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 American Christians anyway) view the modern emphasis on the separation of the church and state as 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 the influence of Christians.

What do you think?

When I was a fairly young believer, I was influenced by the religious right movement for a time. That was the thrust of American Evangelical Christianity in the 1980’s. When I went to law school, I struggled with that influence from the religious right as I began to learn and understand American jurisprudence.

American jurisprudence is built, to some degree, on a foundation 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 traditional evangelical Christian culture. While the religious right and its progeny have attempted to rebuild modern American politics, the Constitution and legislation on a Christian foundation, that movement has inspired a counter force of people trying to protect the state from the church.

The two sides often come to rhetorical blows over American 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 roots of our country?

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

When people think of the Evangelical Church in the United States, no denomination is more representative of that evangelicalism, perhaps, than Baptists. Some 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, so God gave them Saul.

There were some good kings over the years, but the number of bad kings far outnumbered the good ones. The bad kings 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 of the Roman empire after Constantine, some would say the change ushered in the dark ages and 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 and foreign land to escape and start over. These people knew well the corruption of the church married to the power of the state. So grew the seed that would become the United States of America, and 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’s and rendering 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 often 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.

Jesus didn’t lead his followers in revolt against the secular government, much to the chagrin and disappointment of Jewish zealots. He led them in a revolt against sin, including the sin within people and collectively in the religious community!

When Jesus talked about entering the kingdom of God, he said a person must be born again of the spirit. This is a personal transformation, not a political one. The kingdom of God is what is being produced in the large community when we become salt and light and a city set on a hill. That it may have an influence on earthly kingdoms is obvious, but the focus is inward transformation for the individual that is expressed outwardly, first, in the body of Christ.

There was a first coming of the Messiah (Jesus), when the kingdom of God was introduced, and there will be 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 and through the influence of the community of believers living out transformation for the world to see.

When Jesus comes again, God will establish His kingdom on earth. Until then, we are learning to become citizens of His kingdom. Citizenship in earthly kingdoms is a distant priority.

The zealots of Jesus’s time were 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.

Conquering earthly governments 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, 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 personal will, but a governmental mandate, sometimes at the end of a sword.

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, as they were instructed to do, and the Israelites became corrupted, marrying the Canaanites, 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 harmonious with God’s kingdom. 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 the difference between their theology and their politics. The two things get mixed both together, and the line between the two becomes blurred to the point of being indistinguishable.

I believe we have become blinded and desensitized to issues that are near and dear to God’s heart in the process. 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 Christian attire – while our hearts do not seem to beat in harmony with God’s heart for things like justice.

Maybe we need that wall of separation. Maybe we need it more to protect the Church from the corrupting influence of the lust for state power and earthly kingdoms. Maybe we need that wall to keep Caesar out of the Church. 

6 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

  2. This is interesting because throughout the article, you have steel-manned Dr. Jordan Peterson’s point of referencing Jesus’, “Rendering unto Caesar’s” quote as it relates to the separation of church and state. But then at the very last paragraph, you leave it open ended once again by accusing Christians of being “blinded and desensitized” when it comes to social politics. The separation of church and state would indicate that supported decisions would not be based on religious point of views, but rather the health of the state (i.e. voting against the opening of the Southern border for the safety of economic burden and keeping the war on drugs south of the border; which would mean turning away millions of undocumented migrants seeking asylum from a war-torn country). Your article, though very informative, leaves us at the very place we started.


    1. Perhaps, it’s because it wasn’t meant to be presented as a steel-man argument at all. I think Jordan Peterson is pretty perceptive. Though he hasn’t committed to God or faith, he doesn’t deny God either. His position is one of humility, though I think it is misplaced humility, toward God. He sees the value of faith in God, though he has not be able/willing to stand squarely in that corner. Sometimes the observations of friendly outsiders are more accurate than our own on the inside.


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