(from In Christ–the Church at Ephesus, forthcoming.)
Christianity has not followed Paul’s leadership and instructions to not “walk as the Gentiles do” (Ephesians 4: 17) as well as it should have. Many Greek, Gentile and worldly ideas and practices have been adopted by various versions of Christianity over the eons. Nor did the Reformation completely cleanse Protestantism from the acculturation of worldliness. This is not a perfect world, which means that we always live in the midst of compromise and confusion. The Reformation made many improvements in its recovery of biblical Christianity, but has also fallen right back into the many of the same difficulties that it first corrected.1
Many Protestants hoped that they could found a new beginning for Christianity in America and immigrated in order to do just that. The Mayflower Compact,2 the first governing document of Plymouth Colony, was written in 1620 by the Separatists who became Congregationalists.
New England was originally planted as colonies of churches. So, the oldest settlements were churches. Of course, not everyone in New England lived in a church colony, but those with power and authority did. “The state was constituted practically, by a union of churches.”3 So, originally, there was no separation of church and state. The church dominated the state because only church members could vote, and the governing meetings were church meetings. Thus, Christians dominated civil government concerns.
Over time, secularism (the rejection of religion and religious considerations) grew and Christian dominance was increasingly questioned. Congregational churches were widely established in the Plymouth Colony, the Massachusetts Bay Colony and New England. The model of Congregational churches was carried by migrating settlers from New England into New York State and then into the North-West Territory, which became the states of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin and a small portion of Minnesota. With their insistence on independent local bodies, Congregationalism became important in many social reform movements.
During this process non-Christians (non-church members) were given the vote. At the time, that vote pertained to both church and civil concerns. In other words, non-Christians were then allowed to vote, not only in civil matters, but in church related matters. And this created more discontent and division that is rooted in the differences between believers and nonbelievers.
To solve this problem religious societies were formed and given control over the churches. Religious society membership was not identical with church membership. Some Halfway Covenant Christians found that religious society membership could satisfy their desire for religious association without the demands of religious commitment involved in church membership. Over time, the churches grew used to being taken care of by the religious societies, which usually called and funded ministerial salaries and church expenses. The development of religious societies, then, constituted the first expression of the separation of church and state.
Religious societies understood themselves not to be churches, and often governed themselves by secular means, means not determined by Scripture. Thus, secular governance practices crept into church governance; “…it has come to pass that the churches themselves are in many things managed after secular methods and by secular men.”4 And worldliness increasingly crept into the churches, no doubt in the form of financial interests.
The solution to this problem was for churches to incorporate so that church members would have complete control of their churches, to stop non-Christians from running things; “…existing churches are rapidly becoming incorporated.”5 Thus, incorporation became the means for Christians to gain control of their churches. However, incorporation always means that the corporation is a “creature of the state.” So, in order for Christians to gain control of their own churches, they made them creatures of the state.
This brief history shows the enduring problems and the struggles related to Paul’s admonition to “no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds” (Ephesians 4: 17) that have endured into contemporary culture. Paul’s admonition is as meaningful and important as it has ever been. The church has never mastered this concern.