The book of Acts records a clear example of how the state should function in a secular society. The separation of church and state is supported by the story of Paul before the Roman proconsul, Gallio, in Acts 18:12-17.1 His religious enemies brought him to court because of the good news he was preaching. Paul wanted to rescue Jews from the deadness of their traditions and Gentiles from their idolatry. His gospel brought them both into the startlingly new and different life of Christ.2
To silence Paul the Jews used an accusation that has been heard many times since: “This man persuades men to worship God contrary to the law.” And in so many nations since then they have been right — the laws of their nations denied religious freedom. When that happens, the God-given function of government to protect each man’s search for God has been undermined.3 Such laws would have prevented the spread of the very gospel Paul was preaching.
Gallio, however, was a righteous ruler who understood the purpose of government. He would not allow that purpose to be perverted. He drove Paul’s accusers away from the courtroom with the wise words,
If it were a matter of wrong or of vicious crime, O Jews, it would be reasonable for me to put up with you; but if there are questions about words and names and your own law, look after it yourselves; I am unwilling to be a judge in these matters.
This was no different than the example the Son of God set when He refused to involve Himself with earthly matters. One time a man came asking Him to judge a dispute over an inheritance. He sent him away with the words, “Man, who appointed Me a judge or arbiter over you?”4 Each ruler, Christ and the proconsul, had the same wisdom — to confine themselves to their proper sphere of authority. Christ would not be distracted from men’s eternal souls and the establishment of His Kingdom, and Gallio would not be distracted from dealing with their outward acts of injustice towards one another.
When Christ said His oft-quoted words, “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s,”5 He was merely reiterating the principle He had already established. He had not come to judge the world yet, not even those people who personally rejected Him.6 This is how all who claim Him as their Lord and Savior should have acted throughout history, but the sad story is far to the contrary. As renowned Lutheran theologian and Reformation historian Marc Edwards puts it:
With the beginning of the Christian empire under Constantine and his successors in the fourth century, Christian authorities gained the opportunity to persecute their Jewish rivals and every other non-Christian group. From the time of Constantine to our own twentieth century, Christians have made frequent use of this opportunity.7