Distinguishing Church and State

President Harrison provides a Lutheran view of church and state


Dear Brothers in the Office of the Ministry,

“I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:3–6).

I dare say we would all agree that this is the most interesting if not strangest election cycle we’ve ever seen. I thought I’d spill a bit of ink on the topic of the two kingdoms doctrine and a Lutheran approach to politics. I know full well from experience how delicate, and even explosive, these issues can be for a pastor as an election year intensifies.

It’s a fact that the overwhelming majority of LCMS clergy are Republicans. (Not too long ago, a poll of LCMS pastors in the state of Wisconsin found that 95 percent of our clergy there self-describe as either “conservative Republican” or “very conservative Republican.”) The laity also lean toward the right, but with much less intensity than the clergy. Add to this the fact that the few issues that the LCMS has taken a public stance on also are preferred issues of the political right (life, marriage and religious freedom), and this makes for a potentially precarious, if not volatile, mix for pastors, preaching and congregations!

Last year, I wrote in The Lutheran Witness about a very interesting connection between James Madison and the Lutheran “two kingdoms doctrine.”

Late in 1821, Rev. Frederick Schaeffer presided over the cornerstone laying of a new building for the Evangelical Lutheran Church of St. Matthew in New York City. Afterward, he sent his homily to James Madison, the “Father of the U.S. Constitution,” and chief author of the Bill of Rights.

Pastor Schaeffer’s address was rather strongly Lutheran, in spite of the general weakness of American Lutheranism prior to 1840.

Madison replied:

Montpellier, Dec. 3rd, 1821

Revd Sir, – I have received, with your letter of November 19th, the copy of your address at the ceremonial of laying the corner-stone of St Matthew’s Church in New York.

It is a pleasing and persuasive example of pious zeal, united with pure benevolence and of a cordial attachment to a particular creed, untinctured with sectarian illiberality. It illustrates the excellence of a system which, by a due distinction, to which the genius and courage of Luther led the way, between what is due to Caesar and what is due God, best promotes the discharge of both obligations. The experience of the United States is a happy disproof of the error so long rooted in the unenlightened minds of well-meaning Christians, as well as in the corrupt hearts of persecuting usurpers, that without a legal incorporation of religious and civil polity, neither could be supported. A mutual independence is found most friendly to practical Religion, to social harmony, and to political prosperity.

In return for your kind sentiments, I tender
assurances of my esteem and my best wishes.

James Madison

[From The Lutheran Witness, January 2015)

Don’t you find it interesting that one of the chief architects of the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights says, “Luther led the way?” I do.

Madison states, “…What is due to Caesar and what is due God, best promotes the discharge of both obligations.” Luther wrote, “church leaders make poor kings and kings make poor bishops” (Luther’s Works, 45:109). Luther recognized, on the basis of Jesus’ words in the New Testament, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17), that there are two distinct realms. The state is ruled by reason, and the church is ruled by the Word of God. Both are indeed God’s, but He governs them differently. The one is the realm of Law and reason; the other is the Word of God and Gospel. “For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad … for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain” (Rom. 13:3-4).

Luther, in the wake of more than a millennium of confusion of church and state, got the New Testament right. Whatever inconsistencies in practice, Luther recognized that passages such as, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32), meant that the religious mind of mankind is not subject to the coercion of temporal authority.

In his book, Tyranny and Resistance: The Magdeburg Confession and the Lutheran Tradition (CPH, 2001), David Mark Whitford notes three approaches to the questions of “what is due God” and “what is due to Caesar.” These were all current at the time of the Reformation and have obvious influence yet today.

1. The inclusively ecclesial view: “Authority for the governance of creation is founded by God in the church. God’s authority flows to the church (and especially the pope); the church then yields some of that authority to the emperor. As far back as Pope Leo’s bold move to crown Charlemagne emperor of the Romans (A.D. 800), Leo began the establishment of papal supremacy over secular authority” (Whitford, p. 31).

2. The exclusively biblical model: “The church must conform to the Gospel explicitly [i.e., including theocratic ideas from the Old Testament]. No deviation is allowed. The relationship between the secular and spiritual is antagonistic. This antagonism seems to elicit two responses: withdrawal [e.g., the Amish] or usurpation [i.e., the state must conform to the Bible, traditional Calvinism]. In many Anabaptist groups, the church withdrew from secular society and placed itself over and against the dominant culture. In some respects, this model is a resurrection and modification of the ecclesial model. The church must conform to the whole Bible, and the state as well. Both Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt and Thomas Muentzer fall into this category” (Whitford, p. 31).

3. “The third approach differs significantly from both the inclusively ecclesial and exclusively biblical models. Often labeled magisterial, the inclusively biblical approach is epitomized by Luther’s doctrine of the two realms. In Luther’s thought, each realm is part of God’s plan for ordering creation. The spiritual realm is eternal and everlasting; it is the realm of revelation and faith. Instantiated in the church, it exists to offer the grace of God to all through preaching the Word of God and celebrating the sacraments … Like the Law to Gospel, the secular realm is the spiritual realm’s dialectical partner; it is the realm of reason and unbelief. Both the secular and spiritual exist for God’s regulation of creation, but like Law and Gospel, they play different roles. Whereas the spiritual realm is eternal and proleptic, the secular is finite and fleeting. Here the sword instead of service is definitive” (Whitford, pp. 31-32).

Model #1 has been very significantly moderated by Vatican II, and today we find Roman Catholics very helpful in struggles for life, marriage and religious freedom. Model #2 is one that often affects or pulls in Lutherans who argue for America as a “Christian Nation.” America certainly has been that. America was certainly dominated by Christian founders (despite the deism and religious liberalism of men like Jefferson, who as President, by the way, went to church every Sunday … in the House Chambers!). We can only say “America was founded on the Bible” with a strong caveat. If by that we mean that the Bibleas revelation is the authority for government, then this is false. When the Declaration of Independence states, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” this is arrived at through reason, not revelation. In other words, it is important to realize that the founders did not believe it reasonable to believe that there was no Creator! They were right. “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God’” (Ps. 14:1). It is more precise and correct for us to state that this nation was founded upon reason, and reason, when it is working — that is, when it is most reasonable — accords with the ethical teaching of the Ten Commandments. (Rom. 1:14-15) The ethical teaching of the Ten Commandments, and thus Christianity, profoundly marked the founding of the United States. Nevertheless, the church and state were kept distinct. The state may coerce, punish, wage war, etc., but only so far as God-given inalienable rights are recognized and guarded. The state may not coerce the religious conscience; that conscience is responsible to God. To paraphrase a quote of Luther, “The state and the religious conscience are not good bedfellows. The bed is too narrow and the blanket too short!” Our founders recognized what so many courts and political leaders today have forgotten. A government favorable to responsible religion, particularly Christianity, causes a nation to thrive.

I would urge that all of us carefully work though Augsburg Confession XVI on political power with our Bible classes and congregations. It says, “Christ’s kingdom is spiritual.” “The Gospel does not introduce laws about the public state, but is the forgiveness of sins and the beginning of a new life in the hearts of believers. The Gospel not only approves outward governments, but also subjects us to them” (Rom. 13:1). This is vital for us to remember, particularly when we object to laws that have allowed 58 million abortions, same-sex marriage and an ever increasing encroachment upon religious freedom. These matters, as vital as they are, are ultimately important only as they intersect and impact the chief purpose of the church, which Jesus put so clearly and simply: “The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10).

As Christian pastors, what can we preach during this volatile year? Should we openly support a particular party or candidate in our preaching? Of course not! Should we say, “If you vote for this or that person, you can’t be a Christian?” Certainly not! Our people have individual experiences in life that guide the exercise of their vote as citizens. For one, it might be hassling with the IRS in a small business. For another, it might be trying to work for better treatment and benefits for factory workers. Another may have grown up in the South under Jim Crow laws. Our people will make their political decisions on the basis of any number of factors that may, at times, mystify us. At times such as these, it is also appropriate, dear pastors (no matter where your particular political propensities lie), to recall that wonderful teaching of Franz Pieper: the “felicitous inconsistency.”

What can we preach? We can urge our people to be politically active and to stand in the public square for what accords with reason and the Ten Commandments. We can preach that we as Christian citizens will join with all people of good will to promote and care for life, from womb to grave; we will support traditional marriage, and we shall oppose laws, courts and governments restricting our God-given rights — rights that were acknowledged by the Bill of Rights as inherent (not granted!). We shall urge our people to be knowledgeable about candidates’ positions on issues that the Bible speaks about and on which the church has taken a stand, and to take these issues into consideration as they make their choices.

We must be quite careful not to coerce political activity. Coercion is not the business of the church [FC SD X 15]. We must avoid in every way the impression that politics or controverted issues are front and center and the Gospel is set in the background (1 Cor. 1:23; 2:2). We must take care not to allow our politics (which may take positions on all sorts of issues about which the Word of God and the church are silent) to skew our theology and preaching! I may have a political view that there should be a wall on the border. But that doesn’t change one iota of Christ’s mandate to care for the illegal/undocumented neighbor who might well be living or working next to me. (Consider Jesus love for the ‘unclean’ Samaritans and even pagans; John 4, Matt. 15:21; Luke 10:25-37; Heb. 13:1). I might have strong views on Muslim immigration, but that dare not make me unwilling and unable to see that these people are in my community already, and they need Christ (Matt. 9:37; John 3:16; Rev. 7:9; 1 Cor. 2:2). When the requirements of the two realms clash in this sinful world, the Gospel must predominate. “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).

Above all brothers, preach and teach Christ. By the blessed power of the Gospel, He continues to work the miracles of forgiveness, life and salvation. Both Madison’s comments and the Lutheran doctrine of the two kingdoms beg for more discussion, but alas, that shall have to wait for another occasion.

As we continue together on the road of repentance toward Good Friday (and the parallel path of pain, antics, joys and disappointments during the political season), God grant you the strength of mind, body and soul to serve Him in word and deed. And I join all of you in fervent prayer for our nation and its leaders, present and future.

“Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen” (Heb. 13:20-21).

Thanks for all you do dear brothers,

Pastor Matt Harrison
The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod


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