Question of the Relation Between Church and State


(From Disputed Doctrines [Burlington, Iowa: Lutheran Literary Board, 1933], pp. 88-90.)

In theory Lutherans are generally united in the view that Church and State are Divine institutions, each with its own sharply defined realm. But in actual practice this doctrine of the separation of Church and State is ignored or denied by many Lutherans. Principle is of little value unless it is applied and carried out in appropriate action. Let us see, therefore, what is the right attitude to be taken in this matter.

Our Augsburg Confession in Art. XVI is very definite in its teaching as to the authority of the State. It explicitly declares that lawful civil ordinances are good works of God, and closes with the statement: “Therefore, Christians are necessarily bound to obey their own magistrates and laws, save only when commanded to sin, for then they ought to obey God rather than men.” This is in full accord with St. Paul’s teaching in the thirteenth chapter of Romans, where he declares, “For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God” [v. 1].

We Lutherans should honor the State as an institution of God for the regulation of the outward affairs of men, that we may lead quiet and peaceable lives here upon earth. God has given us this institution “for the punishment of evil doers and for the praise of them that do well” [1 Peter 2:14]. And for the execution of this purpose God has bestowed upon it the sword. The State has authority from God to employ force where this is necessary for the accomplishment of its ends.

The Church also is a Divine institution, but its realm is quite different from that of the State. It is limited to spiritual affairs. It touches matters which the State cannot reach -- religion, conscience, the thoughts and intents of the heart. God has entrusted it with the means of grace and has laid upon it the obligation to preach the Gospel and administer the Sacraments. The Church’s work is in a word evangelization. The Church has no sword but the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God. She employs no force, but uses only the persuasive power of the Word. Church and State observing their appropriate spheres should dwell together in harmony. But the Reformed conception of the Church as a theocracy is strong; and the idea that people may be made righteous by governmental agencies has found a lodging even among Lutherans. And especially when some issue, like prohibition, comes to the front, representing itself as a moral issue, we find Lutheran bodies joining them in bombarding the government in the name of the Church to enact such legislation. They seem to think that the chief duty of the Church is to reform the world and set it right. They fail to realize that the Church in thus seeking to invade the province of the State is removing the only guarantee that the State may not some day reverse the process and invade the sphere of the Church by endeavoring to regulate its internal affairs.

The “Social Gospel,” so-called, is a device of the devil to turn the Church away from preaching the Gospel of the forgiveness of sins, and of life, and salvation, to matters extraneous to the purpose of the Church. The Church has no more right to attempt the reorganization of society, or the regulation of governments, or the enforcement of civil laws, than the State has to interfere with matters of religion or of conscience. It has fulfilled its duty when it faithfully preaches the Gospel and administers the Sacraments to its members, and offers its precious blessings to all who will receive them.

Dr. H. E. Jacobs, in his Summary of the Christian Faith, states the matters definitely and clearly, when he says (p. 481): “The organization of the Church cannot be legitimately used as a political machinery to effect a change. In efforts to correct abuses in the State, Christians must not act as members of the Church, but as citizens with consciences enlightened and stimulated by all the influences derived from the Church’s instruction.” The two spheres must be carefully distinguished.

The Church’s duty is not to the State or to Society as such, but to individuals. The Church will help the State by bringing individuals to a realization of their duties toward it and by implanting in them a right spirit toward God and toward their fellowmen. It will also prove a blessing to society by changing the hearts of individuals and implanting in them through the Gospel the same mind which was in Christ Jesus. It will never regenerate the world as such; but by bringing individuals out of the world into the Kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ, it will make its influence felt for good and for righteousness. Let both Church and State keep to their own proper spheres, and all will be well.

Carroll Herman Little (1872-1958) was the son of a Tennessee Synod minister and a native of Hickory, North Carolina. He graduated from the General Council’s Mount Airy (Philadelphia) Seminary in 1901, received the honorary degree of Doctor of Divinity from Lenoire-Rhyne College in 1914, and in 1928 received his Doctor of Sacred Theology degree from Chicago Lutheran Seminary. Little served pastorates in Nova Scotia and Ontario, and from 1917 to 1947 was professor of theology in the Evangelical Lutheran Seminary of Canada in Waterloo, Ontario, an institution of the United Lutheran Church in America.

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