As Christians, we are sometimes shy about getting involved in governmental affairs. Certain denominations tend to be more involved, such as Baptists, while others (especially Lutherans) tend to shy away from government. In America, in particular, we have all been taught in school about the “separation between church and state.” This is often taken to mean that church and state have nothing to do with each other.
Yet, if we step back and view the world through a Biblical lens, then we begin to see the fallacy in this way of thinking. For God is not just the God of the Church; He is God of all creation. In fact, God rules over all things, including government and civil authority. The Scriptures tell us to obey the civil authorities, because civil authority has been instituted by God Himself.
Lutherans make a distinction between the Church and civil authority that is helpful in making sense of the proper roles of each. We talk about God ruling over two realms. His “Left Hand Realm” is civil authority and government. His “Right Hand Realm” is the Church. In this view, there is not so much a separation between church and state as there is a distinction between the proper roles of each.
The civil authority of God’s Left Hand Realm derives its mandate from the Fourth Commandment to honor your mother and father. All civil authority ultimately derives from the authority of parents to keep and maintain order in their families. Some of this authority is ceded to civil authority for the benefit of society. Thus, we are told in the Scriptures to obey civil authority, because it has been instituted by God Himself for the benefit of His creation. In this realm, God’s Law prevails and God-ordained civil authorities are called to rule according to law. In this realm, evil is to be restrained and punished, not borne with. God gives His Left Hand Realm the power of the sword to keep and maintain order. At times, the people serving in civil government may fail to fulfill their calling or be outright corrupt or evil, yet the institution itself is God-given.
The Church of God’s Right Hand Realm is His people whom He has redeemed from sin, death, and the devil through Jesus Christ. This is the Church universal, founded on Jesus Christ, where the Good News of God’s grace through Christ is proclaimed. It’s what we confess we believe in in the Creed, one holy, apostolic, catholic Church. In the Church we proclaim to people that their sins are freely forgiven for the sake of Christ, even as we continually receive this proclamation ourselves. We bear with one another’s burdens, just as Christ bears with ours. In the Right Hand Realm we are called to live as God’s people, “little Christ’s” in the world, bearing with injustice and always forgiving.
So, in the Church, arms have no place, for the “weapons” of the Church are God’s Word and Sacraments. The Church expands through the preaching of the Law to bring sinners to repentance and the proclamation of the Gospel to bring them to faith in Christ for their salvation. The Church bears with sin and evil in the world and loves its enemies in the hopes that they too will be reconciled to God through Christ.
The Left Hand Realm of civil authority, however, is not armed with the Word and Sacraments. Instead, God gives civil authority the power of the sword with which to punish and restrain evil doers. The Left Hand Realm is to maintain outward order and pursue enemies of this order.
The Left Hand realm is necessary, due to the fall of this world into sin and decay after Adam and Eve’s rebellion. In fact, the Right Hand realm is necessary for this same reason as well, because we point people to Christ for the forgiveness of their sins, reconciliation to God and each other, and eternal life. If there had been no fall into sin, then there would be no need for government (for all people would be in perfect communion with each other) nor for the Church (for all people would be in perfect communion with God). Yet, in this present post-fall world, we have need of each. The government is tasked with keeping order in the world, and the Church is tasked with proclaiming the Gospel to reconcile people to God and each other through Christ.
So, how do we reconcile the two realms with each other? In a way we don’t. For both realms are ruled by God Himself, and both have their proper place: the Left keeping outward order, and the Right proclaiming God’s grace through faith in Christ. And we as Christians are citizens of both realms. We are American citizens, subject to our nation’s laws. If we get pulled over for speeding, we can not appeal to God’s forgiveness through Christ. Rather, we are guilty and must pay the penalty. A lot of us are also parents, so we must discipline our children to help raise them on the right path; we must also protect them and our families from harm and all evil. Even the church as an institution, such as the LCMS, is a Left Hand Realm institution, organizing itself according to rules and regulations. We also have the military and police to enforce order and punish the lawless on our behalf. All this is done to maintain order in the world. And all this is done on God’s behalf, for He instituted civil authority for the benefit of His creation.
As Christians, though, we are also citizens of the Right Hand Realm. We are His Church, His holy people, His children redeemed by the body and blood of Christ. And as Christians we are to display the unmerited forgiveness that God has shown us to others as well. We are to be “little Christs,” bearing the burdens of our fellow man, just as Christ bore ours. We are not to seek vengeance in our personal dealings with other people, but trust that the Lord will have vengeance, here and now in the Left Hand Realm through those authorities whom He has tasked with executing justice, and in the day to come when Christ will return with his final, ultimate, everlasting judgement. And sometimes, we may even have to remind the Left Hand realm of its proper role and place in the world. Ultimately, though, when Christ returns there will no longer be this distinction between the Left Hand and Right Hand realms, for all things will be restored to the perfection in which God originally created everything.
Thus, since God rules over all things, and the Church possesses God’s Word, it stands to reason that the Church ought to have some Word of God to speak to the Left Hand Realm to help it understand its God-given obligations and mandate.
Part 2 of this series will pick up on this theme, thinking about civil government in light of what God has revealed to us about the way the world is.
(Image by Kevin McCoy [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)