This is the next in a monthly series of articles requested by the New Jersey District President commemorating anniversaries of particular writings or events in the life of Martin Luther. They are intended to introduce the historical background and theological content and implications of those writings or events, as well as raise questions about how they might pertain to consciously Lutheran parish ministry in twenty-first century America. The purpose is not to provide answers to these difficult questions, but to provoke reflection, personally or jointly, on how Luther’s life and thought relate to the challenges facing us.
Since the inception of our country’s independence from British rule, American Christianity has had an uneasy relationship with the state. The First Amendment of the Bill of Rights included a religious disestablishment clause, which grants the free exercise of religion. On the one hand, as the French political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in his “Democracy in America” after a visit to the states, this clause protects religion from the incursion of the state, from having to change its beliefs or practices in accordance with whichever political party is in office. On the other hand, beginning with Thomas Jefferson many have argued that the First Amendment erects the infamous “wall of separation” between church and state, and they have sought legislation that would set up a purely secular state with no religious influence whatsoever. None of this is new to anyone who has entered the pastoral ministry in the last few decades. We have seen the cases debated in the halls of the Supreme Court of the United States, and some of those decisions have impacted our denomination directly (for instance, the 2012 Hosanna-Tabor decision, which involved a Missouri Synod parochial school).
Lutherans have never fit seamlessly into the American debates over church and state. Lutheran immigrants came from northern European state churches, which were subsidized by the state financially, governed by the state organizationally, and had their theology recognized by the state legally. The Lutheran tradition itself emerged under European monarchies, which oversaw the churches themselves in the Middle Ages, at the time of the Reformation, and in the centuries thereafter. As for Martin Luther? He regularly criticized the princes of his day, saying “a Christian prince is a rare bird,” but he never once could have imagined a truly “secular” prince in the sense that modern Americans understand that adjective. In fact, the word “secular” had no anti-religious connotation whatsoever in his day; it simply came from the Latin term for a long period of time (saeculum) and meant temporal or earthly, in contrast with the so-called spiritual authorities inside the church hierarchy. All were “Christian” in some sense of the word, but they had different responsibilities in different realms. Occasionally they overlapped, and where they did the secular authorities had it within their right to assist the church.
It is in this sense that Luther allowed for the right of princes to act as “emergency bishops” in administering the church’s affairs and ordaining its clergy, it is in this sense that Luther defined the proper spheres of the “two kingdoms,” and it is in this sense that he appealed to princes to aid the German churches in bringing about reform in his August 1520 treatise, “Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation for the Betterment of the Christian Estate.” The treatise contains many important ideas, including the three walls the church had used to protect itself from reform, a series of reform proposals, and Luther’s call for a free Christian council on German soil. But it may be the title that best illustrates the view of church and state in Luther’s day, and how different that view is from ours.
In the first place, Luther addresses “Christian Nobility,” that is, those charged with governing the churches in their regions. Since the early Middle Ages, the nobility—kings, princes, dukes—played a fundamental role in overseeing the churches. They built medieval cathedrals and monastic abbeys. They paid the clergy. They provided military protection and rights to the land. In the years just before the Reformation, they took a greater interest in actively administering the religious life of those churches, too. The papacy in Rome was more a court of final appeals by the later Middle Ages, but the nobility were the engines that made the institutional church go. Luther had every reason to think that truly Christian nobility would take an interest in reform and help support it financially and administratively.
In addition to the “Christian Nobility,” though, the notion of a “German Nation” is also telling. By “German,” Luther doesn’t have in mind the modern nation-state of Germany. He has in mind rather the Holy Roman Empire, which essentially began with the crowning of Charlemagne by the pope as “Emperor of the Romans” at Christmas Day Mass in 800 A.D. In the seven centuries after that Christmas Eve Mass, Christian princes, kings, dukes, popes, and bishops formed a tenuous alliance with both religious and political interests in common. The notorious Jacques Voltaire sarcastically said, “The Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire,” and Protestants have been repeating that line ever since (though I am still not sure why a Christian would side with Voltaire, an avowed enemy of Christianity, against the church). But the secular rulers of the Holy Roman Empire largely supported the church and had the interests of Christians in mind, while the ecclesiastical authorities used the political and economic resources they had at their disposal for the good of the church and the people of that same Empire.
Finally, the goal for Luther was the “betterment of the Christian estate,” that is, the improvement of religious life for all Christians. In the Middle Ages, the term “estate” (the Latin word is literally status, which means “standing”) referred to the three different categories of Christians: the regular clergy, or those who had taken monastic vows; the secular clergy, or your typical priest; and the laity. For Luther, one of the three walls the church used to insulate itself against change was the distinction between the sacred estates and the secular estate, that is, between the clergy and the laity—and by clergy he specifically has in mind the higher clergy, such as popes and bishops. In Luther’s treatise, however, there is only one estate (Stand in German, which is a German transliteration of the Latin term status): the baptized Christian, and every single baptized Christian is on the same level spiritually as every other baptized Christian. While many have different vocations—the word Luther uses here is “ministry” (Amt in German)—all have the same standing before God because of their baptisms. When he appeals to secular rulers to aid in the reform of the church, he does so not because their position as dukes or princes gives them any greater status than the common laity. That would be making the same mistake as Rome had with popes and bishops. Instead, the nobility of the German nation can use their specific God-given vocations to help their fellow brothers and sisters in Christ by carrying out the reforms the church so desperately needed. To that end, Luther adds a series of proposals—twenty-one, with another added in a later publication of the treatise—for reform of the church. They range from incorporating more ancient languages into the academic curriculum to endorsing clerical marriage, closing down monasteries, and eliminating pilgrimages to Rome. If the “Christian Nobility” were to carry out their responsibility to the “German Nation” by improving the “Christian Estate” through these reforms, then the people would be better off for it.
Needless to say, this did not go as Luther wished. The chief ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, Charles V, outlawed Luther as a citizen of the Empire with his May 1521 Edict of Worms. Princes loyal to Rome forbade Luther’s German New Testament from being published and circulated. Later, when the prince of Hesse proposed a reform of German churches in accordance with Luther’s views, Luther himself stood in the way and claimed that reform should come only once the people have been instructed and not at the behest of a secular ruler. Luther wanted princes to aid in his reform, not enforce it, and definitely not prohibit it. That being said, the simple fact that Luther had a place for secular rulers in promoting biblically faithful change within the church is something we as modern Americans cannot quite comprehend. We don’t have a category for that kind of political involvement in religious affairs. It is sometimes called “Erastianism,” or simply decried by Americans as unconstitutional. But for Luther, for the early Lutherans, indeed for Lutherans in northern Europe over the course of several centuries, it was simply the way things were. Secular rulers were involved in the church, and they were involved in the church because they had positions that could provide help the church needed. They were secular, but not secular in the sense of opposing religion. Neither Luther nor subsequent European Lutherans would have ever understood secular in the sense it has taken in our culture.
In America, though, that is our lot. We live in a society where independence from religion, even regulation of religion, is rising. Secular no longer means governmental or political, but it stands for opposition to Christianity. Surely there are Christians of many backgrounds serving in government, and even the occasional Lutheran, but when it comes to their occupations, they submit first and foremost to the laws of the land, not to the faith we hold in common. What are we to do, then, when laws run afoul of the Christian faith or are not in the best interest of the churches? Abortion is an easy target, but one of more recent consequence is the regulation of worship due to COVID-19. To speak charitably, state and local governments are doing the best they can to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus through implementing strict public health measures, which include prohibiting or limiting worship gatherings. At the same time, many clergy have cried foul over this because it seems to be an infringement upon the free exercise of religion. How can a politician, no matter how well-intentioned, tell a church when and how it is allowed to meet? We have even heard stories of politicians reminding Christians under lockdown that they are still free to worship, just not together. Does that not run the risk of defining for Christians what it means to be the church and how they are to worship?
All this to say that the tensions of church and state are alive and well in American Christianity, and they have affected us as Lutherans in a way they simply did not affect Luther and his Lutheran successors over the centuries. We will never be in a position to ask secular rulers to assist us in reform, to protect us legally, or even to pay our bills (PPP loans notwithstanding). We are on our own, free to govern ourselves as we wish, believe as we wish, worship as we wish. We are also thrust into a religious marketplace, where we must compete for parishioners, subsidize our ministries, and advocate for ourselves when we believe our constitutional rights have been curtailed. We have all the advantages of religious disestablishment, but that comes with disadvantages, too—disadvantages that Luther and Lutherans for roughly four centuries thereafter could never have imagined. We are on our own, for better or worse.