Church and State

September 2, 2008 at 1:13 pm | Posted in Theology | 2 Comments

By request, I am reposting the text of a paper I wrote a few years ago on the Biblical interaction of Church and State.  It seems that this topic never goes out of style, so just about everything in it is still relevant.

Caveat:  If I remember correctly, I dashed this off in a couple days at the end of the semester.  It is terribly under-researched, and I’m not even sure if I agree with my conclusions anymore.  It was intended to bolster my former denomination’s call for strong family structure.  I still think the general idea is sound, although it probably needs to be nuanced much more than I have done here.  I am posting it merely to add to a conversation (which appears to have fizzled over the weekend…)


Church and State in Light of the Old Testament


The relationship between Church and State, or the Kingdom of God and the kingdoms of the world, has taken center stage in the eyes of many in the Western world, causing governments and institutions to rethink policies and associations that have developed over centuries.  However, the question of what is the proper order between the authority of religion and the authority of government has existed since the dawn of civilization, and numerous solutions have been tried and hailed as the answer over the centuries.  Yet, God has ordained an order to all things, and the order He has ordained for the sacred and the secular authorities can be found in Scripture and in the history of His people.

The authority of civil government to order and enforce the lives of people falling under its jurisdiction is regarded as just and necessary for the establishment of civilized society.  Without a contract of social order, no civilization would be able to accumulate enough resources to rise above the meanest of living conditions.  Likewise, the authority of religious organizations to proscribe tenets of conduct and orthodoxy for their adherents is necessary for the continuance of the faith.  This is true no matter what creed is espoused, be it Christianity, Islam, or Mithraism.  If the creed is not adopted by subsequent generations, then it will cease to represent a living entity and become a curious relic in the museum of history.

The difficulty becomes apparent when one considers that both civil government and religious authorities are positioning for the obedience of the same object of attention:  the people under their jurisdiction.  When their purposes are diametrically opposed, as has occurred occasionally through the course of history, then society-wrenching conflict will ensue as each tries to wrest control of the populace away from the other.  However, more often than not church and state will reach some sort of arrangement in which one becomes subordinate to the other, so that the population knows to whom primary loyalty is due.

For most of Western history, the religious institutions have held sway over civil government.  The Egyptian dynasties rose and fell with the popularity of their patron deities and the power of the deities’ priesthood.[1]  Even The Greek kings were held accountable to the gods, as demonstrated so dramatically by Tiresias’ remonstration of Creon in Antigone.  The Roman emperors sought to co-opt the power of religion by employing the “If you can’t beat them, join them” strategy:  they declared themselves to be divine and therefore worthy of worship by the populace as any of the gods.  But this bold action did little to mitigate the power of religion, as each emperor’s eventual demise served only to emphasize the supremacy of the Roman pantheon.

Following the ascension of Constantine as Roman Emperor in 313 AD, a new dynamic was introduced in Western civilization.  Constantine used the power of the throne to declare Christianity as the de facto state religion, but he himself was not baptized, thereby not falling under the authority of his local prelate.  Instead, Constantine held a sort of authority over the Church, convening councils and mediating theological disputes.  Governmental control over the Church steadily increased as the Church itself gained more political power, thus making itself more susceptible to political pressures from local rulers.  This became most evident in the aftermath of the Reformation, when the Christian Church fragmented largely along political lines, resulting in national churches.  The ability of heads of state to appoint ecclesial leaders, such as the recent appointment of the Archbishop of Canterbury by the British Prime Minister, demonstrates how in many ways Church has bowed her knee to State.[2]

Clearly, whether state is subject to church or church is subject to state, neither situation is desirable.  In the first case, the religious authority becomes too enmeshed in the political process and loses sight of eternal reality in favor of the present situation.  Or, in the second case, the church simply becomes another political tool or pawn for governments, and it becomes unable to speak words of truth to the nations from an eternal perspective.  A form of separation is needed.

This separation is clearly demonstrated in the Bible in the division of roles that was enforced between the religious authorities and the civil authorities, or between the prophets and the kings.  Initially, in the new nation of Israel, these roles were combined in the person of Moses.  The religious authority was separated out as God set apart the Levites for His service.  Likewise, Moses delegated the governance of the tribes of Israel to subordinate judges to settle disputes among the people.  (Ex 18:25-26)  This role evolved into the role of the king, the one who held the authority to judge the people and wage war in their name.  (1 Sam 8:20)

The separation between these spheres of authority is apparent in the account of Saul’s offering sacrifice in place of Samuel before the battle with the Philistines.  (1 Sam 13:8-14)  Saul is condemned for not waiting for Samuel to offer the sacrifice, thus defying the command of the Lord.  Taking on the role of the priesthood was outside his sphere of authority, therefore his kingship was later stripped from him.  This separation of spheres is maintained throughout the Davidic dynasty before eventually becoming reconciled in the person of Jesus Christ.

Given the Biblical separation between the civil and religious authority, the intersection can be found in the accounts of the institution of these authorities.  The consecration of Aaron and his sons and successors is given in Exodus.  (Ex 29)  In this ceremony, Aaron and his sons present sacrifices to the Lord for their own purification, so that they may serve Him.  Following their purification, they offer sacrifices for the people and bless them.  (Lev 9)  Implicit in this ritual is the source of authority:  the blessing flows from God to the priests, then from the priests to the people.

However, the coronation of a king is an altogether different affair.  Saul is anointed king by Samuel and the assembled people, in the context of the renewal of the Mosaic covenant and in an establishment of a new covenant between the people and the king.  (1 Sam 12:1-25)  This process is repeated in David’s coronation, first over the Judahites (2 Sam 2:4), then over the entire nation.  (1 Chron 11:1-3)  The important points of the process are that the king is chosen of God, but this choice is ratified by the people, and that a covenantal relationship is established between God and the king and between the king and the people. 

Thus, the ordination of a priest is different than an anointing of a king.  The first is a sanctification, in which the party is set apart and made holy.  The second is a covenant, in which a solemn agreement is made, with dire penalties on both sides.  However, the common element is the people themselves.  In an ordination, they are passive participants, the recipients of grace.  In a coronation, they are active participants, entering into covenant with the king.  In the latter case, they hold a form of authority over the king, in that he is bound to them by the terms of the covenant.

Therefore, the authority of the people stands between the religious and civil authorities.  To properly understand how the flow of authority operates, it is necessary to understand the authority structures in place within the populace itself.

The predominant form of Biblical authority is the family.  It is the first that was created and blessed by God (Gen 1: 26-28), it was the form chosen by God to introduce His salvation to the fallen world through Abraham (Gen 12: 2-3), and it was the primary form of government and organization for the tribes of Israel following the Exodus.  In addition, respect for family authority is paramount in the Law, especially in the Decalogue, where it follows directly after the commands to honor God Himself, and severe punishments are to be meted out to those who disdain this authority.  (Dt 21: 18-21)

 In Israel, one’s tribal, or family, affiliation was a key aspect of one’s life, influencing one’s occupation, choice of business partners, and even where one lived.  Family authority operated in an extended family model, with the eldest male serving as patriarch, and careful rules for succession and inheritance governed the transfer of authority from one generation to the next.  Disputes within the family were resolved by appealing to the family authorities; only complicated matters or disputes between families were referred to the civil authorities.

The family also served as a form of representative government.  Many times in Biblical accounts the elders are assembled to decide upon weighty matters of governance.  These are the patriarchs of the various tribes and clans.  Presumably, they meet to represent the interests of their families.  Thus, when the choice of king is ratified by the assembled elders, it is done on the basis of the authority of the family structure in the interests of establishing a mediator over inter-family disputes and providing a centralized command structure for common defense.

Supreme over all the families of Israel was the Law of Moses, as interpreted by the Levitical priesthood.  The tribe of the Levites, being isolated from political and territorial conflicts by their unique status, served to mediate the Law and pronounce God’s judgment on king and commoner alike.  Possessing no land, their provision was carefully regulated by the tithe and the ordinances for sacrifice, so presumably their material wealth would be in keeping with the median of the rest of society.  Should Israel prosper, the tithe would increase, and should hard times fall upon the people, the tithe would decrease.  Thus, the Levites were free from domination or influence by one or more of the family authorities.

This arrangement gave the priesthood the ability to render impartial judgment in moral matters according to the Law of God and not the law of men.  This impartiality is what allows Nathan to personally confront David over the death of Uriah and his marriage to Bathsheba.  (2 Sam 12:1-12)  In fact, it is this lack of impartiality that Jesus condemns in the hypocrisy of the priests of His day.  (Mt 23: 1-12)  Without the freedom from worldly concerns, the Church cannot speak on moral or spiritual matters.

If one accepts the Old Testament authority structures as prototypical of those intended for the Christian Church, then a pattern of the flow of authority becomes clear.  First, all authority begins and ends with God.  Any attempt to operate outside of what He has decreed is rebellion and sin.  God’s authority is delegated into the family structure through the patriarch to make decisions on day-to-day living and to resolve disputes within the family itself.  This is clear from a basic reading of Paul’s exhortation to the Ephesians to “be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ,” (Eph 5: 21) followed by a discourse on the proper flow of authority in a household. 

Family groups combine to form civil authorities to resolve disagreements outside of the family structure and to combine resources to provide for the common good, such as defense or infrastructure.  To empower the civil government and enforce its decisions, the families delegate their authority to engage in armed conflict to the government, along with a portion of their resources, in the form of taxes.  Respect for civil government is found throughout the New Testament, from the preaching of John the Baptist onward.  But the civil government is always beholden to the family unit as the source of its authority, and any attempt to subvert this authority erodes the government’s legitimacy.

Overarching family and state is the authority of the Church to speak for God on moral and spiritual matters.  Isolated from direct involvement in worldly affairs in order to keep its message pure, the Church must rely on its authority over the family structure to see its message enacted into government policy.  Also, the Church is a family in its own right, becoming father and mother to those who have no family.  (1 Tim 5:16)  The Church therefore must depend on the tithe to support itself in keeping with the prosperity of the nation.

Thus, the proper relation of Church and State is one of separation – not of legal barriers or pious indifference, but a separation that acknowledges the God-given authority of the family to govern itself.  The Church can only influence the State through the authority of the family, and the State is isolated from control over the Church by the provision of the family.  A strong family structure is therefore vital to the proper operation of both Church and State.

Unfortunately, however, in the Western world the strength of the family has almost broken down completely.  Due to demographic shifts, the extended family is virtually unknown as an authority structure.  The weakened family has abdicated more and more of its authority to the State, which has placed the State in the unusual position of being the arbiter and enforcer of morality.  At the same time, the Church has not been properly supported by the tithe, causing it to become entangled in worldly affairs in order to support itself, thus weakening its message as it caters to popular opinion.  The net effect is that Church and State have collided over numerous issues regarding the affairs of the family, which in God’s economy should not even be in dispute.

And so, a strong Christian family structure is vital to the proper function of society in God’s grand design.  While some signs of turnabout can be seen in the growing interest in areas such as marriage, tithing, and homeschooling, it will be decades before the extended family of multiple generations would even begin to compare to those of previous centuries.  Perhaps some hope can be taken from the revitalization of Christianity in the Southern Hemisphere, where a holistic sacramental, evangelical, and charismatic Christian spirituality is combined with a strong, traditional family authority.[3]  A renewed commitment and dedication to family might be the hallmark that wins the hearts and minds of this secularized generation.





“Civil Government”, The Catholic Encyclopedia, 1917 edition.  Robert Appleton Company, 1910.  Online Edition Copyright © 1999 by Kevin Knight.  Hosted at 


“King, Kingship”, Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology.  Walter A. Elwell, ed.  Published by Baker Books, 1996.


 “The Concept of Submission”, The Nelson Study Bible, New King James Version (NKJV).  Earl D. Radmacher, ed.  Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1997.


Schultz, Samuel J.  The Old Testament Speaks, Fifth Edition.  HarperSanFrancisco, 2000.



[1] Shultz, Samuel J., The Old Testament Speaks, HarperCollins, 2000, p. 46.

[2] “Doubts over Archbishop selection process“, BBC News, Tuesday, 15 January, 2002, online at


[3] Philip Jenkins, “The Next Christianity”, The Atlantic Monthly, October 2002.



RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

  1. According to Joshua 20-21, Numbers 35 and many other texts, the Levites did not possess land but they lived on land in 48 cities in order to farm and raise the animals given as tithes.

    Also, they only served in the Temple one week out of 24 and were skilled in all Temple maintenance requirements. That means that they had other jobs in order to learn the skills for temple service. Research the courses and families of the Levites and priests.

    Finally, according to 1 Chronicles 23 to 26 they were political servants of the king and served as politicians do today. They were heavily involved in the affairs of the nation, both political and religious.

    Russell Earl Kelly, PHD, author of Should the Church Teach Tithing?

  2. Like I said, it was horribly researched. I appreciate your insights. I still think that under the original pattern, Church and State were still separate in the Old Testament, buffered by the tribal system. However, I am always open to new information!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

Entries and comments feeds.

%d bloggers like this: