A Theological Framework
Scriptural tradition is the Christian's window
to observe the will of God in history. The teachings of Scripture make
it clear that it is God's will that all persons claim the status which
accrues to their having been created in God's own holy image.
Free will the ability to decide and choose
is a gift of God to us in creation. This provides us the opportunity
to make a meaningful choice in favor of God's Covenant. It also allows
the possibility that some will choose to remain enslaved to sin.
Liberty, in the view of Scripture, is release
from the bondage of sin, the ultimate enslavement. As Christians, therefore,
we support civil liberty as the interim means of a just society to provide
the context of freedom for individuals to serve the will of God in their
Religious Liberty is the first of several civil
liberties guaranteed to citizens of the United States by their Constitution.
It is the bedrock upon which is built all other rights which we enjoy.
The freedom to express religious conviction in worship and in outreach
ministry is a fundamental freedom which must be jealously guarded lest
freedom itself become a historical footnote.
History of Religious Intolerance and Persecution
Those who fled from England and other European
countries came to these shores to build communities in which they would
be free to exercise their religious insights. The "established church"
had become clearly oppressive. The plight of the religious faithful was
made more abject by reason of state support and endorsement of a particular
faith and denomination. Citizens were compelled, through their taxes,
to support religious views which they did not share. Those who sought
to be responsive to the action of the Holy Spirit as they perceived that
action were subject to various negative sanctions, including outright
Unfortunately, the early settlements on these
shores merely exchanged one established church for another. The same forms
of intolerance for different interpretations of the same Scripture
not to mention intolerance for different religions developed with
different victors and victims. It had become clear that religious intolerance
had the potential to become a source of destructive division for any community.
The experience in our own time in other nations demonstrates the dangers
of intolerance and oppression which arise from a marriage of Church and
In order to assure that the new Republic create
a framework in which all persons would live their freedom in civil harmony,
the Bill of Rights articulated many civil rights. The First Amendment
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment
of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the
freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably
to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
The two parts of the "religion clause"
place restrictions on the action of government: The State shall not "establish"
a state religion, nor shall the State prohibit the "free exercise"
of any religion.
Thomas Jefferson later characterized the religion
clause as having erected "a wall of separation" between Church
and State. Notwithstanding the fact and the necessity of a workable relationship
between Church and State, this unfortunate metaphor still tends to color
people's perception of the intersection of our civil and our religious
Relationship of Church to State
The role of the Church (by which term we mean
to include the manifestation of each faith group in society) is inexorably
linked to the work of God in Creation. Persons assemble themselves in
faith communities to achieve a better understanding and to manifest a
faithful expression of their profound commitment to the Divine Covenant.
The ecclesiastical expressions of these communities are to be accorded
standing in society as the legitimate expression of the concerns of the
faithful toward a just society.
The Church has the affirmative responsibility
to proclaim its Gospel with faithfulness and vigor. It has both the duty
and the right to speak out on matters of justice and righteousness which
have been addressed since the time of the Prophets. Therefore, the Church
is not constrained in the least from entering the public arena to debate
issues of public policy from the perspective of moral and ethical values.
The Church should recognize, however, that it may not be in the best interests
of a diverse society to legislate certain elements of personal morality.
Relationship of Church to Church
Churches and church members have the responsibility
to resolve internal disputes about religious and ecclesiastical matters
without involving the civil authorities if at all possible. A civil verdict
in a religious matter is inherently divisive and intrudes into the sanctity
of the Church itself and violates the right of the Church to govern itself
in accord with its own laws and polity.
Churches operating within the American framework
of liberty must also be sensitive to the civil rights of other churches,
be they old or new. If new religious movements of Christian or other origin
do not also enjoy religious freedom, we all risk the loss of that freedom.
Doctrinal or ecclesiastical disputes, therefore, should not be cause for
any Church to seek State intervention on behalf of one religious community
Relationship of State to Church
The role of the State is to provide for the general
welfare of all the people. It has a legitimate concern and an affirmative
mandate to guarantee that each person would be secure in his person and
property and to harmonize the exercise of liberty in such a way that justice
is accomplished. This is no mean task. It involves the State in regulating
the interaction of its citizens in such a way that competing claims be
resolved with equity so that all may live in peace.
The State does not have a role, under its Constitution,
to enter into any union with a particular Church by which the doctrine
or teaching of any Church may be favored by official sanction at the expense
of other religious interpretations. Neither does the State have a role
in defining or certifying a religion, as that inevitability gives rise
to a government power to exclude certain religions from the society. Indeed,
a Church could not be a credible witness to the truth of the Gospel if
it were to assume the role of apologist for the secular government.
The State is enjoined, as well, from enacting
or enforcing laws which place a burden upon any religious community unless
there is absolutely no less restrictive means of accomplishing a compelling
State purpose. To the contrary, the State ought to take every opportunity
to accommodate and permit citizens to exercise freely their religious