The series What Christians Should Know Volume II (#WCSK2) boosts your understanding and shows you how to apply biblical principles to everyday life. All Scriptures are taken from the New American Standard Bible unless otherwise noted. Biblical references are examples and are in no way intended to be exhaustive. Many of the ideas here build upon the series What Christians Should Know, Volume I (#WCSK), which provides education on core beliefs and doctrines in the Christian faith. All of the lessons are best used as a general guide as you engage in your own Bible study.
“Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Psalm 119:105)
How this Biblical principle applies to your everyday life: Because every Christian lives under the authority of some form of secular government, they ought to know what the Bible says about their civic responsibility. The State is ordained by God and is deserving of our utmost respect, but our ultimate allegiance and obedience always belongs to The Lord. Obedience to the State must never mean disobedience to God.
Introduction: What is the State?
Martin Luther once wrote, “Oblige me to write once again about secular authority and its Sword: how can a Christian use be made of it and how far do Christians owe it obedience?” This question was asked hundreds of years ago, and God’s answer as revealed to us in the Bible has remained the same. Yet in contemporary society, the answer may vary depending on whom you ask. So, the purpose of this lesson is to equip you with clarity and meaningful answers regarding the Biblical model for Christian behavior as it relates to the State—even when that authority is doing something with which you do not agree. In contrast to prior lessons, this episode will dive into history and dabble a little bit in political theory for obvious reasons.
In order to know how the Christian and the State interact, we must first define what the State is. When I say, “the State,” I am referring to government, which (in America) functions at all levels: federal, state, and local.
I am making no distinction between different types of governments (e.g., democracy, socialism, or monarchy) because the Biblical principles on how Christians and the State interact are independent of the type of system by which a person is governed. The State, then, consists of governing bodies, institutions, and the people that represent it. The State can be big (like the President and the IRS) or much smaller (like your town’s police force). Every person lives under the authority of some type of government; therefore, having a solid Biblical foundation on how Christians relate to the State is crucial.
The role of the State became a pressing concern when the community of New Testament believers was established. Why? Because they became the first missionary church—they were spread out all over the world, reaching different peoples who were ruled by various forms of government, each of which had a different response to the new group of “Christians.” Nowadays, people tend to associate Christianity with the West, but Christians live under the authority of a wide array of governments all over the world. Generally speaking, most governments are amicable to Christianity.
So, what makes the State “the State”? That answer is simple: the legal use of force. Legal, of course, means that some form of official regulation or set of guidelines guides how the State works.
Within such guidelines, the State possesses the power to compel people to do certain things and not to do other things. This concept of legal use of force is why the IRS can compel people to pay their taxes and why a police officer can compel you not to make a right turn at an intersection. It would be illegal if Starbucks compelled you to pay it taxes. Of course, the State is given power to use force by necessity, otherwise everything it did would amount to nothing more than a soft suggestion. No government is self-existent, but rather comes into being through the consent of a group of people who decide to form some type of governing body.
This process is exactly what occurred when the Founding Fathers of the United States came together to write the United States Constitution, which created the United States government. So, God makes people, and then people form the State. Logically speaking, the State is a creation of God’s creation (human beings). And speaking of creation, if we look to the first chapter of Genesis, we can begin to see the principle of government in the creation narrative. In Genesis 1:28, God commanded Adam and Eve to subdue the earth and have dominion over living creatures. Granted, Adam and Eve were not given power over other people, but the principle of a dominant order in the natural world exists in the Bible’s first chapter. Ultimately, as I have written many times before, God is sovereign and the earth is His. Everything rests on the rule and power of The Lord.
What is the State supposed to do? Quite simply, the State is supposed to restrain evil. Martin Luther wrote:
“How the secular sword and law are to be employed according to God’s will is thus clear and certain enough: to punish the wicked and protect the just.”
Another Reformer, John Calvin, wrote in his Institutes of the Christian Religion (4.20) that the State is provident to establish justice in conduct. He would then clarify this concept:
“[The State should] accommodate the way we live to the requirements of human society, mould our conduct to civil justice, reconcile us to one another, and uphold and defend the common peace and tranquility.”
One of the earliest and clearest explanations of what the king (and thus, by implication, the State) is supposed to do is found in Deuteronomy 17. This explanation is given to Israel before they enter into the Promised Land as a warning from God not to follow how the kings of other nations operate: they grow massive armies, prefer the “Egyptian” way of doing things, have plenty of wives, and make themselves rich at the expense of the people. God explicitly commands His people to follow His prescriptions for what the king should do and allow The Lord to appoint the monarch who will reign. Deuteronomy 17:18-20 says the following:
“Now it shall come about when [the king] sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself a copy of this law on a scroll in the presence of the Levitical priests. It shall be with him and he shall read it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the Lord his God, by carefully observing all the words of this law and these statutes, that his heart may not be lifted up above his countrymen and that he may not turn aside from the commandment, to the right or the left, so that he and his sons may continue long in his kingdom in the midst of Israel.”
What is so interesting is that these verses make clear that the king’s primary job isn’t to host wine and cheese parties in the grand hall of the palace. Nor does God’s command elevate the king above his countrymen. God defines the role of the king—the head of the Israelite government—as someone dedicated to God’s Law in such a way that he observes all of it. The Law has more than 600 commands, and it was impossible to keep all of them all the time. Hence, according to Deuteronomy 17, being king was not fun.
Of course, “this law and these statutes” refers to God’s Law, which is what God gave to Israel atop Mount Sinai. The Law has a concrete emphasis on the preservation of human life, protecting human property, and justice in interpersonal affairs. This emphasis is why within the Law, some of the first commands to the people are not to murder, not to steal, not to bear false witness, and not to covet. This emphasis also coincides with the creation ordinance given by God in Genesis where He blessed the man and the woman and declared that human life is sacred. The Old Testament king, as the head of the nation of Israel, would therefore be acutely aware of these concepts in God’s Law. Thus, there is clear Biblical support for the notion that the State is supposed to protect human life, protect property, and uphold justice. In fact, these three ideals (life, property, liberty) are held to be so true and timeless that even non-theologians have touted it as a “natural law”—or the idea that all human beings have the God-given “natural” rights of personhood, property, and liberty. Accordingly, natural law is proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence. Even more, the contemporary American ideal of “freedom” and the construct of the State can be traced back to Frederic Bastiat and what he wrote about natural law in his famous treatise, The Law. Consider these words:
“If every man has the right of defending, even by force, his person, his liberty, and his property, a number of men have the right to combine together to extend, to organize a common force to provide regularly for this defense. Collective right, then, has its principle, its reason for existing, its lawfulness, in individual right; and the common force cannot rationally have any other end, or any other mission, than that of the isolated forces for which it is substituted … the common force cannot lawfully be used to destroy the person, the liberty, or the property of individuals or of classes.”
The “common force,” or the State, is formed by people who all have natural rights, and the purpose of the common force is to protect the interests of this group of people. So, what attempts to harm the interests of the people? Evil does. Evil wants to destroy human life (murder), rob people of their property (theft and eminent domain), and lusts after injustice (lying under oath). Is it any coincidence, then, that Jesus says the thief comes to kill, steal, and destroy? So, the State exists to restrain evil (the thing that seeks to rob us of life, property, and liberty) and to provide regularly for this defense. The State, over the course of modern history, has also been seen as the final arbiter in resolving legal disputes and upholding contracts.
But hasn’t the State been the cause of much evil? Well, yes. And some horribly bad examples come to mind like Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin. The bottom line is that no government is perfect, and every adult can think of an example of government waste, fraud, and corruption. Ultimately, governments (even the really bad ones) do not catch a sovereign God by surprise. They all work according to His providence. In fact, in City of God, the great theologian Augustine claimed that the State in and of itself was evil, but that evil is necessary in order to restrain more evil. This restraint, of course, is executed by the State in order to facilitate peace, man’s supreme good. So, on the one hand, we live in a fallen creation and therefore, invariably, the State will be composed of sinful people. When groups of sinful people are given power and authority to use legal force over others, some very disastrous consequences can result.
On the other hand, in a society of complete lawlessness where the State does not exist, everyone is free to do what is right in his or her own eyes without any form of external compulsion. This is a world in which you could be amicably walking to your car and be shot in the head or robbed at gunpoint because no system is in place to restrain evil. Biblically speaking, lawlessness is always a formula for chaos. In fact, a Christian’s arch nemesis is a recalcitrant and stubborn person of lawlessness who refuses to obey any form of authority.
Hence, the Bible never prescribes unrestrained freedom because freedom without limits actually ends up destroying freedom. Thus, the State must limit freedom in order to restrain evil. For example, murder is evil and, in order to restrain it, murder carries the penalty of death (in some states). Theft is evil and carries with it the penalty of jail and compensation. In any decent society, no one is “free” to murder and no one is “free” to steal.
The Church and the State
Two kingdoms exist: the kingdom of the Church and the kingdom of the State. As I discussed in a prior lesson, the Church is prescribed to preach the gospel, administer the sacraments, worship God, grow believers, etc. The State is supposed to restrain evil, protect live, maintain law and order, etc., and to do so it also must collect taxes. The State is never supposed to preach the gospel. The Church is never supposed to maintain a standing army. The State has the power of the sword; the Church does not. (The power of the sword simply refers to the State’s ability to force its citizens to do certain things, like pay taxes.) This power also involves the promotion and maintenance of justice in order to secure the liberty of the weak against those who have more power. This sword-power is obviously necessary because if an invading army were to show up on the tip of lower Manhattan tomorrow, you wouldn’t want your pastor to come to the rescue. On the other hand, Christ, as the head of the church, came to spread the good news and not to declare war. The keys to the kingdom of heaven rest with the Church and not the State. Christian evangelism is never violent or coercive. The symbol of Christianity is the Cross, not a weapon, and we figuratively build up the church by proclaiming the gospel—a peaceful, voluntary exercise. (So, yes, the Crusaders of old got that point wrong.) Consequently, the kingdoms of the Church and State co-exist, but they do not overlap. Both are absolutely necessary, both deserve the utmost esteem, and neither ought to impede on the domain of the other.
While many in modernity appreciate that the Church and the State have different roles, this does not mean that the two kingdoms fail to interact. In fact, “separation of church and state” is not a term codified in any document that bears legal significance in the United States—so, for example, neither the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, nor the Bill of Rights have the term, “separation of church and state” in it. This phrase was first used by Thomas Jefferson in a letter to the Danbury Baptists in 1802. The text of that letter says the following (emphasis added):
The affectionate sentiments of esteem and approbation which you are so good as to express towards me, on behalf of the Danbury Baptist association, give me the highest satisfaction. my duties dictate a faithful and zealous pursuit of the interests of my constituents, & in proportion as they are persuaded of my fidelity to those duties, the discharge of them becomes more and more pleasing.
Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.
I reciprocate your kind prayers for the protection & blessing of the common father and creator of man, and tender you for yourselves & your religious association, assurances of my high respect & esteem.
Jan. 1. 1802
For many in the 21st century, history has been reinterpreted in such a way that Jefferson’s “wall of separation” means that the State should be godless and completely secular. From the content of the letter, however, this clearly was not Jefferson’s intent. Rather, what he was trying to say is that in order to guarantee the free exercise of religion among all people, there should not be a formally adopted State religion. In other words, the State should not pick a “favorite” religion and instead should simply guarantee the liberty of the Church and protect it against those forces that wish to destroy it.
This appears quite logical considering that many who fled to America hundreds of years ago did so in order to escape religious persecution because of a State-sanctioned Church. Many Puritans, for example, left the Anglican Church of England and fled to the United States in order to escape jail and even death for non-conformity to State-sanctioned religious practices. (Notice here how the State church perversely used the power of the sword to enforce church mandates.)
The Bill of Rights guarantees that the State is “tolerant” of all religions, and tolerance never makes a claim on which religion is, in fact, valid. This question is one on which the State ought to remain silent. The government is not in a position to say that Buddhism, for example, is true while Judaism is not. The State simply acts to allow each religion to practice its beliefs and ordinances freely. Notably, this concept works the other way as well—so even if a religion believes that it is “right,” it should never petition the State to use its power to treat one religion with preference or partiality over others. So, for example, if I was the head of a local church and I wanted the governor to build a life-size replica of Solomon’s temple, that should never be a matter for the State or an expense for the taxpayers. Why? Because, in this scenario, the State is picking a favorite and financing the requests of one religion over another. This would be an example of a situation in which Jefferson’s wall that separates the Church and State should be raised higher.
Still, while Jefferson’s wall was meant to define the roles of the Church and the State, it did not preclude the interaction of the Church with all civil government. The wall delineated the constitutional jurisdiction of the State on religious concerns, but this does not mean people should be prevented from walking through the gates in the wall and talking to one another. To validate this point, consider what the following says about how two former presidents (Jefferson and Madison) interpreted what “separation of church and state” actually means in practice:
“It is no exaggeration to say that on Sundays in Washington during the administrations of Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809) and of James Madison (1809-1817) the state became the church. Within a year of his inauguration, Jefferson began attending church services in the House of Representatives. Madison followed Jefferson’s example, although unlike Jefferson, who rode on horseback to church in the Capitol, Madison came in a coach and four. Worship services in the House—a practice that continued until after the Civil War—were acceptable to Jefferson because they were nondiscriminatory and voluntary. Preachers of every Protestant denomination appeared. (Catholic priests began officiating in 1826.) As early as January 1806 a female evangelist, Dorothy Ripley, delivered a camp meeting-style exhortation in the House to Jefferson, Vice President Aaron Burr, and a “crowded audience.” Throughout his administration Jefferson permitted church services in executive branch buildings. The Gospel was also preached in the Supreme Court chambers … In attending church services on public property, Jefferson and Madison consciously and deliberately were offering symbolic support to religion as a prop for republican government.”
This seems more like an intimate dialogue between Church and State as opposed to a divisive wall. And to top this all off, Americans must embrace the idea that our nation was founded on the principle of natural law, or that all human beings are imbued with certain inalienable rights as a function of God. Theistic principles heavily informed the founding ideas, philosophies, and laws that brought the American State into existence. Hence, although there is a wall of separation in the jurisdictions of the Church and the State, theistic principles were used to lay the foundation of the State. By necessity, then, the State cannot be godless because a belief in the Creator inspired the State’s creation in the first place. The government was never meant to guide its people less God. The Declaration of Independence demonstrates this fact in its opening statements, which say the following (emphasis added):
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
In our Pledge of Allegiance, we say, “one nation under God.”
Quite simply, an American State without God fails to be American.
Furthermore, as the State protects the Church, we as believers also pray for our leaders and all those who are in authority over us. So, in the same way that we pray for our elders and pastors in the church, we pray for our local authorities, judges, state legislators, congressmen, senators, our president, etc. You still pray for them even if you don’t like any of their policies because, once again, the State is ordained by God. The Church will always maintain its prophetic witness, so when the State tries to invade the jurisdiction of the Church, the Church professes a stern mandate to turn back. Because one of the main functions of the State is to protect life, when the State enacts laws or engages in behavior that is harmful to life, the Church raises its voice loudly and critically. This is not the Church being nosy or bossy, rather, the Church is simply doing what it is supposed to do as prescribed by God. So, as R. C. Sproul writes,
In the controversy over abortion, when the church is critical of the state with respect to the idea of abortion, people are angered and say, “the church is trying to push its agenda on the state.” However, the primary reason that government exists is to protect, maintain, and support human life. When the church complains about abortion laws in America, the church is not asking the state to be the church. The church is asking the state to be the state. It is simply asking the state to do its God-ordained job.
In other instances, the State can even try to elevate itself above God’s Law and perversely attempt to tell God what to do. When God defined marriage, for example, He established it as a union between one man and one woman. Yet when the State codifies marriage as something different, the State is pretending to act as God by redefining a creation ordinance. Once again, the Church that vehemently protests such abominable acts is acting in line with what it is called to do. The State was never ordained to override the rule of God, only to operate in line with the rules God has already put forth. Naturally, the State has no authority concerning internal matters of church discipline.
More next week in Part II…
Dr. C. H. E. Sadaphal
 Martin Luther and John Calvin, On Secular Authority, ed. Harro Hopfl (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 2
 And if you really want to get technical, the Bible does make an explicit statement on the preferred political system: monarchy. This is the system that God has ordained with the King of Kings on the throne (c.f. Matthew 6:33; Mark 1:15; John 18:36; Romans 14:17; I Timothy 6:15; Revelation 19:11-16).
 I Chronicles 29:11-12; Isaiah 46:9-10; Psalm 115:3; Proverbs 16:9
 Psalm 24:1
 Luther and Calvin, On Secular Authority, 7
 Luther and Calvin, On Secular Authority, 49
 Deuteronomy 17:14-17
 Deuteronomy 17:19
 Exodus 20:1-17
 Genesis 1:27-28
 Frederic Bastiat, The Law (Auburn, AL: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2007), 2–3
 John 10:10
 Romans 13:3
 II Thessalonians 2:3
 Matthew 10:34
 Matthew 16:19
 “Jefferson’s Letter to the Danbury Baptists,” Library of Congress, last accessed November 11, 2016, https://www.loc.gov/loc/lcib/9806/danpre.html
 In this example, implied in the State’s acquiescence is preference for one religion over the other. So, logically speaking, in order to demonstrate total objectivity, the government’s policy could be such that all petitions from religious groups are honored. This would reach a point of absurdity where, for example, even the cult that worships the flying Spaghetti monster would need to have their requests honored. The sensible path of least resistance that maintains objectivity is to honor no requests.
 “Religion and the Founding of the American Republic,” Library of Congress, last accessed November 15, 2016, https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/religion/rel06-2.html
 R. C. Sproul, What is the Relationship between Church and State? (Sanford, FL: Reformation Trust Publishing, 2014), 24
 Matthew 18:15-20 (c.f. I Corinthians 5:1-13)