What is an established church?

A Publication of Churches Under Christ Ministry

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The History and Meaning of “Establishment of Religion” in America

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What is an established church?

Jerald Finney
Copyright © December 4, 2017

I. Introduction

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion….” What did “establishment of religion” mean at the time that First Amendment was drafted? Before it was drafted? What does it mean today?

Establishment refers to a specific relationship between church and state; a union created when church and a civil government unify. A union of church and state can happen only under man’s law, the laws of civil government. When man’s temporal earthly law combines church and state, a church becomes, either partially or totally, a legal, temporal, earthly entity, an established church.[i]  Baptist churches, Protestant churches, Catholic churches, Pentecostal churches, the Church of Satan, and the Church of Wicca and organizations such as Planned Parenthood are able to get perceived benefits from civil government by voluntarily applying for and obtaining temporal, earthly legal recognition through incorporation and tax exempt status under state and federal law.

Prior to colonization, all church state establishments combined one church with a state, a civil government. Of course, only traditional “churches” were eligible for “church” status. In America, this pattern continued, but soon evolved into multiple establishments of churches, Baptist and Protestant, in all the colonies, the establishment of more than one church. By the time of the adoption of the First Amendment, only seven states still had established churches, but they all established more than one church. Some states had already abandoned legally required establishment in favor of chosen establishment. Eventually, the constitutions of all the states gave all churches a choice of whether to combine with the state or not, to become an established church. They did this by offering God’s churches the right to incorporate under state law.

In 1954, the federal government passed the Internal Revenue Code Sections 501(c)(3) and 508(c)(1)(A) which allow God’s churches to claim “tax exempt status.” The federal government gives “benefits” to tax exempt churches. In return, tax exempt churches agree to abide by the rules and regulations that come with the new status. Tax exempt churches are subject to oversight by agents of the new sovereign, the Internal Revenue Service and federal courts.

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This article covers the history of church establishment, but it is worth briefly noting the inevitable consequences of giving a temporal, earthly government control of matters outside its God-ordained jurisdiction, especially spiritual matters which God in His Word clearly intended to be handled only by His churches.

Sadly, churches and believers, except for God’s remnant, in the colonies and early Republic could not understand the problems that could result from combining the temporal and earthly with the eternal and spiritual. They did not understand the implications of giving a civil government the power to define “church.” When an organization claiming to be a church applies for corporate or 501(c)(3) status, civil government must determine if the organization is in fact a “church;”civil government must define “church.” Corruption is inevitable when church and state combine. They did not understand the Bible doctrines of churchstate, and separation of church and state. They did not understand that, as the Bible teaches, Satan orchestrates the world system. They did not understand that churches are to be spiritual entities only, doing God’s work on earth under the headship of the Lord Jesus Christ only. See, God Betrayed, “Dispensational Theology versus Covenant Theology,” especially pp. 149-150 with footnotes (in that chapter, you will see the remnant, led by men such as Isaac Backus, did understand these matters. Sadly, even most Baptists followed the lead of men like Hezekiah Smith).

Established churches corrupted to one degree or another. Temporal, legal, earthly corporate, 501(c)(3) or 508(c)(1)(A) status opened the floodgate for Satanic organizations (e. g., The Church Satan, the Church of Wicca) to also claim “church” status. See also, IRS granted Satanic cult tax exempt status in 10 days (listen to the audio report on the link for more insights), the (click to see the non-profit 501(c)(3) status of the Church of Wicca)) and other worldly organizations (e.g., Planned Parenthood) to choose to become established under federal law. Most churches in America, along with non-profit organizations like  Planned Parenthood, The Church Satan,  and the Church of Wicca, and as well as “Christian” churches are now established together, legally combined with both state and federal governments, operating according to the same legal rules and commandments handed down from their sovereigns. See also, A New Religion Forms That Will Worship A ‘Godhead’ Based On AI  and A Call to Anguish.

II. The different definitions and applications of “established church”

There are different points of view as to the relationship of church and state and various applications of “establishment of religion.” The New Testament teaches that God desires church and state to be totally separate.[ii] Under the New Testament view, God desires and ordained His churches to be eternal, spiritual entities only, walking on earth and doing His work indwelt by the Holy Spirit and connected to only one Head, the Lord Jesus Christ. He ordained Gentile civil governments to exercise temporal earthly jurisdiction under God. Earthly laws made by man are for the lost, not for the saved spiritual man.[iii] A church is to be a spiritual entity, not a legal entity or a legal and spiritual entity.[iv] Catholic/Protestant doctrine teaches and applies, when possible, the establishment (union) of one church with the state. The American reality was, at first in the colonies, establishment of a single church by force or law; this view, due to circumstances, evolved into multiple legal establishments and was the view held at the time of the adoption of the United States Constitution and the First Amendment; and, finally, the universal view  in America became choice of either establishment (union of church and state) or non-establishment (separation of church and state).

A. New Testament Teaching

SeparationOfChurchAndStateNew Testament church doctrine teaches total separation of church and state.[v] The only conclusion one can reach from a literal and Holy Spirit led study of the New Testament is that a church who combines with civil government, “an established church,” has violated New Testament principle. To fully understand this, one must understand the Bible doctrines of civil government, church, and separation of church and state (civil government).[vi]

The Bible teaches separation of church and state, that God wishes his churches to be eternal, spiritual entities under the Lord Jesus Christ only, totally directed by New Testament principles and commandments for His churches. Accordingly, God makes clear in His Word that He desires His churches to choose to be totally separate from any earthly power (such as civil government) or spiritual power other than the God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.[vii]

 B. The Catholic/Protestant doctrine

Several hundred years after the New Testament was completed and the New Testament churches were established, man developed and applied a view, a traditional view, contrary to that of the New Testament. The traditional view is that church and state should be combined. It has taught, from its inception to this day, union of church and state; and it has been and will be applied, when possible, to unify of church and state. Under this view, there can be only one official “established” church. This view was first applied by Catholicism and then by Protestantism, with modifications.

The Catholic view is that man’s temporal earthly law should mandate union of church and state such that the state is an arm of the Catholic church. Church and state, working together with the state under the church, are to enforce the Ten Commandments and much of the Levitical law relating to man’s relationship to God and man. Man’s law, the law of the state, proclaims that the true church is the Catholic church and that all other religions will be stamped out. Of course, Catholicism combines the beliefs and practices with pagan religions who will submit to the establishment with Catholicism. For example, the history of Catholicism explains the pagan roots of Christmas, Santa Claus, and Halloween.

Catholic establishment originated in the early fourth century when Constantine legally established Catholicism as the official religion of the Roman Empire to the exclusion of all other religions. The Catholic church became the established “church” of Rome and, later, that of many nations for over a thousand years. Under the Catholic view, as stated by Augustine, the one official church and the state combine and work together, the church dominating the state. Anyone who refuses to bow down to the official state church is imprisoned, tortured, and viciously executed. The church usually used the arm of the state to persecute “heretics,” reasoning that capital punishment was the duty of the state and that God did not wish the church to bloody its hands. Over fifty million such “heretics” were murdered by the Catholic establishments, many of them my spiritual ancestors.

With the advent of Protestantism, Protestant churches adopted the union of church and state theology of Augustine. When a particular Protestant church and a particular government were legally combined, the recognized Protestant church became the official established church. Examples are the Lutheranism (Germany), Calvinism (Geneva), Presbyterianism (Scotland), and Anglicanism (England). As with Catholicism, Protestantism viciously persecuted those who would not bow down to the official church/state establishment. One official Protestant church was legally combined with the state. In the various nations which combined church and state under a Protestant sect, persecutions of so-called “heretics” continued according to the adopted theology of Augustine.

Catholicism and Protestantism predominated in the Old World when the American colonies were founded. Only Protestant sects were responsible for the founding of America. Catholics were few and far between in the colonies.

C.  From single to multiple establishment in America

The original meaning of “establishment of religion” which existed prior to and at the founding of America, was replaced by a “multiple establishment” understanding long before the adoption of the First Amendment. “The evidence demonstrates that by an establishment of religion the framers meant any government policy that aided religion and its agencies, the religious establishments.”[viii]

The Protestant view was brought to the colonies by the Puritans (the New England colonies) and the Anglicans (the southern colonies). At first, most of the colonies honored the traditional Protestant view of union of church and state. They continued the persecutions which, due to the changed atmosphere and circumstances beyond the control of the establishments, although harsh, were less severe than in the Old World.

Circumstances in the New World caused an evolution in the relationship of church and state. From single church establishments, the colonies gradually moved to multiple establishments, the establishment of more than one church in any one colonial jurisdiction. At the time of the American Revolution, the laws of the seven colonies which  still combined church and state recognized multiple establishments. In those seven colonies, more than one church received benefits from their particular colonial government. This was the concept of “establishment” which was had been in force in the colonies for a long time before, and in the states before and at the adoption of the First Amendment in 1791.[ix]

The Religion Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution separated church and state and guaranteed soul liberty (the free exercise of religion). The First Amendment Religion Clause states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” This clause applied only to the federal government until 1947.[x]

Click the above to go to the article, “Is Separation of Church and State Found in the Constitution?

“No law respecting” meant “no law concerning or touching the subject of.” Prior to colonization and for some time thereafter, “establishment of religion” meant one officially recognized church which worked with, over, or under the state, the civil government. However, long before the adoption of the Constitution and the First Amendment, “establishment of religion” in America had come to mean multiple establishments. By the time of the revolution, establishment of church and state referred to multiple establishment—legal establishment of more than one church.

“After the American Revolution, seven of the fourteen states that comprised the Union in 1791 authorized establishments of religion by law. Not one state maintained a single or preferential establishment of religion. An establishment of religion meant to those who framed and ratified the First Amendment what it meant to those seven states, and in all seven it meant public support of religion on a non-preferential basis. It was specifically this support on a non-preferential basis that the establishment clause of the First Amendment sought to forbid.”[xi]

D. American establishment: from mandate to choice

After the adoption of the Constitution and the First Amendment, every state which had a constitution and which had not already done so changed their laws, their constitutions,[xii] to, like those state’s which had already done away with mandated establishments, allow churches a choice: combine with the state (establish) or operate as a spiritual entity under God only, without penalty or persecution.  A church could choose to incorporate or not to incorporate.

State non-profit corporation laws combine church and state. James Madison explained why church incorporation violates the proscription against union of church and state in a note attached to his veto of a bill which would have incorporated a church in Washington D.C. which is under federal, not state, jurisdiction.[xiii] This new type of establishment gives churches no control whatsoever over the state of incorporation. At the same time, the state creates and is the sovereign over the corporate part of the incorporated church. For various earthly reasons, most churches incorporate. What are those reasons? That question will be answered later.

In 1954, the federal government passed another law, Internal Revenue Code Section 501(c)(3). This law allows a church to apply for tax exempt status,  a status which combines church and state at the federal level, attaching the church legally to the federal level. By obtaining both corporate and 501(c)(3) status, a church is established at both the state and federal levels.[xiv]

III. Conclusion

It has been a long road passing through two thousand years: a road

  • from no establishment of church and state of any church in the New Testament according to New Testament doctrine,
  • to a forced union of church and state under Catholicism and Protestantism which killed “heretics” including those who adhered to New Testament doctrine – a doctrine brought to the American colonies by various Protestant establishments,
  • to multiple establishments,
  • and finally to a choice for churches as to whether to combine with the state and federal government or to remain faithful to our Lord without persecution.

All along God’s remnant understood, stood for, proclaimed, were persecuted and died for the truth, the Lord Jesus Christ.

Satan must be temporarily getting great pleasure by pointing out to God, “Look at my churches, working right alongside yours. All made possible by the blindness of your churches. And even with complete religious freedom from persecution protected by the First Amendment, almost all churches choose the precepts of the god of this world.” Satan knows God’s word. He knows that this development is no surprise to God. God told the complete history of the world from beginning to end. He wins. Satan loses. Those who are true to their Lord will one day be rewarded for obeying God. But God grieves at the disobedience of most of His children and churches in America.[xv]



[i] See, Is a church a spiritual or legal entity?; for a much more thorough analysis of the meaning of “establishment of religion, see The History and Meaning of “Establishment of Religion” in America.

[ii] See, Jerald Finney, God Betrayed/Separation of Church and State: The Biblical Principles and the American Application, Sections I-III. See also, Render Unto God the Things that Are His: A Systematic Study of Romans 13 and Related Verses.

[iii] 1 Timothy 1:9-11: “Knowing this, that the law is not made for a righteous man, but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and for sinners, for unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers, For whoremongers, for them that defile themselves with mankind, for menstealers, for liars, for perjured persons, and if there be any other thing that is contrary to sound doctrine; According to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which was committed to my trust.”

[iv] See, Is a church a spiritual or legal entity?

[v] Op. cit., God Betrayed, Sections I-III. Render Unto God the Things that Are His.

[vi] Id. See also, for a short study, Is a church a spiritual or legal entity?

[vii] See God Betrayed, Section III, Chapter 4.

[viii] Leonard W. Levy, The Establishment Clause/Religion and the First Amendment (London: MacMillan Publishing Co., 1986), p. xiv.

[ix] Id., Chapters 1 and 2. See also, List of Scholarly Resources Which Explain and Comprehensively Document the True History of Religious Freedom in America.

[x] The Supreme Court applied the First Amendment religion clause to the states in Everson v. Board of Education, 330 U.S. 1 (1947).

[xi] Id., p. xvi.

[xii] Prior to 1842, Rhode Island was still governed by the 1663 royal charter. In 1842, Rhode Island adopted a Constitution. Rhode Island had, from its inception, legislated religious liberty and freedom of conscience; the first civil government in history with any lasting influence to do so.

[xiii] President James Madison understood that incorporation of churches exceeds the authority of civil government and violates the First Amendment. Therefore, on February 21, 1811 he vetoed a bill entitled “An Act incorporating the Protestant Episcopal Church in the town of Alexander, in the District of Columbia” the District of Columbia being under federal jurisdiction. He returned the bill with the following objections:

Because the bill exceeds the rightful authority to which governments are limited by the essential distinction between civil and religious functions, and violates in particular the article of the Constitution of the United States which declares ‘Congress shall make no law respecting a religious establishment.

“The bill enacts into and establishes by law sundry rules and proceedings relative purely to the organization and policy of the church incorporated, and comprehending even the election and removal of the minister of the same, so that no change could be made therein by the particular society or by the general church of which it is a member, and whose authority it recognizes.

“This particular church, therefore, would so far be a religious establishment by law, a legal force and sanction being given to certain articles in its constitution and administration. Nor can it be considered that the articles thus established are to be taken as the descriptive criteria only of the corporate identity of the society, inasmuch as this identity must depend on other characteristics, as the regulations established are in general unessential and alterable according to the principles and canons by which churches of the denomination govern themselves, and as the injunctions and prohibitions contained in the regulations would be enforced by the penal consequences applicable to the violation of them according to the local law….”

See also:

What The Father Of The Constitution Thought About ‘Faith-Based’ Government Programs

Irving Brant, MADISON ON SEPARATION OF CHURCH AND STATE, Third Series, Volume 8, Issue 1, James Madsion, 1751-1836: Bicentennial Number (Jan. 1951), 3-24.

[xiv] For more on 501(c)(3) status and incorporation, see Separation of Church and State/God’s Churches: Spiritual or Legal Entities?

[xv] See, Does God Care if our Church is Incorporated?


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