It’s a conversation stopper. It’s a trump card in any debate that supposedly any foe of Christians can use to silence others. I am referring to the phrase, “separation of church and state.”

Regardless if you are talking about Christians becoming civically involved or simply contending for our beliefs, Christians can be marginalized quickly with a misunderstanding of this concept of “separation of church and state.”

The very idea, once viewed as protecting the Church from the grip of the state, has been turned on its head. Today, many view the government as a victim needing to be protected from the clutches of religion. Therefore, a discussion of what “separation of church and state” is and how it applies is overdue.

/// What is ‘separation of
church and state’?

The actual phrase “wall of separation between church and state” was penned by Thomas Jefferson in 1802. The phrase speaks to an individual’s religious liberty.

He said, “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.”

Jefferson is clearly bent toward protecting people of faith from the government, and not the other way around, and he codifies a concept that pre-dates the founding of America.

Martin Luther recognized a “two-Kingdoms theory” that forever changed the intellectual landscape and the history of this idea. There is the sphere of the earthly, which is governmental, and the heavenly sphere, the church. The two are distinct, but God is the ruler of both.

The Magna Carta of 1215 contains this principle, declaring the Church in England is free from interference from the King. Jesus Himself said, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s,” (Mark 12:17), implying there are distinctions.

/// What is it not?

Misunderstandings abound today about how to apply separation of church and state. The phrase, which does not appear in the U.S. Constitution, most commonly is confused with the First Amendment, which states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, nor prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”

The First Amendment does not in any way prevent Christians from speaking out on social issues, voting or otherwise taking part in the democratic process. In fact, it recognizes and guarantees our right to do so. It also does not prevent a Christian from seeking public office.

The First Amendment simply prevents the U.S. from establishing an official religion, and we Southern Baptists wouldn’t have it any other way.

/// How does it apply?

In America, people of faith have great latitude in contending for our faith. While other nations throughout history have greatly restricted efforts to persuade and evangelize non-believers, we are afforded excellent opportunities today to do so.

The price of liberty is eternal vigilance, and through groups like the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, our leaders are working to ensure these hallmark rights go unchallenged and unhindered, here and abroad.

Recent challenges on this (think of the Hobby Lobby case) have Christians on edge as to where the future of religious liberty lies. As with many issues, the way forward is by looking back. We must stand fast on the principles of Scriptures and the legacy of liberty we have inherited.  We must be wise stewards of our rights, which not only means protecting them, but also exercising them.

So the next time someone tries to silence you with the “separation of church and state” statement, be equipped and confident in your understanding. But understand that actions speak louder than words; that no one will be argued into Heaven. And rest assured, knowing that regardless of how many governments come and go, God will forever protect His Church.