A Lutheran Perspective on the Refugee Crisis and Immigration

With the current refugee crisis and immigration issues at the forefront of the news, I thought it might be helpful to provide a Lutheran perspective on these.  I’ll caution up-front, though, that I won’t be providing “the answer.”  Instead, what I hope to do is provide a theological framework for thinking about the issues.  I also want to stress that well-meaning Christians can disagree on these issues and that no one side of the debate owns the “Christian response” to the problem.

There are a couple of premises which underlie my thinking on these issues which would be helpful to explain at the beginning.  The first concerns the distinction between Law and Gospel and the second concerns the proper roles of Civil Government and the Church.  I’ll cover each in turn.

Lutherans make a strong distinction between the two parts of God’s Word: Law and Gospel.  Together, these can be considered the “whole counsel of God” (cf. Acts 20:27, Hebrews 4:12).  The Law is God’s Word which commands, demands, or threatens.  It has three functions:

  1. Restrain outward sin: This function is for all people.  God has written his Law on our hearts (natural law), so all people are subject to it (cf. Romans 2:15).  The purpose of the Law in this area is to keep order and peace in the world.
  2. Reveal our sin: This function is for all people.  God’s Law serves as a mirror by which we can judge our actions.  If we are honest with ourselves when looking in this mirror, then we realize that we are sinners who cannot save ourselves from our sin.  The purpose here is to drive us to seek God’s forgiveness, which we receive through the Gospel.
  3. Show us what is pleasing to God: This function is for Christians.  Once we are brought to faith in and through the Gospel, then we want to know how we can live in a manner which is pleasing to God.  God’s revealed Law shows us how we are to live (i.e. the Ten Commandments).

There’s more that can be said, but for our purposes later, the first function (restrain outward sin) will be helpful to keep in mind.

The Gospel, then, is God’s Word of promise of salvation through Jesus Christ.  The Law shows us our sin, and the Gospel forgives it.  Salvation is more than just a personal issue.  It involves reconciliation between us and God, among us as people, and between us and creation itself.  This is because at the resurrection we will be fully restored and live directly with God in His restored creation as His people, with no sin, death, or the devil to get in the way.  We have a foretaste of this even now in the community of the Church.

So, that’s the first premise reading to Law and Gospel.

The second premise concerns the proper roles of Civil Government and the Church.  In Lutheran circles these two areas are often referred to as the “Two Kingdoms” or “Two Realms.”  The point is that God rules over all things, and Civil Government is His “Left Hand Realm” and the Church is His “Right Hand Realm.”  Each Realm of His rule is given different commissions or roles to fulfill.  (I’ll also note that by “Church” I mean the one “holy universal church” which we confess in the Creed, not a particular denomination.)

The role of Civil Government (God’s Left Hand Realm) is to enforce order, create peace, promote justice, and punish evil.  To do so, God gives Civil Government the power of the sword.  Thus, Civil Government is tasked with carrying out the first function of the Law discussed above.  Martin Luther, interestingly enough, traced Civil Government’s authority to parental authority.  That is, parents essentially cede some of their authority (derived from the Fourth Commandment to “honor your mother and father”) to government so that society can be properly ordered.

The role of the Church (God’s Right Hand Realm) is to forgive sins through the proclamation of the Gospel.  It needs to use the Law at times as well (the 2nd and 3rd functions listed above), but the purpose of the Law in this context is always to drive people to repentance so that they receive the Gospel as the “Good News” that it is.  The Church is also Christ’s body and so is his instrument of love and care in the world.

So, Civil Government’s principal weapon is the sword, and the Church’s is the Gospel.  Each has its proper role to play within God’s creation.  Thus, it would be improper for the Church to force people to believe or obey it (i.e. the Church is not to use the sword).  It would also be improper for Civil Government to do the same (i.e. using the sword to force people to believe a certain way), or for Civil Government to try to use the Gospel in dealing with matters within its sphere.

As a simple example, a repentant criminal can receive the forgiveness of God by the Church (i.e. the Gospel), but still must face the punishment of Civil Government.  This is a real issue with which pastors deal quite frequently; i.e. forgiving the sin of people on behalf of Christ while those people must still be subject to governmental justice.  It is also worth remembering that Christians are citizens of both realms simultaneously; i.e. part of the Church while also citizens of their country.

Within this context then, we can think about the refugee crisis and immigration.  In doing so, I’ll restrict the scope to just the United States, although it can also apply to other countries.

The central issues concerning both refugees and immigrants seem to be:

  • Do we admit refugees and immigrants into this country?
  • If so, how many and from where?
  • Under what conditions?
  • By what process?
  • Should we be concerned about their backgrounds (e.g. especially when refugees are coming, by definition, from war-torn countries)?

Most would probably agree that we should admit some number of refugees and immigrants into the United States.  The arguments, then, center around the remaining points.

If Civil Government’s role is to enforce order, create peace, promote justice, and punish evil, then I think it can be seen that it has a vested interest in these issues.  If the Church’s role is to proclaim the Gospel and be Christ’s hands of mercy, then it also has a vested interest in these issues.

It’s for this reason, then, that there is such division within the wider Church on what to do about refugees and immigrants.  Some argue for nearly unrestricted flows into this country, while others want more controls and checks.  In making these arguments, both sides are emphasizing certain points, without realizing it at times, of the roles of Civil Government and the Church which I mentioned above.  Thus, good, well-meaning Christians on both sides can disagree on these issues.

What’s a good, well-meaning Christian to do, then?  For one, pray.  Pray to our Lord that all things are done according to His will.  Pray for our leaders that they carry out their vocations faithfully.  Pray for those affected by war and poverty that the Lord watch over them and guide them.  Pray for the Church that she maintain the purity of her Gospel witness in difficult times.  Pray for Civil Government that it faithfully carry out its God-given role in the world.  Also, contact your representatives to make your voices heard, and find ways to help the refugees even as they are in their home countries.

I mentioned at the beginning that I wouldn’t be providing “the answer.”  In truth, there is no one answer.  That’s how life tends to be, really: various shades of gray with difficult decisions required to judge between options which are less than ideal .  If everything were easy, we’d already be in paradise.  Instead, we now live in a fallen world in which our choices are often between two or more less-then-optimal alternatives.  We therefore pray that we are given the wisdom to navigate within these shades of gray, placing our trust in the Lord’s guidance and His promise to one day complete His restoration of His creation.


(Image of Evangelical-Augsburg church in Zamarski, Poland – Luther Rose above the entrance; by commons:Schweppes / pl-wiki: Schweppes (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)