Under the administration of the old covenant, we find that the kings of Israel and Judah had as part of their responsibilities maintaining the purity of worship. For example, we read in 1 Kings 11 of God’s anger with King Solomon when he engaged in the worship of foreign gods and built altars to them in the mountains of the Holy Land. On the other hand, 2 Kings 18:1–8 records the Lord’s pleasure with King Hezekiah, as the author of the book praises Hezekiah for reforming the worship of Judah and removing pagan altars from the land.
Yet, though political authority and religious authority overlapped, there were still boundaries between the king and the temple that could not be crossed. Second Chronicles 26 details the reign of King Uzziah of Judah, who “did what was right in the eyes of the Lord” (v. 4). Uzziah was one of the most righteous kings of ancient Judah; however, at one point during his reign, he overstepped the lines that separated him from the priesthood. Uzziah brazenly offered incense in the temple contrary to the warnings of the high priest. For violating the priest’s warning and illegitimately assuming the priest’s duties, Uzziah was struck with leprosy (vv. 16–21).
Thus, we see in the Old Testament a kind of separation of church and state, or better, a division of labor between the political leaders and the religious leaders. This division becomes more pronounced in the New Testament, wherein the Apostles tell us that the state has a specific purpose that should not be assumed by the church. In Romans 13:1–7, Paul tells us that the state, not the church, has been given the power of the sword to punish evildoers and execute justice in the civil realm. We are to submit to the state’s authority in these matters, for if we do good, we will have nothing to fear from the state. Of course, Paul’s presentation here of the secular government is somewhat idealized. Certainly, he knew that sometimes governments become corrupt and that those who act righteously are targeted as enemies of the state. Today’s passage indicates as much, implying that there may be times when we will suffer at the hands of the government for doing what is right (1 Peter 3:13–14a).
Still, the Apostles expect such situations to be exceptions and that most states will seek to punish true criminals. In doing so, the state fulfills its task. For God has given the state to administer earthly justice and the church to administer Word and sacrament.