How does the Lutheran distinction between church and state inform our stance when it comes to the government?
by Rev. Dr. Gifford Grobien
The question of the relationship between church and political authority long predates the U.S. Constitution. The prophet Jeremiah was thrown into a pit because he opposed the king of Judah. Nearly all of the apostles suf-fered death for their proclamation of the Gospel. Although the Roman Emperor Constantine recognized Christianity in A.D. 313, martyrs have suffered at the hands of governments in every century of the world’s existence. Martin Luther was even threatened with execution fol-lowing his public stand at an imperial council.
As Americans, we have been blessed that our government customarily does not interfere with religion, either to establish one in favor of another or to persecute religious groups. Yet, last month LCMS President Rev. Dr. Matthew C. Harrison found it necessary to remind some members of Congress, “Religious people determine what violates their consciences, not the federal government.” He was testifying in opposition to the recent Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) mandate that requires all health-insurance plans, including those managed by or serving religious bodies or organizations, to cover abortion-inducing and potentially abortion-inducing birth control.
Many readers may be familiar with this mandate and the growing opposition to it, not only by President Harrison, the Synod Council of Presidents and others in the LCMS, but also by other churches and religious organizations. However, these recent events raise broader questions with respect to when Christians can or should speak out publically against government demands. Specifically, how does the Lutheran distinction between civil and church authority serve to inform a Christian’s stance in response to government action?
The church’s concern with the mandate is not merely constitutional or legal. The church’s authority is the Word of God, so her primary task is not engagement in political matters, but the preaching of the saving Word and the administration of Christ’s gracious Sacraments.
Yet, our Lord also says that we are to “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” (Matt. 22:21). The Bible calls Christians to pray for those who govern us, to obey them, to pay our taxes and to honor those in authority, whomever they may be (1 Tim. 2:12; Titus 3:12; 1 Peter 2:1317). Yet, there can be instances where a government commands what is evil and punishes what is good. In these instances, are Christians simply at the mercy of the government?
The Bible’s teaching on authority clarifies the relationship between government and church. God grants government authority over a certain sphere of human life, but the authority of the church also operates in the Christian’s lifeto preach and administer the Gospel for the salvation of all who believe.
Therefore, both the government and the church have God-given authority: the former, to restrain and punish evildoers and to commend those who do good; the latter, to preach the Word of God and to administer Christ’s holy Sacraments. Because a Christian lives under both Christ and “Caesar,” he or she faces conflict when these authorities command contrary things. Scripture is clear that when any human authority demands obedience in a way that contradicts God’s will, this demand is not to be obeyed. “We must obey God rather than men,” Peter told the governing Jewish council when it commanded the apostles to stop preaching the Gospel (Acts 5:2829).
Some might then respond that unless the government tells the church to stop preaching the Gospel, it ought to be obeyed. But the Word of God addresses the whole of our lives, not only spiritual matters, but also matters of daily life, ethics and justice. These are also areas where potential conflicts may arise. Here, too, the Christian is bound to obey God rather than man. The Lutheran Confessions are very clear that the nature and God-given parameters of political and churchly authority should be kept distinct (AC XVI 7). Typically, this has been understood to mean that the church should not engage in such activities as telling her members how to vote, making partisan political statements or endorsing certain candidates over others.
On the other hand, the civil government should not interfere with the God-given and unique authority of the church (Matt. 28:1620). “For civil government is concerned with things other than the Gospel. . . . The Gospel protects minds from ungodly ideas, the devil, and eternal death. Consequently, the powers of church and civil government must not be mixed” (AC XXVIII 1112). Just as the church should not arrogate to itself responsibilities that God has given to government, so the government should not require the church to practice things that would violate its understanding of what the Word of God teaches.
The HHS mandate will do this very thing, because it requires churches and church-related organizations that oppose abortion on scriptural grounds to support the provision of abortion-inducing birth control. The church is and always must be concerned about women’s health, but it must also object to and refuse to offer churchly support for a practice it believes to be wrong and ungodly (Treatise 42). The mandate commands something that the Word of God forbids. To provide coverage for such birth control burdens consciences that have been shaped by God’s Word with the murder of human embryos.
The church has the duty, according to Scripture, to reject the civil government’s demands upon the church and its institutions in cases like this. The church’s reaction to such governmental intrusion could consist of at least two kinds of practices: (1) public statements and actions directed toward the government and (2) edification within the church, shaping consciences according to the Word of God.
In the first kind of practicepublic statements and actionthe same sections of the Confessions that teach the distinction between civil and churchly authorities also encourage us to use all means authorized by the civil authority to reach justice. “Public redress, which is made through the office of the judge, is not forbidden but is commanded and is a work of God” (Ap XVI 7). Lutherans are neither quietists nor rebels. Rather, they are to use and uphold the established government by petitioning those who are in authority to correct or withdraw their faulty policy. It is not the government the Christian seeks to overturn, but rather the particular law or act of government that requires Christians to act in a way that violates their Scripture-based beliefs.
U.S. law allows for a variety of forms of redress: public speech, petition, election of different officeholders, lawsuits and, in some cases, initiative, referendum and recall. Pastors, laity, officers of the Synod and districts ought to be encouraged to engage these kinds of topics in the public square through blogs, letters to the editor or by contacting members of Congress or other legislative or executive bodies. Christians, whether as individuals, as congregations or at the district and Synod level may undertake any of these actions when they are deemed prudent to obtain recourse against an unconscionable policy.
In the second kind of practicethe mutual building up of one another in the churchChristians work to invigorate biblically based ethical thinking for the church in a society that is fast departing from a Christian worldview. In past centuries and decades, the church in America could rely on a society and government that was largely influenced by Christian thought to inculcate good ethics apart from the church. Furthermore, such a stance appeared to be in keeping with the proper understanding of the distinction between civil and church authority. So long as the government promoted good conduct and punished evil, it was fulfilling its responsibility, and the church did not need to object to morally grounded governmental policies.
However, Christians are increasingly concerned by the shift that is occurring in American society with the increasing influence of non-biblical values. Both federal and state governments increasingly fail to promote good conduct and punish evil. The HHS mandate is one example. Others are the federal allowance of embryonic stem-cell research, the approval of assisted suicide in some states, and the increasing frequency of state recognition of homosexual partnerships as marriageto say nothing of the decades-long approval of abortion.
When the government encroaches on consciences that are captive to the Word of God, it is the church’s duty to protect those consciences. For The Lutheran ChurchMissouri Synodon the congregational, district and Synod levelthis becomes an opportunity to support and rely on each other as congregations walking together. Through prayerful study of Scripture and the Confessions, in conversation with each other, we encourage congregations and other Synod bodies to invigorate the theological basis for the Christian ethical voice. Such walking together as the church helps us better to discern the truth with our conscience. Such walking together reminds us that, while we live in a classically liberal and individualist political system, as a church we are bound together as the Body of Christ. We are not left to go it alone, nor need we stand as one small voice against a violation of conscience (1 Cor. 12:26).
Walking together, bound by the Holy Spirit and directed by the Scriptures, the Synod stands as a voice for God’s truth. Expressing this voice is the expression of a good conscience, the determination of which is made not by the civil government, but by the Church working in fellowship under the authority of Scripture.
For more information on contraception, see the paper produced by the LCMS Sanctity of Human Life Committee, “Resolution 6-10: Guidance on Contraceptive Methods” at www.lcms.org/?pid=864
- To read more on the mandate and the Synod response, go to www.lcms.org/hhsmandate
- Go to www.ctsfw.edu/HHSFacultyResponse to read a response to the mandate by the faculty of Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne.
- The Synod’s Council of Presidents recently adopted an HHS mandate-related resolution. Read more about it at thelc.ms/A84GMb
> More than 40,000 people have viewed LCMS President Matthew C. Harrison’s testimony before Congress on YouTube.
> Go to witness.lcms.org to read “10 Minutes with . . . Ann Stillman,” general counsel for Concordia Plan Services, who accompanied President Harrison to Washington, D.C.
About the Author: The Rev. Dr. Gifford Grobien is assistant pastor of Emmaus Lutheran Church, South Bend, Ind.