I once found myself seated at a table in Washington, D.C., with representatives of many political and religious groups. Representing a conservative Christian organization, I was surrounded by those whose first principles conflicted with mine on many major points. I had to ask myself, What in the world am I doing here?
The answer lay in the common cause of a commitment to church-state separation. On this issue, as a Seventh-day Adventist, I had solidarity with those whose views differed, sometimes radically, from mine.
This story serves as a metaphor for the position, something easily misunderstood, that Seventh-day Adventists as church-state separationists often face. What is it that Seventh-day Adventists in general believe about church-state separation that would have put me at a table where, but for that aforementioned exception, I was frantically ill suited?
The Bible and Religious Freedom
The answer is found in Scripture. A superficial reading of the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, especially the Israelite theocracy (where folk could be executed for enticing people after “other gods”), would make the Bible seem the last place to find justification for religious freedom, much less church-state separation. A deeper reading, however, reveals a deeper truth, which is that human freedom, religious freedom, helps form the core message of God’s Word.
And nothing reveals that message more than the cross.
Here, the Son of God—nails in His hands, nails in His feet, a crown of thorns on His bloodied head—was hung beaten and bloody between heaven and earth because He had given humans freedom, moral freedom, religious freedom, even the freedom to obey or to disobey. Had He not allowed this freedom, humankind would not have violated God’s law, sin would not have arisen, humans would not have faced the prospect of eternal destruction because of that violation, and Jesus would not have sacrificed Himself at the cross in order to redeem humanity from the abuse of the freedom that He had given them.
What the cross proves is that the Lord deemed human freedom, human moral autonomy, so sacred, so fundamental to the principles of His divine government that, rather than deny humans this freedom, He paid in Himself the penalty for our abuse of it. Rather than force us not to sin, He “became sin for us” (see 2 Corinthians 5:21); rather than curse us by creating us as automatons, with no more free will than a computer chip, He became a “curse for us” (Galatians 3:13); and rather than make us live without free choice, and thus without the capacity to love (for love to be love, it has to be freely given), Jesus chose suffering, humiliation, and death.
The Cosmic Moral Factor
Scripture takes this concept of moral freedom to realms, literally, beyond the earth. This freedom exists as a cosmic principle, something like gravity. How else could one explain the fall of Lucifer in heaven?
“You were the anointed cherub who covers; I established you; you were on the holy mountain of God; you walked back and forth in the midst of fiery stones. You were perfect in your ways from the day you were created, till iniquity was found in you” (Ezekiel 28:14, 15, NKJV).*
The Hebrew word for “perfect” carries the meaning of “completeness,” “wholeness,” “innocence,” “unimpaired,” even “that which is entirely in accord with truth.” The word for “created” is a verb used exclusively in reference to the creative activity of God, such as in Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (NKJV). Scripture presents a perfect being created by God in a perfect environment, and yet at some point “iniquity” was found in him. How could that be—unless perfection, wholeness, completeness, even in the “holy mountain of God,” included moral freedom, the freedom to make the wrong choices? That’s what happened to Satan in heaven, and then to humanity in Eden as well.
Adam and Eve, perfect beings created by a perfect God in a perfect environment, had moral freedom, moral choice. How could they be truly “moral” without it? God could have programmed them to do only good, but that would have made them “good” only in the sense a computer, programmed to filter out pornography, did “good.”
Perfection, in God’s universe, must include moral freedom for intelligent creatures, the freedom to do wrong; otherwise it’s not freedom, and without freedom there can be no love or true morality. Why would the Lord have warned Adam and Eve against eating from the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Genesis 2:17) if the freedom to disobey didn’t exist in them from the start? The command, a warning, was meaningful only in the context of freedom. And God gave them that freedom, fully knowing that wired in the coils of their genes were those who, millennia later, violating that same freedom, would nail Him to a cross.
It’s no wonder, then, that though Jesus knew the cost of sin and disobedience, He never forced anyone to obey Him, even when here in the flesh. He pleaded, He wept, He warned of judgment and the consequences of transgression, but He always allowed freedom of choice. He didn’t create humans free only to come thousands of years later and trample upon that freedom Himself.
When a rich young ruler asked Jesus what he needed to do to be saved, Jesus answered and the ruler walked away. Jesus knew the consequences of that decision, and though He loved the man, because He loved the man, He didn’t force the issue. He never defied free will, which is ironic because, if anyone had the right to, it was Christ. As God, as the Creator of the universe (Colossians 1:16), as the great “I AM” (John 8:58, NKJV; Exodus 3:14), He is the source of everything that was created (John 1:1-3). All that we are, or ever could be, comes from the One in whom “we live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28), and yet, if He doesn’t force us to worship Him, how dare anyone else?
“What a pity,” wrote Annie Dillard, “that so hard on the heels of Christ come the Christians,” and they quickly lost sight of the principles of religious freedom that Jesus had so powerfully embodied. The results of this loss were tragic, and long-lasting, too. Centuries of religious wars and persecution impacted America’s founding fathers, who wished to avoid the sectarian bloodshed between Christians that ravaged Europe and made a mockery of Christ’s words: “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another” (John 13:35).
And central to their vision for their new nation was the religious freedom revealed in the Bible. Even someone as nonfundamentalist as Thomas Jefferson wrote that God, though “being Lord both of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it [religion] by coercions on either, as was in His Almighty power to do.” In other words, even though God has the power, and one could argue even the right, to force us to obey, He doesn’t, and so neither should humans. To do so, Jefferson said, would be “a departure from the plan of the Holy Author of our religion.” God doesn’t force obedience.
Seventh-Day Sabbathkeepers in a First-Day Land
In contrast, government, by its very nature, works by coercion. Biblical faith, as we have seen, works by the freedom that God built into the moral fabric of the creation itself. What better way, then, to keep from conflating these two realms than to separate them, at least as much as practically possible (which isn’t always so easy)? Hence, the concept of church-state separation was born, which Seventh-day Adventists have so strongly supported.
Of course, however lofty and transcendent the ideal of cosmic moral freedom might sound, Seventh-day Adventists have had a much less metaphysical reason for promoting it. We are seventh-day Sabbathkeepers in a nation that for centuries not only “kept” the first day but used the law to promote it. Not that people were compelled to go to church on Sunday (though in the earliest days there was some of that), but in many places “blue laws” forced businesses to close on Sunday, which placed economic hardship on those who, by personal conviction about the meaning of God’s Word, closed their businesses on the seventh day and not on the first as well because they couldn’t afford to. Seventh-day Adventists in the United States were arrested, fined, jailed, even put on chain gangs.
The situation has been much worse in other countries, where Adventists have lost their lives because of Sabbath observance. During the heyday of Communism, for instance, many Adventists, conscripted into the military, faced harsh punishment for refusal to work on a day specially set apart for worship of the Creator (Genesis 2:1-3; Exodus 20:8-11), not a particularly popular stance in nations predicated on a militant atheism.
For Adventists, though, the issue isn’t just personal, but eschatological. Despite myriad interpretations, including the popular (if theologically dubious) Left Behind series, the book of Revelation in the Bible warns about religious persecution just prior to Christ’s second coming. Adventists believe, therefore, that part of their calling as a church is to defend religious freedom, church-state separation being, at least here in the United States, the best vehicle for doing just that.
History is easy to forget, and many Christians have forgotten that church-state separationism has helped protect them from denominations who, wielding the power of the state, used that power to persecute those whose beliefs in and worship of Jesus differed from theirs. Seventh-day Adventists haven’t forgotten; our keeping of the seventh-day Sabbath, as opposed to the ubiquitous (not to mention unbiblical) first day, constantly reminds us of the potential danger that majoritarian rule poses to the minority. We understand, too, that religious freedom means the right to practice—within limits (defining those limits, of course, is the great challenge)—what many might deem dubious religious practices. It also means that things like mandated prayer in public schools or the posting of the Ten Commandments in public places, however seemingly innocuous, tread on the principle that the power of government should be kept as far away as possible from religious practice in a society where faith, morals, laws, and government are inextricably and, of necessity, intertwined.
Other groups, sometimes non-Christian ones, agree. Whatever their motives, even if they arise from an overt hostility to religion, these groups sometimes take positions that coincide with ours. Thus, Seventh-day Adventists have found themselves in an occasional uncomfortable alliance with those with whom (as I said) we share little else in common, and this has caused some misunderstanding, even from our own members.
But whatever the misunderstanding, whatever the uncomfortable alliances, the death of Jesus has shown that the sacredness of religious freedom is more than worth it.
*Texts credited to NKJV are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Author: Clifford R. Goldstein
Clifford Goldstein writes from Mt. Airy, Maryland. A previous editor of Liberty, he now edits Bible study lessons for the Seventh-day Adventist Church.