Separation of church and state in the theocratic government of the Jewish nation
The Bible describes a “decentralized governmental system” and a jurisdictional separation between Church and State. Jews had their own “supreme court council,” the Sanhedrin (Rabbis), that governed the people with justice (Deuteronomy 16:18). Still, the Jewish nation was under the authority of the Roman Empire.
Religious government under Roman civil authority
The religious theocratic government of the Jews was ruled by a Roman procurator who managed its political, military, and fiscal affairs. The distinction between church and state was evident in the New Testament.
The separation of church and state is evident in Biblical times.
Examples of “Biblical Jurisdictional Separation” in the Old Testament
- King Saul served as a civil official while Ahimelech ministered as the chief ecclesiastical leader in the nation (1 Sam. 10 and 21).
- David was king, while Abiathar carried out the duties of a priest (1 Chron. 15:11).
- David’s son Solomon ruled as a civil officer while Zadok pursued ecclesiastical obligations (1 Kings 1:45).
- King Joash and Jehoiada, the priest (2 Kings 11), King Josiah, and the priest Hilkiah (2 Kings 22:4) maintained jurisdictional separation.
- Church and State as parallel institutions operated with Governor Nehemiah (Neh. 7) and Priest Ezra (Neh. 8). Nehemiah led the “great protest” of the Bible against religious leaders, not King Artaxerxes.
System of Jewish government from the Biblical model to the modern period
1. Biblical Model (Three separate powers)
- Royal throne
2. Roman Judea (The Sanhedrin and the Imperial Roman government)
- Jews were governed by the Sanhedrin, divided into ‘Lesser Sanhedrin’ with 23 judges and ‘Greater Greater’ with 71 judges, who had the highest authority.
- The Sanhedrin was the emissaries to the Roman imperial authority (Emperor). They did oversee religious practices and collected taxes on behalf of the government.
- The Sanhedrin was the highest Jewish governing body of the Second Temple period.
3. Medieval (European Period)
- Medieval period – Jewish council of mostly Rabbis
- Some Ashkenazi Jews (Semitic tribes after the diaspora) were governed by Qahal in a particular region. [Timeline of Israel]
- Towards the 20th century, as scattered people of Israel, there were several movements and organizations that espoused political principles.
- Despite the absence of an absolute ruler, they were united by religion, tradition, and the hope of returning to the promised land.
4. The State of Israel (Parliamentary Government)
Israel has a President and a supreme body, the Knesset (the unicameral legislature of Israel). They have complete government control, with checks and balances from the courts and local governments. The State of Israel do not have a written constitution nor a clear distinction between the church and state.
- President and his cabinet
- Knesset (unicameral legislature)
- State Comptroller
The apostles on the separation of church and State
The apostles urged believers to refrain and live a peaceable life, not maligning their leaders, and be submissive to ALL authorities—even if they were unreasonable. They avoided meddling in politics.
They preached extensively on submission. (Hebrews 13:17; Romans 13:1-14; Romans 13:1; 1 Peter 2:13-14; John 19:11; Titus 3:1; Romans 13:2; Matthew 22:21) [Examples of submission to authority]
1 Peter 2:13-14
Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme or to governors sent by him to punish those who do evil and praise those who do good.
Confusing the theocratic government of Israel and the gentile nations
God’s “chosen people” had a high priest and judges who governed in God’s name. They also had prophets for God to communicate with His “chosen people.”
Today, instead of the Sanhedrin, Israel has a unicameral legislative body and no written constitution. On the other hand, the gentile nations usually have three equal branches of government, guided by a constitution.
The nation of Israel remains to be a theocratic government. The rest may have different forms of government, but God institutes all human authority. (Romans 13)