State, Church and the Bible

May 13, 2010

Quick, say the prayer - the cops are coming!

AnnArbor.com has an interesting series going on right now by Wayne Baker, a sociologist at University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. I attended Ross (MBA, 2006) but never met or had a class with Prof. Baker. There are three posts in the series so far (Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3). The subject of the series is ‘Public Prayer’ at Public Institutions and what is permitted by the US Constitution. Baker is particularly focused on prayers at graduation ceremonies. Baker’s series doesn’t make a definitive argument on either side of the debate and instead provides information and questions to encourage thought.

But…I have some thoughts.

The question is not really about prayer. It is about the relationship between the State and the Church. Most people start such a discussion with the Constitution but let me go back a bit further. The question of Church and State is a biblical one.

Most of the epistles in the New Testament provide instruction for the Church. These letters tell followers how to live, how to interact with the world, what the rules are and etc. But though most biblical commands are for the church, there are commands for the state. The state is given its purpose (Roman 13:4). It is given authority over the people (1 Peter 2:13). And the State is given instructions on how to act. Isaiah 1:16-17  says “Stop doing wrong,  learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.” Jesus told the ruling authority of his day, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above. (John 19:11).”

So we learn from the Bible that the state’s authority is not in contrast to the Church’s, they have different roles. But both the State and the Church are under God’s authority. The State is not in a position to tell God what to do. Nor can the State countermand God’s instructions to the Church – it’s under God’s authority and that would be overstepping its bounds.

So, now let’s look at the idea of “separation of Church and State”. In some sense the Bible commands a separation. It is never right for the Church to take up weapons and go to war. The Church’s role is a declarative one. This is not pacifism. Christians can serve in the military and police but they would be acting as part of the State in that role.

The State must not use the sword to do the roles of the Church. It is never ok for the state to make doctrine. The state may facilitate the Church but it must not control it.

So, coming at the issue of public prayer. Is it within the rights of the State to control believers in this way? Is the State properly using its God given authority to tell people that they can not publicly acknowledge or offer thanks to God? I think it is not within the realm of responsibility of the State to do this. I think the State is acting in a way that goes beyond its rights.

But what about the Constitution? What about people who disagree with the Bible? I will discuss those questions in future posts. But let us conclude that from a Biblical standpoint, the State appears to be overstepping its bounds in this situation.

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3 Responses to “State, Church and the Bible”

  1. W. Vida Says:

    It is interesting that the court’s decision in the sample case Prof. Baker provided argued that state institutions do not have the right to force people to pray. I would agree with that but I don’t think that is what was going on. I think that people watching a prayer can either join in or not. To me, it seems the only ‘forcing’ takes place when the State attempts to force people to stay quiet in certain situations.

  2. Pam Says:

    I’m the new coordinator of Faith coverage for AnnArbor.com, and I really appreciate your insights and continuing the conversation. I’ve been following your blog for a little while and look forward to reading more. Please feel free to contact me if you have any suggestions or ideas for more coverage in our community.


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