Church & State through History

August 13th, 2012 1:52 pm

Dr. Peter Lodberg

The relationship between state and church can be organized in various ways determined by history, politics, and theology. State and church often include the same people, but they represent different organizational forms, with different aims and styles of work. Church and state represent neither abuse of power nor the Reign of Heaven but pragmatic ways of controlling power to the benefit of people, nation, state, and church. The degree of controlling power varies, but there are basically two ways of relation state and church: the free church, with the church financially and administratively independent of the state, and state church, with the church financed and regulated by the state. Between these two poles a number of different systems organizing the two entities have developed.

State-church relationships are regulated through systems of civil and ecclesiastical law. The diversity of these systems mirrors the diversity of national cultures and identities. In Europe, differences between these systems mirrors the diversity of historical influence: the early church, the Middle Ages, the reformation, the Wars of Religion of the 16th and 17th centuries, the 18th century, Enlightenment, and the development of liberal democratic states after World War II. States like Portugal and Spain were almost untouched by these events before 1945, while political and theological events during the Reformation resulted in dramatic developments in northern Europe, where state church systems were established.

These systems, moreover, varied in different countries. In Germany and the Netherlands, for example, the state church system allowed different denominations of approximately equal strength to coexist. In the 17th and 18th centuries, most European states were marked by some form of absolutist state control of the church. Separation of state and church became an issue in Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries as a consequence of ideologies like Marxism, socialism, secular liberalism, all under the Enlightenment.

The separation of state and church was established in France in 1905 after many years of discussion. The 1905 law is based on the religious neutrality of the state. Under the doctrine of laïcité, the state must ensure that everyone has the possibility of attending worship and of being instructed in the beliefs proper to his or her chosen religion. This equality among the different religions implies that there is no state religion; the legislation of 1905 was designed to make religion a private matter and, as such, subject only to individual control. The religious denominations in France, in principle, do not have any direct or officially approved relations with the political system, although religious representatives are regularly consulted in ethical debates of national importance.

A new dimension of the state-church relationship was added by the signing of the Treaty on European Union (EU) in February 1992. The treaty extended the scope of European unification through to social and cultural components. Its scope now extends to areas that directly concern the churches such as education, culture, labour, and tax laws. The EU respects the ways the member states have decided to organize relationships with churches and denominations, and today three basic types of relation between civil and ecclesiastical law exist within the EU. The first is characterized by the existence of a state church or predominant religion (Greece, Malta, England, and the Nordic countries). The second type is based on the idea of strict separation of church and state (France,Ireland, and theNetherlands). The third type features the basic separation of state and church while simultaneously recognizing a multitude of common tasks (Austria, the Baltic States,Belgium,Germany,Hungary,Italy,Poland,Portugal, and Spain). The tendency in most countries is towards disestablishment and the acknowledgment of the right of self-determination for religious communities.

Churches in Asia, Africa, Latin America established by Christian missions from Europe or North America in recent times are free churches. As minority churches, some of them have experienced persecution and harassment by hostile governments, especially when the churches have advocated justice, democracy, and the rule of law. In 1992, for example, theProtestantChristianBatakChurchinNorth Sumatrawas attacked by Indonesia´s internal security agency, which appointed its own choice for ephorus (archbishop). Church members were arbitrarily detained, houses were searched without warrants, and press coverage was banned. The incident illustrates the ongoing tension that exists in the relationship between state and church in many parts of the world.

Suggested Readings

Cunningham, ed., The  Early Church and the State (Philadelphia, 1982).

E. Dussel, ed., The Church in Latin America: 1492-1992 (London, 1992).

P. Hamburger, Separation of Church and State (Cambridge,Mass., 2002).

J.N.K. Mugambi, ed., Democracy and Development in Africa: The Role of the Churches. (Nairobi, 1997).

B. Ryman, ed., Nordic Folk Churches: A Contemporary Church History (Grand Rapids, 2005)

J. Witte, Law and Protestantism: The Legal Teachings of the Lutheran Reformation (Cambridge, 2002).

Dr. Peter Lodberg is professor in Ecumenical Studies and Theology of Religion, in the Theological Faculty at Aarhus University, Denmark. He currently serves as Dean of Studies and Head of Department of Systematic Theology. Dr. Lodberg was a speaker at WSCF-E’s theology conference this past spring where he lectured on the relationship between the Church and State in Europe as well as the political action taken by the World Council of Churches and the ecumenical movement throughout history.

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