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What Luther Says

Church & State: 'Luther Led The Way'

I've noticed a trend.

The very few times that I've actually written anything explicitly political, I've seen a sharp decrease in visitors to this website in the days and first week immediately following such a piece being published.

I don't want to speculate about what that might mean, but I also don't want to give the impression like I'm somehow questioning the "genuineness" of a person's Christian faith depending on the political candidate they choose to vote for...unless, of course, you're a Christian who is unashamedly voting for the pro-abortion and pro-homosexual candidate.

Today, I want to take a different approach and publish a less opinionated political piece. I thought it would be helpful to take a look at a letter that President Rev. Matthew C. Harrison wrote back in March that we would be wise to prayerfully consider the closer we get to the U.S. Presidential Election in November.

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 Bible as 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 through the Apology of the 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

Yes, that was a little lengthy, but it was more than a just little necessary in light of the current political climate in this country, especially on the heals of yesterday's post and reaction it received.

In a Lutheran layman's terms, 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 Christ's Church are silent) to skew our theology and alter the faithfulness of the truth that we believe, teach, and confess.

NOTE: Please understand that I'm not a called and ordained minister of God's Word and Sacraments. I'm a layman or just a regular Christian, Corporate Recruiter, Husband, Father, Friend who lives in the "City of Good Neighbors" here on the East Coast. As another Christian Blogger once wrote, "Please do not see this blog as me attempting to 'publicly teach' the faith, but view it as an informal Public Journal of sorts about my own experiences and journey, and if any of my notes here help you in any way at all, then I say, 'Praise the Lord!' but please do double check them against the Word of God and with your own Pastor." To be more specific, and relevant to the point I want to make with this disclaimer/note, please understand that I'm a relatively new convert to Confessional Lutheran who recently escaped American Evangelicalism a little more than 3 years ago now. That being said, please contact me ASAP if you believe that any of my "old beliefs" seem to have crept their way into any of the material you see published here, and especially if any of the content is inconsistent with our Confessions and Lutheran doctrine (in other words, if it's not consistent with God's Word, which our Confessions merely summarize and repeatedly point us back to over and over again) so that I can correct those errors immediately and not lead any of His little ones astray (James 3:1). Also, please be aware that you might also discover that some of the earlier/older pieces I wrote for this blog back in 2013 definitely fall into that "Old Evangelical Adam" category (and they don't have a disclaimer like this) since I was a "Lutheran-In-Name-Only" at the time and was completely oblivious to the fact that a Christian "Book of Concord" even existed (Small/Large Catechism? What's that!?!). This knowledge of the Lutheran basics was completely foreign to me even though I was baptized, confirmed, and married in an LCMS church! So, there are some entries that are a little "out there" so-to-speak since the subject matter was also heavy influenced by those old beliefs of mine. I know that now and I'm still learning. Anyway, I decided to leave those published posts up on this website and in cyberspace only because they are not blasphemous/heretical, because I now have this disclaimer, and only to demonstrate the continuing work of Christ and the Holy Spirit in my life (Hebrews 12:2; Philippians 1:6). Most importantly, please know that any time I engage in commenting on and/or interpreting a specific portion of the holy Scriptures, it will always closely follow the verse-by-verse footnotes from my Lutheran Study Bible and/or include references to the Book of Concord unless otherwise noted. Typically, I defer to what other Lutheran Pastors both past and present have already preached and taught about such passages since they are the called and ordained under-shepherds of our souls here on earth. Finally, I'm going to apologize ahead of time for the length of most entries (this disclaimer/note is a perfect example of what I mean! haha). I'm well aware that blogs should be short, sweet, and to the point, but I've never been one to follow the rules when it comes to writing. Besides, this website is more like a "Christian Dude's Diary" in the sense that everything I write about and share publicly isn't always what's "popular" or "#trending" at the time, but is instead all the things that I'm studying myself at the moment. For better or for worse, these posts tend to be much longer than most blog entries you'll find elsewhere only because I try to pack as much info as possible into a single piece so that I can refer to it again and again over time if I need to (and so that it can be a valuable resource for others -- if possible, a "One-Stop-Shop" of sorts). Thank you for stopping by and thank you in advance for your time, help, and understanding. Feel free to comment/email me at any time. Grace and peace to you and yours!


About JKR

Christian. Husband. Father. Friend.

1 comment

  1. For the last decade or so, it seems that"The lesser of two evils" mantra has applied to our election system. While that may seem defeatist, I think that there alternative of not voting is akin to wasting the resources we have been given. As we are called to be good stewards of our resources; then we should vote. That said; Harrison made me consider some other points I had not considered and realize that I do often look at people through the lens of politics, instead of trying to observe with the eyes and heart God has blessed us with. Thanks for this post.


Thank you for visiting A Lutheran Layman! Please feel free to leave a comment or a question since we do not exercise censorship. We've seen a similar policy with other blogs and it's worth repeating: Please act as if you're a guest in my home, and we'll get along just fine. I think anyone would agree that the kind of back-and-forth that is characteristic of blogs/chat forums and social media is becoming tiresome for all of us. Still, we should confess, edify, and love (and contend and defend when needed). Bottom line? Search the Scriptures! Apply Acts 17:11 to anything and everything you find here and, if you do happen to disagree with something you find here (which is certainly ok), or think I'm "irresponsible" and "wrong" for writing it, then please refute my position by supporting yours with Scripture and/or the Confessions. I don't think that's an unreasonable request, especially for those who identify themselves as "Christians" here, right? Besides, Proverbs 27:17 tells us "Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another" and 2 Timothy 3:16 says, "all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness." If you have an opinion that's great, I welcome it, but try to support it using God's Word. I mean, if the goal here is to help us all arrive at the truth of God's Word (myself included), then it should be easy to follow through on this one simple request (I'm talking to all you "Anonymous" visitors out there). Grace and peace to you and yours!

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