The separation of Church and State: What the Reformers Missed.

Power in the hand of the right people can be a blessing to all. Gregory the first is a prime example of this, he was more interested in helping others than personal gratification. However, there is no power that does not corrupt. As men took over the church at Rome it slowly morphed into the Church of Rome with state and ecclesial power being united. This trend continued for about 800 years as the Papacy bullied the leaders of the world into submission with excommunication and interdiction. When the protestant movement started this was still an issue. Many of the reformers like John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli were not averse to using state powers to enforce Christian rules (Shelley, 2013, pp. 258 – 271). There are three main eras that can be highlighted when looking historically at where the church and the state play unique roles. The first is the years of opposition about 1 A.D. to 300 A.D. In this timeframe the church and the state were diametrically opposed. This is not saying there was no religion in the state but rather that Christianity and the state were not playmates. The second is the years of cooperation and integration that ran from about 300 A.D. to nearly 1300 A.D. The time was not without incident but in general, the church and the state were synonymous. Next came the enlightenment and the reformation where the idea of church and state was challenged and eventually overthrown. These three time frames give the best picture right at their inception or their dissolution. One particularly telling time was the Protestant Reformation. As Christianity transformed itself from the sole ownership of the Roman Catholic Church to the protestant masses the need for the division of church and state became clear. Nowhere did this stand out more than the Anabaptism movement and John Calvin’s Geneva. It was the protestant reformation and the persecution of the Anabaptists that really brought about clarity that church and state must be separate in order to bring about the most Christian society.

The reformation broke with a vengeance on October 31, 1517 as Martin Luther nailed 95 doctrinally charged theses to the church door in downtown Wittenberg and that momentous act started a tidal-wave whose affects are still felt today. The reformers, when they first started out, were not really interested in separating church and state. John Calvin’s Geneva is a good example of this as the city elders adopted a city constitution drafted by Calvin that outlawed things like dancing, drinking, and made it illegal to not attend church (Shelley, 2013, p. 270). The climax of this in Geneva would be the incident that ended with the burning of Michael Servetus. Something to note about this incident is that though Calvin argued for a more merciful death, Calvin certainly was not arguing that Servetus should have been set free (Shelley, 2013, p. 271). Elsewhere in the world, Zurich, Ulrich Zwingli was faced with a new Protestantism in a group called the Anabaptists.  Anabaptists had different beliefs but the one that fits this conversation is the belief that church and state should be separate (Shelley, 2013, p. 260). When the beliefs of Zwingli and the people of Zurich were challenged by the Anabaptists and the Anabaptists lost the debate they were given the ultimatum to submit or die (Shelley, 2013, p. 261). The Anabaptists fled to a community only to be followed and executed. According to Shelley there were as many as 5000 Anabaptists martyred for what they believed. (Shelley, 2013, p. 262). This persecution was not because they were typically immoral or dangerous people (Newson, 2013). It was also not isolated to one area (Geraerts, 2012). It was simply because they held a different doctrinal position than the Protestant and Catholic state.

These eras of church and state have taught that when the church has the power to use the state or is the state, the death of non-believers or anyone that is seen as a disruptor follows. This is contrary to the way the New Testament Church acted and is against the idea that salvation is a free gift of God (Ephesians 2:8, NIV). If people are not free to sin and disagree, then they can never be truly Christian. That is not to say they cannot be saved but if they are not free to choose to serve God or not then they can never truly say “your will be done” (Matthew 6:10, Luke 22:42, NIV). The Anabaptists were onto something in that the true expression of Gods church is a community of believers who cling to Christ freely and share the bond of faith without compulsion (Shelley, 2013, p. 260). History has shown that the only way to have a truly Christian society is to make separate the states power from those who would use it to try and legislate what only faith can do and that is a changed heart.





Geraerts, J. (2012). The prosecution of Anabaptists in Holland, 1530-1566. The Mennonite Quarterly Review, 86(1), 5-47.

Newson, R. A. (2013). Ethics as improvisation: Anabaptist communal discernment as method. The Mennonite Quarterly Review, 87(2), 187-205.

Shelley, B. (2013). Church history in plain language (4th ed.). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.

Posted in Blog, Church, History.