Separating Caesar from the Church

Some thoughts on the church and state and the state of American Christianity.

Everyone has a hierarchy of values. Whatever is at the top of your hierarchy of values is your God, says Jordan Peterson. Although he hesitates to call himself a Christian, he has a good understanding of the Bible and its positive impact on society and people, individually. This particular statement rings with the purity of truth.

Jordan Peterson has been much in the news and was recently interviewed on the Unbelievable? podcast with Justin Brierley. The topic was: Do we need God to make sense of life? The atheist psychologist, Susan Blackmore, was his counterpart. The podcast (linked above) is worth a listen.

Jordan Peterson also claimed in the course of the discussion that the first pronouncement of the ideal of the separation of church and state came from Jesus when he said, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22:21)

Modern Christians (many of them) seem to think that the separation of the church and state is a bad thing. A common assumption seems to be that the “wall of separation” between the church and state is a way for politicians to keep Christians out of politics and to keep politics from being influenced by Christians. What do you think?

When I was a fairly young believer, I got swept up in the current of the religious right movement for a time. It seemed like the thing to do because that was the thrust of American Evangelical Christianity at the time. When I went to law school, I struggled with that inertia from the religious right as I began to learn and understand American jurisprudence.

American jurisprudence is built, to a large degree, on foundations of biblical principles. The bankruptcy laws, for instance, were inspired by the “year of jubilee” in Leviticus (25:1-4, 8-10). While biblical principles inspired American law, and the English common law before it, American jurisprudence has long been independent of those biblical principles, having developed on its own from that foundation.

The constitutional principle of the separation of church and state played no small role in that independent development. In the modern United States, the law often seems at odds with the popular evangelical Christian culture. While the religious right and its progeny have attempted to reinfuse politics, the Constitution and legislation with overtly Christian purposes, that movement has inspired a counterforce of people trying to protect the state from the church.

The two sides often come to rhetorical blows over the history and its implications for us today. Were the founders of this country Christians? Did they intend to exclude religious influence from the city square? Or did they assume that Christian principles would remain steadfastly planted as the moral foundation of our country?

What has gotten lost in the weeds on the church side of the wall is that the separation protects the church from the influence of the state.

When people think of the Evangelical Church in the United States, no Christian stripe is more representative of that evangelicalism, perhaps, than Baptists (of all stripes). Baptist leaders have long argued forcefully and eloquently for a clean separation of church and state – to protect the church. But, not just to protect the church, the separation of church and state protects the integrity of the Gospel.

(I commend the Top 5 Myths of Separation of Church and State from the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty for more insight on these things.)

If history teaches us anything, it teaches us over and over again that human institutions tend to corrupt matters of faith. When Israel demanded a king, it wasn’t God’s plan. God wanted to be their King, but the Israelites wanted to be like the other nations. There were some good kings over the years, but the number of bad kings far outnumbered the good ones, and the bad ones led the Israelites down a path into idolatry and away from their connection with God. God let the people be exiled because of that downward slide.

When Christianity was declared the official state religion after Constantine, the change ushered in the dark ages and horrible corruption in the church. When the church became married to the power and wealth of the state, the church became indistinguishable from the state, corruption and all. This is not to say that all of the church was spoiled by this corruption, but the history of that corruption is obvious and ugly, especially at the level of state power.

The corruption of the church was so bad that scores of people risked their lives to make the dangerous ocean voyage to a wild, unfamiliar foreign land to escape the corruption and start over. These people knew well the corruption of the church married to the power of the state. These things were in the minds of the writers of the US Constitution.

When the church and state are separate, it becomes pretty clear what it means to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. When the church and state become so intertwined that we can’t distinguish the difference, it becomes much more difficult.

We see this today in the political arena. Modern Americans confuse religious doctrine with partisan platforms. Politicians are happy to court the audience of faith if it will benefit their cause, but having politics as a mistress is a dangerous thing.

When Jesus talked about rendering to Caesar what is Caesar and to God what is God’s, I believe he was suggesting that we need to distinguish between earthly kingdoms and the Kingdom of God. Jesus talked a lot about the kingdom of God, but he said practically nothing about the kingdoms of the earth. He addressed the religious leaders often, but he rarely addressed the secular leaders, if ever.

Jesus didn’t lead his followers in revolt against the secular government. He led them in a revolt against sin, including the sin within them! When he talked about entering the kingdom of God, he said the entry is by being born again, born of the spirit, born from above. This is an individual transformation, not a political one. The kingdom of God is what is being produced when we become salt and light and a city set on a hill.

There is a first coming of the Messiah (Jesus), when the kingdom of God was introduced, and a second coming. In between, “We’re like Israel during her wilderness wanderings–we’ve left Egypt, but haven’t yet entered the Promised Land.” In between, we become salt and light by the internal transformation we experience when we invite God to take His rightful place inside us. When Jesus comes again, God will establish His kingdom on earth. Until then, we are learning to become citizens of His kingdom.

The zealots of Jesus’s time we’re bitterly disappointed that Jesus did not rise up against the Roman government to throw off its tyrannical rule. I believe that is why people turned on him when Pilate offered to let him go. But, that isn’t what Jesus came for. He came to conquer sin and death, and to invite others to follow him in doing the same, becoming born again, not of the flesh, but of the spirit. Learning to worship God in spirit and truth, rather than to worship at earthly locations in earthly ways. (John 4:1-26)

When I look back at Western history, and the history of the church, I see a great deal of corruption entering into the church in the centuries following Constantine’s conversion. When Christianity was made the state religion, people were forced to become Christians. It was no longer an exercise of faith or of will, but a governmental mandate. In Hungary, Saint Stephen forced the Pagan tribes in the area of his reign to become Christians. But faith comes by hearing and believing, not by governmental force. (Romans 10:17)

When God instructed the Israelites to enter the promised land and to drive the Canaanites out, God was concerned about the corrupting influence of the Canaanites on the future nation of Israel. We know the story. They did not drive the Canaanites out of the land, as they were instructed to do, and the Israelites did become corrupted, marrying the Canaanites, and adopting Canaanite beliefs and worshiping Canaanite gods.

We have gone through a generation or more of politics in which a primary Christian goal was to take over American politics and government with a platform of Christian principles. We cozied up to the Republican Party, because the Republican platform opposed abortion, among other things, but we also looked the other way at Republican positions that might not be as palatable biblically. In the process, I fear that we have allowed ourselves to become corrupted by partisan politics.

Some Christians identify religiously with a political party. When they talk, it’s hard to tell if their position is their theology or their politics.  Most likely it is both, and the line between the two has become blurred to the point of being indistinguishable. The political positions I read and hear being espoused in the name of Christianity seem not very closely connected with biblical authority in my opinion.

I believe we have become blinded and desensitized to issues that are near and dear to God’s heart. Those issues, among other things, include immigration, concern for the poor, easing racial tensions, and other things. We have allowed ourselves to be guided by political platforms, rather than the heart and word of God. We have wrapped our faith in the American flag; or worse, we have wrapped our politics in the Christian attire.

3 thoughts on “Separating Caesar from the Church

  1. Of course, the last 100 years has seen a decline in authentic Christianity and authentic Christian living in the US. This is in no small part due to the influence on society in that same time period of Jews possessed by a revolutionary nature.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree with you. It is the same desire for satisfaction in the here and now. Instead of desiring the transcendent that is promised to us from God, we desire present gratification. Instead of waiting for God to work in our lives and in his timing, we desire to bring about our gratification by our own efforts. We couch God’s eternal view in our own earthly perspective and reduce our goals and desires To what we can achieve on our own terms.

      Liked by 1 person

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