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When authorities conflict: The separation of church and state

October 2020 | by Rod Badams

The author, who is here responding to recent articles by Paul Yeulett and Mark Richards, wishes to emphasise he is writing in a personal capacity.

The 2020 Covid-19 crisis has been a tragedy for human society. National economies have been shattered; the familiar pattern of everyday life of only a few months ago is changed beyond recognition. Face coverings, social distancing, and restrictions dominate the new normal. Most grievous of all, by the time of writing, the virus has cost 41,000 lives in the UK and 730,000 worldwide.

In the UK, one of the consequences of the pandemic has been an intense debate over a perceived conflict between the authority of the State and the rights of the Church. Did the State exceed its powers when it imposed lockdown on churches for 15 weeks? Are not Church and State separate jurisdictions, each ruling in its own sphere?

This is an important debate, as the separation of Church and State has long been a neglected issue. So far, there have been excellent contributions on all sides. One missing element, however, has been any adequate recognition of the possibility of an overlap between the biblical authority of Church and State. Separation has tended to be regarded as an ‘all or nothing’ authority split. This brief article attempts to address that omission.

In August’s ET, Paul Yeulett’s article sets out the entirely separatist viewpoint: ‘…secular powers have no jurisdiction over matters that pertain to the church, as the church. They have no authority to determine where or when the church gathers, who is admitted to membership or appointed to office, what is preached, how the sacraments are administered, or how discipline is exercised.’

Terms such as ‘no jurisdiction’ and ‘no authority’ decisively rule out the exercise of any authority by the State in the church setting, however relevant to the State’s equally God-given and equally biblical responsibilities. The fact that the matters Pastor Yeulett lists pertain to the church is sufficient to leave the State out of the reckoning.

Of the six areas of church life quoted by Pastor Yeulett, he is right about the last five. Government certainly has no authority over ‘who is admitted to membership or appointed to office, what is preached, how the sacraments are administered, or how discipline is exercised.’ However, this is not an issue, since apart from giving advice on serving the sacraments safely, the government has not sought to intervene in these areas.

In stark contrast, however, ‘authority to determine where or when the church gathers’ is fundamental to the government’s duty care for the safety of all its citizens, along with, one might add, ‘the circumstances in which the church gathers’. The State has as much of a responsibility for people in churches as it does people in pubs and restaurants, buses and trains, schools and workplaces, sports and leisure centres.

While exercising its own authority, the Church must also acknowledge and support the government in its non-negotiable duty, given it by God, to protect the health and safety of the nation. If in fulfilment of the State’s duty, measures are required which restrict the ways in which the Church fulfils its own responsibilities to God and man, then the Church must consider whether the circumstances require it to be ‘subject to the governing authorities’ (Romans 13:1).

Common sense tells us why this subjection is likely to be the right course. Although governments and their officers and advisers can get things wrong, the Church does not have the level of medical and scientific expertise which is available to the government to make sufficiently informed decisions about what is safe.

Does the Church have the right to undermine the government’s God-given responsibilities by pursuing its own strategy of possibly less safe activity?

As Mark Richards indicates in the September issue of ET, regular worshippers may be willing to accept slight extra risks, in view of the benefits gained, but that does not entitle them to put the wider community at greater risk, as those regular worshippers go about their everyday lives.

The separation debate has raised several other genuine concerns for churches. What about the exhortation in Hebrews 10:25 not to neglect meeting together? My own church resumed corporate worship on 5 July with much gladness (Psalm 122:1), but not for a moment did we feel that we had offended against Hebrews 10:25, either in spirit or letter, during the lockdown. God always sees the big picture, and is glorified by the faithfulness of his Church, sharing worship and fellowship in other formats, adjusting its programme, and making the hard and unanticipated decisions required in these extraordinary times.

Another much-discussed issue has been the role, if any, of civil disobedience, with frequent reference to Acts 5:29: ‘We must obey God rather than men.’ We need to recognise that the context of that statement by Peter is not a parallel with the present authority issue. The instruction ‘not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus’ (Acts 4:18) was not being given to Peter and John by a legitimate secular authority, but by the leaders of the Jewish religion in Jerusalem, who had no civic jurisdiction entitling them to make any such demand.

Moreover, the ban they were seeking would have also been outside the power of the secular rulers lawfully to impose. In contrast, as we have seen, the British government does have a legitimate God-given role in the present crisis, and civil disobedience would be an act of rebellion against this, with no biblical support. There are circumstances in which the Church must disobey the State, but this is not one of them.

Finally, there has rightly been considerable concern about the government’s decision to ban marriage ceremonies in England for 103 days between 23 March and 3 July. Marriage is a creation ordinance fundamental to God’s pattern for human society. In England and Wales there has been a co-ordinated system of civil registration since 1837, which has given the institution recognition and status. Banning it suddenly demeaned and weakened the institution, and was bound to be an encouragement to cohabitation.

Physical services of worship involve a greater range of possible health risks than apply to marriage ceremonies, which require only five or six people present to ensure a valid marriage. It is hard to believe that such ceremonies could not have been arranged safely. In retrospect, it is clear the voice of the Church calling for their immediate restoration could and should have been heard more insistently from the moment they were suddenly banned.

Rod Badams, member of Pollard Evangelical Church, Kettering, and a Trustee of The Christian Institute.