Church and State

Martin Luther understood the compatibility of the work of clergy and princes, and he worked with the political authorities of his day to further his cause. A question: How does this affect contemporary thinking about the relationship between church and state?

You could summarize Luther’s views of the relationship between clergy and political leaders by paraphrasing the opening narration of the TV show Law and Order like this:

“In today’s world, the people are influenced by two separate yet equally important groups called by God: the clergy, who are called to preach His Word; and the government officials, who are called to provide and maintain order in society. These are their stories.”

To better answer the question, we can look at a very small part of Luther’s vast writings. In his 1523 treatise on earthly authority, Luther wrote:

“God has ordained two governments: the spiritual, by which the Holy Spirit produces Christians and righteous people…and the temporal [earthly], which restrains the unchristian and the wicked…. Both must be permitted to remain—the one to produce righteousness, the other to bring about external peace. Neither is sufficient in the world without the other.”

What would happen if we have one but not the other?  In Luther’s words,

“When theologians disappear, God’s word disappears, and there remain nothing but heathen, nay, nothing but devils; when jurists disappear, the law disappears, and peace with it….”

So, what does this mean? For contemporary thinking about the relationship between church and state, it means a few things.

  • God’s Word is eternal, but situations faced by governments change. The Holy Spirit brings the scriptures to life through filling the church. God’s Word was, is, and will be. No matter the century or situation, the bible provides a guide for our lives. However, the events of the world are different—however similar they might seem—in time and place. Leaders need to be aware of how their actions benefit or challenge others. It is their calling to ensure justice flows like streams, but there is no one book to instruct them on what specific decisions to make. However, taking many history classes would certainly help. (yes, a shameless plug!).
  • The church can help mold the minds of those that make decisions. Through preaching the Word, producing and leading bible studies, and praying for government leaders on a regular basis, church workers help develop righteous people who strive for justice and peace. This can be done through a variety of media—sermons, books and pamphlets, music, television, radio, podcasts and blogs. The hope is that political leaders would use what they glean from religious sources to make wise decisions to make society function well for all of us.
  • Government leaders should not try to control someone’s conscience. In Luther’s view, it is the church’s duty to instruct us in what God calls us to do. One of Luther’s theological contributions was the idea that we do not need an intermediary—clergy or lay—between us and God for salvation. Working for the good of society should not lead elected or appointed officials to tell us what to think or to shame us into (or from) doing something we believe is wrong (or right). Government leaders trying to legislate morality are usurping the church’s job and taking what they learn from religious sources too far.
  • Church workers have a duty to point out when actions beyond the doors of the church don’t quite match up with the ideas inside the doors. Saying “hatred be damned” in your sermon is perfectly acceptable. Of course, not everyone listens! So, church workers might need to spread their messages in different ways. They could write letters to legislators, post messages on social media, meet with elected officials, or join in marches. However, a worship service should not be a political ad for Candidate X—this disrespects a worshipper who supports Candidate Y.
  • Both church workers and government leaders should respect God’s children. Producing righteous people who make just decisions and maintaining peace among people both demonstrate a respect for all people made in the image of God. To love God is to love your neighbor which is to respect everyone, no matter who they are or what you are doing.

It seems like the relationship between church and state epitomizes the interplay among different people’s vocations. Some are called to shepherd God’s children through church work. Some are called to protect God’s children through making laws, executing laws and interpreting laws. No matter what, we are all are called to act with justice, to love and serve our neighbors, and to walk humbly with God.

Oct. 24, 2017 by Matthew Bloom
Our Mission is Developing Christian Leaders