democratic thought (Müller, 2013).  Timothy La Haye, a noted Evangelical author, claimed that “the only way to have a genuine spiritual revival is to have legislative reform” (as cited in Younker, 2012, p. 22).  Recently, President Donald Trump appointed his faith advisory board, where all the members had ties or affiliations to Evangelicalism (Shellnutt & Zylstra, 2016).

As these examples suggested, “Protestantism” and so called Evangelicalism have largely adopted the Catholic Church’s understanding of social justice.  They have tried to build “God’s Kingdom” on earth (Ellingsen, 1993, pp. 111-117; González, 2010, pp. 489-490; Henry, 1974, pp. 43-45; Ingram, 2014, p. 20; Noll, 1992, p.393).  Even many Atheists have kept the separation of church and state better than many Christians.

Social Justice by Liberalism and Atheism.  John Locke, an Enlightenment thinker from the eight century, and one of Liberalism’s most prominent advocates, proclaimed that, according to a natural law, everyone is equal before civil law (Sherman & Selby-Bigge, 1984).  Even Naturalists believe that all should have the same possibilities to fulfill their need for rights, such as the right to live (Shafer-Landau, 2012).  However, “Nature has, at best, only a limited role to play in moral theory,” (Shafer-Landau, 2012, p. 88).  Nevertheless, the Universal Declaration of Human rights, which takes also Atheists in consideration (Cook, 2015), is common to everyone, despite of one’s religion.

Evaluation of Definitions.  As was stated, everybody’s equal rights for religious liberty is a part of social justice, which is based on natural law.  Concept of this “higher law” is very similar in different world views.  Nevertheless, Robbins (1999) reveals that the Roman Catholic political theory lies on totalitarian theocracy and the absolute power of the pope over all temporal and spiritual affairs.  The Catholic Church’s equality and freedom are defined and distributed by a religious-political leadership, which makes the Papacy’s equality unequal, its freedom a bondage, and its morality immoral.  Vatican’s common good leads to a totalitarian mentality, when people start spying each other (Robbins, 1999, p. 189), which is sometimes called surveillance.  True morality comes from the freedom of conscience, as Martin Luther taught, and leads to other freedoms in society.  “Without freedom in religious concernments, men are robbed of the capacity to enjoy any freedom, and all liberty is robbed of its significance” (Snow, 1913, p. 10).

Unfortunately, many “Protestants” and Evangelicals promote the union of church and state and the ecumenical social justice (Ellingsen, 1993).  They want the “Kingdom of Heaven” on earth by political means in this age, which is unbiblical, as will be seen lower in this paper.

The Bible is the only document where natural law has a loving, just, omnipotent and logical source.  Atheistic natural law and human rights start from human being, and are man-centered.  Instead, the Word of God starts from the Creator’s rights.  God has the right to be worshiped and obeyed (as cited by Miller, 2008).  However, social justice should include legislating morality without violating individual rights of worship, or the right not to worship.  The voices that proclaim Biblical liberty of conscience are getting more and more rare.  One should learn from history.  What does it teach?

Unsupported by History

The Dark Ages.  The Dark ages was an apt name, when the Papacy’s unlimited power, which it got from the Emperor Justinian’s code (Christensen & Göransson, 1975, p. 707), launched the Inquisition, which tortured and killed those who did not believe as the Catholic Church believed.  Historical sources estimate the number of people killed by the Papacy in the Middle Ages to be 50 million (Plaisted, 2006, chapter 3).  Rosa (1988), a graduate of Gregorian University in Rome, and Dean of Theology at Corpus Christi College in London, wrote:

Of eighty popes in a line from the thirteenth century on, not one of them disapproved of the theology and apparatus of Inquisition. On the contrary, one after another added his own cruel touches to the workings of this deadly machine. (pp. 174-175)

This means that the more a totalitarian and conscience-suppressing system gets power, the deeper it goes in executing that power.  Rosa (1988) continued by saying that the reason for Inquisition was the unity of church and state (p. 175).

Violently upheld collectivism was the trend of the Middle Ages.  This way of thinking, which was prominent to Catholicism, was not left behind easily, as was seen in some forms of Protestantism, as well.

Jean Calvin’s Theocracy.  Even though Protestantism freed people from papal suppression, it sometimes brought its own persecution instead.  This was the case in Calvinistic Geneva, where citizens were executed and tortured  for heresy and witchcraft (Gulley, p. 40).  Castellio commented, “What a tragedy that those who had so lately freed themselves from the terrible Inquisition should so soon imitate its tyranny, should so soon force men back into Cimmerian darkness after so promising a dawn!” (as cited in Gulley, p. 42).  However, “the sun” was soon to arise from the west.

Considering the Liberty of Conscience in America.  Finally, after the long dark period in world history, liberty of conscience started to make an effect on people in the “new land” called America.  During the 156 years before the Declaration of Independence in the United States, very little was achieved in society.  However, right after the Declaration, and its notion on equality to all citizens before the law, the “floodgates of knowledge and progress were opened”, and the U.S.A. and the world started to develop in an incredible speed (Snow, 1914, p. 11).

Miller (2008) presents interestingly that the longing for soul freedom was ignited simultaneously in the hearts of American Christian men from different congregational backgrounds.  For example, before the American revolution, in addition to Roger Williams, who was perhaps the most prominent pioneer of religious liberty, three influential persons, religious leaders, and founders of colonies, William Penn (a Quaker), Isaac Backus (a Baptist), and Elisha Williams (a Puritan), had rather theological reasons than practical and enlightenment influenced reasons, when they were persecuted and longed for a separation of church and state.

Additionally, all of them borrowed from John Locke, or had similar ideas with Locke (Miller, 2008).  However, the main flame behind the awakening of religious freedom was the Bible.  Influenced by biblical reasoning, Penn asserted, “’If no Man can believe before he understands, and no Man can understand before he is inspir’d of God’, then it is unreasonable and inhuman to punish someone for not believing something” (as cited by Miller, 2008, p. 144).  Miller (2008) argued that the most important uniting Biblical doctrine between Penn, Backus and Williams was the priesthood of all believers (1 Pet. 2:9), which made everyone equal in interpreting the Bible, and in encountering with God, as Obenhaus (1957) wrote also (p. 154).  This leads into the final argument in this paper’s defenses for the ”wall of separation between church and state,” as Jefferson (1802) described the separation in his letter to Danbury Baptists (para. 3).


Freedom of Conscience in the Bible.  As was argued by the American fathers, the doctrine of priesthood of all believers declares that there is no clergy with a higher authority in judging of religious matters, as the Catholic Church teaches, but that all human beings are equal in choosing what to believe.  Moreover, the Epistle to the Hebrews tells that there is only one High priest, the Mediator between God and human beings, Jesus Christ (4:14-16).  In addition to the priesthood of all believers, there are other important biblical doctrines which defend the separation of church and state.

The first human beings, already, were created and judged separately (Gen. 2:15, 22; 3:16-19).  They had the freedom of choice before the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 2:16-17).  This means that the Creator does not force anyone to believe in himself (Josh. 24:15), which presumes an individual conscience (1 Cor. 10:29).  Christian’s faith is individual (Gal. 3:11), which suggests that everyone should have a personal relationship with Jesus.  True freedom does not bring immorality; instead, it is the only “channel” which God uses to affect morality that comes from the choice of one’s heart and love (Eph. 3:16-17).  This is how God’s eternal and objective law becomes also subjective and personal (Jer. 31:33; Rom. 3:31).  Without the freedom of choice, there is no love.

God called Abraham, the Father of faith, personally (Gen. 12:1).  Abraham ”was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God,” (Heb. 11:10 NIV) because, as Muoro said, God’s Kingdom is eternal kingdom, not temporal kingdom (as cited in Martin, 1973; 2 Pet. 1:11: Dan. 7:14, 22; Heb. 1:8; Isa. 9:7; Luke 1:33; Rev. 11:15, 18).  Earthly governments cannot take the place of God’s government in choosing the inhabitants to the City of God, where the saved will live.  This is supported by John, when he saw the new Jerusalem ascending down from Heaven, not built by human hands on earth (Rev. 21:2).  Finally, Revelation 13 tells about a beast, a kingdom, a government, that persecutes and executes the saints on religious grounds.  This earthly authority has taken God’s place in directing people’s consciences, and it shall be destroyed by God (Rev. 19:20).  Most importantly, the book of Revelation is ”[t]he Revelation of Jesus Christ” (Rev. 1:1).  Jesus, especially, had something to say about the Kingdom of God’s separation from the earthly powers.

Lessons from Jesus.  In addition to that Jesus, ”the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), spoke through all the prophets and apostles (1 Cor. 10:4; John 15:26), he gave also his own testimony on earth regarding the grievances of the union of church and state.

Firstly, Jesus asserted that his Kingdom and followers are not of this world (John 17:14; 18:36).  The word world comes from the Greek word kosmos, which means also ”orderly arrangement” (”Strong’s Lexicon,” n.d.).  This suggests that this world’s order is not ultimately from God.  This is supported by the fact, that Moses’ laws, even the Ten commandments, are not in force theocratically anymore (John 8:1-1; Luke 22:49-51).

Jesus did not force anyone to follow himself (John 12:47).  He said that he, not the church or government, would enforce the executive judgment on the last day on those who have rejected his gift of salvation (Matt. 13:24-30).  Moreover, Jesus stated that the gentiles lord over each other, but the children of God are free (Matt. 20:25;17:26).

Secondly, Jesus came as a helpless babe, not as a conquering king (Gulley, 2007, p. 57).  He had at least the following opportunities to gain political power: when Satan tempted him (Luke 4:5-8); with all the multitudes; when arriving to Jerusalem; and with the chance to call thousands of angels to help him when he was arrested (Matt. 26:52).  However, he refused to gain secular power.  Jesus, himself, was accused and executed on religious grounds by the a union of a “church” (Sanhedrin, which was the religious leadership) and a state (Rome).  Nevertheless, as he taught (John 15:20; Matt. 5:39), he did not answer to persecution with persecution.

3. Conclusion

Regardless of one’s religion, beliefs, or philosophy of life, natural law, which includes social justice and liberty of conscience, is affecting all humanity.  Civil laws cannot infiltrate into the domain of one’s “soul-liberty”, because it is based on freedom of conscience (Snow, 1913).  Civil legal authority is for justice according to deeds, not beliefs, as Jefferson (1802) wrote.  Religious freedom is a road to other freedoms and civil development in a society.

Therefore, Catholic, “Protestant” and Evangelical understanding of social justice leads to the union of church and state, which results in forcing of conscience by government.  History tells us the terrible consequences of this union.  When Atheism does not have a logical foundation for moral theory, Protestantism is the only logical, Bible-based and effective advocate for the liberty of religious beliefs in today’s world.

Jesus, God “made flesh” (John 1:14), revealed God’s will on earth, and died for humanity’s sins.  Every human being on the planet Earth can choose whether to accept Christ’s substitutionary death for his or her sins, or to decline it.  True freedom, which comes from the heart, is not forced by the state, or anything, or anyone.  By choosing the Word of God, one lets the Spirit of God sanctify the soul and affect in life and society as an edifying morality.

Jesus died for freedom of conscience, as well.  Ironically, he died in the hands of a union of church and state.  Moreover, Jesus gave an example to all Christians.  Even though God’s people ought to live for the best of the societies in which they influence (Jer. 29:7; Rom. 13:5; 1 Pet. 2:17), obedience to God goes ahead of it, if the government takes rights, which belong only to God, for itself (Acts 5:29).

Even though the state needs the church to have a moral voice in public square, the church can influence positively to society without getting involved in legislation of religious beliefs.  It is true that the church can even get persecuted for its comments by some social or political entity.  However, this paper has shown in its three main points that, the church and the state, by legislating their own views of the Bible as belief-laws or worship-laws, can, ultimately, become a united persecutor themselves.  In conclusion, the union of church and state stands on unjustifiable ground.

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