Church and State in Israel and America

PMT 2013-032b by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., Th.D.

Common misperceptions hold that the application of God’s Law in modern society would entail some sort of union of church and state. After all, it is believed, the Law of God effected a church-state in Israel of old. What is worse, many think the Mosaic Law commanded the execution of non-believers. These views are quite mistaken.

If Christians are intelligently to promote the whole Bible over all of life, we must be able to respond to our critics who fear a Taliban-like church-state militantly crushing our civil liberties. We must “sanctify Christ as Lord in our hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks us to give an account for the hope that is in us, yet with gentleness and reverence” (1 Peter 3:15). Consequently, we must understand the teachings of God’s Law.

Simply put: God’s Law does not effect a union of church and state, not does it criminally punish unbelief or heresy — not even in Israel of old. We must disabuse ourselves and our critics of these false notions if we are to successfully engage the political debate today.

Church and State in Israel

When we read God’s Law in the Old Testament, we find that her civil head and the ecclesiastical head were separate and distinct offices. Moses was the civil head of Israel upon forming the people as a nation (Exo. 18:13); Aaron was the head of the church. Aaron, not Moses, was the one who was “to minister as a priest to Me,” says the Lord (Exo. 18:1; 19:7-8); Aaron was the “anointed priest” (Lev. 4:3). In fact, the ancient priesthood became known as “the sons of Aaron” (Lev. 1:7; 3:13; Num. 3:2; Josh. 21:4; etc.), not “the sons of Moses.”

In the appointment of Moses and Aaron to their respective callings we must note a distinction between the civil leader and the ecclesiastical leader. Though Melchizedek embodied both offices (Gen. 14:18), he lived before Israel was formed as a nation and did not serve as a model for national leadership in that regard.

We also discover that the line of the kings of Israel sprang for a different source than that of the priests. Judah was promised the line of kingship in Genesis 49:10. From his loins sprang both David and David’s greater son, Christ (Matt. 1:1-2, 6; Rev. 5:5). As the writers of Hebrews puts it: “For it is evident that our Lord was descended from Judah, a tribe with reference to which Moses spoke nothing concerning priests” (Heb. 7:14).

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In keeping with this distinction between the officers of church and state, we discover that Israel kept the king’s palace distinct from the priest’s temple: “Now Solomon decided to build a house for the name of the Lord, and a royal palace for himself” (2 Chron. 2:1; cp. 7:11; 9:11; 28:21).

The civil and ecclesiastical functions were distinguished: “Amariah the chief priest will be over you in all that pertains to the Lord; and Zebadiah the son of Ishmael, the ruler of the house of Judah, in all that pertains to the king” (2 Chron. 19:11a).

Despite the authority of the king in Israel, not even he was allowed to enter the holy of holies. “Into the second only the high priest enters, once a year, not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the sins of the people committed in ignorance” (Heb. 9:7; cf. Lev. 16).

Indeed, kings were strictly forbidden taking up priestly functions. Samuel scathingly rebuked Saul for offering a burnt-offering (1 Sam. 13:11). Uzziah was denounced by Azariah the priest and turned leprous for his presumption in this regard (2 Chron. 26:16-19). Thus, though church and state closely cooperated, they were not united in God’s Law.

Unbelief and Punishment in Israel

Oftentimes the savvy secularist points to (supposedly) embarrassing texts in the Bible as “obviously” dangerous. One text frequently cited is Deuteronomy 13 which is (wrongly) thought to condemn unbelief and heresy, bringing those errors under criminal sanctions. Again: we must properly understand this Scripture if we are to respond to our secular critics.

First, it should be noted at the outset that the framing of the law in Deuteronomy 13 has in view solicitation and seduction to idolatry (Deut. 13:2, 6, 13). It does not have in mind personal unbelief or even personal rejection of faith in Jehovah God. Unbelief in Israel was not punishable by death. For one to refuse to be circumcised (an expression of unbelief, cf. Lev. 26:41; Deut. 30:6; Jer. 9:25-26; Eze. 44:7) meant that he was “cut off” from the religious community (Gen. 17:14). He was excluded from worship in Israel (Exo. 12:48; Eze. 44:7, 9); he was not capitally punished.

Second, in Deuteronomy 13, we essentially have a law against treason. This is evident in that:

(1) By the very nature of the case, the god of a society is that society’s source of law.

It has been thus in the fallen world since Satan tempted Eve to be as “God” by “knowing” (determining, legislating) good and evil (Gen. 3:5). Hence, the pagan tendency to deify political rulers, as illustrated in the Babylonian king (Isa. 14:4, 13-14) and the Roman emperor (Matt. 22:15-22; 2 Thess. 2:4; Rev. 13:4ff). Hegel clothed this pagan conception in modern dress: “The State is the Divine Idea as it exists on Earth.” To seek another god, therefore, is to turn from the Law of the present God, Jehovah, which Law was the constitutional basis of the nation of Israel.

(2) The Deuteronomy 13 legislation is developed in such a way as to indicate the ultimate outcome of such apostasy. It is wholesale, treasonous rebellion against the lawful authority and integrity of the nation: “If you hear someone in one of your cities, which the LORD your God gives you to dwell in, saying, ‘Certain corrupt men have gone out from among you and enticed the inhabitants of their city, saying, “Let us go and serve other gods,” gods whom you have not known’” (Deut. 13:12-13). As Craigie puts it: “In its implications, the crime would be equivalent to treason or espionage in time of war.”

2 Thus, in a certain respect such a law was a right to “self-defense” for the nation, as was the right to wage defensive warfare.

Third, any perception of idolatry as a quietistic unbelief is wholly mistaken. The very nature of idolatry involved the ancient worshiper in a number of capital crimes. Thus, the punishment for idolatry is a punishment for those particular crimes.

Deuteronomy 12:29-32 is the general introduction to chapter 13. This general introduction clearly speaks of certain “abominable acts” of idol worshipers:

“When the LORD your God cuts off from before you the nations which you go to dispossess, and you displace them and dwell in their land, take heed to yourself that you are not ensnared to follow them, after they are destroyed from before you, and that you do not inquire after their gods, saying, ‘How did these nations serve their gods? I also will do likewise.’ You shall not worship the LORD your God in that way; for every abomination to the LORD which He hates they have done to their gods; for they burn even their sons and daughters in the fire to their gods.” (Deut. 12:30-31)

Idolatry involved wide-scale criminal conduct and was a dangerous social cancer (Lev. 18:21-30; Rom. 1:21-32). The Canaanites were not thrust out of the land for unbelief, but for wholesale moral and criminal perversion (Lev. 18:3, 24ff; 20:23; Deut. 9:5; 18:9-12). Idolatry was a real danger, as is evident in the days of Israel’s apostasy when abominable acts were committed (2 Kgs. 16:3; 21:6; 23:10). All nations served idols in those days (2 Kgs. 17:29). Israel fell right in with them and with their grossly immoral crimes (2 Kgs. 17:7ff, 17-19), thus corrupting and subverting the moral fiber of their culture by legalizing child sacrifice, bestiality, homosexual prostitution, and the like.

Thus, as we have seen, the apostasy legislation in God’s Law was not against mere unbelief or against misguided worship. Those laws were designed to protect the legal integrity of the nation (criminalizing such actions as treason, conspiracy, seditious revolt, and espionage) and to bring judgment against wicked forms of idolatry (criminalizing such actions as cultural subversion and public mayhem).


As Christians we must not be ashamed of the Bible and our core convictions when we challenge the secularists. The Bible, properly understood, is the glorious revelation of the God of truth and righteousness. We must “give an answer” to those who challenge our authority, the Bible. They simply have not understood it. We must “put on the whole armor of God,” which includes “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Eph. 6:11, 17). Indeed, the secularists are “suppressing the truth in unrighteousness” (Rom. 1:18b).

The most serious failure I have seen among modern Christians is a lack of understanding the Scriptures themselves. As William Ward Ayer wrote: “The reason people are down on the Bible is that they are not up on the Bible.” We must renew our commitment to God’s holy Word, by renewing our commitment to its study. After all, God says: “‘For My hand made all these things, thus all these things came into being,’ declares the Lord. ‘But to this one I will look, to him who is humble and contrite of spirit, and who trembles at My word’” (Isa. 66:2).

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