There are perhaps few areas of the relationship between the gospel and politics that are as misused, misapplied, ignored, or proclaimed as the well-known need for separation between the church and state. On the one hand, many have shouted it from the rooftops as a way of silencing any religious influence in governmental policy. On the other, many have completely dismissed its vital importance and championed a “Christian” view of America that was never intended by the founding fathers and nowhere supported in the pages of Scripture. And one can find committed believers in both camps of thought. The question before us is how the realities of the gospel speak to the authoritative bodies of church and state.
First and foremost, the gospel is an all-encompassing message of redemption. Of course, it is personal insofar as it commands a genuine, intimate trust and confidence in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, but it’s claim on life does not end there. Becoming a Christian does not only involve an inward commitment; there are very public and outward-focused ramifications that impact all of life. There will be sharp points of contention with secular government that must be opposed because of one’s commitment to a higher authority than the US government. And because growth in the Christian faith involves a renewing of the mind through the washing of the word (cf. Rom. 12:2; Eph. 4:22-24), there are never times when the Christian can simply lay aside his or her biblical convictions in order to address a matter; the Spirit and the word work together to reshape not only what someone thinks but also how he or she thinks.
Therefore, to believe that Thomas Jefferson and the other founders of our country intended for a person to completely dismiss or set aside their religious persuasions when contemplating public policy is simply absurd. Not only that, but it is also impossible, even for those who have no religious affiliation or claim no belief in God. For regardless of whether someone believes in God, their theological viewpoint will most certainly impact how and what they think. An unbeliever’s unbelief in God plays as much of a part in his public policy making as a believer’s belief in God; there’s simply no way around a person’s view of God (whether biblical, unbiblical, or completely atheistic) impacting his or her views and convictions.
Secondly, because the gospel is about a King whose kingdom is not of this world and therefore doesn’t rely on worldly means of expansion, there is no need, on the part of Christians, to try to force kingdom growth by government compulsion. The church is an outpost in enemy territory of a coming kingdom. And because no member of the church was ever brought into the fellowship through physical or mental coercion, there is no reason for those in the church to believe expansion will need it. Of course, a nation or a government that reflects biblical morality can be a wonderful thing. But if true conversion is not taking place in the hearts of men and women, one can be sure the kingdom of God is not expanding. The kingdom expands when dead people are raised to life and not when dead people are made to only look alive while remaining actually dead.
Therefore, to believe that there needs to be no separation between church and state is to confuse kingdoms. Things on earth will be as they are in heaven when Christ brings about the fullness of His kingdom at His Second Coming, not when our government legislation matches the Bible word for word. Pushing policy that is informed by Christian conviction is a good thing so long as the goal is not antithetical to the Christian mission. We don’t need a “Christian nation” that is full of people who aren’t actually Christians. And so to try to impose the kingdom of God on people who are not part of the kingdom of God is to miss the mission for which believers are called.
The gospel does not allow a person to privatize his or her faith. Christ’s claim on a person’s life is all-encompassing, and that includes his or her public interaction through business, economics, relationships, and yes, even government. At the same time, the goal of the gospel goes much further than a “Christian nation” in which everyone acts Christian but isn’t really a Christian. And so, if the separation between church and state means that a Christian must abandon his or her conviction before engaging in politics, such is an impossible demand. But if it means that the church and state must not unite on this side of the Second Coming of Christ, then Christians can and must trumpet this important principle in order to avoid costly error.