Text: Romans 13:1-10††††††††††††††††††††††† ††††††††††††††††††††††† ††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† W 17th Sunday after Pentecost
Church and State
In the name him who rules over all Creation, dear friends in Christ:† When attending a social event or a family gathering, conventional wisdom tells us that the two subjects you ought to avoid in conversation are religion and politics.† So, here we are at a public worship service, which could be considered both a social event and a family gathering, and what do you suppose Iíve chosen to talk about today? Thatís right:† religion and politics.† Why would I do a thing like that?† Maybe itís because whatever wisdom I have in unconventional.† Or maybe itís because Iím just conventionally stupid. (This, by the way, is where you are supposed to strongly disagree with me.)
No, the reason Iíll be talking about these two normally taboo subjects is, on one hand, because itís my sacred calling to talk about religion.† You expect that of me.† At least I hope you do.† And the simple truth is that we are religious people living in a very political world Ė so the two subjects often overlap.† Especially now as weíre coming up on a major election, weíre hearing all kinds of voices around us, the voices of pundits, politicians, and media personalities that are talking about the interaction of religion and politics, and sometimes also the interference and confusion of the two.† And this raises a number of questions for us as believers in Jesus.† What is the proper relationship between our faith and politics?† What are the spheres of responsibility of church and state respectively, and how do they differ?† What authority does each of them have?† What are the limits of that authority?† And what do we do when the two come into conflict?
You probably know that various faith traditions answer these questions differently. †In classic or fundamentalist Islam, for example, the church and the state are the same thing.† The religious leaders are the political leaders. And the law of the land is called Sharia, that is, Islamic law drawn straight from the Koran.† It would be like us using the biblical books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy as the basis of our nationís system of justice. So for Muslims, there are no lines between church and state or between religion and politics.† Something similar went on within Christianity in the Middle Ages when popes and bishops frequently had powers that extended well into the civil realm.† They collected taxes, waged wars, and judged criminal cases. †In other places kings were made the head of the national Church. And even today there are people who want to blur the lines between church and government.† On one side youíve got some right wing Evangelicals who are fond of saying that this was once a Christian nation, and theyíd like to make it one again.† Theyíd like to see mandatory prayer and Bible readings as part of every public schoolís curriculum.† On the left youíve got folks like Jesse Jackson and Jeremiah Wright, who, though supposedly pastors of churches, focus most of their time and energy pushing legislation and government programs designed to correct societal ills.† In all these cases, weíve got people who think that church and state should be deeply intertwined.
And then on the opposite end of the spectrum, youíve got those who think the two should be held entirely apart.† Some nonreligious people seem bent on wanting to erase from public view any sign of religious faith.† They tell us, ďBelieve what you want in private; but we donít want to see it or hear about it, nor do we want what you believe to influence any of your decisions or how you vote.Ē† And then youíve got religious people like Amish Christians and members of the Jehovahís Witness cult who believe that the work of government, because it pertains to worldly matters, is inherently evil and therefore is off limits to a person of faith. Members of these groups are prohibited from serving in public office or in the military.† For people who think this way, whether they are religious or not, the so called ďwall of separationĒ between church and state is absolute.† Participation in one excludes participation in the other.
Well, where do we stand in all this?† To find the answers we want to seek the Lordís wisdom in the Holy Scriptures. And it just so happens that todayís Epistle lesson is one of the primary texts that treat the subject.† So, delving into it and some other pertinent texts, letís spend a few moments discovering what the Lord has to say about a Christianís duties with respect to the state and its governing authorities.
But first, as sort of and overall backdrop, itís important to know that as Lutherans, we understand that the Lord operates in the world through his appointed means. For example, we would all agree that the Lord provides food for the worldís people.† And if he wanted to, he could just make it miraculously appear on the plate of everyone who was hungry.† That would be feeding them without means.† And he could do that; but that isnít how he usually operates.† Instead, heís given us the tools and know-how to grow our food from the plants and animals heís given us.† So weíve got farmers who till the soil and plant the fields and harvest the crops.† Weíve got ranchers who raise the livestock.† And the Lord sends the sunshine and the rain that make the crops grow and ripen.† Then too youíve got merchants, transporters, and food preparers that do their work on the food you eat before it gets to your table.† So yes, God feeds you; but he uses all these people and processes as the instruments or means to accomplish the job.
So it is also in the Church.† He could just zap Christian faith into people directly, I suppose, and make them believers; but that isnít how he works.† Instead the Lord brings people like you and me to true knowledge of him and to saving faith in Jesus Ė and preserves us in the same Ė through his appointed means; namely through his Holy Word and the Sacraments of Baptism and the Lordís Supper. Through these means, and the servants he calls to administer them in his Church, Godís Holy Spirit works to bring sinners to repentance and faith.† Through these means the merits of Christís atoning work on the cross are proclaimed to sinners to assure them of Godís forgiveness, to strengthen them in the faith, and to work in them both the will and the power to amend their lives and do works that bring honor and glory to Godís name.
Okay now, in a similar way, God rules over
the entire world and all the nations of men; but he doesnít do it
directly.† We donít see Jesus sitting in
some kind of divine throne room at the United Nations dictating laws and
solving world problems.† Instead, the
Lordís authority is apportioned to heads of state and to national governments
who, whether they know it or not, exercise his authority to maintain law and
order, capture and punish criminals, and provide for the safety and security of
citizens and promote their welfare.
These human leaders and governments are Godís agents, the means,
through which he rules the world Ė specifically in an external, legal sort of
way.† This is precisely what Paul is
saying in the Scripture we heard from his letter to the Christians in
But wait a minute, you might be inclined to think, what if the leaders are unbelievers? What if they are wicked people who make mistakes and rule unjustly?† Well, what if they are?† Does it make any difference to you what god the people who grow your food worship? Does it make any difference to you how they behave or what immoral choices they make?† No.† And yet the Lord uses them to feed you.† Or here in the Church, the Lord uses these sinful hands to Baptize and distribute Christís body and blood.† He uses these sinful lips to declare his forgiveness in Jesus to you.† Does the fact that I am a sinner who (now hold on to your hats because some of you might not believe it) sometimes makes mistakes; does that in any way diminish the truth of Godís Word or the forgiveness he declares to you through me?† No. Nor would it if I didnít believe a word of it myself.† Godís truth is Godís truth regardless of who declares it.††
††††††††††† In the same way, Godís authority is
Godís authority regardless of who wields it.
And when you think about it, since the Lord has chosen to use human
leaders and governments to rule on his behalf, he really has no choice but to
use wicked sinners who can and often do make mistakes.† That does not negate the fact that they are
Godís servants to whom we, as Christian citizens, owe our obedience, the
respect due their offices, and, as
††††††††††† And I hasten to add that this is
true regardless of what kind of government we have or how itís organized.† Some American Christians seem to think that
the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution were handed down at
Sinai along with Godís Word.† It didnít
happen that way.† They are not divinely
inspired documents.† And while we may
prefer our form of government over other forms, the truth is that on this earth
there is no perfect government, and the Lord can rule equally well through
hereditary monarchs, despots and dictators, and elected presidents, parliaments,
and congresses Ė which is why too you can have faithful Christians who are
submissive to their respective governments in every nation on earth.† Interestingly enough, when Paul wrote to the
††††††††††† And that leads us to ask what exactly is the authority of the state and where does it end?† Paul says that it is the bearer of the sword.† That is to say to the state is given the authority to use force, deadly force if necessary, to maintain peace and order in the nation.† Itís Godís authority to arrest people who break laws, imprison or otherwise punish them, and in capital cases put them to death. Itís also the authority to wage war in the defense and best interest of the nation.† So the police officer who shoots an armed bank robber, and the executioner who flips the switch on a convicted murderer, and the soldier who kills enemy combatants on the battlefield are acting on Godís authority and doing his will.† And a Christian citizen can perform any of those roles Ė or any other valid government role like serving in office, collecting taxes, judging legal cases, what have you Ė with a clean conscience.
††††††††††† The authority of the state ends,
however, precisely where it comes into conflict with Godís Word.† Since the authority of the state comes from
God, it is manifestly obvious that it oversteps its authority when it dictates
and attempts to enforce laws that contradict Godís Word.† At that point a Christian citizen must refuse
to obey even while remaining submissive to all the other laws that do not
contradict Godís Word.† The book of
Daniel gives us some clear examples of this.
When Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, all of whom were government
††††††††††† That informs us as well.† Paulís whole point is that we, as Christians, ought to be model citizens.† Thatís because we recognize the divinely derived authority of the state and a higher set of laws.† We are simultaneously citizens of two kingdoms: a physical one on earth and the spiritual kingdom of heaven Ė which is the Church of Jesus Christ. Normally, thereís no conflict between the two; but if rulers or human governments attempt to force us to do whatís immoral or to comply with orders that violate Godís law, we must decline Ė even if it means weíll be punished for it.† So, a Christian soldier ordered to execute prisoners of war, or a Christian doctor told that he must perform abortions, or a pastor told that he must officiate at immoral wedding services Ė in such cases the answer is, ďNo.Ē† And if we are punished for doing what is right, well, we are to commend the matter and our well-being to the Lord.
††††††††††† And while weíre speaking of the limits of the stateís authority, it needs to be said that itís not the governmentís job to proclaim the Gospel. Jesus said, ďMy kingdom is not of this world.Ē† It may be tempting for well intentioned Christians to use the stateís power of coercion to Ö what, shall we say, ďencourageĒ people to become Christians?† Negatively this might be done at gunpoint. Positively it might be done by giving tax breaks or other benefits.† Sadly, such attempts have been made by some in the past; but this is an abuse of the stateís power and a violation of Godís Word.† Besides, it doesnít work.† People donít come to faith in Christ by the carrot or the stick.† The Lord builds his kingdom by his Word and Spirit alone, not by any kind of external force.
††††††††††† All this having been said, we know
that we are very blessed to live in a nation that allows us the freedoms we
enjoy, and in particular our religious freedom.
We are right to be thankful for it.
But whether or not we continue to enjoy these freedoms, and regardless
of who is elected to rule over us, itís appropriate that we pray for the
security and prosperity of the nation, and ask the Lord to bless its
leaders.† And we should be model
citizens, serving others in whatever capacity weíre called to even as Christ
our Lord served us.† And too, because we
do live in a democracy, itís incumbent upon us to use the right we have to vote
to support leaders and policies that reflect our Christian values.† What we donít want to do is look to the state
for our ultimate security, well being, or salvation.† That we already have in Christ alone.† So, letís give the state its due and keep
asking God to bless
Soli Deo Gloria!