Few Americans today understand authority. Hardly anyone can distinguish between the legitimate authority of the state and the legitimate authority of the church, and there is no agreement on where to draw the line between the two. According to Romans 13:1-4, God has given a certain sphere of authority to the governments of the nations, wherein elected officials are expected to rule according to the instinctive knowledge in their conscience, that is, natural law.
When governments make laws according to natural law, these laws will be just and right for everyone in society. They will apply to everyone and create order and peace as well as afford protection to citizens against harm from others. When individual rulers abide by natural law, they will find themselves praising those who do good and punishing those who do evil. And when citizens obey these laws, they will not need to fear the authority of the state. This occurs when government functions properly.
Whenever we engage in activities that bring our lives into a sphere of authority that is rightfully the state’s, we should expect to obey that authority. For example, if we drive a car on roads that are built and maintained by the state, we should obey all the state’s motor vehicle laws. If we want to participate in anything that falls within the sphere of the state’s authority, we should expect to obey the state in that sphere no matter what our religious beliefs are. Valid religious beliefs should not conflict with good laws in the nations.
Conflict occurs when the spheres of authority of the church and the state overlap. For example, a student in public school may want to practice a religious belief by praying in school. Is this a right protected by the First Amendment? Such a demand shows little understanding or respect for the authority of the state. To ask the state for the right to pray to Jesus or Jehovah or Allah in public school mixes the church’s sphere of authority with the state’s. A religious person who demands the right to pray in the public school is trying to usurp the legitimate authority of the state. For the courts to bow to such a demand is to give away the authority that has been rightfully given to them by God.
When religious people demand the right to practice their religion in public institutions, they provoke a reaction among those who resent religion’s intrusion into the state’s realm. A recent case before the Supreme Court, Lee v. Weisman, addressed this very issue. Weisman, a Jew, was at her middle-school graduation, where a Jewish rabbi prayed a very bland and neutral prayer acknowledging God, thanking Him for the “legacy of America where diversity is celebrated and the rights of minorities are protected.” Weisman protested the mention of God, and the case was brought all the way to the Supreme Court.
The courts, in continuing to keep religion out of the schools, have gone so far as having the word “God” disallowed in the classroom, on the football field, and at graduation ceremonies. But, it is fitting that men everywhere should acknowledge God. Those who choose not to acknowledge Him should not be offended by those who do. However, men must not try to impose their beliefs about God on other people. There is a difference between the acknowledgment of an instinctive knowledge of God and the establishment or promotion of a particular religious belief by men in government.
The separation between church and state was not meant to prevent the state or rulers in the state from belief in or acknowledgment of God in their governmental decision-making, but to deny the state the authority to establish any particular religion or religious denomination as the standard for its citizens.
If Christians could recognize the simple truth that the church and the state have separate and legitimate spheres of authority, they would clearly see that they should educate their children within the church and not within the institutions of the state. Then they would be able to pray to their heart’s content without the state interfering with them. The church should not expect to enter the state’s sphere of authority and be exempt from its laws. In other words, the church has no right to usurp authority from the state.
Because they do not understand or appreciate the necessary separation between the domain of the church and that of the world, Christians continually encroach upon the authority of the state and demand special privileges. Their identity with and participation in the affairs of the world blinds them so that they cannot even see what should be a clearly drawn line of separation.
The church was always meant to be separate from the state. While Christians may claim Christ as their sovereign, His authority is not expressed in a government that rules over them in any practical way. However, there is a government of God in the true church which allows us to do things under heavenly authority. That’s why we don’t expect things like child support in custody cases or welfare or unemployment benefits from the state. There is a clear sphere of authority that our Father has established in His word under which we live and have our needs met.
If we’re really the church, we should be able to live within the bounds of the rule of the Master and thus not put a burden on the state by our presence in a town, state, or country. True servants in government will praise such behavior. Because of a life of obedience to the Father’s commands, the church will have authority to remind the state where the line of separation must be, and true civil servants will listen.
The church’s confidence to speak comes from living a life that demonstrates the reality of God’s authority on earth — a life of love and unity in communities that are plainly visible to the nations and their governments.