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Christians and the State

Pastor Robin Fish
Shaped by the Cross Lutheran Church  
Laurie, MO

view DOC file

Mon, Jul 1, 2013 

This month the big day is the Fourth of July.  Some churches have special services for the day, which seems somewhat confusing to me.  Of course, We have a great deal to thank God for in this most favored nation, but a worship service for a secular holiday tends to diminish the religious holidays (some of which no longer rate a worship service in many churches) and confuse the Christian faith with that popular civil religion that views all religions as equal and, in fact, as manifestations of the same religion, worshiping the same God.  No one who knows the truth wants to do that.  The God we worship is unique - since He is the only one that actually exists, and He does not want His people confused about who He is or making it unclear to others that He is not just like (or another manifestation of) any other deity that people choose to invent and worship.  God put that thought like this in Isaiah 42:8, "I am the LORD, that is My name; I will not give My glory to another, Nor My praise to graven images."

The Independence Day holiday does give us the occasion to consider issues of Church and State, nonetheless.  There has been a lot of controversy over the role and rights of a Christian in regards to the secular society - which I will casually refer to as the state, here.  The principles which should guide our interaction with the state are constant, but the opportunities and challenges of our time and place in history and politics are not always the same as they were in previous times and places.  There is no uniquely "American" form of Christianity, although we often face conditions and opportunities that are not common for Christians elsewhere.

I spent hours, a couple of days worth of them, reading a meager selection of available documents concerning the Christian and the state: i.e., portions of the Lutheran Confessions (particularly - though not exclusively - the Large Catechism), selections of Luther's Works, CTCR documents on the topic from the last fifty years or so, and some other Lutheran opinions.  It would take more space than this article will to merely list all of the available materials by title.  There is no true consensus on this issue, so read my words with that thought in mind.  Nevertheless, I will attempt to lay a clear and reliable path for your patriotic consideration.

First, we begin with a principle on which many disagree: the church as church has no business in the arena of politics. The Church has one mission: to proclaim the Gospel, that is, to distribute God's riches through Word and Sacrament.  Denominations, districts (by whatever name), and congregations have no legitimate business taking stands or doing advocacy on any political issue - except for the purpose of teaching, and then only on issues clearly addressed or address-able by Scripture, such as abortion or the fundamental morality of homosexuality.  Even then, the church should remember the Gospel when addressing individuals involved as it proclaims the law addressing issues as moral issues.

Christians, as individual people, have a duty to be involved in speaking to various civil issues and the privilege, in this society in particular, of participating in activities to address these issues and their repercussions in society.  Some confessional groups (church bodies or denominations) deny by their doctrine the right of a Christian to be involved in the secular state.  They teach that any involvement in the political world is unchristian and contrary to the will of God for His people.  On the other hand there are those who feel that the purpose of the church is to "Christianize" the world around us, that is, make it outwardly conform more closely to the will of God (as they perceive it).  Both of those extremes are wrong.

The Word of God does not prohibit the people of God from serving in public office.  We can work as judges, administrators, elected officials, appointed officials, or whatever other work we may legally be called upon to do as a member of the government.  We can serve in advocacy groups, publicity agencies or whatever, as long as our work is within the scope of the law and does not require us to sin.  Among the people of God in the Bible have been kings and slaves, commanders of armies and foot-soldiers of every rank.  It is neither more holy or less holy to serve in the government, or the military.  The single caution is that we are to serve in whatever our position with all of our ability as though serving God - because we are.  As Christians we serve God by serving our fellow people, our neighbors and our brothers (and sisters, of course).

As citizens, we who are believers are to be faithful and exemplary.  We are called by God to live within the laws of the land in which we live.  This serves to the glory of God and the blessing of our neighbors.  There are only a precious few reasons for a Christian to disobey or disregard a law.  One is when the law in question (or the authority making a demand on us) would require us to do something contrary to the will of God (that means, "to sin").  Another, is a law requiring us to not do something right, something we may not omit without sin.  Again, when any law or authority forbids us to believe, or to worship God, we must disregard that law.  An example of this sort of problem in our time might be recent news reports of people losing their jobs for saving the life of another (while on the job), because by doing so they violated a company policy.  In any such cases, we would fall under the general rule of Acts 5:29, "We must obey God rather than men."

Scripture teaches us that civil authority is a minister of God for the maintenance of order and the promotion of civic righteousness, or, for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right.  If we oppose the authority of the government, we are also opposing God Himself, for He has established the authority of the government.  That is why there are so few Lutheran revolutionaries (and properly so!).  Most of the literature I read as I prepared to write this article noted what they called "Lutheran Quietism" in regards to revolutions and social upheavals.  The nearer to our modern day the writing was done, of course, the more disapproving the writers sounded, culminating in open condemnation (by some) of that attitude in the most recent pieces.  The Biblical respect for authority as being established by God has diminished in the light of the spirit of our modern age.

But not here.  God has established the conditions of our lives and our society. The difficult parts of it, and the obnoxious rules, and the unwelcome demands are all part of the cross that we are to bear as God's people.  He is still using the wickedness of the wicked and the pains of life to accomplish His will and drive His people where they do not want to go to do the things He would have them do.  We have the right to seek redress for wrongs, to petition the government to change laws, and to work to transform our society by all legal means.  But what we cannot change, or has not been changed yet, we must endure.  We are to obey the law.  Our good citizenship demonstrates the true nature of God's people.  Our patience under that which is not just or right, but has the legal authority of the government, demonstrates our humility and obedience before God, and reflects Christ's patience.

Is government always right?  NO.  Will the government always be faithful in doing what God has given it the authority to do?  NO.  Do those facts give us the right to break the law and do what we think we ought to do instead of what we are called on by God to do?  NO.  Let every person be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God.  It might be helpful to remember that those words of Romans 13:1 were written during a time of growing persecution under a government much more totalitarian and brutal than ours in America today.  Paul did not write those words because they were easy or comfortable.  He wrote them by inspiration - and he was executed by the very government he was instructing others to be in subjection to.

What I teach in this matter is not the majority opinion in the modern church.  Many seem to have lost sight of the mission of the church.  They believe God placed us here to make others more comfortable, to promote a just society here on earth, to combat the outward forces of evil (as they understand them to be) in this world.  They must have missed the instruction to make disciples, to preach and to teach Christ and the grace of God, and encourage trust in Him.  When that happens, our human values and judgements become our guide.  If you study the history of church activism in society, you will find that what the activists in the church fought for in the past has often changed, and the judgement of a later day will sometimes condemn what was praised and encouraged in an earlier age.  It becomes clear fairly quickly that such activism seeks to make Man god and dismisses God altogether.

Look at our modern causes: homosexual rights, feminism, Liberation theology, economic "justice", environmentalism, climate change, zero population growth.  Each one has been picked up by activists in the church and pushed as though it is 'only Christian faithfulness' to follow the latest progressive agenda, supported by questionable exegesis and convoluted theology.  Now, oftentimes there is a bit of common sense in part of what the cause espouses, and one should consider what is good stewardship in this regard or that, but the various causes always seem to share this, they take Christ out of the center of the life of the Church, and of the Christian, and put the "cause" there.  We need remember that the church is here to proclaim repentance for the forgiveness of sins, not economics or environmentalism.  We are here to reach out with God's grace so that by all means, some might be saved.  We are not here to repair the world, which is a passing thing, or to make the road to hell more comfortable for those who are traveling it.

God has the world in hand, and it will not run out until He says so, and, as Jesus said, the poor will always be with us.  None of that is to suggest that we cannot exercise care of our resources or do works of mercy on earth, it just means that we must put first things first.  The Gospel is the center of the life of the church, both in Word and Sacrament.  Our relationship with God must undergird our conduct in society.  We live as good citizens because God is the one who put the "authorities" in charge, even when they were not the ones we voted for!  The laws may even be unreasonable or stupid, but we obey them as long as they do not command us to do evil or forbid that which is right and good.

Civil disobedience is widely accepted in our society.  Even our Missouri Synod makes allowances for it, unwisely and unfaithfully, in my opinion.  Of course, we have a multitude of programs that work on the premise that God's Word is not sufficient, and that WE must do something and make things happen.  The "experts" appear to think that God cannot be trusted and we have to fix things for Him.  Civil disobedience is only appropriate when we are commanded to sin or forbidden to do what we must and ought to do.  And then it is to be done with the commitment that whatever befalls us for our disobedience is the cross appointed.  We dare not assert the right to misbehave with impunity when we disregard the God-given authority.  Even when we obey God rather than men, the consequences that befall us are the cross appointed, and part of our testimony and our confession of Christ.

Luther has been the focus of a great deal of criticism for about five hundred years for telling the peasants (during the peasant's rebellion) that their demands for concessions from the nobility were not Christian.  He acknowledged their grievances.  He wrote to the nobility that they were wrong and that their unjust behavior was going to bring them troubles and sorrows, but he also told the peasants that their "demands" were not Christian.  They were usurping God's place and God's judgment and deciding what they should and would endure, what was right and what must change, rather than humbling themselves before God.  They were right to complain formally.  They were right to ask for a change.  They only acted in an unchristian manner when they threatened to overthrown the civil order unless their grievances were acknowledged to be right, and their demands were met.

Luther was sympathetic, but he was not a revolutionary.  He confronted the political issues of his day theologically.  His was not the majority opinion then, and it is not today.  I admire his take on things, though.  God gives us our life in the place and circumstances in which we live.  It is presumptuous (easy to do but really presumptuous) to assume that God does not know where we are or what is going on, and cannot effect the changes we would like to see, if they were His will.  It is idiolatry to presume that we know better than God how things should be.  This year we should celebrate the Fourth of July by following Peter's instruction, Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time.

Yours in the Lord,

Pastor Fish

These sermons are for the Church. If you find it useful, go ahead and use it -- but give credit where credit is due. Shaped by the Cross Lutheran Church's Website can be found by clicking here.

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