The separation of church and state is a hot topic these days. As Christians, our response should always be to ask, “What does the Bible say?” regardless of what the conservatives or liberals may say about any particular topic. Christians should be political, but not partisan, in this sense. (This does not mean Christians cannot affiliate themselves with a particular party, but anything their party says must be, for the Christian, subject to correction from Scripture.) So the question now is, “Does the Bible itself teach the separation of church and state, and if so, in what sense?”
This will be a short excursus into what the Old Testament has to say about the separation of church and state. In another article, I will be exploring what the New Testament has to say about the same topic.
In short, the answer to the above question is “absolutely yes.” But first I have to define what I mean by this. The Old Testament teaches a kind of separation of church state that means this: both church and state have separate functions, and yet both are required to have absolute obedience to God in their separate functions. The state has the power of the sword, and the church has the power of they keys, and both must obey God in their respective usages of their powers.
We see this clearly in a number of places. Greg Bahnsen points out that “the Older Testament indicates a standing separation of church and state, and this fact should be recognized. There was a distinction between the work of Moses and that of Aaron (cf. Ex. 16:33- 34; 29:1 ff.), for Aaron represented the people in distinctly cultic matters while Moses rendered general, civil leadership for them (functioning a king [sic] over the gathered heads of the tribes, Deut. 33:5).” (Greg Bahnsen, Theonomy in Christian Ethics, 389.) While both Moses (Deut. 34:10) and Aaron (Ex. 7:1) were prophets, the office of prophet is distinct from the offices of judge or priest. We see this further on in Israel’s history as well. Ezra was a scribe (Ezra 7:6) and Nehemiah was a governor (Neh. 5:14).
But at this point one may reasonably ask, “This shows that the work of a civil ruler can happen to be distinct form the work of a priest. Is there indication that kings and priests are specifically required not to perform each other’s duties?” There is in fact. King Uzziah is struck with leprosy because he offered incense in the temple without a priest. (2 Chron. 26:16-23). The text clearly indicates that Uzziah grew proud was unfaithful to God. He unfaithfully enters the temple to burn incense on the altar of incense (v. 16). Uzziah did not recognize the kind of church/state relationship envisioned in the law, and God struck him with leprosy. Only the sons of Aaron can offer incense (Ex. 30:1-10) and the priests, who were men of valor (v. 17) clearly indicate that what Uzziah was attempting to do was wrong (v. 18).
Not only is there a separation of church and state, but both church and state had prescribed powers they were required to exercise. Commands such as “You shall not permit a sorceress to live” (Ex. 22:18), “Whoever lies with an animal shall be put to death.” (Ex. 22:19), and more generally “Your eye shall not pity. It shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.” (Deut. 19:21) concerning the lex talionis, all illustrate that the operation of the civil government was not optional. Church and state were are also required to not go beyond the duties enumerated in God’s law (Deut. 4:2). We see this commandment strictly enforced in the case of Saul. In 1 Samuel 13, Saul offered burnt offerings and peace offerings at Gilgal (v. 8-10). Saul offers a pragmatic argument for why he did so (v. 11); the people were scattering and the Phillistines were mustering and something had to be done, of course. Samuel makes clear that what Saul did was foolish (v. 13) and as a result of this action Saul’s kingdom would not continue, because Saul disobeyed the commandments (v. 14).
So we see there was a foundational separation of church and state in the Old Testament. Both were required to obey God, and both had duties they were required to take care of. They were also prohibited from adding to or subtracting from God’s law, and granting themselves permission to take on duties God did not prescribe for them.
But does this arrangement change at all in the New Testament? We will explore that later on.
You can get your own copy of Theonomy in Christian Ethics at Amazon here. https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0140441638/ref=oh_aui_detailpage_o06_s00?ie=UTF8&psc=1
Five questions I would like to ask Bahnsen
1. What should blasphemy laws look like today?
2. How should they be enforced?
3. In the OT law, idolatry was punished. How would that look if it was enforced today?
4. Is promoting true doctrine only the responsibility of the church?
5. Should the state government do anything about cults?