Separation of Church and State—What Would Jesus Do?

Updated: Jul 21




Recently, the Supreme Court in the US ruled that a high school football coach’s First Amendment rights were violated when he was told that he could not privately pray on public property (the middle of the football field) after football games, because students were joining him. Some parents said that their kids felt pressured. Of course, he was not pressuring them. Conservatives hailed this as a victory.


So here is my question. What if tomorrow a Muslim coach takes his prayer mat to the 50-yard line after games to prayer? And then, Christian kids (and others) who love their coach, start praying with him? What if some of those kids start attending his mosque? What if the coach were a satanist?! According to the ruling, would his speech be protected as well?


While America was surely founded by people with a Christian tradition, it was not founded just for Christians. That would not be democracy (see more below). This is why we have private religious schools, where children can be educated according to the religious beliefs of their parents—beyond math and science, etc. Surely you would agree that Christians should not have more rights than the rest of the population. Right? We must always remember that our strength is in humility and servanthood, as Yeshua taught the disciples on so many occasions like this one:


“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

With that in mind, do you think this was a right ruling? How would you feel next week, if Hindu and Buddhist coaches were praying in full view of students? (As to whether it was the correct constitutional position, see conclusion below—Not that I am a constitutional lawyer, by any means, but I have studied theology and history...and both will come into play here.)



Thoughts? I would love to hear them. (Post at the bottom)


Personally, I am not sure I want prayer in public schools, unless it is from students. Why? I would not want any teacher feeling the freedom to attract my children (hypothetically speaking, as my “kids” are in their 30s) to their religion. I do not want the government in my congregation, but neither do I feel that any one particular religion needs to be in the schools. Of course, students can evangelize, pray, and have Bible clubs…that is guaranteed in the constitution in the first amendment. (I came to Yeshua because of two zealous seniors in high school who shared Jesus every day!)

When did the Historic Church begin to Decline?

The decline in the Church began when Constantine, the first Roman emperor to become a Christian, and thus made Christianity legal, in 312 CE. The Church was much more powerful without the help of the state. Before this, it was mostly illegal, and believers were persecuted. For the first 300 years, it was considered the greatest honor to be murdered for your faith. Then, suddenly, it was legal. And the power was diminished.


[W]ith the church’s institutionalization—and in the early fourth century’s changing of the status of the church from a minority to a state-recognized religious establishment—charismatic manifestations seem to have tamed some. Kärkkäinen, Pneumatology: The Holy Spirit in Ecumenical, International, and Contextual Perspective (p. 32). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Some 70 years later, in 380 CE, Christianity became the state religion of the Roman empire. Christian leaders went from being persecuted to being celebrated. “Its bishops were once merely leaders of congregations; they now became pillars of Roman society, with power and influence.”[1] It wasn’t long until the church had “temporal” power, meaning that in addition to spiritual authority, they could also govern politically over nations. “The Roman Catholic Church made religion and government inseparable in portions of Europe during the Middle Ages.”[2] Sadly, “Christianity began to change. Some welcomed its new power and influence; others were anxious that its new status would compromise its beliefs and above all its values.”[3] The latter proved to be right.


Religion in America

The Puritans fled the persecution of James I and Charles I in England to the New World. “Their society was a theocracy that governed every aspect of their lives. Freedom of religion and freedom of speech or of the press were as foreign to the Puritans as to the Church of England. When other colonists arrived with differing beliefs, they were driven out by the Puritans.”[4]

Roger Williams, who founded Rhode Island, fled Massachusetts after suggesting the separation of Church and State to the Puritans. Williams believed, “Church and state should be separate; above all, the state should not be able to enforce the first four of the Ten Commandments.”[5] Yes, the state would enforce laws against murder or defrauding someone, but not your commitment to God—that would inside the congregation and, of course, your heart. For instance, Sabbath keeping should not be a legally punishable offense, whereas fraud should be.

Williams’s Rhode Island was free for people of any denomination of Christianity and for Jews, as well. This did not quench evangelistic fervor but took the task out of the hands of the state and put it in the hands of the Church, where it belonged. The founding fathers rejected the Puritans’ view and copied the Rhode Island example. “The First Amendment specifically prohibits the kind of national religious establishment that had once dominated colonies such as Massachusetts.”[6] The Church of England had been the state religion in many of the colonies—this is one of the main reasons for the Declaration of Independence. “No Protestant denomination was designated as the ‘established church’ in its place.”[7]


The Gruesome “Thirty Years’ War”

Nothing is worse for evangelism than the state and the church being merged. Have you heard of the “Thirty Years’ War”?


“‘The Thirty Years' War was largely waged within the Holy Roman Empire from 1618 to 1648. One of the most destructive wars in European history, it caused an estimated 4.5 to 8 million deaths, and some areas of Germany experienced population declines of over 50%.”[8] Who was fighting this war? This was a war between the Catholic Church and the German reform churches, resulting in close to eight million deaths in the name of Christianity!

The only good that came out of this war was “a yearning for peace led to a new emphasis on toleration, and growing impatience with religious disputes.” [9] They came to the realization that, “religion was to be a matter of private belief, not state policy.” [10]


Separation between Church and State

I would hope that Colorado Congresswoman Lauren Boebert would study a little church history, in between posing with her children with assault rifles. Recently, she eloquently declared in a church…

“The church is supposed to direct the government. The government is not supposed to direct the church. That is not how our Founding Fathers intended it, and I’m tired of this separation of church and state junk. That’s not in the Constitution. It was in a stinking letter, and it means nothing like what they say it does."

I cannot stress enough how dangerous such rhetoric is. She is wrong, of course. The founders absolutely intended a separation between the church and state for the protection of both. Augustine was the first to argue for this in City of God and Luther built his doctrine of the two kingdoms on it. With the sacking of Rome, Augustine saw how destructive it was for people to equate an earthly government with the Kingdom of God (as Christians had done with Rome). From the other side, Luther saw how corrupt it was when the popes had power over land and people.


Yeshua himself was the first to make this separation between religion and secular government, when he shockingly told the people who thought he was leading a revolution against Rome to pay Roman taxes. His kingdom was not of this world. Paul backs this up when he tells believers to obey the Roman authorities—that they are servants of God in government (Romans 13:1ff). Peter echoes Paul’s teaching in 1 Peter 2 and even tells people to honor Nero (1 Peter 2:17), who was barbaric.


To be clear, they were not endorsing ungodly leadership. They were encouraging believers to stay focused on the task of the Great Commission. Therefore, it was very unsettling (and unbiblical) when, on January 5, 2021, a well-known apostolic leader preached at a rally in Washington DC. He enthusiastically proclaimed, “We will rule and reign through Donald Trump, under the Lordship of Jesus Christ.” Such language merges two separate and distinct kingdoms (see my new book, When Kingdoms Collide).

The “stinking letter” that Congresswoman Boebert referred to was from Thomas Jefferson, the eloquent author of the Declaration of Independence and the third President of the United States. Here is the relevant part of the letter that he wrote to the Danbury Baptist Association:


“Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and 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 and State."

“The religious diversity of the newly established United States of America was such that any decision along these lines would have led to intense in-fighting. An alternative solution was therefore proposed.”[11] The idea of a separation between these two influential entities was unique and bold—and biblical (as we showed above)! Have you ever noticed that the words God or Christianity are not in the Constitution? This was not because they were against religion, it was because they were tired of the state enforcing religion on the people. America would be established on freedom.

The Declaration of Independence, however, clearly acknowledges the Creator as giving citizens the right to establish their own government.

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.

Jefferson wanted to assure Americans of two things: 1) the government will not interfere in the affairs of the Church. And 2) the government would not favor one religion over another or establish a state religion (as had been the habit in Europe since 380 CE).


“For many at the time, such as the Baptist minister Isaac Backus (1724–1806), this separation amounted to a virtual guarantee that America would be a Christian nation, whose churches would be free from political interference and manipulation. As Backus argued, when ‘church and state are separate, the effects are happy, and they do not at all interfere with each other: but where they have been confounded together, no tongue nor pen can fully describe the mischiefs that have ensued.’ Backus saw the ‘wall of separation between church and state’ as ensuring freedom of religious belief and practice for all, and privilege for none.” [12]

There is nothing in the teaching of Yeshua that would lead us to believe that he has an expectation that the Church would take over nations. No, we are best in spiritual guerrilla warfare. When the apostles asked about Israel becoming a kingdom again, Yeshua said, “Not yet…first get filled with the Holy Spirit and take my gospel to every nation!” (Paraphrase of Matt. 28:18ff and Acts 1:6-8). Revelation 11:15 speaks about the day when the kingdoms of the world will come under the sovereignty of God, but that is not until Jesus returns. That is what my friend who expected us to rule with Trump and Jesus doesn’t see.

The Best way to win People to Yeshua

Remember, the apostles had no political power. They were persecuted by the Jewish establishment and the Roman authorities … and nothing could stop them. They moved in sign and wonders, not political force. And they were very successful. As an evangelist, I’m not writing this because I don’t want to see every human being embrace our Messiah. Rather, it is because I believe that the best and most successful method is from outside of the government.


I know that many of you were quite upset when the Netanyahu government sought to shut down Shelanu TV.[13] In the end, they recognized that in a free country like Israel, they would have lost in court. So, instead, they pressured the cable company to drop us. And we moved to the Internet where we have been much more successful.


Please don’t misunderstand me. I want to see more believers involved in politics. You can be a believer shining your light in the political world without demanding that the state in force one particular religion. A Christian president should not force Christianity on the nation but should demonstrate his faith through his integrity of life—faithfulness to his wife, honesty with the people, promoting people for the right reasons, no scandals. Yes, he (or she) should speak about his (or her) faith. Why not?! But that doesn’t make it a state religion.

The Glory of America

The beauty of American democracy is not that we force one religion on the whole nation or even give one religion a superior place, but that we have the freedom to seek, through freedom of speech, religion, and expression, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to persuade our fellow citizens that Yeshua is “the way, the truth and the life.”


Everything else has been tried in history since Rome’s embrace of Christendom. The Church ruled the state. The state ruled the church. Clergy were appointed by the Pope. Clergy were appointed by the emperor. During the French Revolution, clergy “became employees of the state, elected by their parish or bishopric.”[14] If that is not a recipe for corruption, I don’t know what is! Thomas Jefferson’s separation between church and state was revolutionary and it has worked for 250 years.


Conclusion

The First Amendment states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” So the case of the praying coach is somewhere in the middle. The school is clearly not establishing a religion, but it may have been prohibiting the free exercise of one. Can someone exercise their freedom of religion on school grounds? We have been arguing over that for a long time. But understand that if we do conclude (and it is now law) that a Christian coach can pray in view of his students, based on the Constitution, those same freedoms apply to Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Satanists, etc.


[1] Alister McGrath, Christian History, 43.

[2] Daniel Baracskay, “Puritans,” The first Amendment Encyclopedia, https://www.mtsu.edu/first-amendment/article/1372/puritans.

[3] McGrath, 44.

[4] Puritans.

[5] McGrath, 201.

[6] "Puritans".

[7] "Puritans".

[8] “Thirty Years War,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thirty_Years%27_War

[9] Ibid, 215.

[10] Ibid.

[11] McGrath, 229.

[12] McGrath, 230.

[13] I have no idea to what level Netanyahu was personally involved, but he was Prime Minister when the chairman of the communion for statelet and cable accused us of lying to his administration. But considering that it was international news, I’m sure he was somewhat aware.

[14] McGrath, 231.

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Shalom from Israel! I am Ron Cantor and this my blog. I am the GODTV Israel Regional Director host of the daily TV program, "Out of Zion". I also serve on the leadership team of a Hebrew-speaking, Spirit-filled congregation in Tel Aviv. We love Yeshua and we love Israel. Hope to see you here soon!

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