State power reforming the church

Yesterday was the day when various pastors resolved to challenge I.R.S. restrictions by endorsing candidates from the pulpit. Did your preacher do that? Thirty-three did, organized by a conservative legal foundation, and the IRS has promised to “take action as appropriate.”

These preachers seem to all be conservatives and preached against voting for Barack Obama. But mainstream denominations, as I recall from experience, preach politics all the time, condemning conservative candidates in much the same terms. And African-American churches seem to turn their services into campaign rallies, with Democratic candidates doing the preaching! Let the IRS crack down on everyone or no one.

There are times when God uses the state to reform the church. The Reformation being the major example, when Luther called on the aid of the princes to curb ecclesiastical abuses,. But I think too of the priest pedophile scandal and the financial scams run by various TV preachers. Might IRS regulations be a legitimate Romans 13 means by which God ensures that churches focus on the Kingdom of Heaven rather than the kingdoms of this world?

Can you think of other cases when state power needs to come down upon the church? Or do you think, despite the example of the Reformation, that churches should be completely unconstrained by the state?

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • http://gpiper.org/katiesbeer TK

    I was away from our home church yesterday, but I am pretty sure that our confessional Lutheran pastor would never do such a thing! That is one of the many reason I love our church. He sticks to delivering law and gospel, to making sure we are well-taught, knowing that well-catechized parishioners are better equipped to be involved citizens.

    We did attend the Festival of St. Michael and All Angels at Bethany Lutheran College yesterday, as part of the annual Fall Festival. The service followed the Office of Matins. I really miss use of singing psalms! It reminds me of my ALC days in the 70′s. Don Moldstad gave a good sermon on the corresponding scripture of the day. Nothing about candidates, but an excellent message about the goal of the devil (to destory your soul forever) and of angels (to protect your soul to heaven). Beautiful choir music, directed by Dennis Marzolf, and wonderful band pieces directed by Adrian Lo. I enjoyed singing two ELH hymns I’d never sung before, to my knowledge: I Walk With Angels All The Way (252) and The Canticle Hymn (45).

    Why mention all those details? To reinforce my opinion that church is NOT the place to hear one man give his opinion of such a temporal matter as who to vote for. I agree with the IRS on this matter.

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    I didn’t preach politics, but at the end of the service I had an object lesson in which the Christ candle made it’s way back from the sacristy. How it got there I don’t know. Then I said a bit about the flags, and how one doesn’t need to be reminded of the president they didn’t vote for when in church, and the flags left the sanctuary to find a new home in the Narthex, as I do believe patriotism is a good thing.

  • Carl Vehse

    Lutheran preaching is to properly distinguish between Law and Gospel. Does this mean that the Law is simply not mentioned? If Lutheran pastors preach the Law from the pulpit, should they then distinguish some of the Law from other Law that is not politically correct?

    If a Lutheran pastor preaches that it is against God’s Law to murder (or even desire someone to be murdered), then should he not mention that voting for a pro-abortionist is also against God’s Law?

  • Manxman

    This issue is going to be huge as the various levels of US gov’t deal with Muslims in America, especially in women’s issues. For example, US government is going to have to set the Muslim “church” straight on dress codes for women in identification issues. Muslim women should not be able to us their religion to hide behind their veils.

  • Kirk

    I think people are getting confused here about what Churches can and can’t preach. Churches can be pro/con certain issues. For example, churches regularaly preach against abortion. They cannot preach for or against a particular candidate, which is what these pastors were doing, thereby breaking the law.

  • Bryan Lindemood

    I’m considering taking some time in Bible Class to explain why we as Lutherans don’t endorse any particular political ideology in our church because of our understanding of God’s rule in both kingdoms and that His rule in the Kingdom of God ruled by the Gospel transcends all politics which He also happens to rule by the Law through governments and the sinfulness of man (This is exactly what the White Horse Inn Guys have been talking about lately).

    Plus to those who ask (very few), I try to point out the similarities between the two candidates and their parties’ national policy.

    These pastors should be free to do what they are doing (which is dumb in my view), but they and their churches should be willing to pay the consequences (and the taxes).

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com Bike Bubba

    I don’t want my pastor to advocate a candidate from the pulpit, as it would be too close to suggesting that God’s will was this candidate. However, I don’t want the IRS deciding what is and is not acceptable, either. Haven’t we learned from the Constantinian experiment by now?

    God may from time to time use the state to reform His people, but reality is that He tends to exercise His judgment on those states after a while as well.

  • Don S

    The IRS would do well to simply ignore this one-time protest, rather than picking a fight over it by bringing charges against one or more pastors/churches. As in most things, it is important to be reasonable. We, as Christians, don’t want our churches to become the arm of one or the other political party. On the other hand, if a pastor on occasion mentions a candidate from the pulpit, that shouldn’t be undue cause for alarm.

  • Anon

    Dr. Vieth rightly notes the hypocrisy of IRS behavior regarding churches based upon the political preferences of said churches.

    However the way the two kingdoms impacts this is not as Dr. Vieth supposes (or so it seems to me). The federal government is forbidden to enact laws regarding the State establishments of churches and is also forbidden to infringe upon the free exercise of religion and the churches. Taxation was known to the framers as “the power to control, or destroy” Therefore the “tax exemption” of the churches is NOT a subsidy to the churches, but a proper recognition that the churches are of a different kingdom of the same King.

    It is part of the harmful influence of pietism upon the Lutheran synods that results in the idea that the churches have nothing to say to daily life apart from morals. Or that the churches do not have the role of preaching to the civil government about what their mutual King requires.

    The proper role of the civil government regards the churches is not upon their doctrine nor their structures, but rather upon the citizens of the country that the churches are in, regarding those aspects of their moral behaviors that God has given to the civil government to enforce. The God-given example of this is to be found in the Law given to Moses. Thus fraud (but not where that is a theological judgment by officers of the civil government) sexual sins, murder and so forth are areas where the civil government must enforce God’s laws, even upon members and officers of the kingdom of the right. But most specifically the civil government does NOT have preaching authority over the churches, which is what regulating the speech of the churches amounts to. In this matter, and to this extent, Dr. Vieth and the pietists have things exactly backwards.

  • Peter Leavitt

    Wise pastors don’t advocate for any political candidate, on the principal from Christ we only render unto Caesar what is Caesars and to Cod what is Gods. The genius od Western civilization has to do with this distinction.

    The American government in its wisdom provides tax exemption for non profit orginizations that stay out of direct politics and has every right under the law to punish churches who violates this legitimate law.

    Pastors may, of course, preach to their heart’s content against such moral failures as abortion, homosexual marriage, and embryonic destruction for stem cell research, in which case savvy parishioners would know just about perfectly for whom their revered pastor would be voting.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Peter (@10), you really think all the pastors preaching that plan to vote for a third party candidate?

  • Anon

    Peter,
    I agree with you to the extent that that is what pastors -should- do. I yet maintain that the idea that pastors have no free speech rights, or that Caesar has a right to punish congregations and the churches because their pastors exercised unalienable rights, to be dangerously, harmfully, incorrect.

  • CRB

    Would that all denominations knew and practiced the Lutheran doctrine of the two kingdoms! What I wonder is, how many of those 33 that thought it their duty to preach about “Saving the nation” preached about the Savior of all people?!

  • WebMonk

    If only Lutherans practiced the doctrine of the two kingdoms. It’s not just non-Luths who get all conflationary with the kingdoms. Of course, when it’s mentioned, they have a reason why they really aren’t mixing anything. Ditto for all people.

  • Peter Leavitt

    … yet maintain that the idea that pastors have no free speech rights, or that Caesar has a right to punish congregations and the churches because their pastors exercised unalienable rights.

    Pastors are subject to law, as we all are. While they may speak their minds on any religious or social issue from the pulpit, they are by law not allowed to endorse political candidates from the pulpit unless they are willing to give up the churche’s tax-exempt status. Their right to free speech is not absolute; Justice Oliver Wendell Homes remarked that one doesn’t have the right to falsely cry out “fire” in a theater, another example of limitation of speech.

    Most pastors wisely do not endorse political candidates from the pulpit and well understand the reason why the law demands this. Of course, any pastor or citizen may in th epublic square say what they wish including the endorsement of political candidates and the repeal of laws concerning tax-exempt church status.

  • Anon

    CRB, since they were all evangelical churches, I imagine that they preach the gospel every single Sunday.
    Maybe not with perfect precision, but sufficiently.

    Peter,
    You appear to be insisting that Caesar has authority over what gets said in sermons, which is a core part of the ministry of the church. Is that not caesaropapism? It is certainly a clear violation of the 1st Amendment and the Two Kingdoms.

  • Joe

    “that Caesar has a right to punish congregations and the churches because their pastors exercised unalienable rights, to be dangerously, harmfully, incorrect.”

    This is a statement that reflects a complete misunderstanding of what happens to a church that violates the prohibition on endorsing a candidate. The church is not punished, instead a privilege that that the church currently enjoys is ended. A church has no right to demand a tax exemption.

    Entitlement attitudes are wrong regardless of who holds them.

  • Peter Leavitt

    Joe is quite right. The few fringe pastors and their camp followers who confuse freedom of religion with some absolute right to endorse or condemn political candidates from the pulpit don’t really understand either the proper meaning of religion or the law. They in fact deserve to lose the privilege of tax exemption.

  • Anon

    Joe and Peter;

    A little Constitutional and Biblical law for you:

    You show a fundamental misunderstanding. The churches do not enjoy a benefit from the kingdom of the left in not being taxed, instead, as the founders and framers knew and firm up in the 1st Amendment, the churches are of the kingdom of the right, and while there is but one King with one Law, nonetheless, the kingdom of the left does not have authority over the kingdom of the right, and taxation is the power to control, or to destroy. Hence no laws regarding religious establishments and free exercise thereof.

    Even we citizens aren’t born into this world belonging to Caesar, nor is our income granted benificently to us from Caesar, rather we, as the civil government, elect delegates to represent us, and we pay taxes which should not be tribute money to a sovereign.

    The kingdom of the right is independent and separate from the kingdom of the left. Both papocaesarism and caesaropapism are rejected by the two kingdoms doctrine.

    For the kingdom of the left to tax the kingdom of the right would be to claim sovereignty over the kingdom of the right, which belongs only to God, and therefore would be claiming to be a god, which of course must be resisted even unto death. God does not pay tribute to Caesar, for that would be idolatry.

  • CRB

    #16 Anon,
    Well, I guess neither of us knows for sure if Christ crucified for our sins was preached. I hope so!

  • Don S

    I guess I fall somewhere between Peter and Joe, on the one hand, and Anon on the other hand, on this issue. I don’t think the exemption from taxation of churches to be a “privilege”. It is a well established right of churches in our country to be exempt from taxes, for a lot of the reasons Anon espouses. Moreover, corporate tax rates, to which churches would be subject if not exempt, are punitive, running anywhere from 25 to 50 %, from the first dollar of income, particularly when federal and state income taxes are combined. Removal of the exemption would also likely subject churches to real property taxes, personal property taxes, local business taxes, etc., so that the effect would be that the government could be confiscating more than half of the “profits” received in the offering basket. Additionally, those contributing to the church would be unable to deduct their gifts as charitable contributions, thus likely sharply reducing the size of those gifts. In short, the power to tax is indeed the power to destroy, as no church can operate nearly as effectively without its tax exemption.

    This is not to say that I don’t think this right can be revoked should a church recklessly overstep their function, but there needs to be a very high threshold before the state steps in and makes a determination concerning the “proper” function of a church, and what a church can and can’t do. In my opinion, what the protesting pastors did last Sunday, in a one-time protest circumstance, is not sufficient to trigger such a determination. Pastors should have wide leeway to preach in the manner in which they feel led of the Lord, and only those who exhibit a pernicious and persistent pattern of abuse of their function as a church should be considered for investigation.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Anon (@19), you impute to “the founders and framers” a Lutheran understanding of the doctrine of the two kingdoms that, frankly, is unlikely. Where did you get that idea? And how do you square it with the fact that the state does control many aspects of a congregation’s existence, if not taxation — zoning and building codes leap to mind.

  • Anon

    Carl brings up another point: Taxing the tithe is claiming sovereignty over -God-. That is sheer blasphemy, and acceding to it is blatant idolatry.

    As to those who think that two kingdoms is only Lutheran, they show their lack of familiarity with Augustine, Calvin, Archbishop of York de Bohun in 1215, Thomas a Becket, Aquinas, de Bracton, du Plessey de Mornay, John Knox, the Rev. Samuel Rutherford whose work _Lex, Rex_ so heavily influenced not only the founders and framers but the very words of the Declaration of Independence, as well as a whole host of other Christian political thinkers during the past 2,000 years including recent popes. As Luther repeatedly pointed out, he was merely teaching true Catholic doctrine that the Roman See had strayed from.

  • http://www.scyldingsinthemeadhall.blogspot.com The Scylding

    Anon – many of the framers of the Constitution were Deist in faith. The language of the constitution is heavy with Deist thought. I’m not critisising the US Constitution here, just observing. To draw a 1-1 comparison between the Constitution, and certain political streams; and the Gospel, is missing it all together. I agree with Bryan at #6, and have written about these things on my own blog. We cannot, and should not marry our Faith with any one given political stream. We may or may not overwhelmingly agree, and some or most issues, but we cannot equate faithfullness to God with faithfulness to Party / political philosophy. Let me quote Solzhenitsyn again:

    If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

    Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

  • Anon

    Scylding,
    With you being a Canadian, perhaps your ignorance can be excused.

    None of the founders were Deists at the time of the War and the Framing. Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson were the most extreme, and they would be considered liberal Christians, not Deists. Both believed very much that God ruled in the affairs of men and nations, not the clockmaker god of the Deists. Both gave money for the propagation of the Gospel, and Jefferson used federal money to have the Bible translated for the Native Americans, and had the Bible and Isaac Watts hymnal be the reading textbooks in the first public school, which he helped get going. All of the rest were what you would call Fundamentalists. You can verify this by reading their writings. I believe that one of the Adams, either John or John Quincy (who wasn’t involved at the time of independence) later in life moved towards Unitarianism, but that is not relevant to the Founding.

    If I were to smoke, I would favor Longbottom Leaf or Old Toby and not revisionist bovine end product. I understand that you, being a foreigner, would not know the difference. I don’t fault you for that.

    I would encourage you to look up the people I’ve mentioned, and read their works, and those of the founders and framers, including their letters and diaries. Take especial note of _Lex, Rex_ of 1644, and compare its language with that of the Declaration of Independence and see how Jefferson plagiarized it.

  • http://www.scyldingsinthemeadhall.blogspot.com The Scylding

    Anon,

    Ok, I haven’t read everything in detail, as you had, so I might be wrong. But I have my reservations, and I’ll leave it at that. Pax?

    But I do feel some disquiet at the jingoist tones of your writings: No nation, ever, except Israel prior to Christ, has been God’s chosen people. When I was growing up in South Africa, the nationalist propaganda also tried to portray the Afrikaner as God’s chosen people. Words like Covenant abounded. But as it turned out, it was political claptrap. i have read some biographies of American historical figures, and found it very hagiographical. Coming from a similar “dispensation”, I have come to realise that we al tend to trade in hagiography.

    Maybe I overreact. But I have seen the effect of nationalism (as opposed to patriotism) from both the inside and the outside. And it is not pretty. I have lived in more than one country. I’ve had close friends accross (major) religious and political boundaries. And I’ve come to realise that clothing one’s politics in religious garb is a perilous undertaking. But neither can you pigeonhole. We are walking tightropes. Political and nationalist arrogance are luxuries we cannot afford.

  • Anon

    Scylding, I do not believe in having nationalism in the Church. I don’t even think that national flags should be in the sanctuary, let alone flanking the high altar!

    I do believe that the church is of a different kingdom than the civil government, and is thus not under the sovereignty of that civil government. The civil governors may not impose restrictions or orders upon the ministry of the Word and Sacrament, and that is what we are talking about. Nor ought the civil governors restrict the unalienable rights of citizens who happen to be of a given religion, or who are minsters of a given religion.

    I encourage you to read the texts I’ve referenced to you, in their original contexts. Since both politics and the Faith interest you, you should find them interesting. I’m not talking about hagiographical texts, I’m talking about the letters, diaries and other writings of the actual individuals themselves, which in historiography, we call “primary sources.”

    I never said that I thought that America was God’s chosen people. How is it that you read that into what I wrote? It is true that early Americans and a number of the founders – including Ben Franklin -did- believe that America was a sort of chosen people of God. He wanted the Great Seal to be the pillar of cloud and fire leading the Children of Israel through the reed sea on dry land. One of the popular songs of that period referred to America as “Abraham’s daughter”. I don’t agree with that (though I do agree with Franklin and Jefferson that God interferes in the affairs of men, and that nations cannot rise without His aid), but it is nonetheless true that -they- believed that.

    I know that the early Americans believed that they were making covenants with God. I do not know if God considered Himself party to them. Likewise the Boers had covenantal theology, being Dutch Reformed, after all, so it isn’t surprising that they used such terminology. One of my good friends grew up in Kwa-Zulu Natal on a mission station (later his youth group was gunned down in church by !Xhosa/ANC thugs) Many of his friends from the University of Pochtestraum(sp?) were involved in trying to create an anti-apartheid Christian political party.

    Is the Union of South Africa better off now with !Xhosa tribal rule, the imperialistic invasion of Lesotho and Swaziland, and the beginning genocide of Boers? Who have lived there longer than Canadians and Americans have lived on this continent? Remember, it was the Brits who introduced apartheid, not the Afrikaaners.

  • http://www.scyldingsinthemeadhall.blogspot.com The Scylding

    Anon: The America as the New Israel is a general vein of thought often present in a greater or lesser segree in political discourse in the US. Sorry if it came accross as if I’m directly blaming you – I have a tendency to jump from the specific to the general without warning (so be warned).

    Yes SA is a violent society. But some facts:

    I was born as an Afrikaner. My ancestors arrived in Africa in 1688, as French Hugenots. Yes, the Brits introduced apartheid. But Afrikaner Nationalist polticians, especially Herzog, Malan, Strijdom & Verwoerd formalised it into a poltical philosophy. Some of these men had Nazi sympathies, and were connected to the Ossewa-Brandwag, a movement loosely based on the brownshirts and all those political entities of the 1930′s. After Verwoerd, apartheid started to change, and was ready to be abandoned in 1990.

    Correction: The Xhosa, though dominant under Mandela & Mbeki, are not so strong – the new power behind the throne, and SA’s next president, is a Zulu by the name of Jacob Zuma. The “invasion” of Lesotho was a combined military exercise by the SA & Botswana governments, at the request of the Lesotho government, given the threat to democracy posed by a military poised for a coup-detat. They took the troops out shortly afterwards, and peace was restored. SA has never invaded Swaziland.

    The church shooting you might be referring to was the infamous St James Cathedral shooting in ’93. It was perpetrated by a the military wing of fringe politcal group, who broke away from the ANC in the 1960′s, and who were a socialist/maoist, pan-African group (at the time). The people who were killed were parishoners and visiting seamen, including some Eastern European sailors.

    I must add that I agree with you on flags in church.

    Some time in future (distant, not near), I hope to put together some posts on the lessons to be learnt from SA’s history. After all, I lived there for 32.5 years….

  • Anon

    The church shooting I am talking about is a different one, that took place on a mission station in Kwa-Zulu Natal, as I noted, a good friend of mine had previously led that youth group before he came to this country to go to seminary, and his parents are still there. The !Xhosa have killed -lots- of Zulu and other blacks who didn’t agree with their tribal will-to-power.

  • Anon

    Likewise with Nelson Mandela used an AK-47 on an inkatha freedom march who were carrying scale-model ceremonial shields and assagai, firing along with his colleagues, from a Party office building, that was no fringe group.

  • http://www.scyldingsinthemeadhall.blogspot.com The Scylding

    Anon. Mandela was not in the building at the time. The fringe group in the specific shooting was the PAC. The ANC do not have clean hands. But neither has Inkatha, the old National party and a plethora of other groups.

    There has been many shootings/killings in South Africa. It has crime statistics that is extreme – murders only topped by Columbia, and first in the world with armed robbery, assault, rape etc etc. No one, at least not me, denies that. But the tone of your replies here indicate that you have imbibed some right wing conspiricay theory type propaganda pieces, some of which I’m used to be very familiar with.

    Hint: Do not believe everything you read, neither from the left, or the right, or the centre of the political spectrum.

    That said, I’m not certain that South Africa will not end up a failed state. I hope and pray not. I hope and pray for a victory against crime, and the averting of racial/tribal/class conflict. All of those are still possible.

    I was there. I was in class at University less than 5 miles from the Shell House shootings on the day it took place. I was there when everybody hoarded food in fear of civil war. I stood in the long queues during the ’94 election (the first time I ever voted). I was also there when my parents told our black maid to hide, because the police was rounding up blacks without pass books. I went with my parents into the townships when my father was a teacher. I went to church with black people when it was highly frowned upon. I slept on the floor in my parents’ bedroom with black pastors & missionaries sleeping in my bed – something that was illegal in the apartheid years. And I’m talking about bona fide missionaries here, not political activists. I also knew that my parents had to leave Zambia, where they were missionary-teachers, because their mission school had been taken over by the government, and their posts filled by Eastern European Communist personel (1971). Later years I sang worship songs in evangelical churches in Sotha, Zulu Afrikaans & English. But I also joined the black-dominated labour union while I was working for a multi-national mining company. I am personally acquainted with clergy that had to flee the country during the oppressive Vorster years.

    So please. Don’t try and lecture me on things you haven’t a clue about. I said I’ll try and tune the rhetoric down. But inflaming ignorant propaganda cannot be ignored either.

  • Anon

    I don’t have a clue about? Are you calling my friend a liar? Or his wife, from one of the original families?

  • http://www.scyldingsinthemeadhall.blogspot.com The Scylding

    Anon: You tire me out! I never did either of those things. I merely stated which massacre I was thinking of – and if you read my post, you’ll see that I clearly state that SA is an ultra-vioent society. Read both my last 2 entries. What you do not have a clue about are the intricacies of SA politics. BTW, the Union of SA ended in 1961. Since then it has been the Republic of SA.