Much confusion and disagreement surrounds the relationship between church and state. Should they be kept entirely apart, as Thomas Jefferson’s dictum concerning a “wall of separation” would suggest? Should they be united, as in England, where Parliament declared King Henry VIII to be both the monarch of the state and the head of the national church?
The answer found in Scripture and presented by the Lutheran theologians of the Reformation era in the Book of Concord lies somewhere between these two extremes. Church and state share a common source, exercise distinct powers, maintain separate jurisdictions, and yet serve overlapping subjects. To understand how these four points apply to any particular situation sometimes requires a bit of mental wrestling, but the sooner that Christians embrace the paradoxical implications, the more clearly they’ll be able to navigate the two “kingdoms”—church and state—in which they live out their vocations.
The church and the state have one and the same source: God has established each of them.
Moreover, the church and state both are derived from the family.
Historically, we find that the patriarchs served simultaneously as fathers of their household and as prophets and priests of their families. This pattern held from Noah (Genesis 8:20) until Jethro (Exodus 3:1) and included Job (Job 1:5), Abraham (Genesis 12:7), Isaac (Genesis 26:25), and Jacob (Genesis 33:20). As the tribes developed into a nation, God, speaking through Moses, designated the Levites as the singular tribe from which future priests should come (Numbers 1:50, 18:1–7, the violation of which marked the evil of King Jeroboam in 1 Kings 12:31). However, God also ordained, again speaking through the same Moses, that the head of every household should instruct his children in spiritual matters (Deuteronomy 6:7, echoed again in Psalm 78:4–7) and preside over the annual Passover celebration (Exodus chap. 12, esp. vv. 3, 14, 21). Thus emerged a distinction between the private ministry of each head of household and the public ministry of the clergy.
In the New Testament, God replaced the Levitical priesthood with the pastoral office (Ephesians 4:11–12), once again involving public ministers of the Word (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:9, 2:1) while simultaneously preserving a private ministry within the family (Ephesians 6:4; Titus 2:4). The Augsburg Confession, Art. XXVIII, apparently echoes this public/private distinction when speaking of the church’s authority to “teach or preach the Gospel … according to their calling, either to many [within the congregation] or to individuals [within the family].”
The state, like the church, extends from the family according to a similar public/private distinction. Again, we see that the patriarchs governed their own children and grandchildren (e.g., Genesis 43:1–14, 48:1–49:28) and also marshaled troops for the defense of the households entrusted to their care (Genesis 14:1–16). As the Israelites began developing into a nation, Moses and his appointed assistants governed them (Exodus 18:24–26). The Book of Judges records a series of hybrid governances, in which fathers and tribal heads as well as occasional transtribal judges shared civil authority. Only with the coronation of its first king did Israel become a nation under a centralized authority (1 Samuel 10:24).
Among the Gentiles, too, God caused kingdoms to rise and fall, and established various people as civil leaders among them (e.g., 2 Chronicles 36:22–23; Daniel 2:21). Thus, St. Paul could write, “there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God” (Romans 13:1). Even so, it also remains true, as Luther explained in the Large Catechism, that all earthly authority is derived from the office of fatherhood—which was the reason why in his Small Catechism he interpreted the commandment “Honor your father and your mother” to include, by extension, obedience to the government. Recall, too, that it was the elders of the people—the fathers and grandfathers—who ratified David as the king over Israel (2 Samuel 5:3). So, the answer is “both/and”: civil government is established by God and also derives its authority from the office of fatherhood.
Thus we see that both the church and the state come from God, and that their powers first are exercised privately within the family and second, as societies become more populous, their powers are vested in public institutions, namely church and state.
The Augsburg Confession, Art. XXVIII (1530) speaks of “discernment” and “distinction” when it comes to the powers of church and state. The underlying Latin terms (discrimen, discernunt, etc.) generally are not translated as “separation,” and the significance of this wording will become apparent below.
The “power of the church” or “ecclesiastical power” consists of the “power of the keys” or the “power of the bishops,” including:
- preaching and teaching the Gospel
- absolving sins of the penitent
- retaining the sins of those who refuse to repent
- administering the Sacraments
- judging doctrine
- excommunicating openly wicked people who refuse to repent
- calling, electing, and ordaining pastors and bishops
The “civil power” held by the “kingdoms of this world” consists of the “power of the sword,” including:
- judging civil and criminal cases
- regulating matrimony
- providing for the national defense
- maintaining public order and peace
- protecting the church from tyrants
The last point reveals one of the reasons why the term “distinction” describes the church/state relationship more aptly than the term “separation.” It is not the case that church and state have nothing to do with one another. It certainly is not the case that the church has to do with God and the state has nothing to do with God. Recall, first, that the source of the state’s authority is God. Moreover, as Philip Melanchthon wrote in the Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope:
[E]specially the chief members of the Church, kings and princes, ought to guard the interests of the Church. … For it should be the first care of kings and great lords to advance the glory of God. … It is especially incumbent upon kings to check the license of the Pope.
The context of this passage identified the Pope’s recent actions as “tyrannical,” since he had attempted to use the state’s power of the sword to coerce Lutheran theologians to retract their doctrinal positions—in other words, he had attempted to use the state to govern the church, instead of maintaining the distinction between the two kingdoms or calling upon the state to protect the church’s right to judge doctrine on its own.
Earlier in the same treatise, Melanchthon wrote, “He [God] did not give the power of the sword, or the right to establish, occupy, or confer kingdoms of the world” to the church. Similarly, the Augsburg Confession, Art. XXVIII, said of the church, “Let it not break into the office of another; let it not transfer the kingdoms of this world; let it not abrogate the laws of civil rulers; let it not abolish lawful obedience; let it not interfere with judgments concerning civil ordinances and contracts; let it not prescribe laws to civil rulers concerning the form of the Commonwealth.” All of these matters fall under the jurisdiction of the state, not the church.
The judgment of doctrine, by contrast, falls most certainly under the jurisdiction of the church, not the state, as noted earlier; here the state’s only responsibility is to protect the ability of the church to judge doctrine for itself, by preventing would-be tyrants from misusing the state’s power to force the church’s theologians to accept or reject a particular religious precept.
Once again, however, the term “separation” (if by that one means “never the twain shall meet”) exaggerates the proper teaching, which “distinction” more aptly describes. Note, for example, the careful phrasing by which the Augsburg Confession, Art. XXVIII, says of the church, “let it not abolish lawful obedience.” This does not require a quietistic attitude that yields in obedience unquestioningly to every mandate of the state, but rather the Augsburg Confession here speaks only of obedience that is “lawful,” i.e, consistent with the state’s genuine jurisdiction.
Lutheran theologians and magistrates in fact practiced civil resistance when the state unlawfully—that is to say, unconstitutionally and also unbiblically—attempted to force their hand on a matter of doctrine. In the city of Magdeburg, the Lutherans resisted a 400-day siege by the troops of Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor who was exercising the sword, improperly, on behalf of the Pope. Not only did they resist, they also put pen to paper explaining their justifications (both constitutional and scriptural) for doing so. The Magdeburg Confession (1550) remains to this day a shining example of where to draw the line between church and state.
Church and state serve an overlapping constituency. The church consists of all people everywhere who believe that in Christ they have forgiveness of their sins and peace with God. The state, meanwhile, governs those people who live within its geographical domain, some of whom might be Christians, and others might not. As Martin Luther observed, the Christian lives simultaneously as a citizen of each kingdom, church and state. Within the lives of Christians, the two kingdoms overlap, claiming the same persons as their proper subjects—a dual citizenship of sorts.
The fact that church and state are each, to some degree, derived from the office of fatherhood makes this overlap all the more significant, especially when, as in recent American history, the state seeks to redefine the definitions of marriage, family, and fatherhood. At the time of the Reformation, Lutheran theologians thought that the Pope was exercising two much power over the regulation of marriages. Therefore, they listed matrimony under the power of the state to regulate. In our own day, the state has re-regulated marriage to the point that irregular (not to mention irreverent) practices now are normalized under the color of law.
This trend has led some pastors to ponder whether they might one day advise their members to avoid civil matrimony altogether, if the state redefines marriage so much that it no longer fits God’s institution of the marital estate. What if, for example, a man and woman were to declare their vows before the pastor, and remain accountable to their congregation to remain faithful spouses in a lifelong covenant, while not officially registering as “married” with the state? It seems that the church could nonetheless mentor them for their vocations as husband and wife, and discipline them if ever one of them were to commit adultery, irrespective of whether the state retained a legal classification deserving of the genuine marital estate.
The topic of public education brings to mind another set of questions concerning church and state. Some congregations operate schools for the purpose of teaching Christian doctrine as well as knowledge and skills useful for their student’s future vocations in the family and in the state. The American states, meanwhile, operate a system of public schools ostensibly to ensure that all citizens have an equal opportunity to be educated for participation in a representative form of government (cf. Brown v. Board of Education, 1954). Originally, too, the federal government envisioned public schools as institutions that would inculcate civic virtue by teaching moral precepts through religious instruction (cf. the Northwest Land Ordinance, 1787, which publicly funded schools on the basis of “religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind”). More recently, the U.S. Supreme Court has adopted Jefferson’s idea of “separation” (Eversen v. Board of Education, 1947), while at the same time permitting some overlap between church and state in the area of public funding for education (e.g., voucher programs and charter schools).
As citizens of “both kingdoms,” Christians must learn to address both the political question of how the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution apply to this topic as well as the theological question of which kingdom has received jurisdiction from God to provide education in various subjects, as well as the tangled reality that topics such as science and social studies can be every bit as theological as classes in religion. Does the typical public school curriculum, with its avowal of agnosticism and materialism, sponsor a religious belief in violation of the No Establishment clause of the First Amendment? Well, certainly such a curriculum violates the First Commandment. As members of the church, parents have a responsibility to protect their children from the theological infringement; as members of the commonwealth, they also have a right to petition for regress of grievances with respect to the political encroachment.
As the theologians and magistrates of Magdeburg showed by their example, when such a petition goes unheeded, and when tyranny leaves no other option, then civil resistance becomes not only a right but in fact a responsibility. Meanwhile, Americans do well to follow also the example of the Jews in Babylon, whom Jeremiah instructed to “seek the peace of the city where I have caused you to be carried away captive, and pray to the Lord for it” (Jeremiah 29:7), even while standing ready to respond with the courage of Daniel and his three friends if circumstances demand it (Daniel, chaps. 3 and 6).
Finally, let us remember also the admonition of Christ, that we remove the plank from our own eye before cleaning out the speck from our brother’s (Matthew 7:3–5): the proper education of children falls first and foremost to parents, and therefore if you are not already daily instructing your children from the Word of God (Deuteronomy 6:7; Ephesians 6:4), please start today. The Hausvater Project has abundant resources to encourage and assist you.
Indeed, being in the Word will also have this further blessing: that you will grow in knowledge and prudence in order to properly distinguish between church and state in order to lead your family, serve your congregation, and influence your government according to the will of God. Above all, remember that the kingdom of this world lasts only for a time, but the kingdom that God governs through the forgiveness of sins lasts forever. Thank God for your citizenship there.
Dr. Ryan C. MacPherson is the founding president of The Hausvater Project. He lives with his wife Marie and their homeschool children in Casper, Wyoming, where he serves as Academic Dean and Professor of History and Philosophy at Luther Classical College. He previously taught American history, history of science, and bioethics at Bethany Lutheran College, 2003–2023. For more information, visit www.ryancmacpherson.com.