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The Freedom of the Church

The church must oppose all efforts to limit its freedom, because they are really controls on Christ our King, and His infallible and sovereign Word.

R. J. Rushdoony
  • R. J. Rushdoony,
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Chalcedon Position Paper No. 16, September 1980

We are today being subjected to a steady attack on churches, Christian schools, and other Christian activities. With this assault goes an attack on the First Amendment. At the same time, when evangelical ministers and church groups call attention to serious moral problems in our political affairs, or oppose abortion or homosexuality, for example, they are widely attacked for violating the First Amendment.

It is important, therefore, to understand a basic purpose of the First Amendment. Let us remind ourselves of the text of that law:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

First of all, there is no mention of the separation of church and state. This amendment did in fact separate the federal government and the church, but not the various states and the church. In the years that followed, separation became a fact gradually in every state. This separation is a fact which I believe we must welcome. It was a necessary consequence of the amendment, but it was not its stated and primary purpose.

Second, this amendment does not separate religion and the state. Such a separation is impossible. Every law is an expression of morality or procedural thereto. Laws express moral concern. All morality is an aspect of religion. We have Buddhist morality and law, Islamic morality and law, humanistic morality and law, and so on. Every law order is an establishment of religion. What we are seeing is the progressive attempt to disestablish Christianity and to establish humanism. Our state schools are the religious establishments of humanism, and our courts, television, films, and press reflect humanism. We must avoid a church establishment, but
we cannot escape a religious establishment or foundation in this country or in any country.

Third, the First Amendment, in speaking of “an establishment of religion,” was using the language of its day: it meant an established church. Robert Allen Rutland, in his study, The Birth of the Bill of Rights, 1776– 1791 (1955), called attention to the fact that the clergy of the day demanded this amendment. They were not alone.

Thus, the focus of the First Amendment is on the disestablishment of the church. We cannot understand their thinking unless we realize that the colonists, whether British, German, Dutch, Swedish, French, or anything else, had a European background. They usually had a horror of a state-imposed church. They saw serious problems in any such church. A state church easily becomes a controlled church: it is the voice of the crown rather than the voice of God. In England, first the monarch, beginning with Henry VIII, and then Parliament, was the head of the church. Americans wanted no such church.

As a matter of fact, Carl Bridenbaugh, in Mitre and Sceptre: Transatlantic Faiths, Ideas, Personalities, and Politics, 1689–1775 (1962), held that a fundamental cause of the War of Independence was the American fear of a forthcoming plan to force the Church of England and Crown appointed bishops on all the colonies. This led to war, and also to the First Amendment.

Moreover, the colonists knew that a controlled church is very readily a corrupt church. The English church was suffering then, and had for some years, from political bishops, men whose only qualification for office was their service to the Crown, not the Lord. Only the rise of competition in the form of Methodism produced a measure of reform in the English Church.

However, the key factor was something more. A corrupt church is a silent church. The colonists were very much accustomed to a vocal church, plain-spoken in its criticism of moral and political trends. More than a few scholars have seen the origin of the War of Independence in the Great Awakening. The alarms sounded by the colonial clergy were a major factor in arousing a moral resistance among colonists. Both from the pulpit and in print, the colonial clergy played a central role in the events which led to 1776.

The British knew this. Hence their readiness during the war to burn American churches, to burn Bibles, hymnals, and church records. The colonies, one Tory said, had run off with “an American parson,” i.e., had been “seduced” by the clergy.

The purpose of the First Amendment, in requiring that the churches be disestablished, or, rather, never established in the new country, had as its purpose the protection of the freedom of the church and the school. The colonists distrusted a powerful central government. To create a federal government and to give it power to create a state church represented tyranny to them. To ensure that free religious and moral voice of judgment against all evils in state and society, they demanded the First Amendment. They wanted the prophetic voice of the church to be free to judge the federal government in terms of the Word of God. The role the prophets fulfilled in the Old Testament the church must fulfill now.

Thus, those churchmen who speak out concerning our national life and political morality are not violating the First Amendment. Instead, they are doing precisely what the founding fathers and Americans of 1781 wanted to see done, the Christian voice freely and powerfully raised against sin in high places.

George Washington, in his Farewell Address, issued on September 17, 1796, with the evils of the French Revolution in mind, warned against the idea of a secular state. There could be, he held, no separation of religion and political order, nor of religion and morality. The freedom of the church and the school (and only Christian schools existed then) were basic to his perspective.

The First Amendment is being subjected not only to misrepresentation but attack. Since World War II, the Internal Revenue Service has been actively claiming the right to establish religion. A church is supposedly not a church, unless the IRS approves. For the IRS to define and approve a church is to make itself the agency for the establishment of religion.

Moreover, recent efforts by state and federal agencies have implicit or explicit in them a very dangerous definition of the church. The Christian school, the Sunday school, and the sermon are educational and hence not religious. They are thus said to be outside the First Amendment protection, as are the church nursery, women’s guilds, and the like. The meaning of the church, and its First Amendment immunity, is reduced to a liturgical service.

It is also held that the Sixteenth Amendment has nullified the First Amendment and that churches are liable to income and other taxes. Instead of a constitutional immunity, only a statutory immunity exists, revocable at any time.

The church, however, must oppose all such efforts to limit its freedom, because they are really controls on Christ our King, and His infallible and sovereign Word. The church is an educational institution, proclaiming and teaching the Word of God. The Old Testament ministry was priestly (sacrificial), and Levitical (instructional, Deut. 33:10). The New Testament ministry is a continuation of the Levitical, and instruction of every kind is basic to its life.

It has been pointed out that the clergy of the day led in the demand for the First Amendment. They had come to see that the lordship of Jesus Christ requires a church free of all statist controls. The church must be able to speak freely and boldly in terms of the law-word of God.

All attempts to silence the Christian voice must be seen as a denial of God’s crown rights over all men. Those who try to silence the church in the name of the First Amendment are not ready to silence pornography, or anything else, save God’s Word.

The First Amendment requires freedom of speech, freedom of press, assembly, and petition. All these are related to freedom of religion. Most publications then were Christian; the church was the meeting-house, the place of assembly, petition, and free speech. It was not accidental that all five factors are linked together in the First Amendment: they were linked together in life.

They still are, in that all presuppose a faith and a conviction which demands expression and acts upon its convictions. The church cannot be silent without sin. It must speak, write, assemble, and petition in terms of the crown rights of Jesus Christ. His lordship is total and cosmic. Not only the church, but every man, every state, every school, and every aspect of life must either serve Him, or be judged by Him. He is the Lord.

The Crisis (September 1980)

There is an old folk tale about a man on board an old sailing vessel who was asked to go to the other end of the ship and give help. The ship had sprung a leak, and men were needed to man the pump and do emergency work. The man refused, saying, it wasn’t his end of the ship, and besides, he didn’t think much of the people down there, anyway!

That kind of stupidity and blindness is very much with us today. The First Amendment immunities of the church and Christian school are being breached and denied. Court cases are being used to establish new legal precedents to spell the destruction of Christian institutions. In the face of this, there is an unwillingness on the part of many to get involved because they disagree with the persecuted group. However, if a court case destroys the First Amendment’s meaning, all religious groups are involved. Whether the case involves a Christian or a non-Christian group, or an orthodox or an heretical group, if it sets a legal precedent to serve the needs of our humanistic statists, all of us will suffer.

Yet, too often, Protestants and Catholics will not work together; Arminians and Calvinists will not help one another; neither will work with charismatic churches, who are also divided; none will work together with heretics, or non-Christian groups.

No such action means ecumenicism; it simply means a common legal threat, and action against it. It means an affirmation that freedom and conversion, not tyranny and coercion, are basic to our faith. It does not involve any approval of the “Moonies” to oppose their kidnapping and deprogramming. To give assent to such deprogramming is to open the door to the deprogramming of converts to Christ, and there are hints of this already.

In the face of this common threat to all, the threat of totalitarian humanism, it is distressing to see the narrow-mindedness of some. I have been a witness at a number of trials. It has been amazing to me to receive letters denouncing me for appearing in behalf of a person or group, because they were supposedly the “wrong” kind of Baptist! Even worse are those “spiritually-minded” people who favor surrender to resistance and insist on calling it holiness.

It has been heartening in a few cases to see diverse groups work together. None of this led to ecumenicism; it only led to a wiser defense.

Moreover, too often churchmen assume that the Biblical requirement of separation means separation from Christians who disagree with us. In Scripture, we are told not to be unequally yoked with unbelievers (2 Cor. 6:14–18), a very different thing. What is condemned by Paul is an unequal or subservient yoking, and a belief that there is a common ground between believers and unbelievers, in themselves. To face an enemy on the shores of our country, or in our courts, does not uphold a common religious faith but simply deals with a threat to one and all.

R. J. Rushdoony
  • R. J. Rushdoony

Rev. R.J. Rushdoony (1916–2001), was a leading theologian, church/state expert, and author of numerous works on the application of Biblical law to society. He started the Chalcedon Foundation in 1965. His Institutes of Biblical Law (1973) began the contemporary theonomy movement which posits the validity of Biblical law as God’s standard of obedience for all. He therefore saw God’s law as the basis of the modern Christian response to the cultural decline, one he attributed to the church’s false view of God’s law being opposed to His grace. This broad Christian response he described as “Christian Reconstruction.” He is credited with igniting the modern Christian school and homeschooling movements in the mid to late 20th century. He also traveled extensively lecturing and serving as an expert witness in numerous court cases regarding religious liberty. Many ministry and educational efforts that continue today, took their philosophical and Biblical roots from his lectures and books.

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