Historically, one of the defining features of Baptist belief has been an insistence on the separation of church and state. These two God-ordained institutions, it is held, having distinct mandates and loci of authority, should not encroach on one another. Upon first appraisal, this principle seems simple. Yet, as Prevost notes, the separation of church and state is “probably the most misunderstood and the most controversial” of all Baptist distinctives. Indeed, the separation of church and state is complex, “not neat. It’s messy, difficult, inconsistent, and it always has been.”
John Smyth, a key Baptist founder, proposed that a “magistrate is not by vertue [sic.] of his office to meddle with religion, or matters of conscience, to force and compell men to this or that form of religion, or doctrine: but to leave Christian religion free, to every man’s conscience, and to handle only civil transgressions.” Theologically, Baptists argue that one’s faith comes from a personal experience of and relationship with the risen Christ. Logically, this cannot be enforced by a third party. People must be free to choose for Christ or not according to their own consciences and convictions.
For the church and state to be separate implies that no religious group should be given preferential treatment. As Grenz wryly notes, the gospel, bearing witness to the power of God, “does not need to be bolstered by state power or given preferential treatment.” Nevertheless, the state is to ensure freedom for all religious to conduct their business without fear of persecution or reprisals.
In Romans 13, Paul notes that all authorities – including states – are established and instituted by God. Indeed, he calls state authorities God’s servants; the same Greek word being used in the LXX of priests rendering religious service to God. Both state and church, then are divinely ordained for service. Yet they are not ordained for the same service. The church exists to call people to faith in Christ, the state’s function is to maintain social stability. Where the church seeks to maintain social stability, it is in danger of losing sight of the coming kingdom of God. Likewise, “no king can turn his people to God’s love – all he can do is hang them.”
Although called separately, the church and state are mutually beneficial to one another. States, in seeking a well-ordered society, provide an environment in which churches can thrive. Churches, seeking to grow people in Christ-likeness, produce through the gospel “the type of Christian character conducive to a well-ordered society.“
The primary scripture on which Baptists base their theology of distinct civil and religious realms is Matthew 22:15-21. When Jesus instructs his disciples to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s, it seems that he is affirming the existence, rights and functions of the state. Further, by implication, different things are owed to the state than are owed to God. For, as Jesus announced to Pilate, his kingdom is not of this world. Isaac Backus, an early American Baptist rightly questions how one “can hear Christ declare that his kingdom is NOT OF THIS WORLD, and yet believe that [a] blending of church and state can be pleasing to him.”
Biblically, then, it seems that there is a strong argument for the separation of church and state. Unfortunately, the biblical witness does not go into overly much detail of just what that separation looks like. Some, like Southern Baptists in America, have no qualms about openly supporting certain political candidates. Others bemoan even accepting donations from politicians. All Baptists, however, would still claim obedience to the principle of the separation of church and state.
This principle was born not only out of theological conviction, but also out of historical experience. In the ancient world, religion and culture were twinned, reinforcing each other. To deny the state religion was paramount to treason. Like first century Christians, Baptists arose as dissenters against state mandated religion. Historically, the western church had been politically intertwined with state authorities ever since the “conversion” of Constantine. Prior to that, the church had been a persecuted, powerless minority. Yet within a short space of time, it itself became the persecuting, powerful majority.
Unlike other protestant groups, European Baptists tended not to seek support from local governing authorities. The idea of seeking to become a state church was inimicable to them; for early Baptists, the government was too “bound up with the world’s evil” to even countenance a liaison. Even had they sought support, it is most unlikely that they would have found it; Baptist theology and practice challenged too many political and social structures.
Dissatisfied with the theology of both other protestant and catholic religious thought, Baptists were usually denied the right to practice their faith according to their own convictions. Rather, “it was everywhere [in Europe] illegal to practice Christian faith as a baptist. Consequently, those who bore open witness to their faith were repeatedly hauled into court, imprisoned, fined, and in many cases put to death.”
Baptists, then, had a strong experiential motivation to ensure that others not have to endure the evils of state-sponsored religion as they had. In the United States, Baptists continued their support of church-state separation. Amongst other things, Baptists there are recorded as refusing to pay either taxes in support of established churches or licenses for their own churches. The situation in America differs from much of the rest of the world in that the Baptist-inspired principle of the separation of church and state was incorporated into that nation’s constitution, even if many citizens weren’t in favour of it. The Danbury Baptists, an association of twenty-six Baptist churches are known to have supported President Thomas Jefferson politically because of his unflagging commitment to religious liberty.” Unfortunately, it could be argued that in providing political support to him, they themselves were undermining the very principle they were seeking to encourage.
The Danbury Baptists, situated in Connecticut, found themselves in a state where Congregationalism was the established church. Indeed, many American states – like nations in Europe – had established, state-supported churches. The question of how distinctively Baptist a distinctive the separation of church and state is, is at one level, then, simple to answer. This distinctive is very much a child of Baptist thought. It is, necessarily, not shared by any denomination which has embraced or sought state sponsorship as an established or mandated religion. Many American Baptists, for instance, were persecuted by Puritan state governments; ironic given that the Puritans themselves left England to escape state persecution themselves. The Anglican church – having as it does political power enshrined in law – can likewise not be said to share the distinctive in any real sense.
Given it’s historical hold over European political affairs, it is perhaps not surprising that the Catholic church does not favour the separation of church and state. In 1864, Pope Pious IX went as far as to call “liberty of conscience and of worship… most pernicious to the Catholic church and to the salvation of souls.” Baptists would argue back that simply being a mandated member of a church has no import for the salvation of one’s soul; salvation is a personal matter between God and one’s self.
Over time, the idea of church and state being separate – at least in the western world –has been accepted by society as a given. We live in a post-Enlightenment age, where individualism reigns supreme. Given that state-mandated religion infringes upon the individual, it is perhaps not surprising that many churches – and indeed many other religions situated in the West support the separation of church and state. Nevertheless, whilst many would agree with the principle of the separation of church and state, there remains much disagreement regarding the “distinct line of demarcation in the separation… Obviously there are “gray” areas which account for these differences.” Baptists being a diverse conglomerate, there is even disagreement within the denomination regarding the degree of separation required.
Hobbs argues that “the greatest progress in Baptist witness in history has come under” the principle of the separation of church and state. Tellingly, though, Hobbs only allocates a page and a half to this principle. It would seem that although Baptists fought hard for state and church separation, it has ceased to become an important issue. Indeed, as McDaniel suggests, there has been a “general demise of church-state separation as a principle integral to the Baptist conception of religious freedom.”
Interestingly, if the American situation is anything to go by, it is conservatives who are moving away from this principle, and moderates who are clinging to it. This is perhaps due in part to the conservative emphasise on morality. Given a perceived decline in social morality, some Baptists see it as their duty to put society right. And indeed, Christ would have people living upright lives. Yet righteousness cannot be legislated. Having failed to effectively call people to Christ, one cannot use the state to make them live as disciples.
Perhaps another reason why church-state separation is no longer a priority is the distance in time from occasions when Baptists themselves endured abuse at the hands of church-states. The 1689 Act of Toleration gave Baptists freedom to openly meet together and worship; over the intervening years, it is possible that this freedom has become taken for granted.
There is also, seemingly, a reaction in some Baptist circles against the strict separatist tendencies of other Baptists. Hobbs, for instance, demands that no church should either pay taxes or receive tax funds from the state, but should instead rely on the generosity of Christians. Yet, “it is possible that church and state have a cause in common that does not involve state support of religion per se.” As long as the government does seek to control or dictate church activities, it is surely not inappropriate to accept state assistance. “However, even in such cases, churches should be very cautious about accepting government money if doing so might lead to government control.”
One of the key social changes over the last century has been the growing secularisation of society. On the one hand, this has resulted in a situation where states more often than not have no desire to be associated with the church; there is little political advantage to be gained. On the other hand, with secularisation has come a growing demand for toleration. Unfortunately, much of the gospel is perceived as being intolerant; demanding as it does that Christ is the only means of salvation. There is a danger that Christians lose their freedom to speak Christ in a society where such pronouncement is seen as inappropriate.
In terms of Australian Baptist denominational life, many churches still honour the church-state separation principle. Others, however, are more than happy to instruct members to vote for “Christian” parties. Yet to do so is to assume a position of authority over political matters. Surely this was not what the early Baptists intended.
Although church-state separation is a valuable biblical principle, it does not seem to me to be of such importance that one would form a separate denomination to safe-guard it. Ideally, church and state should be distinct; yet even were they not, the gospel would not be fettered. Rather, one would have a situation where there would be both Christians and non-Christians within the state-mandated “church”. The visible church and the invisible church might not correlate as precisely as we Baptists might like, but God’s church would remain.
If the Baptist denomination still exists a hundred years from now, I suspect that the principle of church-state separation would still find support. Nevertheless, the degree of support would probably depend on the social situation in which the church finds herself. If society is then as stridently secular as it is today, the issue of church-state separation would be largely theoretical. Should there be a religious resurgence in society, Baptists will need to ensure that the rights of individuals to choose faith is safeguarded, lest history repeats itself.
Blount, Douglas K., and Joseph D. Wooddell. The Baptist faith and message 2000: critical issues in America’s largest Protestant denomination. Rowman & Littlefield, 2007.
Daniel L Dreisbach. “Sowing useful truths and principles”: The Danbury Baptists, Thomas Jefferson, and the “wall of separation.” Journal of Church and State 39, no. 3 (Summer 1997): 455.
Freeman, Curtis W., James William McClendon, and C. Rosalee Velloso da Silva. Baptist roots: a reader in the theology of a Christian people. Judson Press, 199
Grenz, Stanley J. The Baptist Congregation. Regent College Publishing, 1985. Hobbs, Herschel. What Baptists believe. Nashville Tenn.: Broadman Press, 1964.
McDaniel, C. “The Decline of the Separation Principle in the Baptist Tradition of Religious Liberty.” Journal of Church and State 50, no. 3 (Summer 2008): 413.
Prevost, Ronnie. A Distinctively Baptist Church: Renewing Your Church in Practice. Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc., 2008.
Smyth, John. The Works of John Smyth. Edited by W. T. Whitley. Cambridge University, 1915.
Tidball, Derek, Gerald Benjamin Ball, and Baptist Foundation of New South Wales. Baptist basics. Baptist Foundation of NSW, 1996.
Wood, Will C. Five problems of state and religion. Boston: Henry Joyt, 1877. Wunderink, S. “When Caesar Renders.” Christianity Today 54, no. 3 (March 2010): 16.