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Church and state

By His almighty power, God created all things and by that power He continues to uphold creation for mankind, the crown of His creation. As Creator He is concerned about both the spiritual and physical wellbeing of humankind. That we live in harmony with God and with one another was His intention from the beginning. Lutheran theology speaks of two kingdoms, both from God, which are given for our wellbeing: the civil estate and the spiritual estate. How these two kingdoms relate to each other and how we, as believers, relate to the civil estate is the subject of this teaching.

Because we live in a fallen world God has established the rule of authority. This was necessary because not only does our sinful nature separate us from God, but also from one another. God established governing authorities to make it possible for sinful people to live in relative peace and harmony. Often we see what can happen when authority is overthrown and a stable replacement is not quickly found. Anarchy reigns supreme. The purpose of government, therefore is to protect lives and property and to keep people safe as they pursue their daily labours.

Scripture makes it clear that such authority comes from God. Romans 13:1 tells us: "the authorities that exist have been established by God." Therefore, Paul continues in the next verse by saying: "he who rebels against authority is rebelling against what God has instituted..." In 1 Timothy 2:2 we are told the reason government exists: "that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness." Government has the right to establish laws (1 Peter 2:13), to punish those who do wrong (1 Peter 2:14), to levy taxes (Matt. 22:17-21; Romans 13:6-7), and to wage just wars for the protection of its people. (Romans 13:4)

The Lutheran Confessions affirm the Scriptural testimony. Article 16 of the Augsburg Confession (AC) states: "Our churches teach that lawful civil regulations are good works of God. They teach that it is right for Christians to hold political office, to serve as judges, to judge matters by Imperial laws and other existing laws, to impose just punishments, to engage in just wars, to serve as soldiers..."

While the civil estate has God's authority to impose order, it is incapable of changing the heart. For this purpose God has established the spiritual estate. The purpose of Christ's church is to spread the Gospel of Jesus throughout the whole world (Matt. 28:18-20; Mark 16:16) so that people's hearts may be changed. Jesus called people to repentance and He forgave their sins. And He gave His church that same authority: "If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven" (John 20:22-23). The exercise of this authority is done publicly through pastors who are called to administer this special authority on behalf of the congregation.

The Lutheran Confessions describe the church's authority this way: "Our teachers' position is this: the authority of the Keys, or the authority of the bishops—according to the Gospel—is a power or commandment of God, to preach the Gospel, to forgive and retain sins, and to administer Sacraments" (AC XXVIII).

It is important that the church does not assume for itself the authority God has invested in the government and that the state does not assume the authority God has given the church. "There has been great controversy about the power of the bishops, in which some have terribly confused the power of the Church with the power of the State. This confusion has produced great war and riot...This is how our teachers distinguish between the duties of these two authorities. They command that both be honoured and acknowledged as God's gifts and blessings" (AC XXVIII).

As Christians living in this world, we know we are pilgrims and this earth is not our home. As citizens of heaven we have both the responsibility and the joy of spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ, of forgiving those who sin against us and supporting one another in the faith. However, as long as we are in this world, we are also citizens of the nation we live in and have responsibility to obey and honour the authority God has established. We may exercise our responsibility as citizens by participating in elections, holding office, serving as elected representatives and participating in the public discussion of moral and even political issues.

God has given us two orders for our wellbeing. Both estates exist under His authority to serve the physical and spiritual needs of all.

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