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Church and State Relationships During Stay Home Orders

The brokering of honest dialog between the church and the state reveals to me how individuals can view an issue with the same care and end goal but have wildly different means of approach.

In the news this past week there have been examples of how different congregations are handling social distance rules. There is not a uniform voice in the Christian community about how to confront current restriction on large public gatherings.

How different Christians and congregations are reacting to stay-home and stay-safe policies in our country reveals that Christians will disagree on the best social and political policies to keep people safe during this time fighting the coronavirus. Unfortunately these different approaches can threaten our unity in proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ.

General principles can have wide consensus. Inside the Christian community we can agree that life is sacred and God loves the world. When these agreed principles are applied to concrete issues and situations, the practical implementation of principles can result in less and less consensus.

The LCMS produced a document, "Render Unto Caesar-Lutheran View of Church and State" in 1994 to help congregations and pastors navigate how to have influence in church/state relationships. This document draws heavily on a framework for public theology developed by Robert Benne in his book, The Paradoxical Vision: A Public Theology for the Twenty-first Century.

This document outlines four ways a church can exercise influence. These four ways are built up like a pyramid. The bottom level of communication has the most broad agreement in the church and includes conversation that is primarily intended to influence the Christian community. Throughout these layers of political engagement and influence, Christians try to discern how to speak on civic matters in a manner that will best preserve the Church's unity in proclaiming the Gospel.  As we move up the pyramid toward more direct and intentional civic action there will be a decreasing ease of building consensus and and increasing risk of polarizing controversy. 

The core message for the church is Jesus as the Christ, the savior of the nations. The biblical witness to that event and the key teaching of the church to that event should be clear and confident. Moving out from this core to the moral vision of how Christ changes society, including social teachings, and then to specific policy positions will lead to more disagreements in the church and in society. The unity of the church that comes from Christ glows with the radiance of the love of Christ. When the unity of the church is found in our work in the world, then human judgments about social or political goals slide into the conversation more front and center than God.

The message that unites individuals and the church to God is the gospel of Jesus Christ. This message will influence our relationships and actions in the world. But we can have differences of opinion inside of the church about the best social policies to bring about the transformation of society. The themes of the Gospel do not have a predetermined set of political policies. When pastors and Christians speak in the public square of politics about specific social policy decisions, there will be disagreements about particular actions. These disagreements can cause confusion and confrontation in the public square. This confrontation may be necessary when law and gospel is being proclaimed to reveal sin and proclaim forgiveness. Sin resists the light of God. When sin is revealed, there will be tension. On the other hand not all tensions the church experiences in the public square is a result of sin being unmasked. Social confrontation in the politics of society may have an unintended consequence of placing a stumbling block in our witness to the core message of the Gospel. Determining when confrontation is necessary and when it is a hindrance is difficult.

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Our Shepherd is utilizing technology to continue to share the gospel in our community and through this technology probably beyond our own local community. I grieve that we have not been able to gather in our sanctuary for worship. I respect the the need to be loving and caring for our neighbors' physical well-being by not unnecessarily exposing people to the danger of community transmission of the coronavirus. I know that in Michigan and other states people will have strong opinions about how best to balance the risks between physical and economic health. As a pastor, I am cautious about speaking definitively against social and political policies because I do not want my personal witness to the gospel to be obscured. I do have opinions, but I respect that different people will determine the appropriate time to directly address an issue with intentional words and actions. 

Posted by Evan Gaertner

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