Colliding spheres of church and state

The relationship between church and state has always been a complicated issue. In order to attain their goals, governments have, at times, turned to the church for assistance. On other occasions, the church has readily used the state for its purposes. But what happens when the goals of the state and the church are not compatible?

Nikolaus Satelmajer is the Editor of Ministry.


She was an enthusiastic third-grader attending the school in her village. She liked school and excelled in it. Each day was a day of excitement, learning, and joy—at least that’s the way it should have been. Unfortunately, reality was different. Not every day was a day of excitement, learning, and joy. Some days the young girl dreaded going to school because she knew she would be punished. On those days, all students in this government-operated school were expected to go to the church across the street and perform religious rites—some that were against the beliefs and practices of her family. Even though her family was not a member of this state-sanctioned church, the school officials would not excuse her from actively participating in the religious rites.

On the days the students went over to the church, the young girl was physically punished. She had to hold her hands in front of her, palms up, and receive blows given by the teacher. On one such day the blows were so severe that the girl went home with broken and bleeding palms. She was devastated, her parents were upset, but there wasn’t much they could do. She had to drop out of school. And that’s why my mother never completed even three years of formal schooling.

The relationship between church and state has always been a complicated issue. In order to attain their goals, governments have, at times, turned to the church for assistance. On other occasions, the church has readily used the state for its purposes. But what happens when the goals of the state and the church are not compatible? Who then has the upper hand? Who gets the blows—the church or the state? More importantly, what about the individual? What about personal freedoms? The articles by Bill Self and Todd McFarland address these complex—yet very current—issues. Both of these authors write from the United States and thus naturally provide that perspective, but the issues they tackle are worldwide. I suggest that there are some basic issues clergy and religious leaders must face.

Spiritual authority

The church has spiritual authority from God, but when it depends on government authority to fulfill its mission, God is ignored. If the church and state do not function in their proper spheres they can easily develop an ongoing dependence on the other. In a major study of politics and religion during the time of Constantine, H. A. Drake writes, “Constantine needed the bishops, but the bishops also needed Constantine.”1 Spiritual leaders may accept or even crave government approval, but the outcome could have long-term implications for the church.2

Individual choice

In this equation of need, the individual is usually left out and then often labeled as belonging to a sect and restrictions often follow. Not too long after Constantine, “. . . the emperors placed restrictions on the gatherings of sects deemed heretical.”3 The very word sect usually has a connotation of judgment and condemnation. It seems to me that the word has been hijacked by individuals or groups who do not wish to give others the opportunity to make choices—yes, even bad choices. The sad fact results, all too often, in name-calling followed by persecution. History is replete with such examples.

Mutual respect

Government has a legitimate function to perform. As the apostle Paul writes (Rom. 13:1–7), governments should not terrorize their citizens; rather, they should fulfill their legitimate roles while providing a safe environment for their people. The church also has a legitimate function to perform. While the church needs to have the freedom to fulfill its mission, it should not depend on government to do this. When the church depends on the government to accomplish its mission, the function of the church becomes compromised. If the church is faithful to God, the mission will be fulfilled.

My mother never did receive any additional formal education, but she remained faithful to her Lord until she fell asleep in Jesus at almost the age of 92. The lack of formal education could not and did not prevent the development of her inquisitive and creative mind. God seems to have His own ways of overruling evil human actions—not necessarily by force, but by invitation (Matt. 11:28), and God does not need us to force people to go to Him. We are given the opportunity to invite people to God. That is the spiritual authority given to us by God.

1 H. A. Drake, Constantine and the Bishops: The Politics of Intolerance (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000), 351.
2 “At the same time, Constantine endowed the bishops with unprecedented legal and juridical privileges. By one simple act—ordering that Sunday be observed as a day of rest and prayer—he gave a new rhythm and feel to the pace of ancient life.” Ibid., 11.
3 Ibid., 403.

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Nikolaus Satelmajer is the Editor of Ministry.

November 2007

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