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The Urban Legend of Church and State Separation

There is a lot of confusion about the separation of church and state. History has been rewritten to distort the clear intentions of our Founding Fathers, and the activist bent of the Supreme Court has set precedents based on political interests instead of the original intent of the Constitution.

  • Buddy Hanson,
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There is a lot of confusion about the separation of church and state. History has been rewritten to distort the clear intentions of our Founding Fathers, and the activist bent of the Supreme Court has set precedents based on political interests instead of the original intent of the Constitution.

Church and state are assumed to be two distinct institutions. As much as we hear about this “separation,” many people would be surprised that the roots of this view are not very deep. They only extend back to 1962, when the U. S. Supreme Court cast aside nearly 200 years of constitutional history and ruled in Engel v. Vitale that school prayer was unconstitutional. Within a year the Court had removed prayer, Bible reading, and religious instruction from public (government) schools.

For more than a century the Supreme Court has arrogantly made judicial decisions with the attitude that the Constitution means what the Court says it means. 1 With the majority of Christians confining their Biblical beliefs to their churches and homes — as if God is not God in all of life — the media, law schools, and the judiciary have been dominated by either non-Christians, or by Christians who don’t have a developed Christian worldview. This double-whammy of anti-Christian thought has resulted in an urban legend whereby the average person supposes that there is, or should be, a separation between the church and the state.

What Does the Bible Say?

Perhaps the most disturbing thing about this legend is that many Christians agree, believing that Biblical Israel was a theocracy with the functions of the church and state all mixed together. This, however, cannot be supported from Scripture: “…the chief priest is over you in all matters of Jehovah, and…the ruler of the house of Judah in all the King’s matters…” (2 Chr. 19:11). This is about as clear as it gets: the priest (church) is in charge of religion, and the king (state) is in charge of civil duties.

This clear separation of powers and responsibilities is evident in Old Testament Israel, where there was a harmony of church and state under God, not a union of the two. Moses was Israel’s civil ruler, and Aaron was her priest, as God, from Israel’s very beginning, kept separate the civil and ecclesiastical offices. 2 This truth is seen in the prophet Zechariah’s statement: “These are the two anointed ones, who stand beside the Lord of the whole earth” (Zech. 4:14). The two anointed ones refer to the kings and priests, as the following brief list illustrates:

King Priest
Moses Aaron
Joshua Eleazar
David Abiathar
Solomon Zadok
Hezekiah Azariah
Zerubbabel Joshua

While the church expects its members to present a godly testimony to the world, being salt and light, the state expects citizens to be law-abiding and peaceful. Both the church and state are accountable to God for their origin and authority. Both must confess, “The Lord is our Lawgiver!” (Is. 33:22; Jas. 4:12). The state has the God-given power to use the sword to defend its citizens from outside aggression (Rom. 13:1-7), and to keep them safe from criminals by administering swift justice according to the sure and certain terms of Biblical law (Dt. 16:20; Pr. 21:3).

The church is to set forth the Word of the Lord, so that society will have a clear direction and trustworthy guidance. Its members should be taught to take care of the education and welfare of each other instead of letting the state usurp this responsibility.

Nineteenth century pastor Dr. William Symington described the church-state relationship: “Things may be diverse without being adverse. That civil society and ecclesiastical society differ, we admit…. But they are not…necessarily opposed to each other.” 3 Seventeenth century Westminster divine George Gillespie, “the prince of Scottish theologians,” notes several agreements and differences between the church and state authorities: 4


  1. They are both from God and are “ministers of God,” and shall give account of their administrations to God.
  2. Both must observe the law and commandments of God and each has specific directions from Scripture to guide them.
  3. Both are “fathers” and ought to be honored and obeyed according to the fifth commandment.
  4. Both are appointed for the glory of God and the good of mankind.
  5. Each complements the other.


  1. In their ultimate goal, the civil rulers bring about temporal peace; the church officers salvation and eternal peace.
  2. The state executes capital offenders; the church excommunicates unrepentant and disobedient members.

2 Chronicles 19:5-11 describes a careful distinction between the civil ruler and the priests. King Jehoshaphat had already dispersed priests throughout Judah to teach God’s Word (2 Chr. 17:7-9) and he appointed judges to set up a network of civil and ecclesiastical courts to judge the cases in their locale. The community’s rulers staffed the civil courts, and the priests and Levites staffed the ecclesiastical courts (v.8). One was to handle disputes between one ruler and another, and disagreements among citizens (“between statutes and ordinances,” v.10), while the other was to settle disputes over doctrine and individual matters among the congregation (“between law and commandment,” v.10).

The examples of King Saul and King Uzziah prove that the work of these parallel ministries was enforced. When King Saul overstepped his bounds by offering incense to God, Samuel rebuked him (1 Sam. 13:11-13). King Uzziah also intruded upon priestly duties and was rebuked by Azariah the priest (2 Chr. 26:16-21). These acts were “the earliest examples of the state usurping the role of the church. For his sin, Saul lost his kingdom.” 5 The Levitical priests were involved in political matters only in extraordinary cases (1 Sam. 10:8; 13:8-14).

New Testament Separation of Church and State

The separation between church and state becomes even more clearly defined in the New Testament. The apostle Paul writes, “… I urge that … prayers … be made on behalf of … kings and all who are in authority, in order that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in godliness and dignity” (1 Tim. 2:1-2). A Psalmist states that Christ is the head of the state:

Now therefore, O Kings, show discernment; take warning, O judges of the earth.

Worship the Lord with reverence, and rejoice with trembling, do homage to the Son, lest He become angry, and you perish in the way, for His wrath may soon be kindled.
(Ps. 2:10-12)

Some would have us believe that the U. S. Constitution’s First Amendment calls for a separation of God and state, to the extent that every mention and aspect of God be removed from the civil government’s sphere. There is most certainly a separation between the responsibilities of these two realms, but there is no such thing as a separation between God and the state. America’s sixth President, John Quincy Adams, recognized this truth by declaring, “The glorious result of the American Revolution is that it connected in one indissoluble bond the principles of civil government with the principles of Christianity.”

The First Amendment simply states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.…” All this means is that there will be no state church. Our founders rejected the idea of a state church — like the Church of England — supported by taxes, with high church officials appointed by the state. Instead of disestablishing the church, the purpose of the First Amendment is to protect it and to protect citizens from a national church being established.

The following chart shows six areas where the parallel ministries of the church and the state should work together to keep society running smoothly.

Church: Minister of Grace
State: Minister of Justice/Execution
Church: Expose Evil
State: Restrain Evil
Church: Teach God’s Law
State: Enforce God’s Law
Church: Funded by God’s social tax
  — the tithe
State: Financed by God’s civil tax
  — the head tax
Church: Church courts
State: Civil courts
Church: Welfare
State: Warfare

Original Intent

Our forefathers crafted our Constitution under the collective mindset of a Christian worldview. The problems with today’s culture are not because of our Constitution or legal code. The problem is with non-Christian interpretations. Today’s courts, schools, and media don’t like American history because it presents a decisively Christian bias. America’s greatness did not come about because we have plentiful resources. It is a direct result of being founded upon Christian principles. Rabbi Daniel Lapin puts it this way:

Too many Americans do not appreciate the connection between American greatness and American Christianity. Too many Americans believe that one can remove the source of greatness and retain the greatness. When Christianity broke down in 20 th century Europe, it was not replaced by the Boy Scouts, but by the greatest murder-machines in human history — Communism and Nazism. 6

The church, state, and family have separate spheres of accountability, but each owes its origin to our Lord, Savior, and King, Jesus Christ. Only His Word is truth, and only as we live according to the principles contained in His Word can we expect for “His will to be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Mt. 6:10).


1 Beginning in 1803 with Marbury v. Madison and later the Dred Scott v. Sandford case in 1856.

2 See God’s Ten Words: A Commentary on the Ten Commandments, ( Tuscaloosa, AL: Hanson Group, 2002).

3 Ibid., 307.

4 Ibid., 85-87.

5 Kenneth L. Gentry, “Sermons on Zechariah,” The Counsel of Chalcedon, July/August 1992.

6 Rabbi Daniel Lapin, America’s Real War, (Sisters, OR: Multnomah Publishers, 1999).

  • Buddy Hanson

Buddy Hanson is president of the Christian Policy Network and director of the Christian Worldview Resources Center and has written several books on the necessity of applying one’s faith to everyday situations, circumstances, and decision-making. For more information, go to
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