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Henry forum discusses church-state relations
October 13, 2003
By Jeff Robinson & David Roach

E. David Cook (left), distinguished visiting professor of Christian ethics, makes a point during the Henry forum. Photo by David Merrifield

How high a wall should separate church and state? Four panelists attempted to provide a Christian answer to this vital contemporary question in a Sept. 18 symposium at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

The panelists argued four different views ranging from a strict separation of church from the state to the govern-ment’s ack-nowledging and actively working with the church.

The symposium was co-sponsored by Boyce College and the Carl F.H. Henry Institute for Evangelical Engagement and featured seminary president R. Albert Mohler Jr., Richard Land, Hollyn Hollman, Tom Nettles and E. David Cook. Russell D. Moore, executive director of the Henry Institute, and Boyce College Dean Jerry Johnson moderated the discussion.

More than 500 students listened as the panelists interacted and debated their views. Hollman, who is general counsel for the Baptist Joint Committee on Public affairs, was impressed by the overall presentation of the symposium.

“The turnout was impressive,” she said. “... It was refreshing to participate in a forum where the time restraints were not so strict as to reduce important points to slogans.”

Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention presented the accomodationist view, arguing that Christians have a responsibility to offer a scriptural perspective in public policy debates.

Christians should not, however, advocate state-sponsored religion because state-sponsored religion inevitably com-promises the Gospel message, he said.

“We believe that as Christians that we have a worldview that is informed by Holy Scripture. We have a right to express our religious convictions in the public square, and we have a right to bring our religious convictions to bear on the public policy issues of the day. And if we can convince enough Americans that we’re right, we have the right to have that legislated,” Land said.

Representing the strict separationist position, Hollman, argued that Christians should seek to uphold both the free exercise and the anti-establishment clauses of the First Amendment.

By advocating both a free church and a state that maintains neutrality toward religion, Christians can assure maximum protection of religious liberty, she said.

“For theological reasons, we believe in a free church and a free state,” Hollman said. “Of course, this is at the core of who we are. We are created in God’s image, free and responsible to God. We believe that the freedom of the individual to exercise choice in religion is essential, and the separation of the institutions of church and state is indispensable for ensuring liberty.”

Because of the free exercise clause, it is perfectly acceptable for religion to interact with government on many occasions, she said. Examples of appropriate interaction between government and religion would include Bible clubs in public high schools and students expressing Christian viewpoints in class.

The anti-establishment clause, however, prevents the government from lending any support to religion, Hollman said.

In fact, Hollman said, state support of Christianity -- such as that advocated by Alabama Supreme Court justice, Roy Moore -- tends to undermine evangelism.

“I think we could look at the Ten Commandments debate as a prime example. ... Have you ever met anyone who came to know Christ because they saw a monument that was of the government where the government had decided what monument to promote and to put Scripture on it? Maybe you have, but I don’t think that is the way we promote evangelism and real religion.”

But Mohler said Christians must beware of any state that claims to be neutral toward religion.

“There is no such thing as religious neutrality,” Mohler said. “There never has been such a condition, there never will be such a condition. It is because the worldview is always religious or irreligious in whatever mixture of the individual conscience. There is either allegiance to or hostility to the truth claims of the various spiritual, religious, theological arguments being made at any time.”

Nettles, professor of historical theology at Southern Seminary, took the separationist position, arguing that, above all else, the church should guard the deposit of Gospel truth God has given it.

The law of God -- the 10 Commandments -- should not be used as an external symbol or historical monument in the vein of Moore’s controversial display in Alabama, because God did not give the law for that purpose, Nettles said.

Instead, the commandments should be proclaimed by the church as a standard of righteousness that reveals sin and leads sinners to see their need of a Savior. It also serves as the standard of sanctification for the believer, he said.

Cook argued for the acknowledgement view of church and state relations. According to this understanding, the church and state may work together to bring about the betterment of society. Cook is distinguished visiting professor of Christian ethics at Southern Seminary and lives in England, where the Anglican Church is the official state church.

Mohler issued a closing challenge to pastors on the issue of church-state relations. The debate is a critical one and must be handled thoughtfully and with intellectual and biblical integrity.

“[As Christians] we ought not to speak about the Constitution if we have not read it,” he said. “Christian ignorance is an abysmal sin. I hope that what has begun tonight is a conversation and a process of learning and study that will lead you to the sources, lead you to read, to investigate, to debate this. ... I hope it begins a debate in the public square of America and in our churches as well where we desperately need to have a reasonable, intelligent, illuminating conversation about these things so that we can be faithful Christian citizens.”

The entire forum can be heard at

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