The Importance of Separation

If you accept government money, sooner or later you’re going to have to do what you’re told—no matter what—in order to keep getting the cash. There is a reason the Apostle Paul wrote that the love of money is the root of all evil (1 Timothy 6:10).

Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island, was one of the first Baptists in America. And he became one of the earliest proponents for the separation of church and state. He is quoted as saying that when the state and church are combined, the state tends to corrupt the church. Thomas Jefferson, a secularist, more than a hundred years later also argued for the separation. But he suggested that the church tends to corrupt the state. Of course, both of them were correct.

According to recent news reports, Catholic charities in Illinois may shut down. Is it because of the economy and a drop in giving? Not at all. It is a result of a new Illinois law: all agencies which receive state money must service same-sex couples when it comes to adoptions. Thus, if the Catholic charities wish to continue receiving the money they’ve grown to depend upon, they must violate their consciences.

To their credit, they have decided to stick with their beliefs, even to their hurt. But their fate illustrates a reality that all religious organizations need to recognize. The state may offer you cash to make use of your facilities, to help you feed the poor, to help you provide medical care—or whatever. They may claim that there are no strings attached. But the reality is, there are always strings and sooner or later, you’ll be asked to dance to the government’s tune. And if you’ve grown dependent upon that pile of cash from the government, then what? Will you accommodate the government’s wishes? “It’s just a small thing, after all, and the money helps so many needy people, does so much good…” There is a Christian college in Virginia, in contrast to the Catholic charities, that decided to keep the money they received from the state. In order to do so, they eliminated the requirement that their students attend daily chapel services.

Certainly the Illinois government’s goal was not to shut down all these Catholic charities, and certainly the charities did not foresee that some day—in order to abide by their convictions—they would have to shut down. But that’s the reality of this sort of situation.

The goals and aims of governments and religions do often coincide. But not always, and not in all matters. It is therefore a huge mistake for churches and other religious organizations to believe that somehow they can get into the lap of government and not end up soiled as a result. The ways of God and the ways of the world ultimately are not compatible.

As I recall, Jesus once commented, “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22:21) Jesus also told his disciples “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.” (John 15:18-19) Likewise, Paul commented, “For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds.” (2 Corinthians 10:3-4) And “Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules…” (Colossians 2:20a).

For Christians, there are good arguments from the New Testament against involvement in worldly ways of doing things. Paul warned Christians against taking their disputes before the local courts (1 Corinthians 6:1-7). He believed that disputes between Christians should be settled within the church, not before magistrates—not before the government. How much more should churches be unwilling to take funds from government agencies: “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.” (Matthew 6:24) The Catholic charities in Illinois have learned this the hard way.

I believe that Christians who decry the separation of church and state have no idea what they are wishing for. To me, they seem to lack both historical and theological perspective. Roger Williams and other early Baptists argued for the separation of church and state on the basis of what they saw in the New Testament and from their recent experiences. They believed that sooner or later, the state would corrupt the church. They’d already seen it happen with the churches in Europe and the religious warfare and persecution that it had brought as a result, when the state sought to enforce religious beliefs and conformity. They didn’t want to see the same thing happen in the New World.

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm a deacon at Quartz Hill Community Church. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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