Joel D. Otto
There has always been tension between the church and government. At various times and places in history, the government has tried to wipe out the church. At other times, the government has tried to use the church for its purposes. Eventually, the church started carrying out a governmental role and even tried to bend the government to its will, attempting to use the government to carry out the church’s work. Popes crowned emperors. Kings vowed to defend the church. Popes and bishops ruled territory and led armies. Conflicts arose over who should appoint church leaders: the church or the government. The result was confusion between the church’s work and the government’s work.
Martin Luther and his fellow reformers went back to the Scriptures to sort out this confusion. God carries out his work for the benefit of his believers and for the good of his whole creation in two different kingdoms or realms.
On the one hand, God has established his church, and through the church’s work he cares for our souls (Matthew 16:17-19; Hebrews 13:7,17; Acts 20:28; 1 Timothy 4:15). He brings people to faith through the Word and sacraments (Romans 1:16; Romans 10:17; 1 Peter 1:23; Titus 3:5; Ephesians 5:25-27). He strengthens his church and comforts his people through the work he has given the church to do (Matthew 28:19; Mark 16:15; Luke 24:46-48; 2 Corinthians 5:19-21).
On the other hand, God has established government, and through the government’s work he cares for our bodies (1 Peter 2:13,14; Romans 13:1,2). He maintains peace and order in society through laws; he protects people’s physical well-being through the enforcement of laws (Romans 13:3-7).
True Lutherans have historically tried to avoid using governmental force to further the cause of the gospel, while also recognizing that Christians may serve in the government and be served by the government. True Lutherans have also attempted to avoid the confusion of the two kingdoms. The church and the government each have their own distinct mission and distinct ways to carry out that mission. As God’s children, we live in both kingdoms and strive to be obedient servants in the church and to the government.
The Augsburg Confession stated it well:
Now inasmuch as the power of the church . . . bestows eternal benefits and is used and exercised only through the office of preaching, it does not interfere at all with public order and secular authority. For secular authority deals with matters altogether different from the gospel. Secular power does not protect the soul but, using the sword and physical penalties, it protects the body and goods against external violence.
That is why one should not mix or confuse the two authorities, the spiritual and the secular. For spiritual power has its command to preach the gospel and to administer the sacraments. . . . It should not annul or disrupt secular law and obedience to political authority. It should not make or prescribe laws for the secular power concerning secular affairs. . . .
In this way our people distinguish the offices of the two authorities and powers and direct that both be honored as the highest gifts of God on earth. (XXVIII:10-13,18)
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER
1. List at least five blessings we receive from God through the church’s work and through the government’s work.
Blessings through the church’s work include the following:
● The forgiveness of sins.
● Strengthening of faith.
● Comfort in the face of temptation, doubt, guilt, or trouble.
● Encouragement from fellow believers.
● Opportunities to serve.
● Opportunities to carry out the church’s mission.
Blessings through the government’s work include the following:
● The freedom to worship (in some nations).
● Safety and security (police and fire departments; court system).
● Peace and order.
● Military protection from enemies.
● Roads and other infrastructure.
In both of these lists, there are others that you may think of.
2. Explain and apply Jesus’ words in Matthew 22:15-22.
During Holy Week, the “Herodians,” men who supported the Roman government,
presented Jesus with a question intending to trap him. Should the Jews pay taxes to the Roman government? If Jesus said, no, they could arrest him on charges of sedition and treason. If Jesus said yes, they hoped that this would discredit him with many of the Jews who despised Roman rule.
Jesus’ answer demonstrated how Christians live in two kingdoms. We owe obedience
to God. We also owe obedience to the government. By obeying the government, we are
obeying God since he has commanded such obedience (see Romans 13:1-7).
How does this apply? For example, as Christians, we know that God owns everything
because he created all things (Psalm 24:1). In loving thankfulness, we give generous
offerings as a sacrifice of praise to our gracious God. But we also owe taxes. We pay our taxes honestly. This is obeying the government. It is also giving “to God what is God’s,” since God has commanded that we pay the taxes we owe.
3. Read Acts 5:17-42. What circumstances demand that Christians disobey the government? What should such disobedience look like?
The high priest and a segment of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council, had
arrested the apostles because they were speaking about Jesus. They had ordered the
apostles not to preach the gospel. The apostles refused to comply. They were flogged,
but they kept preaching and teaching the good news about Jesus.
Christians must disobey the government when the government gives a clear
command to do something that violates a clear command of God. In the case of the
apostles, Jesus had commanded them to preach the gospel. The order of the high priest
clearly contradicted the Great Commission. Thankfully, at least in the United States, the government has not placed such a burden on us.
But if the government does command us to disobey one of God’s clear commands, we
must disobey the government. Like the apostles, we must be ready to suffer the
consequences for such disobedience. We may need to leave the country. We may resort
to passive resistance. But such disobedience should not take the form of violent
rebellion. We never see the apostles arming themselves with swords.
Contributing editor Joel Otto, a professor at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, Mequon, Wisconsin, is a member at Salem, Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
This is the 12th article in a 14-part series on key doctrinal emphases that Luther brought back to light through the Reformation. Find this article and answers online after Sept. 5.
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Author: Joel D. Otto
Volume 104, Number 9
Issue: September 2017
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