God and State

Thus says the LORD: ‘For three transgressions of Moab, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment, because he burned to lime the bones of the king of Edom.’ ”

- Amos 2:1

The Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution forbids the federal government from establishing a particular church as the official religion of the nation. Over time, this principle of disestablishment has come to be known on the popular level and in the language of U.S. courts as the “separation of church and state.” In many ways, it has served the country well, for it has tended to keep the federal government from getting involved with theological disputes between Christian denominations, church discipline issues, and other matters that God has not given to the state to address and that the state is not competent to assess.

Since the first half of the twentieth century, however, this principle of separation of church and state has often been stretched in ways that the founding fathers of the United States did not intend. State and federal courts have often interpreted the disestablishment clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution as requiring the removal of all mention of religion from public life. The effect has been to enforce a kind of militant secularism that says no religious group has the right to have a say in how the nation is governed. In sum, the courts have moved from the separation of church and state to the separation of God and state.

We have seen that God has created a division of labor between church and state, assigning each entity specific tasks not given to the other. However, this in no way means that the Lord wants His church to be silent with respect to civil issues. Throughout Scripture, we find believers addressing state officials, praising them when they do what is right and condemning them when they do what is wrong. Often, this takes the form of the Jewish prophets’ confronting the Jewish theocracy of the Old Testament, but such is not always the case. In today’s passage, for example, Amos addresses Moab and condemns the nation not for breaking the ceremonial laws in the Mosaic legal code but for violating assumed, universal moral norms (Amos 2:1). Amos spoke as the conscience of the state against the state’s evil practices.

Following in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets, the church is to fulfill the role of the state’s conscience. We do not look for the state to establish one church, but we do look for it to be accountable to God’s moral norms. When the state is not doing its duty to uphold justice, the church is called to exhort the state to do its job.

Coram Deo

How Christians and churches live out their roles as prophetic voices in the civic process is a matter of some complexity. One thing is clear, however, and that is that believers cannot be silent when babies are aborted, sexual immorality is promoted by the government, legal verdicts are bought and sold, and other matters. The church must call the state to act justly whenever it is failing to do so.

Passages for Further Study

Deuteronomy 16:18–20
1 Kings 21
Mark 6:18

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