Separation of Church and State in the Bahamas

Shavon Bethel

February 22, 2021

Shavon Bethel

The Term, “SEPARATION OF CHURCH AND STATE,” used so freely, is not a term found in the Bahamas constitution. It is a symbolic term used to describe relationships between law and religion, between government and the church, between the civil community and the religious community. In terms of the Bahamian constitutional tradition, separation of  Church and State rests on the premise that the functions of Church and State are not to be commingled, that each has its separate task to perform, that the Church is concerned with spiritual and moral matters affecting both its members and the whole community and that the State, as a secular instrument which enjoys a monopoly of coercive power, is concerned with the government of the civil community. It is not the State’s business to operate a church or to prescribe an official decree for its citizens, and it is not the function of the church to run the government. Each within its own sphere is supreme and unique.  Neither is to dominate the other or compete with each other. This separateness serves the cause of human freedom. Because it is not the State’s business to interfere with or intervene in religious matters, whether by restricting the exercise of religious freedom or by using its coercive power to compel belief, separation, while assuring the freedom of religion for the individual and church, also assures freedom for the nonconformist and nonbeliever. Likewise, by assuring the freedom of the state from ecclesiastical domination,  the separation principle protects against the imposition by the Church, through the State,  of its beliefs and views upon the civil community. It is not disputed that the relationship between church and state is the institutional form of the relationship between the religious and political spheres. This relationship has taken a variety of forms historically and in the modern world from the state dominating religion to religion dominating the state and recent attempts to separate them. In most ancient civilizations this relationship 

was not clearly defined but it is one of the most significant themes running through western history. 

God has given the power of the sword to governments and the power of the keys to churches, and he intends for them to work separately but cooperatively toward the greater end of worship. Governments should employ the sword in order to protect life,  enable the cultural mandate, and provide a platform for the work of the church. They are guardians of this present age. Churches should exercise the keys of the kingdom in order to testify to King Jesus, his message, and his people. They are witnesses of the age to come. 

Both fail often and miserably in their jobs. Yet we need to first understand the blueprint in order to better identify departures from it. Let’s, therefore, unpack that summary sentence one phrase at a time. 

…Has Given the Power of the Sword to Government… 

If Jesus is king over all the earth-over every square inch, as Abraham Kuyper famously put it-does that mean Christians should use the power of government to bring all things into subjection to him? Should they criminalize all sin and force people to worship him with the power of the government? Not at all. Jesus rules over every square inch, but he does not rule over every inch in the same way. He grants different authorities to different parties. To parents, he gives the power of the rod. To governments, he gives the power of the sword. To churches, he gives the power of the keys. Yet to none of the parties does  God give the authority to coerce true worship or criminalize false worship. Nor does he give governments the authority to criminalize all sin.

Paul is the one who called the government’s power the power of the sword (Rom. 13:4).  Yet the original authorization occurred right after the Flood. God had just repeated the charge he had given to Adam: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (Gen. 9:1,7). 

Second, God does not authorize governments to do whatever they wish. He does not authorize them to redefine marriage or the family. He does not authorize them to tell churches what they must believe or who their members are. He does not authorize them to use force unjustly or indiscriminately, lest the force of these verses boomerang back and indict the government itself. No government is “above” the demands of these verses.  Furthermore, he does not authorize governments to prosecute crimes against him (such as blasphemy or false worship) or to criminalize every sin imaginable (such as adultery or homosexuality). Indeed, it would seem governments must tolerate false religions, so long  as they cause no direct harm to human beings: “whoever sheds the blood of man” not “of  God.” Besides, how do you recompense God? 

Everything a government does, every law it makes, every courtroom ruling it declares,  every executive agency code it enforces, it should do for the purpose of protecting and affirming its citizens as God-imagers. 

…And the Power of the Keys to Churches… 

If God has given the power of the sword to the state, he has given the power of the keys to churches. The Bible first talks about the keys in Matthew 16. Jesus first gave the keys to Peter and by extension, all the apostles immediately after Peter confesses Jesus as the  Christ, the Messiah. Jesus promises to build his church and then says, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven,  and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (v. 19).

Two chapters later, Jesus gives the keys to local churches. Addressing the scenario of a  Christian wandering into sin, like a sheep going astray, Jesus encourages the disciples to address a person privately, but eventually before the whole church. If the sinning member refuses to listen to the church, then they should collectively remove him or her from the church. In case someone wonders by what authority a church might remove one of its members, Jesus repeats the line about the keys: “Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt. 18:18). While the “you” in chapter 16 is singular, here it is plural, as in “Whatever ya’ll bind on earth….” 

What does it mean for a church to exercise the keys by binding and loosing on earth what is bound and loosed in heaven? The short answer is that churches exercise the keys by rendering judgments on the what and the who of the gospel, confessions, and confessors.  

Practically, they do this in preaching and in administrating the ordinances. Through  preaching a church says, “This is a right gospel confession.” Through the ordinances, it  declares, “This is a true gospel confessor.” To put it programmatically, the keys allow churches to write statements of faith and receive and remove members. 

The work of wielding the keys is a judicial activity, like the work of a judge in a courtroom.  A judge does not make the law. He interprets it. Then, based on that interpretation, a  judge does not make a person actually innocent or guilty, but declares “guilty” or “not guilty,” the whole legal system will swing in action and treat the person as such. A judge on the bench and a law professor might use the exact same words when interpreting a  law or offering their judgment of a case. But a judge’s judgments bind. The words “Guilty” or “I pronounce you man and wife” are effective because they are backed up by the authority of a government. They enact something.

…And He Intends for Them to Work Separately… 

Now, placing the institutions of church and state side by side, what can we say about their relationship? To begin with, the two institutions should remain “separate,” in the sense that neither should wield the authority God has given to the other. Church leaders should not wield the sword. Prime Ministers should not wield the keys. And generally, those separate authorities come with separate jurisdictions or fields of activity. Churches generally should not delve into the intricacies of policy, while Parliament should not offer counsel on which Bible translations are best or who to receive as members. Nobody wants  The Hon., Dr. Hubert Minnis, to decide on baptisms. 

The challenge today is, most people, including most Christians, misconstrue the separation of church and state. They treat it as being about the origin of ideas as if to say,  when an idea originates in someone’s religion, we should not bring it into the public square and impose it on others. So the non-Christian says to the Christian, “That idea originates in your religion. You can’t impose it on me.” The Christian then goes along with the non-Christian’s argument, because she has grown up in an individualistic culture and fails to recognize the distinction between an individual Christian and the key-wielding institutional church. After all, the separation of church and state applies not to individual  Christians, as such, but to churches in their authority-exercising capacity. Furthermore,  both the non-Christian and the Christian in this scenario overlook the fact that every idea and every claim of justice originates in someone’s religion, someone’s worship. They overlook the fact that, when the non-Christian talks about the separation of church and state, he means the separation of the state from everyone else’s church, not his own church. He doesn’t think he has a church, and he’s only too happy to impose all of his idolatry on the state. Fortunately for him, no one ever talks about the separation of idolatry and the state.

In short, the separation of church and state is not about the origination of opinions. It doesn’t mean we never “impose” our religion on others since every law establishes someone’s religion, even a law against murder. Ultimately, both governments and churches serve God’s purpose of calling all people to worship him, the former indirectly,  the latter directly. The government’s work is a prerequisite to the mission of the church and salvation, just as learning to read is a prerequisite to reading the Bible. Common 

grace platforms are meant to serve special-grace purposes. 

Indeed, this is what we see in Scripture. First, God grants a charter for governments. Then he calls Abraham out of Ur. Genesis 9 comes before Genesis 12 for a reason. Just like God promises to lay down his bow of war and not destroy the earth by a flood, so he means for governments to provide the peace and safety necessary for the storyline of redemption to get underway. 

Paul reaffirms this point. In Acts 17, he tells us that God established the boundaries of the nations so “that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him” (v. 27,). In 1 Timothy 2, he tells us to pray for kings and authorities so that we may live peaceful lives pleasing to God, “who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (v. 4). 

Governments finally exist, then, to serve the purposes of worship. People need to be able to walk to church without getting mauled by marauders. They cannot get saved if they are dead. The work of the government provides the platform. Protecting religious freedom doesn’t just serve Christians, it serves everyone. 

Who Should You Vote For?

Perhaps we can summarize this article by answer the question: so who should Christians vote for in the next general election in the Bahamas? 

Christians should vote for the candidate, the party, and the legislation with a limited but clear view of what the government has been authorized and ordered by God to do: to exercise judgment and establish justice; to build platforms of peace, order, and flourishing; to make sure people are free and not hindered from knowing God and being redeemed. 

We don’t need a government that thinks it can offer redemption but a government that views its work as a prerequisite for redemption for all of its citizens. It builds the streets so that you can drive to church; protects the womb so that you can live and hear the gospel; insists on fair-lending and housing practices so that you can own a home and offer hospitality to non-Christians; works for education so that can read and teach your children the Bible; treat all people and races equally so that Christians can join the same churches and present a picture of heaven’s diversity; protects marriage and the family so that husbands and wives can model Christ’s love for the church; polices the streets so that you are free to assemble as churches unmolested and to make an honest living so that you can give money to the work of God. 

You might disagree on government involvement in any of these examples. But it’s the grid I want you to see and adopt: government renders judgment to establish peace, order,  and prosperity so that the church might do what God calls it to do.