I think that the separation of church and state is a good thing. I don’t take that to mean that the church should not be involved in the state. The church that declares “Jesus as Lord” is, quite explicitly, political. The church should be a prophetic witness to the state. The church should inform state policies and agendas. And I also think that it is good for the church’s members to be involved in the state, just as we want the civil servants, employed by the state, to be involved in the church. Of course, to be a member of the church means that all other loyalties and agendas are qualified by their commitment to Christ and the Body of Christ. So, I am an advocate for the church to be involved in the state.
However, I do not advocate for the state’s involvement in the church. Under Constantinianism, the church’s members were also, necessarily, the state’s members. From baptism to marriage to death, one was subordinated to and controlled by the state-church authority. That is why the Christian sects were persecuted primarily for their “misplaced” allegiance than for their allegedly “misplaced” theology.
Although we can be proud of the heritage that separates the church and state, we also need to be vigilant in recognizing the ways that political power often seeks, albeit subtly, to influence the church. Today it is not difficult to see where the church is being used to legitimate certain sectors or ideologies of the state. Governors are dangerously linking their governing powers to religious power by calling their states to prayer and fasting. Now, I am for prayer and fasting. And I am for the participation of governors and any other state employee in corporate events of prayer and fasting. But I think that they should participate “secretly,” rather than using the church’s disciplines and worship as a political platform. For those that use religion for self-promotion, Jesus says: ‘And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you’ (Matthew 6:5-6).
And for those who fast to promote their agendas, Jesus says: ‘And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you (Matthew 6:16-18).
Political power tends to co-opt religious power, using God to legitimize and expedite political ends. We should be wary of politicians employing religion and especially when they take the place of religious authorities. This happened in 1 Samuel 13. We read about King Saul, who is hard-pressed by his political environment. He is waiting for the prophet Samuel to come and perform a sacrifice. But Saul is threatened by an attack from the Philistines that can happen at any moment. And since Samuel continues to tarry, Saul’s army begins to leave. So, Saul performs the necessary sacrifice to the Lord in Samuel’s absence, so that he can get on with his political agenda and so that his actions will be legitimated by the Lord. Although his actions seem justifiable, Saul has usurped his role by combining his governing authority with the priestly authority – all with the goal of political expedience. When Samuel arrives, he calls Saul a fool for his disobedience – disobedience that determines the eventual end of his claim to rule.