“The powers of the church and civil government must not be mixed up”


I blogged about the case of Lutheran pastor Juhana Pohjola in Finland, who, along with doctor and MP Päivi Räsänen, was charged with hate speech for publishing a pamphlet explaining the Bible about homosexuality.

Worldwide denominational Lutheranism has emerged with a powerful statement entitled A Protest and Call for Free Religious Speech in Finland: An International Lutheran Condemnation of the Unjust Criminal Persecution of Rev. Pohjola and Dr All People of Good Will in Support of Religious Freedom in Finland.

I urge you to read it along with the list of signatories from around the world.

We have already discussed the case, but I want to draw your attention to how the statement distinguishes between the authority of the state and the authority of the church.

It offers a specifically Lutheran approach based on the Augsburg Confession, but shows that the doctrine of the two kingdoms is far from promoting uncritical submission to secular governments, but rather provides a framework for positive religious and indeed intellectual freedom . It rejects both the totalitarianism of the state and the theocratic rule of the church. And it provides guidelines for some of the church and government problems we face today.

Here are the relevant paragraphs (my boldface and interposition):

The Augsburg Confession (AC) says that the gospel

does not overthrow civil authority, the state and marriage, but demands that all of these be kept as the true ordinances of God, and that each, each according to his own calling, reveals Christian love and genuine good works in his or her state of life. [Note the doctrine of vocation.] Accordingly, Christians are obliged to submit to civil authority and obey its commandments and laws in all that can be done without sin. (AC XVI, Romans 13: 1-7)

But authority only applies in its own jurisdiction. The government rules the outside, the Word of God rules the inside. “The civil judge does not protect spirits, but bodies and goods from obvious damage. The gospel protects the spirit from ungodly ideas, the devil, and eternal death. Consequently, the powers of the Church and civil government must not be mixed ”(AC XXVIII). Since faith must remain free, AC XVI concludes that if the commandments of government cannot be obeyed without sin, “we must obey God more than men (Acts 5:39).”

These principles would apply to other subjects as well. For example, many Christians today, including many Lutherans, reject the state’s authority to demand masks and other anti-COVID measures. Well, protecting bodies from obvious harm seems to come under the authority of the state. This would apply even if we consider the reasons for these requirements to be unfounded. The government should, however not punish our insides thoughts about such measures. Even if we disagree with masking requirements, we should probably submit to our government agencies in this regard, since wearing a mask and social distancing are not sins in themselves.

Vaccination orders are different. Some Christians in good conscience refuse to be vaccinated because they believe that the use of abortion stem cells associated with certain vaccines makes vaccinations sinful, however broad the association may be. This inner conviction could be a question of religious freedom. Some people refuse to get vaccinated for regulatory reasons because they believe the vaccines are unsafe. That wouldn’t imply religious freedom as such, but they could argue that they have a right to act on their internal ideas over which the government has no control. Christians could be at odds on such issues, and they would always have to determine what is best not only for themselves, but how best to “reveal Christian love” to their neighbors.

And state mandates to close the doors of churches are certainly different, even if the state tries to “protect not ghosts, but bodies and goods from obvious harm”. The abolition of one sphere would violate the principle that “the powers of the Church and civil government must not be mixed”.

This distinction is of course not always easy to apply and does not take into account all questions. Our mind controls what our body does, so our freedom of spirit must manifest itself in our external actions. Yet the Augsburg Confession gives us a remarkably early assertion of intellectual freedom and the limits of the state. For example, it would exclude prosecution for “hate crimes”. The state can and should punish external acts that harm the “bodies and goods” of another. However, it should not prosecute “hate crimes” as it has no control or jurisdiction over the inner feelings of citizens who they hate. This can only be achieved by the gospel, not even then by threatening the law, but by bringing about the inner change of faith that enables us to love our neighbors.

Am I correctly applying the principles of the Augsburg Confession here? (Note that the test of believing in a doctrine is to accept it even if it is contrary to one’s inclinations.) How else could these principles be applied as churches and individual Christians attempt to strengthen their relationship with the state? rules?

Photo: Church and State by Lee Coursey, via Flickr, Creative Commons 2.0


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