- Written by Pastor Shawn Nettleton Pastor Shawn Nettleton
- Created: September 29 2017 September 29 2017
For nearly two and a half centuries, American Christians have been blessed to live in a country that honors and values religious freedom. In fact, one of the founding and core principles of this great country is the freedom to live and speak in accordance with one's religion. But is that which our Lutheran ancestors, and so many other Christian immigrants, sought in coming to the United States eroding from our country's foundation?
Our culture has changed and is constantly changing. Christians living in America no longer have as one person put it, “home field advantage.” 1 On the contrary, the Judeo-Christian values and beliefs, that used to distinguish America from other countries, no longer influence the majority of Americans. But should this give us cause for concern? Christians in every age have had to balance the tension of living “in the world” without being “of the world” (John 17).
As Christians, we have a dual citizenship; we are citizens of the both the state and of the church. As such, we are called to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” We are commanded to obey the secular authorities (Romans 13:1–7), and at the same time, we are called to obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29). While we are certainly not called to escapism, the tension to live and be involved in a positive and God pleasing way “in the world” without being “of the world” is increasing.
Luther, and Lutherans after him, have always distinguished between the two realms of God, namely the church and state. We have always acknowledged that these two realms are distinct and have different roles and responsibilities in the world. The church is the mouth house for the gospel, proclaiming the forgiveness of sins to a world bound in sin and death. The state is God's instrument of working justice in the civil realm, restraining wickedness and punishing the evildoer (Romans 13). As those who understand and appreciate these two realms, we know that it is not the church's place to Christianize the state or to coerce people to believe in Christ. At the same time, we also know it is not the state's place to legislate and bind the Christian's conscience.
Dr. C.F.W. Walther put it well:
The Lutheran church believes, teaches and confesses, in accordance with God’s Word, that the secular government does not have the power to command its subjects to do anything that God has prohibited, nor does it have the power to prohibit anything that God has commanded, nor does the government have the power to force its subjects to do anything that violates their conscience. 2
This brings us to the quandary of living in 21st Century America. We know that secularism is on the rise and the state continues to legislate laws that are contrary to God’s Word and our Christian beliefs and values. 3 But just how far will the state go? And when will the state and its laws force Christians to go against what God commands and against their conscience?
A few year ago, a state licensing officer in Washington demanded that a Christian day care center remove posters depicting the “Tree of Good and Evil” from a classroom wall, and a Bible verse from a chapel wall, because the content was “too negative” and might frighten children. City officials in Coeur d'Alene Idaho “instituted an ordinance barring discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, then informed two Christian ministers that unless they agreed to perform same-sex ceremonies, they could face months in jail and $1,000 in fines.” 4 After Hurricane Katrina, “Federal officials tried to block a local church from offering worship services and Bible studies along with food, clothing and shelter to victims” of the hurricane. 5
Recently, a Wyoming judge was censured by the state’s Supreme Court for telling a local news reporter that she, hypothetically, couldn't perform a ceremony for a same-sex couple because it would violate her religious beliefs. A federal appeals court ruled that a high school football coach was justifiably suspended for kneeling and praying on the field with his team after the game.
These are just a few of the issues facing Christians who seek to live according to their faith and conscience in 21st century America. Can the state coerce a business owner to act against his or her religious beliefs and God-given rights of conscience? Will the state eventually force churches and religious organizations to act against their beliefs and sacred practices? These are just some of the important questions that lie ahead of us in the 21st century.
On Thursday evening, October 26, we are privileged to have Tim Goeglein, vice president of External Relations for Focus on the Family, here at Saint John's to speak to these important issues. Tim has served in high-level government posts for the past two decades. His years of public service and private initiative have been devoted to faith, freedom and family. Tim's firm grasp of our American heritage, church and state issues, and the legitimate role of faith in the public square, has made him a coveted speaker around our country. It is with great appreciation and anticipation that I invite and encourage you to join us for Tim's special presentation, “Faith in the Halls of Power: What is Ahead for American Christians in the Next Decade.”
- Timothy Goeglein and Douglas Napier, "Free People" (The Lutheran Witness, January 2015), 22–23.
- C.F.W. Walther, Walther's Works: All Glory to God (Concordia Publishing House, 2016), 467.
- A prime example is the Supreme Court's decision on so-called “same-sex marriage” in the summer of 2015.
- Goeglein and Napier, 23.
- Ibid., 23.
Rev. Shawn Nettleton is Senior Pastor at Saint John’s Lutheran Church. You can reach him in the church office, by email at nettleton@StJohnsFC.org or at 970-305-2420.