During the time of a unified Catholic church before the Reformation, there was a controversy that still holds some weight today. A controversy dealing with the scriptural understanding of who actually holds supreme authority on earth - church or state.
With such decisions coming from the government on freedom of religion, the question must again be asked - who has that control? Since the question is not new, let's spend some time examining the history of the viewpoints.
The argument between church and state authority stemmed first of all from an understanding that both the church and the state did have legitimate authority. To prove this, the two camps misused Luke 22:38, where Jesus proclaims that two swords is “enough.”
However, this misinterpretation does not answer the question of which “sword” had the higher authority. Of course, both the church and the state wanted to exert that influence themselves and thus had “biblical support” for the supremacy of their authority.
The legal rulers used Romans 13 to illustrate that the members of the church were to be “subject” unto the authority of the government. Furthermore, Romans 13 clearly states that to resist this authority is to resist God Himself. Taken with Romans 13's labeling of government officials as "ministers of God…for good,” this passage, according to the rulers, provided ample support that the government was a high authority on earth, and indeed higher even than the church.
On the other hand, the church used support from the book of Matthew. In chapter 16, Jesus tells Peter that He will build his church “upon this rock.” This the church uses to indicate that Peter is a representative of the church itself. Thus, when within the same verse, Jesus promises to give Peter the “keys of the kingdom of heaven,” the church finds this to mean that the church has immense authority upon earth. Further support can be garnered for this from the fact that Jesus goes on to explain, that whatever Peter shall “bind on earth shall be bound in heaven,” and the same for that which he shall loose on earth – a sentiment that is repeated later on in Matthew 18. This according to the church, means that everyone (even government) is bound to follow the edicts of the church.
As we examine these arguments as we approach today's questions, I think we should clearly see the varying difficulties that both of these positions dictate. If we are honest in our interpretative framework, at best what both of these positions are able to prove is simply that both the church and the state should have legitimate authority.
Romans 13, as stellar as it is to show Christian's obligations to government, does not give the government control over spiritual concerns. It doesn't give the government control over the church itself, only over the members of the church in the sphere of politics.
The verses in Matthew honestly don't mention government subservience to church either, or any reason why governmental affairs should be handled by the church. At best, the church could only use this to claim authority over the life of the Christian. Even that interpretation takes a few giant logical leaps away from the text itself.
Thus, it is my contention that both the church and the state are wrong in this viewpoint. Ultimately, the church should have its authority over its own members and spiritual concerns, but the state should have its own authority over political and legal issues. An argument can be made that both should be concerned with moral concerns (but then the question becomes, how much authority over morality do you give to the slimy government?).
Of course, keeping the divide between the two authorities is much easier said than actually done. The fact is, that each of the two authorities have a desire to control the other from time to time, such as demonstrated by this very argument.
In actually solving this conflict then, it becomes necessary to write (and have an enforcement mechanism for) a separation between church and state. Ultimately, there is no perfect solution, but I believe that the United States system is probably a fair model to emulate in creating a new one.
In it, both the church and the state are ultimately protected from each other. In the “free exercise” clause, each individual is given the opportunity to choose for themselves which religion they want to enter or even to not be religious at all, whereas the “establishment” clause gives a practical application to the free exercise clause broadly speaking.
These work to protect the church from the state, as well as the harmful effects of the church controlling the state in that there is no way to use the coercive power of the government to violate the freedom of conscience. It's a win-win for all.
Oh, and since you're probably wondering why the church needs protected from the state, and the state needs protected from the church, let's just say, there's another politics post in two weeks, and it might just be related to this one...