Sermons and Papers

The Cultural Crisis and Lutheran Social Ethics

by Dr. Laurence L. White

Presented to Association of Confessional Lutherans
17 April, 1998

I. Introduction

The topic assigned to me by the program committee, as reflected in your schedule, is "The Crisis in Lutheran Social Ethics." I have taken the liberty of altering that topic somewhat - after all, what can Fehrmann do to me now. To the best of my knowledge, there is no trapdoor beneath the speaker's rostrum.

There certainly is a crisis which needs to be addressed - but that crisis is not in Lutheran social ethics. It is within the culture of the western democracies, more specifically, it is within the culture of the United States of America. Nearly two decades ago, Professor Kurt Marquart offered this eloquent assessment of the state of Western civilization:

"One need not be a seer to realize that the vexing economic, political, and cultural conflicts of our time signal a much deeper crisis. It is the moral, philosophical, and religious underpinnings of our civilization which are crumbling before our very eyes. Small wonder then that the whole superstructure shudders with what may well turn out to be the terminal convulsions of irreversible decomposition." (Marquart (1), p.1)
The crumbling and the shuddering has continued, and perhaps even accelerated, in the years that have past since those words were written. Our country is indeed "Slouching Towards Gomorrah," to borrow the title of Robert Bork's recent book on the cultural crisis in America. Judge Bork argues that

"A nation's moral life is, of course, the foundation of its culture... What we are experiencing now is not the addition or subtraction of one or another of the elements of our moral life, but an assault that aims at, and has largely accomplished, sweeping changes across the entire cultural landscape. Large chunks of the moral life of the United States, major features of its culture, have disappeared altogether, and more are in the process of extinction. These are being, or have already been, replaced by new modes of conduct, ways of thought and standards of morality that are unwelcome to many of us." (Bork, p.12)
The countries of the West, riddled with rampant sensualism and materialism, do seem determined to sever any connection with even the most basic standards of morality. At the festering heart of the moral disease which infects this country is the monstrous evil of abortion. We have sacrificed tens of millions of unborn children to an insatiable modern Molech whom we euphemistically call "reproductive freedom." For twenty-five years this horror has raged among us and the blood of nearly forty million babies cries out to God for vengeance from the soil of America.

In the face of this catastrophic holocaust and general moral collapse the Church has remained strangely, tragically silent. Those voices which have been raised in the Name of Christ have all too often seemed to be captive the political ideologies of the left or right. Among Lutherans this silence has been abetted by the mistaken assumption that Luther's articulation of the Biblical doctrine of the two kingdoms is the equivalent of American liberalism's assertion of the principle of the absolute separation of church and state.

The distorted caricature that Luther taught silent, supine submission to the absolute authority of the state and thereby liberated the government from any form of moral constraint has been endlessly repeated since the days of the Reformation. Ernst Troeltsch's massive study The Social Teachings of the Christian Churches popularized the view that Luther promoted state absolutism and moral dualism while Calvinism offered a vital interrelationship between church and state. This inaccurate stereotype was perpetuated in the English speaking world by Reinhold Niebuhr, along with a legion of others.

In popular history, this perversion became the widespread explanation for the rise of Hitler and the failure of German Christianity to recognize and resist the evils of Nazism. German theologian Gerhard Ebeling is much closer to the truth of the matter when he notes that:

"Anything like a modern separation of church and state, which is what people usually have in mind, is a totally inadequate picture of the scope of Luther's doctrine of the two kingdoms. This is true regardless of whether this new interpretation of the term as a separation between two distinct spheres has a religious or a secularist emphasis, or whether it is meant to legitimize, by means of a doctrine of the two kingdoms with a religious or secularist slant, either the withdrawal of the devout from the world or the retreat of secular life from God." (Ebeling, p. 178)
The road to Nazism was not paved by Luther and his heirs. It leads instead from Frederick the Great, a lapsed Calvinist and child of the Enlightenment, to the Prussian Union of 1817 which decimated Lutheran theology and deified the state. Kurt Marquart is exactly correct when he argues: "It was this wily, violent and persistent imposition of confessional indifference and surrender, and not the full-blooded Lutheranism of the Formula of Concord that accustomed Lutherans to bootlicking and extracted their spines." (Marquart (2), p.181) Herman Sasse, a faithful confessional Lutheran, who played a leading role in the German Church Struggle contends:

"No, it was not Lutheranism as such, but a sick Lutheranism that gave National Socialism an open door into the church. It was Lutheran Church which was no longer capable of standing guard over the souls of its people because it had fallen asleep itself. It had lost its power over demons because it no longer possessed the power of distinguishing between "spirits."...We have noble families in which the grandfathers were conservative and confessional Lutherans, the fathers were German nationalists and members of the union church and the sons joined the S.S." (Quoted in Herman, p. 50,51)
Those who cited Luther in favor of subservience to the state no matter what were guilty of abusing and distorting the Reformer's true position. Sasse asserts:

"They picked out of Luther's teaching those phrases regarding governmental authority which were opportune and which people wanted to hear; phrases concerning the dignity of divinely ordained offices and the duty of obedience to them. But what Luther said about the sins of governmental authority; about the tyrannous murder of man's soul by the authority which goes beyond its limits or about the boundaries of obedience - all that was whispered very softly in the first years of the Third Reich, or not mentioned at all... They supplemented Luther with Robespierre." (Quoted in Herman, p. 52)
Our goal this afternoon, within the limited time available to us, will be to supply some of those missing phrases and emphasize Luther's teaching about the responsibility of the church and her pastors to address matters of public morality and to call the government and its leaders to account.

The urgency of this exercise within the context of the American cultural crisis should be evident to all.

II. The Two Kingdoms and the Church's Responsibility to Government

The proper distinction between the governance of God within the two realms or kingdoms is, in a sense, an extension of the proper distinction between law and gospel. Werner Elert notes:

"According to its origin and mission the church belongs to the order of divine grace while the state belongs to the order of divine law. Viewed from that angle the relationship between them is only an application or a test of the relationship between gospel and law." (Elert, p. 384)
Kurt Marquart agrees and indicates that therein lies the importance of this distinction:

"What all of this adds up to is that the proper distinction between the two kingdoms or governments is part and parcel of the right distinction between law and gospel. The former distinction is necessarily entailed by, or is "nested in" the latter. Therein lies its enormous significance." (Marquart (2), p.179)
Prior to the Reformation, the divinely intended order had been perverted as the papacy enforced its will upon kings and princes through ban and bull, asserting primary authority in all matters spiritual and temporal. The two kingdoms were intermingled with one another to the detriment of both the gospel and the civil government of the nations. The pope and his bishops exercised the co-ercive power of secular authorities and constantly interfered in the temporal government of the countries of Europe. Accumulating massive landholdings and wealth, commanding armies, and participating in economic, political, and military alliances most often seemed to be the major occupation of the church of Rome. The power of the gospel and the spiritual authority of the keys became little more than a sanctimonious sham to validate the worldly ambitions of the princes of the church. Through the confusion of the two realms and the intrusion of the church into the kingdom of the left hand, the devil was able both to pervert the Gospel and undermine the peace and order that worldly government was intended to maintain.

Luther describes the situation in this way:

"Once upon a time, popes, bishops, priests, and monks had such authority that, with their little letters of excommunication, they could force and drive kings and princes wherever they wished, without resistance or defense. In fact, kings or princes could not ruffle a hair of any monk or priest no matter how insignificant the maggot was. They had to put up with it when a rude jackass in the pulpit vilified a king and a prince and made fun of them as his wanton will suggested. That was called preaching and no one dared to utter a peep against it. The secular rulers were completely subject to these clerical giants and tyrants; these dissolute, rude fellows walked all over them . . . Besides, it was not understood or taught what temporal authority was or how great the distinction between it and spiritual government..." (AE 13,p.41)
Luther took considerable satisfaction from the fact that he had helped to restore respect and honor to civil government as a divine institution. In 1528 he bragged - "I have written in such glorification of temporal government as no teacher has done since the days of the apostles, except, perhaps, St. Augustine. I can boast of this with a good conscience, and the testimony of the world will support me." (AE,46, p.163,164)

The devil, however, is the ultimate opportunist. When the Reformation broke Rome's stranglehold upon secular authority, or, to use Luther's more colorful language, muzzled the jack asses in the pulpits, Satan simply rode the pendulum in the other direction and encouraged the absolute autonomy of the princes and secular control of the church. Luther was completely aware of the dangers inherent in the new situation. His critique of the prince's abuse of their authority is every bit as stern as his critique of the pope's.

"Now, however, the Gospel has come to light. It makes a plain distinction between the temporal and spiritual estate and teaches besides that the temporal estate is an ordinance of God which everyone ought to obey and honor. Therefore, they rejoice in their freedom; the spiritual tyrants have to pull in their pipes, and the tables are turned. Now popes, bishops, priests and monks have to fear and honor the princes and lords and nobles, give them gifts and presents, keep the fasts and the feasts, and worship at their feet as though they were their gods. This tickles them so that they do not know how to abuse this grace and liberty wantonly enough . . . Moreover, in order to show still more thanks to the Gospel, they will not allow it to rebuke their wickedness and self-will. They have now discovered a new device, and declare that whoever rebukes them is seditious, rebels against the authority ordained by God, and defames their honor. Thus since they are rid of the tyranny of the clergy and cannot be rebuked by them, they now want to be rid of the Gospel and be beyond its rebuke, although it has set them free. Their ultimate desire is to be able to do whatever they wish, without hindrance or rebuke, without shame or fear and with honor and glory." (AE,13,p.41-42)
The princes and temporal authorities dare not be allowed to imagine that they are immune from criticism and answerable to no one. Luther believed that the pastoral office (Predigtamt) had a responsibility from God in relation to the civil government which had been established by God. In his view this responsibility was in no way inconsistent with the proper distinction between God's government in the two realms. This can be clearly seen in his commentary on Psalm 101. Here Luther strongly affirms the doctrine of the two kingdoms and the crucial importance of properly distinguishing between them. He writes:

"Constantly I must pound in and squeeze in and drive in and wedge in this difference between the two kingdoms, even though it is written and said so often that it becomes tedious. The devil never stops cooking and brewing these kingdoms into each other. In the devil's name the secular leaders always want to be Christ's masters and teach him how He should run His church and spiritual government. Similarly the false clerics and schismatic spirits always want to be the masters, though not in God's name, and to teach people how to organize the secular government. Thus the devil is indeed very busy on both sides and he has much to do. May God hinder him! Amen, if we deserve it." (AE, 13, p.194,195)
But the distinction between the two kingdoms does not limit the sovereignty of God. God remains the Lord of both of the two realms, although he has chosen to govern differently in each of them. He has not relinquished His control of the secular kingdom and those who reign therein remain accountable to Him. In the paragraph which follows his strong assertion of the importance of maintaining the proper distinction between the kingdoms, he goes on to assert the right and the duty of pastors, as God's spokesmen, to speak the truth of God the leaders of government. Luther specifically argues that this is not a confusion of the two kingdoms.

"If a preacher, in his official capacity, says to kings and princes and to all the world, "Thank and fear God and keep His commandments," he is not meddling in the affairs of secular government. On the contrary, he is thereby serving and being obedient to the highest government. Thus the entire spiritual government really does nothing else than serve the divine authority which is why they are called servants of God and ministers of Christ in Scripture." (AE, 13, p.195)
This perspective is amplified in a 1530 sermon "On Keeping Children in School." Having recounted in glowing detail the great things that a pastor accomplishes spiritually, Luther proceeds to offer these remarks on the importance of the pastoral office within society.

"Beyond that, however, he (that is, the pastor) does great and mighty works for the world. He informs and instructs the various estates on how they are to conduct themselves outwardly in their several offices and estates, so that they may do what is right in the sight of God . . . For a preacher confirms, strengthens, and helps to sustain authority of every kind, and temporal peace generally. He checks the rebellious, teaches obedience, morals, discipline, and honor; instructs fathers, mothers, children, and servants in their duties; in a word, he gives direction to all the temporal estates and offices. Of all the good things a pastor does, these are, to be sure, the least. Yet they are so high and noble that the wisest of all the heathen have never known or understood them, much less been able to do them. Indeed, even to the present day no jurist, university, foundation or monastery knows these works, and they are not taught either in canon law or secular law. For there is no one who regards these offices as God's great gifts, His gracious ordinances. It is only the Word of God and the preachers that praise and honor them so highly. Therefore, to tell the truth, peace, the greatest of earthly goods, in which all other temporal goods are comprised is really a fruit of true preaching. For where the preaching is right, there war and discord and bloodshed do not come; but where the preaching is not right, it is no wonder that there is war, or at least constant unrest and a desire to fight and shed blood." (AE,46,p.226)
"Of all the good things a pastor does," the Reformer cautions, "these are, to be sure, the least." And yet, the pastor's activity in this area is "high and noble," of profound significance for the culture in which he lives. This is not social ministry in the modern sense of the term - the church and her pastors have no calling as such to dabble in politics or social engineering. The church may not seek to take over worldly government, dictate its policies, exercise its power, or deprive it of its role. But worldly government is not autonomous - it remains responsible to the God who established it.

It becomes necessary for the Christian pastor to speak out when the powers that be overstep their bounds. If the individual ruler in question is himself a Christian then he must be called to account on the basis of God's Word. Sin must be denounced and its deadly consequences proclaimed. The table of duties must be preached to all who God has placed in positions of authority. If the individual ruler is not personally a Christian, or if, as in our modern pluralistic democracies, the state is secular by design, then dialog within the public square must be conducted on the basis of natural law, reason, and common sense, apart from special revelation (although these are never in conflict with special revelation).

The responsibility of the pastor in this situation becomes that of clearly addressing the moral issues which confront his people as citizens, warning against the consequences of wickedness and evil so that they, in turn, may responsibly participate in the formulation of public policy. A democracy is by definition a form of government in which the people rule, hence when that which is done by the people's representative's in government is contrary to the Word of God the rebuke and admonition of the Christian pastor must be addressed to the citizen rulers who make up his congregation, lest by their apathy and ignorance evil men are allowed to ruler simply because good men have done nothing.

In 1933, with the Hitler government newly installed in power and the menace of a totalitarian state looming on the horizon, Herman Sasse and Dietrich Bonhoeffer were asked to prepare were asked to prepare a modern declaration of the faith in response to the challenge of National Socialism. The result of their collaboration was the Bethel Confession, so-called because it was written in the town of Bethel in Westphalia. It was at the same time a stirring call to rouse a lethargic and intimidated church and a warning to an increasingly intrusive and evil totalitarian state. The original version of the confession was not published until long after the end of the Third Reich in 1959. In 1933, its rejection of Nazi pretensions and anti-Semitism was judged to be too confrontational and controversial by the timid leadership of the confessing church. It remains, nonetheless, a most brilliant and incisive theological analysis of the issues at stake. Even church historian Klaus Scholder, himself a Calvinist and no friend of confessional Lutheranism, acknowledges:

"Ponderous though it was and loaded with numerous passages from the Bible, from Luther, and above all from the confessional texts, this confession was, nevertheless, theologically and politically clearer and more exact in some passages than the more famous Barmen Declaration of May, 1934." (Scholder, I, p.456)
The Bethel Confession categorically rejects the mingling of the two realms and the "false doctrine of a Christian state" as a basic confusion of law and gospel. Yet, with Luther, the confession acknowledges that the church and her pastors do have a responsibility through "their proper proclamation" to remind the state and its representatives that they are not autonomous and that there are limits beyond which they may not properly go. No German in 1933 could have had any doubt as to the application of these carefully chosen words:

"The connection between worldly government and the church consists of this alone, that the church points out to worldly government through it proper proclamation the limits of their own order so that they do not thereby become a tool of the devil, who in the end seeks only chaos so that he may destroy all life. Worldly government ought to expect this service, and this service alone, from the church. With this service the church preserves those under authority from the deceit of the devil who desires unlimited power to have himself worshipped as lifegiver and savior." (Bonhoeffer/Sasse, p.113)
Luther makes the same point somewhat more flamboyantly in a 1532 commentary on the Sermon on the Mount. He urges pastors to grab the lords and princes by the snout, denouncing and cursing, rebuking and instructing.

"You see, that is how God's Word proceeds. It challenges the whole world. It reaches into the mouth of the lords and the princes and of everyone else, denouncing and cursing their whole way of life, something that is not proper for you or me to do as individual Christians, except in our office and our teaching position. In Psalm 2:10-11 David dares to do this. He tells all the kings and lords to think, to humble themselves. to fall at the feet of the teaching about Christ and to let themselves be rebuked and instructed. Otherwise they will be damned instantly and turned over to the devil. I would not dare to do that. But that is the way God's Word proceeds. It hammers the great and mighty mountains with its thunder and lightning and storms, so that they smoke. It shatters everything that is great and proud and disobedient, as Psalm 29 says. But on the other hand it is also like a fruitful rain, sprinkling and moistening, planting and strengthening whatever is like the poor, parched plants that are weak and sickly. Now it is wrong for someone who is not a teacher and preacher, commissioned to administer the Word of God, to rush in, snapping and snarling and cursing. But whoever has been commissioned with this office must administer it. But it wrong for him to neglect it and to be so scared that he refuses to open his mouth and to denounce what should be denounced. (AE,21, p.120)
Franz Lau, commenting on this passage, concludes that Luther is clearly not an apostle of absolute obedience to all government authority. The reformer calls upon pastors to fearlessly, almost foolishly, oppose evil and injustice. Nonetheless, a distinction between the two realms is consistently maintained. Lau writes:

"However, Luther often talks about how pastors must grab the mighty of this world by the snout . . . Luther is not the teacher of a silent, submissive obedience, but an almost foolhardy opposition against all governmental injustice. But Luther demonstrates one peculiar reservation; he speaks more negatively than positively. He raises his voice against the rape of the law in every respect and against godlessness. He meddles into very worldly things, because the world is so deluded that it can no longer tell the difference between right and wrong. He grabs hold of the politicians snouts, but still he does not interfere with their craft." (Lau, p.88,89)
The "one peculiar reservation" which Lau points out, namely that Luther "speaks more negatively than positively", is a pertinent reminder for us that the great reformer does not presume to tell the government how to do its work - "he does not interfere with their craft." He addresses sin and abuse but he does not offer suggestions as to political solutions or governmental policy - that is not the role of the church or her pastors. We have no special insight or revelation from God on such matters. Marquart is quite right when he asserts:

"There is no distinctively Christian brand of politics. What distinguishes Christians from other persons of goodwill in the public arena is their supernatural motivation of love for God and their fellow human beings, and of that only God can be the judge (Col.3:3). The New Testament offers no blueprint for the reconstruction of society as such. Political or economic schemes may therefore be competent or incompetent, humane or barbarous, but they can be 'Christian' no more than chemistry can be 'evangelical' or botany 'Lutheran.'" (Marquart (2), p.184,185)
When the pastor addresses such questions he does so not as a political agitator or a social reformer but as a faithful servant of the Word of God. Bishop Eivind Berggrav of Norway, who led the Lutheran Church of that land in principled opposition to the Nazi occupation and the Quisling government, cautions that in its opposition to evil in the civil estate the church must beware lest it succumb to the temptation to use worldly means to achieve its goals.

"If the state sins, then God's church must fight. The church is obliged to do this not because the church is over the state, but because it is called of God. He who keeps silent and consents becomes the tool of Satan. Luther had plenty of conflicts. We need not go to Worms to find him in conflict with civil authority. The thing that mattered for Luther, however, was that it be a Christian struggle. If the church takes to worldly means, then it goes over to the camp of the enemy. The church's domain and existence is the Word, God's Word, the word of conscience." (Berggrav, p.307)
It is also most significant to note that the reformer contends that while such activity would not be appropriate for a private individual it is a necessary responsibility of the pastoral office. Bishop Berggrav observes:

"Luther does not take this lightly. He would be the last one to place private judgment above the state. Not only is conscience to be bound by God's Word and tested by the faith of the church, but it must also be willing to suffer injustice. He who opposes the state must have the office to do so. Here too, it is the office that speaks and not the person. Personal self-exaltation tempts conscience into all the by-paths of power. The willingness to suffer purges, the responsibility of office sharpens . . . As Luther sees it, the voice of the church is to come in the name of the office and not of the person. The office is a ministerium verbi divini, an administration of the Word of God. The situation is not one in which a spiritual person is to rebuke an official person. It is one in which one of God's offices is to speak to the other of God's offices. The one that is called on to speak in the name of the Gospel is not the private individual but the properly instituted authority in spiritual matters. This authority has not only the right but the duty of speaking." (Berggrav, p. 307, 313)
Franz Lau offers another important distinction and qualification:

"The pastor who corrects the worldly estates performs, according to Luther an opus alienum, that is a strange or an alien work. His opus proprium, that is his proper or essential work is to preach the forgiveness of sins. When he proclaims the law that is not his essential work . . . The Christian pastor who calls the lords of this world to order is also preaching the law. That is not altered by the fact that the standard of good and evil to which the correcting pastor recalls the worldly estates is in itself a worldly standard. Preachers of the Gospel perform a vicarious service when they address the political world, in politiam. Nonetheless, they are never permitted, to seize the power in their own office and to attempt the rule the world according to the Gospel. The world must be ruled in worldly way." (Lau, p. 74, 75)
There are those who would argue that the peace of the church requires diplomatic silence in response to evil in high places. Luther adamantly disagrees:

"So it is a mistake when some wiseacres maintain now that it is enough for a preacher to tell everyone what is right and simply to preach the Gospel, but not to touch the pope, the bishops, the princes, and other stations or persons since this causes unrest and discord. (AE,21,56)
The office of the ministry requires the courage to be the salt of the earth. Faithful pastors must be willing to stick their necks out. Controversial moral issues must be addressed without equivocation. Even the high and mighty princes and potentates of this world must at times be called to account.

"Anyone who is supposed to criticize the whole world - emperors, kings, princes, wise men, learned men - and say that their way of life is damned before God, has to stick his neck out. But if I am hypocritical and say that everything is all right with them, I get off scot free and I keep their favor and acceptance. In the meantime, I flatter myself that I intend to preach the Gospel too. Still I have become salt that has lost its taste; for I am letting the people stick in the old delusion of their flesh, till finally they go to the devil, with me in the lead." (AE,21, p.57)
Luther found in the words of Psalm 82 a divine command that both the government and the governed must humbly acknowledge the authority of God.

"Now, in order that these proud gods (ed. the leaders of government) may be deprived of their defiant boastfulness when they think that no one is to judge them or rebuke them without being called a rebel, a little peg is driven into them, and a club is laid beside the dog. Thus they are properly rebuked, boldly spoken to, and threatened sharply and hard as this psalm does. For it says here, "God stands in His congregation and judges the gods..."; that is, He rebukes them. For He keeps the upper hand over them and the right to judge them and does not make them rulers in such a way as to abolish His own Godhead and do as they please as if they alone were gods over God. On the contrary it is His will that they be subject to His Word and either listen to it or suffer all misfortune. It is enough that they rule over everything else; they are not to rule over God's Word. For God's Word appoints them, makes them gods and subjects everything to them. Therefore, they are not to despise it for it is their institutor and appointer; but they are to be subject to it and allow themselves to be judged, rebuked, made and corrected by it." (AE, 13, p.48)
Luther's response to the natural question "Where then is God?" is that God can be found where "He has appointed priests and preachers to whom He has committed the duty of teaching, exhorting, rebuking, comforting, in a word, of preaching the Word of God." (AE, 13, p. 48)

The courage of faithful pastors in rebuking the sinful actions of their rulers or their government may well serve as a deterrent to rebellion by diminishing the wickedness of tyrants:

"So then, this first verse teaches that to rebuke rulers is not seditious, provided it is done in the way here described; namely, by the office to which God has committed that duty, and through God's Word spoken publicly, boldly, and honestly. To rebuke rulers in this way is, on the contrary, a praiseworthy, noble, and rare virtue, and a particularly great service to God, as the psalm here proves. It would be far more seditious if the preacher did not rebuke the sins of the rulers; for then he makes people angry and sullen, strengthens the wickedness of the tyrants, becomes a partaker in it, and bears responsibility for it. Thus God might be angered and might allow rebellion to come as a penalty." (AE, 13, p.50)
But such boldness is a noble and rare virtue indeed. The abuse and neglect of some, perhaps even the great majority, however, does not invalidate the pastoral office which God has established: "Nevertheless, abuse does not destroy the office; the office is true, exactly as temporal rule is a true and good office, even though a knave has it and abuses it." (AE, 13, p.48) Father Martin makes no attempt to conceal his contempt for pastors who fail in this responsibility:

"There are many bishops and preachers in the ministry, but they do not stand and serve God faithfully. On the contrary, they lie down, or otherwise play with their office. These are the lazy and worthless preachers who do not tell the princes and lords their sins. In some cases, they do not notice the sins. They lay down and snore in their office and do nothing that pertains to it except that like swine, they take up the room where good preachers should stand. These form the great majority. Others, however, play the hypocrite and flatter the wicked gods and strengthen them in their self-will. ... Still others fear for their skins and fear that they must lose life and goods. All these do not stand and are not faithful to Christ." (AE, 13, p.49)
A chilling echo of Luther's expression of contempt for such gutless pastors can be heard in words that Adolf Hitler's spoke to his inner circle shortly after coming to power in Germany in 1933. Hitler boasted that the Christian church was impotent and posed no threat to National Socialism.

He confidently declared:

"I promise you that if I wished to I could destroy the church in a few years. It is hollow and rotten and false through and through. One push and the whole structure would collapse. We should trap the priests by their notorious greed and self-indulgence. We shall thus be able to settle everything with them in perfect peace and harmony. I shall give them a few years reprieve. Why should we quarrel? They will swallow anything in order to keep their material advantages . . . The parsons will be made to dig their own graves. They will betray their god to us. They will betray anything for the sake of their miserable jobs and incomes." (Conway, p. 16)
Hitler's arrogant boast proved to be sadly accurate.

Note carefully Luther's words: the pastor who fails to publicly, boldly, and honestly rebuke the sins of government not only strengthens the wickedness of the tyrants, but "becomes a partaker in it and bears responsibility for it." Bishop Berggrav asserts: "To put it in a nutshell -he who keeps silent, shares in the guilt. He fails God." (Berggrav, p.308)

The reformer cites Christ's testimony before Pontius Pilate as a prime example of the faithful confession of the truth in the face of secular authority:

"Christ has instructed us preachers not to withhold the truth from the lords but to exhort and to chide them in their injustice . . . We recognize the authority but we must rebuke our Pilates in their crimes and self-confidence . . . We should suffer. We should not keep still. The Christian must bear testimony for the truth and die for the truth. But how can he die for the truth if he has not first confessed the truth? Thus Christ showed that Pilate did exercise authority from God and at the same time rebuked him for doing wrong." (Quoted in Sanders, p.45)
Elsewhere Luther writes:

"We have to suffer what they inflict on us. We must never keep silent about or assent to unrighteousness. We should rather be willing to die for the truth than keep silent and say they are right when they act unjustly. Truth is to be confessed and unrighteousness punished. There is a vast difference between enduring unrighteousness and violence and keeping silent about them." (Quoted in Berggrav, p.308)
In 1940 Nazi Germany was near her zenith - the nation's power, prosperity, and prestige were at their highest levels in history. The Jews had been systematically excluded from the life of the nation, deprived of the protections of citizenship and the law, gradually disappearing into the spreading network of concentration camps. In that year, at the height of Hitler's power and popularity, Dietrich Bonhoeffer offered the following assessment of responsibility for what was taking place within his country:

"I am guilty of cowardly silence at a time when I ought to have spoken. I am guilty of hypocrisy and untruthfulness in the face of force. I have been lacking in compassion and I have denied the poorest of my brethren . . . We, the church must confess that we have not proclaimed often or clearly enough our message of the one God who has revealed himself for all times in Jesus Christ and who will tolerate no other gods beside Himself. She must confess her timidity, her evasiveness, her dangerous concessions. She has often been untrue to her office of guardianship and to her office of comfort. She was silent when she should have cried out because the blood of the innocent was crying aloud to heaven. She has failed to speak the right word in the right way and at the right time. She has not resisted to the uttermost the apostasy of faith, and she has brought upon herself the guilt of the godlessness of the masses... The church must confess that she has witnessed the lawless application of brutal force, the physical and spiritual suffering of countless innocent people, oppression, hatred, and murder, and that she has not raised her voice on behalf of the victims and has not found ways to hasten to their aid. She is guilty of the deaths of the weakest and most defenseless brothers of Jesus Christ . . . The church must confess that she has desired security, peace, and quiet, possessions and honor, to which she had no right... She has not borne witness to the truth of God . . . By her own silence she has rendered herself guilty because of her unwillingness to suffer for what she knows to be right." (Bonhoeffer, p.112ff.)
Less than five years later Bonhoeffer was dead, hung naked from a piano wire noose at Flossenburg Concentration Camp. Germany had been destroyed, her great cities bombed out of existence, her ancient cathedrals reduced to piles of rubble. In the face of monstrous evil "He who keeps silent shares the guilt. He fails God."

III. Conclusion

By now it should be evident that the biblical concept of the two realms as articulated by Martin Luther and confessional Lutheranism in no way equates to American liberalism's assertion of the absolute separation of the church and state. On the contrary, the concept precludes cultural disengagement by Christians in general and Christian pastors in particular.

In the streets of Munich during the years of the Hitler Reich the children sang a little rhyme, "Lieber Gott, macht mich dumm, Das Ich nicht zum Dachau kumm." They knew anyone who said too much could quickly disappear into one of the camps. We face no such risks today, but the silence from the pulpits of America is deafening nonetheless. Our country is "slouching towards Gomorrah,"the collapse of morality is wrecking havoc in the lives of our people, and 4,500 babies are being slaughtered in this land every single day. And yet we do not speak out in large part because we fear being accused of violating the separation of church and state. We have been immobilized and intimidated by a lie from the father of lies. We cannot afford the luxury of a pious retreat from the world and its problems. Such isolation may have worked in simpler times, but it will not work now. Pastors must be God's spokesmen - we must clearly and specifically identify the false gods which call upon our people to bow down before them every day. We must call the civil government to account by the authority of the God who established civil government. Nor can we allow the world to set the church' s agenda and determine the content of the church's message, for then we would be reduced to mouthing the trendy slogans of every new political and social movement that appeared on the scene. Too many churches have gone that way before.

Franz Lau reveals himself to be a master of understatement when he observes: "However, all that which Luther says about the correction of all the estates through the pastoral office calls to mind all of the outrageously difficult practical problems which apply in this area and with which Luther also had to deal." (Lau, p.76,77) In the face of all those difficulties it is sorely tempting to abandon the effort altogether and wash our hands of the sordid business of politics. But there is simply too much at stake for us and for the people whom God has placed within our charge. In 1934, Martin Niemoeller issued this challenge to the members of his congregation in Dahlem:

"We have all of us - the whole church and the whole community - been thrown into the Tempter's sieve, and he is shaking and the wind is blowing and it must now become manifest whether we are wheat or chaff! Verily a time of sifting has come upon us, and even the most indolent and peaceful person among us must see that the calm of an easy contemplative Christianity is at an end . . . It is now springtime for the hopeful and expectant Christian Church - it is testing time, and is giving Satan a free hand, so that he may shake us up and so that it may be seen what manner of men we are! . . . Satan swings his sieve and Christianity is thrown back and forth; and he who is not ready to suffer, he who has called himself a Christian only because he hoped to gain something thereby for himself, or for his race or for his nation is blown away like chaff by the wind of this time of testing." (Conway, p. 1)
In this time of testing for us and for our homeland may we find the wisdom and the courage to serve God faithfully.


  • Berggrav, Eivind. Man and the State. Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1951.
  • Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Ethics. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1975.
  • Bonhoeffer, Dietrich and Sasse, Herman. "Das Betheler Bekenntnis," Gesammelte Schriften - Band 2 - Kirchenkampf und Finkenwalde, Munchen: Chr. Kaiser Verlag, 1959.
  • Bork, Robert H. Slouching Towards Gomorrah - Modern Liberalism and American Decline. New York: Harper/Collins Publishers, 1996.
  • Conway, J.S. The Nazi Persecution of the Churches 1933-1945. New York: Basic Books Inc. 1968.
  • Ebeling, Gerhardt. Luther - An Introduction to His Thought. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1964.
  • Elert, Werner. The Christian Ethos. Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1957.
  • Herman, Stewart W. The Rebirth of the German Church. New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1946.
  • Lau, Franz. Luthers Lehre von den beiden Reichen. Berlin: Lutherisches Verlagshaus, 1953.
  • Marquart, Kurt (1). The Two Realms Today - Civic and Spiritual Unrest. Mimeographed Essay, n.p., n.d.
  • Marquart, Kurt (2). The Church and Her Fellowship, Ministry, and Government. Fort Wayne, Indiana: The International Foundation for Confessional Research, 1990.
  • Sanders, Thomas G. Protestant Concepts of Church and State. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1964.
  • Scholder, Klaus. The Churches and the Third Reich - Volume I. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988.

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