The Constitutional Principle: Separation of Church and State
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Separation No Myth

by Jim Spivey

Jim Spivey is Assistant Professor of Church History at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. A graduate of Auburn University (B.A.) Southwestern Seminary (M. Div.) and Oxford University (D. Phil.) he has served on the Southwestern faculty since 1987. He is a chaplain in the U.S. Army.

This article originally appeared in the Southwestern Journal of Theology, Vol.36, No.5, Summer 1994, pp10-16.

This article is a production of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs. Please copy and distribute the article. However, the information contained in this article cannot be modified without the express written permission of the Baptist Joint Committee. If this article is transmitted or duplicated, it must include this message.


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Since Thomas Helwys' martyrdom for the sake of unfettered religious conscience, Baptists have stood in the breach. Through intolerable suffering, political activism, eloquent reasoning, and confessional resolution they have led the struggle to secure religious liberty and to guarantee it with the separation of church and state. For four hundred years, advocacy of these doctrines has devolved upon Baptists as a spiritual birthright and an essential seal of their identity. Yet, now the mantle has fallen upon a generation of reluctant prophets in danger of abandoning their heritage. Anxious about disintegrating societal morality, many of them are swayed by urgent appeals for the church and the state to cooperate in order to rescue America from secular humanism and irreligion. They are spellbound by the spiritualized rhetoric of revisionist historians who claim to know the 'original intent' of the founding fathers who penned the Constitution. So, they resist rational arguments and historical evidence which prove that this is a dangerous, thinly veiled form of civil religion energized by power politics, emoluments, and misplaced patriotic emotion. Roger Williams, Isaac Backus, and John Leland wielded history and reason against this hydra. They appealed to natural law and political theory to gain a secular hearing, but they realized that those arguments by themselves would produce nothing more than unconvincing parochial, partisan dogma. Ultimately, they succeeded because they unhesitatingly proclaimed a message empowered by biblical truth. Today the antidote for both infidelity and its counterfeit, civil religion, is the same as it was then. Transcending the secular warrant and any idolized view of original intent, Baptists must reclaim the biblical doctrine espoused by their forbears.

Religious liberty begins with the will of God as the Creator of humanity. By breathing life into the human soul, he makes a spiritual being with a capacity for sustaining a personal relationship with him. Being created in God's image, each person possesses infinite dignity and is a rational, moral agent with a conscience capable of responding to him by faith. Faith is a gift from God, not of human origin or institutional fabrication. It elicits voluntary obedience from the rational soul: the equal and independent right of every person to choose without coercion. The individual conscience is sovereign before men, but it is neither independent from God nor controlled entirely by the person. It bears a divine imprimatur which, beyond human will, brings awareness of God and conviction of divine law. As the supreme lawgiver and author of all life, God exercises absolute sovereignty. In matters of religious conscience, he neither delegates his authority to any human institution, nor does he relieve persons of individual responsibility to respond to him. Each soul is competent to determine what is essential in religion and to act on those convictions with full persuasion of the mind. God holds persons individually accountable for this; they cannot defer responsibility for it to earthly representatives. Conversely, any attempt to compel or restrain the individual conscience violates an inalienable human right and usurps God's authority. All true freedom is spiritually based and originates in the person of Jesus Christ.(1)

More precisely stated, 'religious liberty' as biblical doctrine is the 'universal freedom of religious conscience,' with three caveats. First, religious conscience is not merely internal thought. Otherwise, since the conscience cannot be coerced by external practices, one might use this idea to argue for uniformity of public religion: to secure civil harmony and morality through outward conformity, yet without doing violence to real (inward) religion. This is a perversion of true religion. True religion produces actions consistent with personal conviction. A church that sanctions a dichotomy between faith and practice breeds hypocrisy that in turn engenders disrespect for religion and disloyalty to the church. Second, toleration is not genuine freedom; it is the opposite. By giving preference to adherents of the state church and treating other persons as second class citizens, it denies the equality of all persons before God. Worse still, it depends on two false assumptions: that it is the prerogative of the state to grant freedom of worship; and that the people invest the state with that power. True religious liberty is granted by God alone and is not subject to the authority of men. It is an inalienable right, not a social contract. Those who support toleration do so at their peril: when a state presumes to grant a freedom, it assumes the right to withdraw it. Third, the voluntaristic nature of true religion militates against established religion. While one may decide to quit a church in order to avoid discipline, a citizen of the world must submit to the laws of society. So, when the state passes laws designed to achieve religious conformity, it incorporates matters of conscience into a mandatory code which coerces religious assent. The rational implication is that religious liberty necessitates the separation of church and state.

More importantly, Scripture teaches this.

Christ addressed the issue directly in Matt. 22:21.Though this passage neither delineates the specific duties nor defines the relationship between the realms, it identifies Christians as citizens of two distinct kingdoms who fulfil separate obligations in each one. This dichotomy was manifest in the leadership roles of the Old Testament. Moses was the lawgiver, judge and prophet, while Aaron exercised the priestly functions. Even as a theocratic monarchy, Israel was reminded that God, not a human king, was the ruler. Except on rare occasions the king dared not usurp the priestly role, and later orthodoxy denounced such a union. When God raised up prophets as his kingdom agents, they pronounced judgment not only upon the monarch but also upon a corrupt priesthood whose civil religion distorted God's intentions. Those prophets made it clear that the kingdom of God was to be spiritual and eternal, not earthly.(2) The political Jewish state could not be identical with the kingdom of God, for many Israelites were not true citizens,(3) and the true Israel was destined someday to become a kingdom of priests.(4).

This contrast between church and state is sharpened by the New Testament description of Christ's character and the apolitical nature of his inaugurated kingdom. Jesus said his followers were not of this world,(5) and they were to focus on his kingdom,(6) which also is not of this world.(7) His reign is spiritual and eternal: he rules the human heart, not a temporal, earthly domain,(8) and not an ethnic Jewish state.(9) He rebuked his disciples for desiring positions of authority like the Gentiles,(10) and he chastised them for asking him to restore the kingdom of Israel.(11) Because of the political notoriety it held in his day, he never used the title Messiah. Instead, he preferred to be known by everyday folk as the Son of Man. Shunning popular acclaim as a basis for messiahship, he ministered quietly as a servant and informed the crowd that this action bore prophetic implications for kingdom methodology.(12) He refused to sit as a judge in secular matters,(13) resisted the temptation to seize worldly power, and fled from those who would crown him king.(14) An earthly crown would have compromised his universal kingship by reducing him to a cultic hero. Even in the midst of the Palm Sunday frenzy, he eschewed the regal image of a victorious king in favor of humility astride a donkey.(15) In retrospect, the message was clear: he thoroughly opposed the use of magisterial power to build his kingdom. As Isaiah and Micah prophesied and Paul affirmed, the spiritual means of the new covenant supplanted the carnal weapons of the past.(16) For example, he would not allow his disciples to call down fire upon his detractors..

To do so would have denied the very purpose of his incarnation--to save lives rather than to destroy them.(17) In rebuking Peter's use of force as an impediment to God's will, he also rejected the temporal means employed by his accusers.(18) Just as Zechariah had said, the dynamic of his kingdom was not might, but the Lord's Spirit.(19) Indeed, it is still the Spirit, not worldly power, who leads persons to the truth and vindicates righteousness.(20).

Separation of the church and the state is necessary because they differ radically in nature. God invested the church with spiritual authority and the state with political power.(21) Using the Old Testament to justify the blending of these two not only misconstrues the nature of the theocratic monarchy; it contradicts sound hermeneutical principles employed by Baptists for centuries. The Old Testament, with its covenant ecclesiology, was preparatory: Israel was a temporal, ceremonial pattern for the coming church, not a timeless, literal blueprint for a civil-religious state. In a radical paradigm shift, the New Testament established a better covenant. It identified the church as a voluntary society 'called out' of the civil commonwealth, built upon Christ alone, and directly subject to his authority as supreme lawgiver and king.(22) Its warfare,(23) weapons,(24) defense,(25) leadership,(26) and equipment(27) are spiritual.

While God called the church to the spiritual tasks of witnessing and discipling,(28) he ordained the state with the four civic purposes of promoting a good society, protecting its citizens, and restraining and punishing evil.(29) He gave the civil magistrate no spiritual authority over the church or persons' consciences..

Christians must avoid spiritual subjection to human commandments and doctrines which derive authority from worldly ordinances.(30) That is nothing less than civil religion, and the New Testament rejects every hint of it. Scriptural lines of demarcation are clear. For the very sake of conscience, Christians should pay taxes,(31) submit to civil leaders,(32) pray for them,(33) and obey their just laws.(34) But because a magistrate's inherent fallibility(35) renders him incapable of perfect rule, Christians may find it necessary to resist bad laws. They should oppose the ruler's intervention in religion all the more because his office in no way qualifies him as a competent judge in that area, and his political agenda prejudices his motives. Christians must not give the state blind, final allegiance. Ultimately, they are citizens of heaven who anticipate the consummation of God's kingdom,(36) who avoid entanglement with worldly interests,(37) and who yield liege homage to Christ as Lord over every spiritual and earthly power.(38) When civil or religious policies contradict God's will, Christians must choose to obey God.(39) This necessitates the separation of church and state in as much as certain policies of all civil-religious establishments inherently contradict Scripture..

The most seductive of such policies is the state-funded support of religion. Since this depends on compulsory taxation, it robs both giver and God of the joy in cheerful giving.(40) State aid threatens the autonomy of the church and the credibility of its work because churches which accept help eventually succumb to government regulatory demands. If civil policy contradicts the truth, recipients are forced to choose between God and mammon,(41) and this causes the church to forfeit its prophetic role of publicly denouncing sin. When clergypersons accept government subsidies, they become dependent on a secular livelihood rather than on the biblical means of the gospel,(42) and members abdicate their biblical responsibility to support them.(43) This diminishes their disciplinary control over their pastors, who then become susceptible to pride, laziness, and sycophancy for the sake of emolument and promotion.

Thus disillusioned by ecclesiastical corruption, people drift into a spiritual apathy which enervates the national church and defeats the 'true religion' it was established to promote. The problem is compounded by the fact that the state church depends on a sacerdotal, humanistic theology which uses secular political power, mind control, and behavior modification to force the gospel on people for their own good. It arrogantly presumes its superiority of knowledge and the incapacity of everyday folk to discern the truth without civil-religious controls. To the contrary, in order for true religion to convince seekers that the gospel is credible, it must compete in the marketplace of ideas without artificial help from the state. Only when persons freely choose God's truth over untruth do they recognize the genuine worth and viability of Christianity. This non-coercive method communicates an intrinsic, core value of true religion: it is sufficiently powerful to witness to God's presence without coercion. It reflects the very nature of God, who forces himself on no person. When a church state resorts to force, it betrays a lack of confidence in God's sovereign ability to vindicate his truth, and it commits blasphemy by arrogating to itself a pretended power which Christ himself never claimed. In fact, true religion separates itself from such worldly power. It follows the law of liberty. It is pure, undefiled, and unstained by the world.(44) It is separate from the state..

When the civil authority formally endorses one religion as the cultural norm for the nation it inevitably favors one sect over all others. Because this causes religious groups to compete for political favors, it engenders civil strife harmful to both the state and the nation. As the state manipulates religion for its purposes, it creates a civil religion which confuses patriotism with piety and defends its political decisions as part of a righteous cause. Such a 'holy war' mentality suppresses dialogue and the genuine truth of other positions, with the opinion of the magistrate and his clergy becoming the standard of orthodoxy. Though the favored religion may exhibit a tolerant attitude initially by requiring conformity only in small things, eventually it will demand total uniformity for the sake of civil harmony. The enforcement of the religious code becomes the responsibility of a priestly hierarchy--an impersonal ecclesiastical system which dominates the church and disempowers the priesthood of the believer.(45) Great is the culpability of many of those clergy, who encourage complacency in an inherited religion devoid of individual accountability for a personal relationship with Christ. .

Established religion blurs the boundaries between church and state in such a way that the two institutions intrude upon each other. As the church manipulates the state as an engine for power, it produces bad government. Worse still, the state entices the church with promises of power derived from a political manifesto rather than from Scripture, and it subtly shifts the focus of allegiance from God to a humanistic, ideological cause. The temptation to compromise is great, especially when it secures state financial aid and mandated public religious exercises as hedges against societal immorality. Yet, the price of such 'privileges' is a civil idolatry which deifies the state and erodes the religious will to resist totalitarianism. Once entrenched, the state church fiercely protects the political status quo against change by encircling it with impervious ramparts of scholastic dogma. This stunts theological and devotional growth. Such intense nationalism also undermines the Great Commission. It causes outsiders to view Christianity as an exclusivistic, parochial religion that follows a cultic god and not the Lord of the universe. In fact, this perception is accurate in that civil religionists betray a fundamental lack of confidence in God's sovereignty..

How else can one explain their reliance on worldly power when Scripture says that true religion avoids worldly corruption(46) and derives its power from the Holy Spirit and the preaching of the cross?(47) .

On the other hand, the separation of church and state prevents each institution from intruding upon the other's domain, and so it stops the coercion of religion by means of civil power. Competing freely with other ideas, true Christianity is chosen voluntarily by sincere seekers based on its own merit and the persuasiveness of the Holy Spirit. Though separation also lifts the civil restraints on irreligion and allows profane persons license to follow their natural inclinations, it reveals those who would hide their real intentions behind the mask of civil religion. With that hypocrisy stripped away, their consciences become exposed to the penetrating light of truth which enables them to respond genuinely to the gospel. Separation creates an atmosphere of voluntarism which allows true religion to flourish. It frees the church to raise its own support, to develop strong lay leadership, to pursue an aggressive missionary vision, and to speak prophetically against immorality and social ills. It diminishes civil strife and encourages religious liberty. In America, churches have taken advantage of this freedom by developing voluntary societies to mediate the gospel in a social context. This has in turn spawned a host of secular health, education, and welfare mediating structures that benefit society. Most importantly, by removing the impediments of establishmentarianism, separation of church and state unleashes the full power of the gospel to accomplish genuine evangelism..

Paul Weber identifies five forms of church-state separation. Common to all types is the absence of any officially sanctioned religion and the advocacy of pluralism. The structural type physically separates the church organization and its offices, personnel functions, and property from those of the state. Most separationists affirm some degree of structural separation. Absolute (strict) separationists further prohibit the flow in either direction of financial aid between the church and the state. Transvaluing (hostile) separationists use the government to secularize the political culture. Also denying state aid to churches, they oppose the expression of all religious symbols, values, motivations, or policy objectives in the political arena. Their form of pluralism is strictly secular. Supportive separationists (accommodationists), do not carry the principle of structural separation as far as the absolute or the transvaluing types. Also known as non-preferentialists, they favor state aid for religion as long as the government shows no partiality to any group. Equal separationism (strict neutrality) rejects all political and economic privileges or disabilities based on religious affiliation, but it insists that religious individuals and organizations should have the same rights as other similarly situated individuals and organizations. Seeking the protection of religion without special privileges from the state, this position is non-preferential. In fact, it is close to accommodationism, except that it says religious groups should prosper or hurt in proportion to how other similar groups prosper or hurt.(48) Equal separationists say religious liberty is not a preferred freedom. Some strict separationists maintain that certain religious rights may need preferential judicial treatment in order to protect free exercise. Accommodationists argue for preferred freedom in order to obtain special privileges for religious groups. Establishmentarians are of three types: pluralists who say the state should suppor t several churches equally; non-pluralists who support only one state church; and reconstructionists who aim at recreating a theocratic government. The following chart shows the spectrum of the seven views on church-state relations..

Strict separation has been maintained by every major Baptist advocate of religious liberty from Thomas Helwys, through Roger Williams, John Clarke, Isaac Backus, and John Leland, to the twentieth-century giants, E.Y. Mullins, George Truett, and J.M. Dawson.(49) In the first Baptist confession (1610), John Smythe expressly urged structural separation,(50) and his church refused monetary support from any outside source.(51) Subsequent Baptist confessions have implicitly supported these principles,(52) but the "Baptist Faith and Message" (1963) of the Southern Baptist Convention states it most explicitly:.

Church and state should be separate. The state owes to every church protection and full freedom in the pursuit of its spiritual ends. In providing for such freedom no ecclesiastical groups or denomination should be favored by the state more than others....The church should not resort to the civil power to carry on its work. The gospel of Christ contemplates spiritual means alone for the pursuit of its ends....The state has no right to impose taxes for the support of any form of religion.(53).

This agrees with Thomas Jefferson's much disputed metaphor which the Baptist Sunday School teacher, Justice Hugo Black, used to interpret the meaning of the First Amendment: "the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect 'a wall of separation' between church and State."(54) Baptists should not be swayed by opponents of separation who argue that this phrase is taken out of context and that Jefferson hardly influenced the original intent of the Constitution. That is a moot debate in view of the fact that over 150 years earlier Roger Williams had already coined the phrase when he warned against civil religion like that of Israel which had "opened a gap in the hedge, or wall of separation, between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world."(55) Williams' arguments for strict separation were biblical and incontrovertible.

Yet, now American church-state relations are far more complex than in Williams' day. Ministers and jurists alike devote whole careers to finding that elusive and delicate balance of free exercise and nonestablishment which is constantly being tipped by rampant pluralism, expansive statism, sectarian proliferation, and requests for aid to religious mediating structures. Occasionally, this has caused the courts to render decisions which favor hostile separationism and seem to encourage relativistic humanism, immorality, and irreligion. Frustrated by this, well-meaning persons such as David Barton attack separation and label it a myth. Many of his criticisms of American culture are valid, and his call to Christian activism is laudable. But his case for recreating a 'Christian America' is built on a skewed view of history, faulty logic, and only fleeting reference to Scripture.(56) In defining the lowest common denominator of religion that should be tolerated in America, he unwittingly commends the five classic tenets of Deism.(57) Incredibly, he argues that the school is the most effective institution for promoting religion and morality; he says that to claim it is the church, "indicates the degree to which our thinking has been distorted by the doctrine of the separation of church and state."(58) This is clearly the kind of unscriptural civil religious agenda Baptists have always fought. Yet, Barton is attracting many Baptists with his patriotic rhetoric, his prophetic denunciation of liberalism, and his claim that he is defending the rights of the great silent majority.

Baptists must not abandon their defense of strict separation. It is both scriptural and politically prudent. Yet, the witness of Baptist history proves this does not mean divorcing politics from religion. Like their forbears, Baptists must employ legitimate political activism to stop both civil religion and hostile separationism, and to protect the religious rights of beleaguered minorities against majoritarian attack. But as Gethsemane teaches, this never sanctions the use of worldly power to win persons' hearts. Baptists must have enough confidence in the power of God's truth to transform a pluralistic society that they continue to fight for genuine voluntarism. As William Estep observes:.

Admittedly the welfare of society is the chief concern of the state. But in the final analysis the church can never expect the state to do that which church has failed to do. Religious freedom does create a vacuum into which will move the ideology with the greatest dynamic. This is both the risk and the challenge of freedom."(59).

Of course, the greatest dynamic is the unfettered operation of God's Spirit through the virile, voluntary, active obedience of believers. Baptists are ordained as part of a royal priesthood with the purpose of transforming society through the spiritual power of Jesus Christ, who rules all Creation, and whose law no civil scheme or court decision can impugn. This is not only an unimpeachable right; it is their inalienable responsibility.


1 Gen. 1:26-28, 2:7, 5:1; Exod. 15:18; Deut. 30:15; Josh. 24:15; 2 Chron. 20:6; Ps. 8:6, 24:10; Prov. 22:2; Isa. 61:1; Jer. 31:3; Dan. 7:14; Matt. 12:50; John 1:12, 8:32, 14:23; Acts 10:34, 18:24-29; Rom. 1:20; 2:14-16, 8:2, 21, 10:12, 14:12; 1 Cor. 15:45; 2 Cor. 3:17, 5:10; Gal. 3:28; Eph. 2:8-10; 1 Tim. 1:17; Heb. 2:7-8; James 1:25, 2:5; Rev. 19:6, 22:14.

2 Isa. 9:1-7; 11:15; 65:8-10; Mic. 5:2-4.

3 Isaiah 29.

4 Exod. 19:6; Isa. 61:6; 1 Pet. 2:5,9.

5 John 17:16

6 Matt. 6:33.

7John 18:36.

8 Luke 17:21; Rom. 14:17; 1 Cor. 15:50.

9 Matt. 8:11-12.

10 Luke 22:24-30.

11 Acts 1:6-7.

12 Isa. 42:1-3; Matt. 12:18-20.

13 Luke 12:14.

14 Matt. 4:8-11; John 6:15.

15 Matt. 21:1-9.

16 Isa. 2:4, 11:9; Mic. 4:3-4; 2 Cor. 10:3.

17 Luke 9:54-56; John 3:17.

18 Matt. 26:52-56.

19 Zech. 4:6.

20 John 16:7-13.

21 Matt. 16:18; Rom. 13:1-2; Eph. 5:25.

22 James 4:12.

23 Eph. 6:12.

24 2 Cor. 10:4; Eph. 6:17; Heb. 4:12.

25 Rom. 3:12; 2 Cor. 6:7; Eph. 6:11; 1 Thess. 5:8.

26 Acts 20:17-32; Eph. 4:11-12; 1 Timothy 3, 5; Titus 1; 1 Pet. 5:1-4.

27 Rom. 12:6-8; 1 Corinthians 12.

28 Matt. 28:19-20; Acts 1:8.

29 Rom. 13:1-5.

30 2 Tim. 2:4.

31 Matt. 17:24-27, 22:21; Rom. 13:6.

32 Rom. 13:1; 2 Pet. 3:13-14.

33 1 Tim. 2:1-2.

34 Rom. 13:5; Gal. 5:13; 1 Thess. 4:11-12, 5:14-15; 2 Thess. 3:6-12; 2 Pet. 3:15-17.

35 Rom. 3:10, 23.

36 Phil. 3:20; Heb. 11:10, 13-14.

37 1 Cor. 6:1-6; Col. 2:13-23.

38 Eph. 1:20-23.

39 Acts 5:29.

40 2 Cor. 9:7.

41 Matt. 6:24.

42 1 Cor. 9:13-14.

43 Gal. 6:6.

44 James 1:25-27.

45 1 Pet. 2:5, 9.

46 James 1:27.

47 1 Cor 1:18-2:16.

48 Paul J. Weber, ed., Equal Separation: Understanding the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment (New York: Greenwood Press, 1990), 2-5.

49 H. Leon McBeth, A Sourcebook for Baptist Heritage (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1990), 70-72, 83-90, 173-81; William R. Estep, An Introduction to the Historical Development of Baptist Church-State Relations, 1612-1833 (The Christian Legal Society: 1986), 17-28, 72; Lloyd R. Simmons, Southern Baptists and Federal Aid (Washington: Americans United for Separation of Church and State, 1968), 28-40.

50 William L. Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions of Faith, rev. ed. (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1969), 111-12.

51 McBeth, 15.

52 Lumpkin, 140, 169-70, 233-34, 279-80, 331-32, 348-49.

53 Article XVII. Religious Liberty.

54 Everson v. Board of Education (1947)

55 Roger Williams, The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution for Cause of Conscience Discussed; and Mr. Cotton's Letter Examined and Answered (London: 1644; reprint, Edward B. Underhill, ed. London: The Hanserd Knollys Society, 1848), 435.

56 David Barton, The Myth of Separation: What is the Correct Relationship between Church and State? (Aledo, TX: Wallbuilders Inc., n.d.), 261-261. In 268 pages, Barton cites only 27 texts; he uses only nine of these in support of civil religion, and all except one of the nine are from the Old Testament.

57 Ibid., 30.

58 Ibid., 37.

59 W.R. Estep, Religious Liberty: Heritage and Responsibility (North Newton, KS: Bethel College, 1988), 83.

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