Church, Government and Advocacy

Augsburg Confession

Article XVI: Of Civil Affairs.

Of Civil Affairs they teach that lawful civil ordinances are good works of God, and that it is right for Christians to bear civil office, to sit as judges, to judge matters by the Imperial and other existing laws, to award just punishments, to engage in just wars, to serve as soldiers, to make legal contracts, to hold property, to make oath when required by the magistrates, to marry a wife, to be given in marriage.

Dr. Robert Tuttle, Lutheran, lawyer and professor at George Washington School of Law, says this article is revolutionary for three reasons:

1. Gift: Government is viewed as a divine gift. Due to war, famine and black plague the death rate during the Reformation was astronomical. There was incredible social dislocation. Government’s role in addressing these needs is confirmed. We have also known social dislocation in our age. Consider Somalia. Liberia. Civil government Is a blessing, when it does what it should do. As a church we have a responsibility to support and pray for civic leaders, building up they vocation.

Luther: “God gives us food, house and home through civil rulers.” (Paraphrased from the Large Catechism)

Those who serve are called to difficult work. It’s a challenging vocation, wrought with uncertainty. Read Book 19 of Augustine’s “City of God.” We begin by respecting the difficulty of political judgements, and honor the vocation of those who serve in the public sphere.

2. Trust: Civil government is a gift, but it is also a trust. A trust, in legal terms, is a gift given for purposes and for beneficiaries. Limits are imposed.

One crucial limit of civil authority is that it does not have jurisdiction over religion. We have “secular” government. This does not mean religion and government do not speak to one another, just that they don’t have jurisdiction over one another. The church cannot dictate laws. The government cannot determine faith.

So we thank God or civil government, but we recognize that it is limited. Government does the work of God, but it does not reveal God or teach us about God. We must beware of the government tendency to use religion as a tool for its purposes. Nazi Germany is the most poignant example.

The authority of government lies in the consent of the governed, not by divine right. Religious institutions have a vibrant role. The church cannot make laws, but it must not be silent.

We acknowledge the accountability of religious institutions to civil law. Zoning, building regulations and so forth. The two kingdoms does not mean churches are exempt from the laws of the land. Sexual abuse is an excellent example. Tuttle, though, believes that the exemption of clergy housing allowance from federal taxation is unconstitutional. He bets it cannot and will not ever be litigated.

3. Duty of loyalty. Trustees have the duty of care and loyalty. With this comes great discretion. Courts will not intervene. Input from religious institutions on how to care is appropriate. Critique is fair.

The duty of loyalty is different. A crucial part of advocacy is calling those who serve to attend to those for whom they care. The church has a responsibility to speak for those who are least likely to be at the table. The rich and powerful have says to get their interests represented and needs met. The poor and powerless do not. The church has a particular responsibility to do this work.

Given that 1/5 children in the U.S. live in poverty, are we meeting our obligation to speak for the most vulnerable?

About michaelrinehart

Bishop of the Texas Louisiana Gulf Coast Synod, of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
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