Concord #16: Civil Affairs

"Concord" is a weekly study of the Lutheran Confessions, where we will take up a topic from the Book of Concord and reflect on what we believe, teach, and confess in the Lutheran Church. The purpose of this series is to deepen readers' knowledge and appreciation for the confessions of the Lutheran Church, and to unite them "with one heart" to confess the teachings of Holy Scripture.

Civil Affairs

Once you become a Christian, does that mean that you need to retreat from the world? The world is part of the unholy trinity (along with the devil and our own sinful nature) that would deceive us and mislead us into false belief, despair, and other great shame and vice. Best to avoid worldly things altogether, right?

“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 judge matters by the Imperial and other existing laws, to award just punishments, 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 a wife, to be given in marriage. They condemn the Anabaptists who forbid these civil offices to Christians.” (Augsburg Confession XVI.1-3).

Not only are Christians encouraged to make use of civil institutions, but also to bear civil offices. Jesus says to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s (and to God what is God’s; Matthew 22:21); St. Paul praises Caesar as God’s agent for order (Romans 13:1-7), and appeals to his citizenship in Rome (Acts 22:25-29). And St. Peter says to honor the emperor and other governing authorities (1 Peter 2:13-17). The Lutheran Confessions only follow what Jesus and His Apostles teach concerning civil institutions.

But what about when civil institutions are not visibly Christian, or even hostile to Christianity? What about when those institutions punish Christians for doing Christian things? Then we should opt for our own institutions, right? The condition of civil institutions today is not terribly different from what it was in the time of the Reformation or in the ancient Church. The Roman government was not friendly towards Christians, and often persecuted them during the first centuries of the Church. During the Reformation, the pope and bishops had seized political power and used it to suppress the evangelical teaching where it could. Yet, we confess that we engage in civil affairs.

What underlies this practical advice is theological: “They condemn also those who do not place evangelical perfection in the fear of God and in faith, but in forsaking civil offices, for the Gospel teaches an eternal righteousness of the heart. Meanwhile, it does not destroy the State or the family, but very much requires that they be preserved as ordinances of God, and that charity be practiced in such ordinances. 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” (Augsburg Confession XVI.4-7). Christians can and should participate in civil institutions, so long as they are not commanded to sin.

This means that Christians can boldly and confidently engage in imperfect and even hostile civil institutions without fear of losing their righteousness before God. Rather than lament the state of the state, or retreat from society to try establish some sort of Christian utopia (which is always bound to fail), Christians can and should take part in society. In fact, we can never expect civil institutions to be tolerant of Christian faith and life if there are no Christians in them! So, consider how you can make good use of this good creation of God. But remember that evangelical perfection is a matter of fear of God and faith.

You can read the Book of Concord at http://www.bookofconcord.org

Rev. Jacob Ehrhard serves as pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in New Haven, MO.

Created: May 6th, 2017