Many have had the “great” experience of driving in your car when, suddenly, behind you blue and red light flash, and then the sound of a siren fills your ears.
You pull over, an officer approaches and, after a few minutes, you are the proud owner of a ticket for a traffic violation, which, of course, you have to pay or else face even worse consequences.
Now, what does this have to do with why Seventh-day Adventists have been strong promoters of religious freedom and the separation of church and state?
The answer stems from a fundamental difference between how church and state work.
The state—symbolized here by the officer giving you a ticket—works with, well, to put it bluntly, force. Yes, force, as in the power to fine you, or the power to put you in jail. It’s the nature of a state, any state, to employ force in order to keep the peace, safety and stability of a nation. In most places, people obey the laws of the land because the state has the power to punish them if they don’t.
Contrast that principle with faith, biblical faith. Jesus said that the first and most important commandment was to love “God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37). Yes, the essence of true biblical faith stems from love, not force—and love, to be love, has to be freely given or else it’s not really love.
Thus, a radical difference exists between church and state. Most people don’t obey traffic laws or tax laws or other laws of the land out of love, do they? No, they obey it because the government uses power to compel that obedience. In contrast, God doesn’t force us to obey Him. No, instead He wants us to follow Him and obey Him freely, out of a heart of love. As the Bible says, “This is the love of God, that we keep His commandments” (1 John 5:3).
Here, then, is the bottom-line difference: government uses force, but God uses love. The principle behind religious freedom, or separation of church and state, is to try, as much as possible, to keep these two realms separate, or else you wind up with the government using force to compel things that should be done only out of love.
There are, as we all know, terrible stories of what has happened when a state compels religious observance. Those who practices differed from what the state wanted to enforce would often face terrible persecution simply because they wanted to be faithful to their understanding of what God asked them to do.
This is something that Seventh-day Adventists are sensitive to, because our practice of keeping the seventh-day Sabbath (Saturday), as opposed to the more commonly kept first day of the week (Sunday), has at times put us in conflict with governments that enforce Sunday closing laws. Thus, from the earliest times of our existence, we have placed a great emphasis on religious freedom, not just for ourselves, but also for everyone. After all, if God doesn’t force us to obey Him, what makes the state think it should?
Jesus said: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s,” (Matthew 22:21). Sure, Caesar had the right to issue tickets for traffic violations. That’s his job. But when it comes to matters of faith, how you worship, what day you worship on, how you pray, and many other things that involve religious belief and practice, the safest course is for the government to stay as far away as possible.
Some things belong to force, some only to love, and we need the wisdom to know the difference between the two.