Why the Bible should be taught in School

March 21, 2013

by Dr. Benjamin Wiker

In their "Why Public Schools Should Teach the Bible," Roma Downey and Mark Burnett argue that "It's time to encourage, perhaps even mandate, the teaching of the Bible in public schools as a primary document of Western civilization."

Unfortunately, they then sell the Bible short, and concentrate only on its "literary" value. They should be—all Christians should be—much bolder.

In my Worshipping the State, I offer a much better reason, one that strikes right at the heart of the argument made by secularists that teaching the Bible violates the separation of church and state.

The separation of church and state has its historic roots in the Bible. Without the Bible there would be no separation of church and state.

Historically, the distinction between church and state, between religious and political power, didn't arise among the pagan Greeks or Romans, in Islam, in China or India with Taoism, Confucianism, Hinduism or Buddhism, in regard to Japanese Shintoism, or even among pagan Norsemen.

The reason is simple: the usual arrangement of things in the world is the fusion of sacred and political power. In Egypt, Pharaoh was simultaneously king and god. In Rome, Caesar was a divine emperor. Or today, look at North Korea.

Christianity changed all that. Like so many other things—the invention of the university, the rise of science, the ultimate rejection of slavery, the institution of monogamous and exclusive heterosexual marriage, opposition to abortion, infanticide, and suicide—the distinction of church and state is Christian in origin. It was invented by the church in the early Middle Ages, but it was based on the authority of the Bible. The Bible broke apart the ancient pagan fusion of religious and political power.

Right from the beginning the Bible strikes at the accepted notion that, like Pharaoh, earthly kings are gods. Moses himself is all too human, and the Law he hands on to the Israelites begins with the great commandment, "You shall have no other gods before me." That means, especially, no divine kings. Kings are mere political rulers because they are mere men (as the rest of the history of Israel, reported so humbly, makes clear).

Another, deeper strike at the fusion of the religion and political power came in the biblical distinction between the priesthood and kingship initiated by the prophet Samuel in his dealings with Saul the king. When Saul tries to make a sacrifice, the prophet-priest Samuel informs him that God has taken the kingship from him (1 Sam 13).

The lesson: priest and king have distinct functions. The king is not a priest; the priest is not a king. Herein lies the great separation of religious and political functions that will later define the separation of church and state as it develops in the Middle Ages.

This separation between priest and king carried within it another essential biblical truth. No king is above the Law. When political and religious power is fused, the god-king can do whatever he wishes. But when King David commits both adultery and murder, the priest-prophet Nathan calls him to accounts (2 Sam 12).

Our belief today that no president, no congressman, no judge, no elected official is above the moral law has its roots in Nathan's calling down King David. The sacredness of morality must be guarded by someone free of political pressure and intrigue—as it later developed, by the church using biblical authority.

I could give more examples from the Old Testament, but the cause of the severing of political and religious power came from the New, from Jesus's words to Pilate, "My kingdom is not of this world" (John 18:36).

That was an astounding declaration, one that changed the entire course of history.

In Judaism there had been only one kingdom, an earthly kingdom, and so theocracy remained a live possibility as the Jews awaited the Messiah-king. At the time of Jesus, the High Priest was the Jewish political leader.

But in Christianity there are two kingdoms. One is the temporal kingdom founded in and directed toward the things of this world. The other is the Kingdom of God, a kingdom not of this world, an eternal kingdom of which Christ himself is king.

That great divide between the two kingdoms, founded in the great divide between two worlds, is the very deepest source of the distinction between the church and state, and also of the church's independence from the state.

This was true even after the conversion of Constantine and the Christianization of the empire. Because they have different aims, the church and state each have distinct functions and distinct governing structures—even if the state is filled with Christians. The state aims at keeping order in this world. The church directs its flock toward the next.

It was a 5th century pope, Gelasius, who most succinctly wrapped up the reasons for the separation of church and state. His biblically-based argument was that Christ himself, "mindful of human frailty…distinguished between the offices of both powers," the church and the state. Each had a distinct task, and so they must each remain distinct.

Moreover—and here's where the frailty comes in—Gelasius asserted that the distinction acts to guard against the pride and corruption of either. If the church got political power, it would then corrupt the gospel by bending the Word to political purposes. If the state ruled the church, it would make then make of it a mere department of the state, where priests are political lackeys and bureaucrats rather than shepherds of souls.

There is much more history to be told, but let's bring things down to our own situation.

Strange as it may seem now, what I have outlined above is the ultimate origin of our First Amendment proclamation that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;.."

The Puritans had experienced the corruption caused by the fusion of the state and church with the Anglican Church, England's established state church. Like Pope Gelasius, they wanted the church to be free from political entanglement so it would be protected from corruption by the state (the original meaning of religious liberty). An established national church meant a worldly church that was a department of state, rather than a church free to preach the good news about a kingdom not of this world.

But in the mid-20th century, the very Christian distinction between church and state was transformed by secular advocates (using the Supreme Court) into the notion that the state must be secular in the sense of being essentially antagonistic to any and all mention of God, and further, that the state must erect a "wall of separation" to keep Christianity out of the public square.

And out of public education.

So it was that the Bible was banned from public education under the pretense that it violated the separation of church and state.

But banning the Bible from schools because it violates the separation of church and state is both irrational and unhistorical. If it weren't for the Bible and Christianity, there would be no separation of church and state.

And by the way, there wouldn't be any public education. As I noted above, Christianity invented the university, and the university system is the ultimate source of our public education. But that's another history that needs to be told.