Lesson 2: The History of Church and State

church and stateIf the Bible can pretty much be read as God’s Word speaking truth to human political power, Church history is more diverse. It offers a variety of relationships in different periods. Before  we examine what is going on in the present, it would be helpful to trace very quickly what went on in the past.  Keep in mind, this brief overview just scratches the surface.

For the first three centuries, the church operated as a  rival to the state religion. You get an idea how deliberate this was when the formulas “Jesus is Lord” and ”Christ is Lord” appear in the New Testament. This was a direct challenge to the Roman creed “Caesar is Lord.” The Empire quite naturally regarded the church as subversive and at times persecuted her. However, Christians were pacifists who never responded with violence. A number of churches in Rome are  named for solders who became martyrs when they refused to fight after becoming Christians.

During this period church, doctrine and practice varied in different geographic regions. There was not even complete agreement on the biblical canon. However, following  Jesus meant participating in a community that rejected many values of  the Empire.

After Constantine legitimized the church in the 4th century, she eventually  became the state religion. This role demanded institutionalization as the emperors desired uniformity. Church  hierarchy came to reflect imperial hierarchy. As authorized creeds, canons, and practices were enforced, the orthodox church persecuted those who did not conform.

Another division occurred when some felt the church compromised Jesus’ teachings when she accommodated the Empire. Monks withdrew and eventually formed large communities to more faithfully follow Christ’s teachings. They did not so much speak truth to the power of the political regime as they simply separated themselves.

In the Middle Ages, the orthodox church was aligned so much with the state that Europe became a Christian culture. Some of this was facilitated when the emperor moved to the East and the church hierarchy dealt with the invading northern peoples. This Holy Roman Empire engaged in military crusades that were waged supposedly to Christianize the world. The huge monastic orders maintained the education, arts, and science of the culture.

The Reformation was a political revolt as much as religious reform. The religious wars had as much to do with nationalism as church. As nations sought some form of independence from Roman control, they developed their own state churches. These related church and state in a variety of ways usually chosen by the monarchy. Some thought they based their politics on biblical principles and others felt the church and state provided different functions operating with different values.  For instance, Lutherans claimed the government used power to provide order and defense while the church practiced love as she proclaimed Christ’s message.

The division continued as more pious church groups broke from the state churches. Some of these were separatists much like the monks as they sought purity by forming  their own communities.

The Enlightenment brought a new relationship as the emerging secular society promoted separation of church and state. This made sense with the extreme pluralism that confronted most nations, especially the United States which became home to all the  European state churches and their break-offs. Perhaps the best resolution is the First Amendment to the US Constitution that prohibits  establishing of any state religion while guaranteeing  the right to practice all of them.

This relationship of church and state is currently being challenged by various forms of Christian nationalism. I’ll examine these in the coming weeks, asking what role religion plays in a democratic society.

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1 Enlightened Reply

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  1. Will Lane says:

    Fritz, a wonderfully succinct survey! Very helpful! Well done!


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