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The 16th Article of the Augsburg Confession

Geo. Lillegard

1930 Synod Convention Essay

Of Civil Affairs, they teach, that lawful civil ordinances are good works of God, and that it is right for Christians to bear civil office, to sit as judges, to determine matters by the Imperial and other existing laws, to award just punishment, to engage in just wars, to serve as soldiers, to make legal contracts, to hold property, to make oath when required by the magistrates, to marry, to be given in marriage.

“They condemn the Anabaptists who forbid these civil offices to Christians. They condemn also those who do not place the perfection of the gospel in the fear of God and in faith, but in forsaking evil offices; for the gospel teaches an eternal righteousness of the heart. Meanwhile, it does not destroy the State or the family, but especially requires their preservation as ordinances of God, and in such ordinances the exercise of charity. 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 (Acts 5,29).” (Tr. by Dr. H.E. Jacobs, 1916.)

The two great principles of the Reformation: The Sole Authority of Scripture in matters of faith and life; and Justification by Faith without the works of the Law, destroyed the foundation of the whole papal system. One of the corollaries of these two principles, which was of the greatest importance in the practical working out of the Reformation, was the principle expressed in the 16th article, of Civil Affairs, that states, lawful governments, are instituted of God, and therefore cannot properly conflict in any manner with God’s church. Where conflict arises, it is either because the state interferes, contrary to God’s purpose, with the church, or because the church, likewise contrary to God’s commands, interferes with the state. Therefore it is necessary for God’s children to distinguish clearly between these two institutions_of God and their functions, so that they will be able to discharge their duties toward each in a truly Christian manner. This principle we call the “Principle of the Separation of Church and State.” We cannot here touch upon all the various ways in which this principle concerns us today, but shall try to indicate some of the main points on which we as adherents of the Augsburg Confession must stand fast against the dangerous tendencies of our day.

Much of the confusion of thought that prevails with regard to this principle undoubtedly must be traced to a failure to understand the temporary nature of the theocratic state God established in Israel. Here state and church were united under one invisible head: the Lord himself, who was represented on earth by priests, judges, and kings, as the visible agents of his rule. But the whole tabernacle and temple service, the ceremonial laws, the sacrifices, the priesthood, — in short, the whole ecclesiastical system of the Jewish people — all were fulfilled in Christ, and therefore done away with entirely in their old form, when he came. So, too, the whole civil system, the laws and government, the royal throne, and earthly glory and power of the Jewish nation were fulfilled in Christ, and therefore clone away with entirely when he came. All these things, in the Jewish state as well as church, were “figures,” types, patterns of the great High Priest, the great King of Kings, of David’s line, that was to come. They had served their purpose when Christ came. And to go back to those old “shadows” when the glorious Sun of righteousness himself has arisen, is to turn one’s back upon God and to worship his creation instead of his person.

Since Christ appeared, God has established no theocratic kingdom on earth like that in Israel. Christ and his apostles teach us in the most emphatic language that his kingdom is not of this world. It is a spiritual kingdom whose boundaries are the boundless heavens and eternity, which has its capital and headquarters in the hearts of reborn men, which carries on its campaigns and wins its conquests, not by sword or diplomacy, but by the divine power of God’s own word. The destruction of the Jewish nation, their scattering over the face of the earth, ought to be sufficient to make the most blinded fanatic understand that God will no longer have a kingdom such as that he once called his own in Canaan. If not, such fanatics only draw clown upon themselves a fate like that of the Jewish nation, as the history of the world teaches us again and again.

Christ and his apostles teach us also in the clearest language that the governments and kingdoms of this world are all to be recognized as instituted of God for the regulation of the material, temporal affairs of men on this earth. In all such matters, Christians are in duty bound to obey the powers that be. Only when the state oversteps the limits of its authority and commands that which is against the word of God dare the true Christian refuse obedience. Then he should endure all things, yes, give up life itself, rather than deny his Lord or any iota of his word.

Therefore, early Christians sought no political power or favors, but preached the saving gospel among Jews and Gentiles, without troubling themselves about making any one government “Christian” in all its laws and ordinances. So long as the church was separated from the state, because the latter was heathen or even hostile, the church grew and prospered. It was when kings and emperors were won to Christianity, and the church found itself wealthy and powerful in all,that the world counts great, that degeneration set in. Soon state and church were no longer sep-rate, but sought each other’s support or competed with each other for the mastery of the world. This fusion and confusion of church and state it was which produced the great Anti-Christ, that son of perdition, who exalts himself above all that is called God; so that he as God sits in the temple of God, and demands for himself recognition as the sole Head of both church and state, the infallible voice of God upon earth. The whole disgraceful history of the Middle Ages with its scandalous records of the wars and intrigues and bestial deeds of the self-styled “Most Holy Fathers” in Rome, … the depths of infamy which the church then reached in doctrine and life, … was the natural result.

The restoration of pure Christianity which Luther by God’s grace worked 400 years ago meant also a restoration of the principle of the separation of church and state. Luther insisted that the church had no right or power to interfere in any manner with the civil government. Thus, in his “Appeal to the German Nobility,” he says: “Is it not ridiculous that the pope pretends to be the lawful heir to the empire? Who gave it to him? Was it Jesus Christ, when he said: ‘The kings of the Gentiles, exercise lord- ship over them, but it shall not be so among you’? (Luke 22,25–6). How is it possible to govern an empire, and at the same time preach, pray, study, and take care of the poor? ‘No man that warreth,’ says St. Paul, ‘entangleth himself with the affairs of this life.’ (II Tim. 2,4.) Yet the pope, who pretends to be the leader of the church militant, entangles himself with the affairs of this life more than any emperor or king. We must relieve him from all this toil! Let the emperor put the bible and a prayer- book into the pope’s hands, in order that he may leave the cares of government to kings, and confine himself to preaching and praying.” And the 28th Article of the Augsburg Confession, on the Power of Bishops, defines clearly what the domain of the church and that of the state is. The following is enough to indicate the teaching of this article: “Therefore the power of the church and the civil power must not be confounded. The power of the church has its own commission, to teach the gospel and to administer the sacraments. 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 or contracts; let it not prescribe laws to civil rulers concerning the form of the commonwealth. As Christ says (John 18,35): ‘My kingdom is not of this world’; also (Luke 12,14): ‘Who made me a judge or a divider over you?’ Paul also says: (Phil. 3,20): ‘Our citizenship is in heaven’; (II Cor. 10,4): ‘The weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the casting clown of imaginations.’ After this manner, our teachers discriminate between the duties of both these powers, and command that both be honored and acknowledged as gifts and blessings of God.”

Luther also taught clearly that the state should not seek to control the church in its spiritual work. In his writings, he pictured a church, ruled by its own spiritual priests and kings, in true democratic manner, without aid of interference from the state. But in the practical working out of the church organization of his own time, Luther did rely upon the Protestant princes and governments to help establish the evangelical churches. The ignorance of the common people being so great, he thought it necessary to depend upon the enlightened nobility to take the lead in bringing the gospel to them. However, this he did always under the restriction that no force should be used to compel adherence to Christian doctrine. He insisted that Christians should not take to the sword to defend themselves against their enemies, but should rely upon spiritual weapons alone. True liberty of conscience was to be allowed in every Lutheran state. The Anabaptists, the Zwickau prophets, the other such fanatics were condemned by Luther as roundly as was the pope himself. But Luther warned his elector against using violent measures to suppress their vagaries. Thus he wrote to Spalatin, when the “Zwickau prophets” were threatening to undo all the good of his own work at Wittenberg: “Beware of throwing them into prison. Let not the prince dip his hand in the blood of these new prophets.” And so, even such, none too friendly historians as D’Aubigne, must admit that “Luther went far beyond his age, and even beyond many other reformers, on the subject of religious liberty.”

Thus, the force of circumstances brought about that union of church and state, in a modified and comparatively innocuous form, that we find to this day in the Lutheran countries, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, etc. It was not until Lutheranism was transplanted to this country, free America, that it was given an opportunity to work out in practice the principles which were inherent in its system of doctrine from the beginning.

Unfortunately for the future of Protestant Christianity, the other Reformers were not so clear as Luther was on the spiritual nature of Christ’s kingdom and the necessity of separating it from the civil government. The Anabaptists, the Zwinglians, the Calvinists, etc., showed their lack of a thorough understanding of Biblical Christianity, and proved that they possessed “another spirit” than Luther, also by the way in which they continually confused church and state. Although they, indeed, opposed the pretentious of the pope, they set up in many cases almost as dangerous pretentions to civil power. “Extremes meet.” And the extreme reformers differed after all little from those they sought to reform. Carlstadt sought to impose the Old Testament civil law upon his people, as though the Christian church today were to be a theocracy like the Jewish state of old; thus copying the pope in legislating for the people in all matters. The Anabaptists, especially the fanatics who for a time controlled Munster, sought by fire and sword to introduce the Reformation, even as the pope in like manner sought to force his religion on the people. They set up socialistic states, where all property was held in common, thus forcing the communal system of the monks and nuns upon all their people. Their church leaders claimed to be inspired of God and to be guided by the Holy Spirit in everything they did, thus out-doing the popes in their claims to infallibility. They claimed the right to rule the state, and set themselves up as kings and lords, whose word was law, thus vieing with the pope in his claims of temporal power. Finally, they indulged in the wildest excesses, murder and fornication and riotous living, such as only the worst of the popes can be said to have outdone them in committing.

Zwingli from the very beginning sought to use the power of the state to carry through his reforms, He himself was both magistrate and preacher, military leader and shepherd of souls. His false principles resulted in disastrous civil wars and his own ignominous death on the battlefield. Calvin saw more clearly the dangers of this union of church and state and sought to make the church wholly independent of the state. But at the same time, he used the power of the state to enforce the laws and regulations of the church and even to persecute heretics, as when he ordered Servetus, the Spanish Unitarian, burned at the stake for his heretical teachings. The continual mixing into politics of the Reformed leaders had much to do with bringing about the situation which resulted in the religious wars of the later Reformation period. “They that take the sword shall perish with the sword.” And the Protestant church which made such phenomenal progress throughout all Christendom so long as it relied upon spiritual weapons, the power of the written, printed, and spoken word alone, received a serious set-back when it took to the sword.

“Times change,” they say. But the Bible says, “There is nothing new under the sun.” And so, through all the changes in external conditions and circumstances, we find the situation much the same today as in Luther’s time. The Catholic pope makes the same claims to temporal power today as then. He still holds the “two keys”; he still claims to represent God upon earth, and as such can owe no king nor government any obedience, but requires obedience of them all. He has today succeeded in getting those claims recognized in a manner by Italy and most of the great powers. Ambassadors are sent to his court as to that of other states. Even in “free and Protestant America,” he wields a political power which few politicians clare to challenge in any public manner. Smith’s defeat at the last election notwithstanding, the Catholic church in this country is undoubtedly one of the strongest and most closely-knit political organizations in existence.

And now, too, “the extremes meet.” The Reformed churches, who seem to be the most different from the Catholic church in their whole spirit and who have gone farthest away from it in their zeal for reform, come back to it in their striving after civil, political power, or in other ways. Some of them, like the Mennonites, imitate the monks in their contempt of all civil offices and hold that he who would be a truly holy Christian cannot serve in any governmental office. The Reformed Presbyterian church is continually agitating for that our Constitution should officially recognize God as King and his word as the source of its authority; and teaches that a Christian should not hold office in a government that fails to include these articles in its constitution. Thus it really adopts the papistic principle that every government or civil authority must recognize its dependence upon God if it is to be recognized by Christians; from which would follow logically, that it is in a subordinate position in relation to God’s representative on earth, the pope or the Christian church. The Quakers, Mennonites and other sects hold it as a cardinal principle that it is wrong for the state to carry on wars; therefore, that it is wrong for Christians to serve as soldiers; also that it is wrong to make oath when required by the magistrates. Some communistic sects like the Shakers, Perfectionists, etc., have copied the pope in that doctrine of devils that it is wrong, or at least incompatible with the truest holiness, to marry or be given in marriage; or to hold private property.

Even in the larger, and originally more conservative Reformed church there are strong movements that tend to commit these churches more and more to anti-biblical, papistic principles and practices. The defunct, and quite unmourned, Inter-Church World Movement sought to erect nothing less than a Protestant papacy, a sort of inter-locking directorate of all Protestant churches, which should make them a force able to function unitedly in all matters of political and civil importance. The Federal Council of Churches has sought, in a less ostentatious and more polite manner, to carry out the program which the Inter-Church World Movement so ignominiously failed to “put across.” But is has been meddlesome enough in affairs of state to call forth strong protests from leading statemen. Thus Rep. Geo. Holden Tinkham of Boston has recently assailed the council for its political activities. His statement, as reported in the press on May 21, will be of interest here: “The constitution of the Federal Council declares that the council is organized to secure a larger combined influence for the churches of Christ in all matter affecting the moral and social condition of the people, so as to promote the application of the law of Christ in every relation of human life. This provision of the constitution of the Federal Council as at present interpreted by the Federal Council is a violation of the principle of the separation of church and state. … Having set up the revolutionary doctrine that state and church shall no longer be separate, the one not to interfere with the other, this organization is lending what influence it possesses to have the United States join the League of Nations…” This same Federal Council is carrying on an aggressive pacifist propaganda against all wars, seeking to imbue our youth especially with pacifist ideas, so that they will sign pledges never to go to war or aid in any way the prosecution of war. The anti-Christian character of these principles may be seen also from the circumstance that the final source and origin of much of this propaganda is the anti-Christian Bolshevist government in Russia. The literature of this organization is permeated by communistic ideas with regard to property rights also. Having confused entirely the functions of church and state, they seek to regulate the state by “the law of Christ,” and to force that law upon every one in business and industry, with the aid of the state. In similar spirit, even the Stockholm Conference said: “In the name of the gospel, we have affirmed that industry should not be based solely on the desire for individual profit, but that it should be conducted for the service of the community.”

Concerning such ideas, the Apology of the Augsburg Confession says, under Article XVI: “Concerning these subjects, our theologians have written more fully, because the monks diffused many pernicious opinions in the church. They called a community of property the polity of the gospel; they gave the advice not to hold property, not to vindicate oneself at law, not to have wife and child. These opinions greatly obscure the gospel and the spiritual kingdom, and are dangerous to the commonwealth. For the gospel does not destroy the state or the family, buying, selling, and other civil regulations, but much rather approves them, and bids us obey them as a divine ordinance, not only on account of punishment, but also on account of conscience. It is also a most vain delusion that it is Christian perfection not to hold property. For Christian perfection consists not in the contempt of civil ordinances, but in dispositions of the heart, in great fear of God, in great faith, just as Abraham, David, Daniel, even in great wealth and while exercising civil power, were no less perfect than any hermits. But the monks have extended this outward hypocricy before the eyes of men, so that it could not be seen in what things true perfection exists. With what praises have they brought forward this communion of property, as though it were evangelical! But these praises have the greatest danger, especially since they differ much from the Scriptures. For Scripture does not command that property be common, but the Law of the Decalogue, when it says (Ex. 20,15): ‘Thou shalt not steal,’ distinguishes rights of ownership, and commands each one to hold what is his own.”

In the face of these clear declarations of our Lutheran confessions, even many so-called Lutherans have been along, in the Federal Council of Churches and the Stockholm Conference, in calling upon business and industry “in the name of the gospel” to conduct their affairs “for the service of the community,” — which is but another way of expressing “those silly monastic opinions” that our confessions condemn.

The Apology of the Augsburg Confession exposes also the fallacies of the pacifist propaganda in these words: “Julian the apostate, Celsus and very many others made the objection to Christians, that the gospel would rend asunder states, because it prohibited legal redress, and taught certain other things not at all suited to political association. These questions … can be most readily explained, if we keep in mind the fact that the gospel does not introduce laws concerning the civil state, but is the remission of sins, and the beginning of a new life in the hearts of believers; besides that it not only approves outward governments, but subject us to them (Rom. 13,1), just as we have been necessarily placed under the laws of the seasons, the changes of winter and summer, as divine ordinances. The gospel forbids private redress, and Christ inculcates this so frequently with the design that the apostles should not think that they ought to seize the governments from those who held otherwise, just as the Jews dreamed concerning the kingdom of Messiah; — but that they might know that they ought to teach concerning the spiritual kingdom that it does not change the civil state. Therefore private redress is prohibited not by advice, but by command (Matt. 5,39; Rom. 12,19). Public redress, which is made through the office of the magistrate, is not advised against, but is commanded, and is a work of God, according to Paul (Rom. 13,1 ff.). Now the different kinds of public redress are legal decisions, capital punishment, wars, military service. Concerning these matters, how incorrectly many writers have judged is manifest from the fact that they have been in the error that the gospel is an external, new and monastic form of government, and that they have not seen that the gospel brings eternal righteousness to hearts, while it outwardly approves the civil state.”

This inability to distinguish between the functions of the church and those of the state characterizes practically all the Reformed churches, both Fundamentalists and Modernists. The latter are frankly interested only in “bringing the kingdom of God to this earth,” that is, in social reforms, economic and political progress. The former are usually Chiliasts who dream, like the Jews of old, of a time when the church shall rule this world; and like their Modernist brethren seek to control the state for their ends or to force upon the state their own peculiar views on prohibition, education, — what not. To Fundamentalists as to Modernists, political reform, pacifistic principles, zeal for social betterment are too often the great things for which Christians should strive, rather than the spiritual gifts, faith, hope and love. Therefore it is that so many now hail the noted Indian pacifist, Mahatma Gandhi, pantheist or atheist though he really is, as a Christian. Thus Dr. Conrad, noted Fundamentalist of Boston, recently called Gandhi “a true disciple of Christ, — who is teaching his people the measureless power of a life like that of Jesus” (!!)

But we can come closer home. Our Norwegian-American Lutheran church is not free from this tendency to confuse the functions of church and state. There are all too many who seek to use the influence of the church as an organization in order to put through legislation in which it is interested, whether against the teaching of evolution in our schools, or for the teaching of religion in state-supported schools, or for prohibition, etc. The largest Norwegian Lutheran church, in its English official organ, devotes a considerable amount of space to the discussion of political and social questions which the church as church should leave strictly alone, so that we for our part find it quite a convenient source of information on developments in those fields, rather than in the field of Christian theology. And the Norwegian organ for some time carried on a strong campaign for state legislation against the teaching of evolution in public schools. It is true, the Christian citizen in our republic has the duty to use his influence as a citizen that good and just laws may be made and an honest government maintained. But no church publication, no church officer, no church organization, can as such thus seek to influence legislation and government without transgressing against the principle of the separation of church and state. It makes no difference here whether that influence be exerted in a good cause or not. The principle involved is of greater importance than any cause that could be named. Let us, e.g., grant that prohibition is a good cause. But the Methodist Board of Temperance, the Anti-Saloon League, and many other church organizations have made themselves public nuisances, according to prominent statesmen today, in their lobbying for legislation on that issue. And so, too, our Lutheran church will only make of itself a public nuisance if it, as a church, enters upon any program for legislative reform on any question whatsoever. Let these church editors, who have so much to say about politics and civic matters, remember what Luther told the pope: “We must relieve him from all this toil! Let the emperor put the bible and a prayer-book into the pope’s hands, in order that he may leave the cares of government to kings, and confine himself to preaching and praying.” The Christian church, the Christian ministry, the Christian press have enough to do in preaching the Word and praying for the success of that Word. Let them leave all civil, social, and political matters to those whom God has called to attend to such matters, whether they be heathen, Christian, Jew or Turk. Thus, and thus only, will the Christian church prosper and Christian principles and ideas eventually permeate society so thoroughly that they will be reflected also in the state and its laws. Our confessions have good reason for saying: “Let not the church prescribe laws to civil rulers…”

Concerning the un-Lutheran tendencies thus revealed in the Norwegian Lutheran church, our own “Lutheran Sentinel” said, in an article by P.Y. (Feb. 5, 1930): “After having used three columns in advocating farm relief and feeling sorry that so much money is being used for armies and navies, the editor of the Lutheran Church Herald (Jan. 14, 1930) suggests that some of this money be spent ‘to educate people about the foolishness of excessive armaments, for improvements, for food and clothing and the comforts of life.’ Then he closes with the wish, ‘Let us hope that in the new year we shall make progress in our efforts to promote a Christian civilization.’

“To urge the substitution of plowshares for swords sounds fine, but is it prophesying according to the proportion of faith, that is, is it Scripture? … And ‘a Christian civilization’! Does the editor mean freedom from war, and a good supply of food? The inference from the context leads to that conclusion. But we cannot believe he means that, for ‘the kingdom of God is not meat or drink,’ nor good prices, nor even fewer cannon. A ‘Christian civilization,’ if it means anything, would be a community and nation governed by Christianity. The world a Christian congregation? Has Millenialism, which has made backdoor calls, now been admitted to the front room of the Herald? The Lutheran Church Herald today reminds one of a first baseman that catches the ball, but has his foot off the base. For it is beating the air, it is marching where it has no command to go. Soon it will have nothing distinctive to commend it to the consciences of men. For, after all, it is a wholesome doctrine, this, that the church shall not attempt to regulate society. To do so is neither American nor Lutheran. It is Babelian; it is building a tower displeasing to God; it is taking clown the church and the state and using the bricks thereof for the erection of a new building, specifications for which are not found in the Bible.

“We need not be surprised if the glorious light of the Scriptural teaching of the separation of church and state will virtually die out in America. We have not been worthy of the blessing. In the twilight of the world, the church, like the apostle, will preach the gospel in chains.”

But whatever other churches do, our duty is plain: To stick to the principle of the separation of church and state, no matter how unpopular that principle may become. If we are to do that, however, we must hold fast the fundamental principles of the Reformation: the Scriptures as our only authority, and Justification by Faith without the works of the law. Making the Scriptures our only authority means that we, first, will adhere to its teachings with regard to the functions of God’s two distinct institutions, the church and the state; then also we shall not find it necessary or advisable to appeal to, or lean on, any other authority than that omnipotent Word in order to further God’s kingdom. Where men seek by laws or the arm of temporal power to promote the cause of God’s church, it is because they in reality lack faith in the divine power of God’s inspired word. They lean on human authorities, because they have not learned to rest their whole cause on God’s authority. Adherence to the second principle, Justification by faith without the works of the law, means that we will seek to save the world by the preaching of the gospel, not by the works of the law, or by any manner of legislation, however perfect that legislation in itself may be. To illustrate: The true Christian seeks to save men from drunkenness and all other vices by preaching Christ crucified as the Savior from sin. The legalist, the Christian who has not yet learned to adhere fully to the principle of justification by faith, seeks to save men from drunkenness by passing prohibition laws, and from other vices by similar laws. Because he does not remain faithful to the fundamental Christian and Lutheran principles, he does not keep the principle of the separation of church and state inviolate either. It is comparatively easy to keep the water pure all along its course, if only the fountainhead be pure. But water defiled at its source can grow only more dangerous as it flows on. Then, let us remain entirely true to the first principles of the Bible and our confessions, and we shall not find ourselves becoming untrue to such principles as those embodied in the 16th article of the Augsburg Confession.

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