Separation of Church and State | Baptist Distinctives

Lesson 9: Separation of Church and State

This is the concluding lesson in our treatment of the Baptist distinctives. Using the acrostic B-A-P-T-I-S-T-S, we have discussed the B – our view on the Bible, the A – the autonomy of the local church, the P – the (individual) priesthood of the believer, the T – the two ordinances Baptists recognize and practice, the I – individual soul liberty, the S – regenerate (or saved) church membership, and the T – two offices, pastor and deacon. Now we come to the final S – separation of church and state.

Historical Considerations

The separation of church and state is, or should be, an issue dear to the hearts of Baptists. Baptists emerged as a specific body in the midst of a crippling adversity. Baptists bled in their earliest years of the seventeenth century, and they remained handcuffed in much of the eighteenth century. They bled from the whip of religious oppression, and they were constricted by the arms of both church and state. Born in the midst of great pain with freedom denied, Baptists, a minority people, grounded their affirmation for religious freedom to some degree in their own historical experience of persecution and pain.

Early Baptists strongly supported the concept of separation of church and state. John Smyth’s 1612 Propositions and Conclusions was perhaps the first confession of faith of modern times to demand freedom of conscience and separation of church and state. Said Smyth, “The [government official] is not by virtue of his office to meddle with religion, or matters of conscience, to force or compel men to this or that form of religion, or doctrine: but to leave Christian religion free, to every man’s conscience . . . for Christ only is the king, and lawgiver of the church and conscience.” John Leland (1791) wrote a pamphlet The Rights of Conscience Inalienable, saying “Government has no more to do with the religious opinions of men, than it has with the principles of mathematics. . . . Let every man speak freely without fear, maintain the principles that he believes, worship according to his own faith, either one God, three Gods, no God, or twenty Gods; and let government protect him in so doing.”[1]

Such sentiments were a significant departure from the norm at that time. Most European governments had official ties to the church. For example, the Church of England is the state-authorized church in Britain, and the Lutheran Church is the state church in Germany. The founding fathers in America wanted to prevent the government from having any influence over spiritual matters. Baptists were among the leaders in establishing freedom of religion as a right of American citizenship. In the U.S., the government is not supposed to help or hinder religious expression. The First Amendment to the Constitution states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Government cannot dictate theology to churches, and churches cannot tell the government what to do.

Nevertheless, religion and government in America have always been closely related, well before the notion of separating them emerged in the current system of government that was established by the Constitution in 1787. The motivations that brought many colonists to the New World were religious; many were attempting to escape religious persecution in Europe and hoped to find a place where they would be free to worship as they pleased. The Puritan Pilgrims, for instance, fled to the New World to avoid the persecution for their then radical ideas by the Anglican (Church of England) majority in England. In America, they wanted a system of government that would protect their religious rights. Ironically, they immediately established a system hostile to those with divergent beliefs.

For the first few decades in America, religion was connected to the state.[2] Religious persecution was common. Those who dissented from the official theology were jailed or expelled from the community. For a while it looked as if the religious battles that had been the scourge of Europe would be experienced in America as well. But the founding fathers, and many Protestant leaders, insisted on freedom of religion. They wanted the church to be disconnected from the state. They didn’t want the state to officially endorse a specific religion, neither did they want the government to hinder or persecute anyone for a dissenting religious view.

Many of the founding fathers were Christian and the influence of Christianity upon the government has been significant. Evidence of Christian principles permeated government. American money has the inscription “In God we trust,” Congress employs a chaplain who leads in prayer before each session, and the Ten Commandments are displayed in the Supreme Court. But few saw such influence as an official endorsement of Christianity and few complained about it. Everyone was still free to practice his religion, or lack of it, as he saw fit.

The famous statement that a “wall of separation” exists between church and state does not come from the Constitution or from the Bill of Rights, but from a private letter Thomas Jefferson wrote to a friend. Unfortunately, the courts and other government bodies now see a total disconnect between the state and religion. In years past, it was common in schools to recite the Lord’s Prayer, display the Ten Commandments, and talk openly about the Bible. Today, all such practices are unlawful or strictly limited. Many consider any recognition or appreciation of religion by the government to be a violation of the establishment clause. Groups like the ACLU are striving to remove all religious influence from government and education. Only by removing all religious influences from governmental procedure and the public school system can America ever achieve the separation of church and state envisioned by the founders of this nation, they suggest.

While it is true that the government should not officially endorse a certain religious point of view, it is also true that government needs all the help it can get regarding morality. Without such influence, government soon loses its moral compass. Some argue that since prayer and Bible reading have been eradicated from the public schools, public morality has plummeted. Immorality, situation ethics, and hedonism have replaced Biblical morality. While the church should not dictate policy to government, it should give advice in the moral realm and call the citizens and officials to a high standard of behavior.

Although the church is exerting less and less influence within the government, the government is exerting more and more authority over the church. The dangers of governmental control over religious expression are obvious. Could you imagine the red tape, mismanagement, and frustration that would occur if churches were accountable to a government bureaucracy? We should be thankful that churches in the U.S. enjoy the freedom from governmental control that they do. Such freedoms are slowly eroding.

The separation of church and state is still a turbulent issue in our country. Some on the religious right are pushing for prayer, Bible reading and the posting of the Ten Commandments in public schools. Fifty years ago, such things were common in most schools. Others fight against any religious expression in school or government, asserting that such expression amounts to an official endorsement of one religion over another. In the early 1960s, the tide began to turn against allowing prayer and religious expression in government or school. Today, religious expression is severely limited in such contexts.

What position should Baptist take? Historically, Baptists have supported the separation of church and state. While Christian influence in the state is desirable from our perspective, such influence should come from individual believers, not from the government itself. The state should allow believers to freely exercise their religious ideas through prayer, Bible reading, witnessing, etc. But the government should not officially recognize or endorse any particular religious viewpoint, even if that viewpoint is our own. Government officials should be free to express their religious points of view, but the government as a whole should not take an official position regarding religion.

America is not a Christian nation. One may argue that it was founded upon Christian principles and that historically the U.S. was at one time a Christian nation, but the majority of the people in the U.S. are not Christians and Christianity is becoming less relevant to our society all the time. If anything, our nation is post-Christian, which means that most citizens have rejected Christian ideas. Baptists should fight for freedom of religion for all. Baptists have historically fought against interference from the government in religious affairs. They should continue to do so. Whether the U.S. government continues to recognize Christianity is irrelevant as long as it does not restrict freedom of conscience.

Definition: Separation of church and state implies the following:

1. There should be no essential union between organized religion and human government.

2. Human government should not seek to control the internal affairs of organized religion or of individual religious beliefs or practices.

3. No denomination or organized religion should control human government.

This does not suggest that governmental leaders cannot express religious views or that religious symbols cannot be displayed in or on state-owned buildings. Simply put, separation of church and state requires the government to stay out of church affairs and the church to stay out of government affairs. The government and the church should remain separate.

Biblical Bases for Separation of Church and State

1. Matt 22:15-22; John 19:10-11; Rom 13:1-6


· Give to the state what belongs to the state. What “belongs” to the state? Christians are obligated to pay taxes, even when they disagree with what the government does with their money. Christians should strive to be law-abiding citizens. However, Christians are free to protest against the government and to work to change laws and policies when necessary. Such actions should be lawful and appropriate.

· Ultimately, the government derives its authority from God. Those that resist legitimate governmental authority resist God. Paul clearly states that the “powers that be are ordained of God” (Rom 13:1), and that those who resist governmental power are resisting God.

· Both the state and the church have specific purposes.

§ The purpose of human government is defined in Rom 13:1-7. The government exists to:

  • Limit and/or punish evil behavior
  • Protect those who do good

It’s unfortunate that our government has expanded to the point where it seeks to control or influence almost every aspect of life for American citizens.

  • The purpose of the church is declared in Matt 28:19-20.
    • Make disciples
    • Baptize disciples
    • Teach disciples

Believers are to obey both the state and the church when each is acting within the areas of its legitimate authority. Defining such boundaries of authority has been and continues to be a divisive issue. In the U.S., the government is encroaching ever deeper into the church’s territory by limiting the free exercise of religious practice.

2. John 18:33-36


· Christ’s realm of rule is currently the human heart, not the halls of government. In the future, Christ’s reign will be earthly and physical, but now Christ rules over the church and over the world in a spiritual sense.

· Government’s realm of rule is the human society. Governments have the right to rule. Jesus did not fight against the actions of the Roman government, which sanctioned his crucifixion. Paul did not try to overthrow the government even though it mistreated him. He urges believers to pray for those in authority. Americans should be glad they live in a representative democracy where we elect our leaders. Many believers don’t enjoy this privilege.

3. Acts 5:26-29

· What is one to do when authority is in conflict? God’s commands always take precedence. Biblical commands have higher moral authority than governmental laws or policies. One should feel no compulsion to obey an immoral law.[3] Unfortunately, our government passes many immoral laws, and believers should strive to overturn them. The violation of a believer’s preferences, however, do not constitute grounds for disobedience to government. Civil disobedience must be based on clear biblical principle, not just on individual preference.

· If Christians choose to protest the government or seek to change government policy, they should do so in a lawful manner if possible. There may be occasions when armed revolt is the only option, but such occasions would be rare. Christianity can flourish under almost any governmental scheme, even those hostile to Christianity.

· There are times when obeying God results in disobeying the government, and vice versa. In such cases, believers must obey the higher law. Civil disobedience (i.e., refusing to obey the law) is justified under certain conditions. Christians should do all in their power to change immoral and unjust laws and policies (e.g., abortion).

Potential Areas of Tension between Government and the Church:

Taxation: The right to tax is ultimately the right to control. Churches and religious organizations are currently considered tax-exempt and are not subject to some of the laws that regular businesses are. But as an out-of-control government continues to extend its influence over more areas, it’s likely that the state will attempt to exert more control over the church. Tax-exempt status for churches is probably temporary.

Determination of legitimacy: The government has shown a remarkable desire to define and authorize things. Bureaucrats want to extend their control as far and wide as possible. Eventually, the state could take upon itself the responsibility to decide what is and what is not a legitimate ministry. Churches and other ministries would have to meet government regulations in order to be certified or accredited. Those not meeting government standards would be shut down. There are numerous inroads in these areas already visible.

Other areas of concern: Zoning regulations limit, inhibit, or even prohibit the construction of buildings for religious purposes. Religious displays on public property are frequently outlawed. The moral issues of homosexual rights, abortion, gambling, and capital punishment will doubtlessly create even greater concerns in future days. New “hate speech” regulations could outlaw any speech that attacks or criticizes any other groups.[4]

The Congress has a fairly good track record in regard to preserving (and even restoring) religious liberty. The courts – and especially the Supreme Court – have a very bad record in regard to religious liberty. The government bureaucracy (non-elected government officials) has the worst record of all because of its ability to create and enforce policies which have no congressional or constitutional sanction.

The Church and Political Involvement

Many churches are very politically active, registering voters and influencing their members to vote for certain candidates, preaching on needed changes in society, and pushing a political agenda. Liberal churches are especially politically active. The neo-evangelical movement has also made social change through political involvement a significant aspect of its program. Individual Baptists have historically been involved in the political process, often fighting for religious freedom.

However, experience has shown that society can be successfully renewed most effectively from the bottom up rather than from the top down. In other words, individuals, not government bureaucrats, are the key to changing society. Attempts to reform society by political pressure are likely to fail. Electing a president and other leaders who profess to be a Christians has not prevented the moral decline of America.[5] The proper method of societal renovation is the influence of believers who function as salt and light in the midst of a deeply perverse world. Political action has not changed things for the better. Unfortunately, the church has not been effective in preventing social decline either.

During the past quarter century, vast amounts of time, energy, effort and money have been invested in the political process by churches and para-church organizations. There are now many social conservatives in the government and many Christians are active in helping Christian candidates attain office. But for all that investment, little has changed, except in a negative direction. We still have abortion on demand, unbridled immorality in the entertainment industry, public schools outlawing Bible reading and prayer, rampant gambling, the promotion of homosexuality, interference in religious liberty, and continued decline in morality. The citizens of the U.S. don’t even seem to mind gross moral misbehavior in the office of the president. One may argue that things would be a lot worse were it not for the political activism of the religious right, but the fact still remains that in spite of all that activism, basic goals remain unmet, and our country continues its dizzying moral decline. Thus, individuals working to influence their neighbors, rather than organized political pressure, seems to be the best option for changing society for the better.[6]

Conclusion: Baptists have historically upheld the separation of church and state. Government cannot dictate theology to churches, and churches cannot dictate policy to the state. There should be no essential union between organized religion and human government. This does not imply that believers should neglect trying to influence the government or that an impenetrable “wall of separation” should exist between government and the church. While it may be beneficial for the church to exert some political pressure for change, the church’s main function should be to help individuals change, which in turn will change society.


1. True or False: The constitution speaks of a “wall of separation” that exists between church and state.

2. If Baptists support the separation of church and state, why do many of them support issues like returning prayer and Bible reading to public schools? Separation as Baptists think of it is not isolation of religion from government, but preventing the government from controlling churches. Remember the language of the Bill of Rights–“congress shall make no law respecting an establishment or religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Some current laws seem to prevent the free exercise of religion. To be consistent, Baptist should not support any official recognition of religion by government.

3. What problems would be associated with the government dictating policy to churches? Unsaved people over the church, red tape, compromise, the state punishing those who disagree. Return to the Middle Ages.

4. What problems would be associated with churches trying to dictate policy to the government? Lots of different churches, each with its own philosophy; gov’t would have to choose which group to follow (Christians? Jews? Muslims?); it would set up a union between church and state which would invite the state to control the church.

5. In what ways do you think the government could take away more rights from churches and other religious institutions? Imposing laws regarding hiring homosexuals, zoning restrictions limiting where a church can locate its building, restricting “hate speech” that criticizes immorality or false doctrine, etc.

6. Should it matter to Baptists whether or not the government removes references to God from schools and government buildings? Not really. We should fight for an individual’s right to express his religious views, but the government really should not endorse a certain religious viewpoint. The fact that immorality increased in the ‘60s shows how ineffective the church was/is.

The Supreme Court ruled (on June 19, 2000) that public school districts cannot let students lead stadium crowds in prayer before high school football games. The 6-3 decision in a Texas case said such prayers violate the constitutionally required separation of church and state. [Actually, there is no constitutionally required separation of church and state.] The decision could carry enormous significance beyond high school sports events because it affirms the landmark 1962 decision that outlawed organized, officially sponsored prayer in public schools. The decision, a “crushing defeat” for school-prayer advocates, could extend far beyond school sports events–eventually affecting graduation ceremonies, moments of silence and more. Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the court: “Nothing in the Constitution … prohibits any public school student from voluntarily praying at any time before, during or after the schoolday. But the religious liberty protected by the Constitution is abridged when the state affirmatively sponsors the particular religious practice of prayer.” [7] How do you think Baptists should respond to this decision? Historically, Baptists have supported the separation of church and state. Our government has historically recognized Christianity, but many governments do not. How would you feel if you had to attend a school where Buddhist or Muslim prayers were part of the normal school events? While we do benefit somewhat from our government recognizing Christianity and allowing certain expressions of Christianity, it’s actually better for the gov’t to be neutral. The church, not the gov’t, is responsible for religious education.

[1] Walter B. Shurden, How We Got That Way: Baptists on Religious Liberty and the Separation of Church and State.

[2] For instance, South Carolina law declared the Christian Protestant religion as the official state religion and required that all office holders be Protestant. In order to vote, citizens had to express a belief in God, heaven and hell, and the teachings of the Bible. North Carolina and Pennsylvania had similar statutes, while Delaware also demanded that voters believe in the Trinity. Brenda Mayrack, “The Entangled Separation of Church and State in the United States”

[3] During the Nazi war crimes trials after WWII, many of the criminals attempted to defend themselves by claiming that they were just following laws and orders. Prosecutors showed that laws may be immoral and that those obeying such laws are guilty of breaking higher laws.

[4] A good example of this is the reaction presidential candidates received from the press when they spoke at Bob Jones University recently. BJU is consistently vilified in the press for its so-called “anti-Catholic” rhetoric. Criticizing or condemning any religious group could soon be seen as hate speech. Even proselytizing could soon be illegal.

[5] Most of the recent presidents have professed to be born-again believers. Clinton and Gore have ties to the Southern Baptist Convention.

[6] From a review of Blinded By Might Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson. For an interesting documentary on religious liberty, see interviews/intersection3.ram.

[7] USA Today, Monday, June 19, 2000.