Church, State, and the Idea of a “Christian Nation”

What is a "Christian nation?" I'm increasingly confused on this point. I do think believers should be deeply involved in the political process. As a matter of fact, I'm sick of hearing about "separation of church and state," and I'd love to see America become more thoroughly "Christian" in every way. At the same time, I'm not exactly sure what that means. A non-Christian friend challenged me on this point. "Do you really want to make the Old Testament legal code part of our national law?" he said. "Should we institute the death penalty for homosexuality, adultery, or unbelief?" I honestly didn't know how to answer. Can you help

This is a delicate subject. We have to choose our words carefully if we’re to avoid being misunderstood. We also have to take special pains to ensure that our thoughts are in line with the teaching of Scripture. And the very first thing that needs to be said is that, biblically speaking, there is not and cannot be any such thing as a “Christian nation.”

Why do we say this? Because as disciples of Jesus, we are subjects of a kingdom that knows no national boundaries. It cannot be defined in earthly terms. This kingdom is a timeless, transcendent reality. It’s a place where “there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female” and where “all are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

That’s not to say, of course, that earthly nations can’t incorporate biblical principles and Christian ideals into their foundational documents, governmental policies, and cultural values. In a sense, this is exactly what America’s Founding Fathers were trying to do when they wrote the Declaration of Independence and framed the Constitution of the United States. Not all of them were dedicated Christians, of course. But they did partake of the atmosphere of what the late Dr. Francis Schaeffer called a “Christian consensus.” That “consensus,” or body of shared assumptions, was an essential part of 18
th century western European civilization. Because of this, Christian principles had a profound influence on the development of our country’s most basic institutions during its most formative years. As we see it, the thoughtful, responsible, and loving maintenance of that influence remains the number one goal of Christian involvement in public life.

Meanwhile, it’s crucial to understand that the scenario your friend has envisioned cannot be one of our aims as concerned and active Christian citizens. Our goal is not to set up the Old Testament Levitical Code as the law of the land. There are sound theological reasons for this. Unlike ancient Israel, the United States of America is not a theocracy. Our country is not God’s kingdom on earth, and its government has not been charged with the responsibility of taking vengeance on sinners in the name of the Lord.

Even more importantly, the church as we know it today is neither a political entity nor a temporal state. It has not been entrusted with the authority to punish evildoers by use of force. As Jesus put it, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). This statement is basic to a genuinely biblical understanding of the church’s role in secular society.

By way of example, consider your friend’s question: should we re-establish the death sentence for “homosexuality, adultery, and unbelief” (see Leviticus 20:10, 13). To grasp fully the inappropriateness of this suggestion you have to remember that there was no distinction between “civil” and “ecclesiastical” law in Old Testament Israel.

Punishments of all kinds, including capital punishment, were aimed at something more than the mere execution of justice. They were also intended to preserve the moral and spiritual purity of God’s chosen people: “So you shall put away the evil from among you ‚Ķ” (Deuteronomy 21:21). By way of contrast, the Church today preserves its purity by spiritual rather than physical means. We see this shift in the life of Jesus Himself: when challenged by the Pharisees, He refused to follow the old law by condoning the execution of the woman caught in the act of adultery (John 8:1-11).

The bottom line is this: as Christians we are not authorized to use force or exercise worldly authority in the battle against sin and evil. The weapons of our warfare are spiritual, not carnal (II Corinthians 10:4). Meanwhile, the state has been granted the power to wield the sword (Romans 13:4). But the state is a purely secular institution and as such it has no business meddling in the affairs of the kingdom. It is authorized to use force only to maintain order, procure the public safety, and preserve justice. It should never tell people what to believe or how to live out the implications of their faith.

If you’d like to discuss this subject at greater length with a member of our team, Focus on the Family has a staff of pastoral counselors who would love to speak with you over the phone. They are available at this number.

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