I Love America, But…

Theses on Christianity and Patriotism

  1. The Church and the State have their own separate realms, both of which are God’s.
  2. In the Church God rules according to the Gospel of Jesus Christ; in the State God rules according to His Law, written into creation itself.
  3. Each has its own rituals, songs, liturgies, and traditions.
  4. The rituals and traditions belonging to each should remain in their respective realms.
  5. The facts of Christianity are not nor can they be known to everyone, because they are made known by revelation.
  6. The Trinity, Jesus, forgiveness of sins, the Sacraments, the Gospel, and similar things are only known by faith given by the Holy Spirit.
  7. Thus, outside of the gathering of the saints of God around His Word and Sacraments, or outside of the witness of Christians in their vocations, these words and teachings should not be brought into the ceremonies of the civil realm, i.e., those events sponsored by the State.
  8. The facts of the civil realm are available to any person by reason and law.
  9. Laws, creation, morality, the existence of a deity can be known by experience, reason, and examination of the natural world.
  10. The State has an interest in regulating and legislating these things; therefore, they are not, nor can they be, Christianity.
  11. Therefore, Christianity in itself is not morality, law, the good things of creation, or citizenship in any nation.
  12. Christianity does not destroy law, government, morality, citizenship, or civic duty.
  13. Rather, Christianity wishes to keep them in their proper realm: the civic realm, where people have duties and responsibilities toward one another.
  14. Christianity wishes to keep its own realm, the Church, free from legislation and morality, because these will end up subsuming the Gospel back under the Law.
  15. Morality is good, but not in the Church.
  16. That is, the Church does not exist to teach morality.
  17. Legislation is good, but not in the Church.
  18. That is, the Church can legislate nothing.  She has only the Word of God.
  19. This does not mean the Church refrains from proclaiming the Law of God.  She must do this, or risk turning the Gospel into something less than the full, free, unconditional forgiveness of sins for Jesus’ sake.
  20. But the lack of morality in the world, or the lack of holy living in the Church, cannot be solved by preaching the Law more.
  21. This must, and will, create either spiritually proud people, or spiritually despairing people, unless the Law is preached as a tutor leading to Jesus, who is the end and fulfillment of the Law.
  22. The Church, which will be fulfilled in the Kingdom of God,  is where Jesus alone reigns through His cross, death, resurrection, and the forgiveness He gives.
  23. The United States is neither the Church nor the Kingdom of God.
  24. The Reign of God is beyond all national borders.
  25. God reigns in the United States, as in all nations, only according to His Law, which can only say, “Do this; don’t do that.”
  26. In the realm of the State, the Law is the final word.  There is only Law, and there is only justice.
  27. In the realm of the Church, the Law can never have the final word; it is always God’s “alien” or “strange” work before He does His true or “proper” work of the Gospel.
  28. Whenever these two realms are mixed or confused, the Law ceases to be a demanding and merciless word, and the Gospel ceases to be a free and unconditional word of mercy.
  29. Thus, generic songs about “God,” which are really directed to the State, are not appropriate in the services of the Lord’s House.
  30. This is because we do not have a generic “God,” which has to be interpreted as the Christian, Trinitarian God; we have a specific, explicitly revealed God in Jesus Christ.
  31. A generic “God” is appropriate in the realm of the State, which can know of a deity, but not who this deity is.
  32. Further, most people recognize that there is some “higher power,” by which we are held accountable for how we act.  This is good in the realm of the State.
  33. The Church should pray for the State, and the members of the Church are always citizens of some State.  They should act as responsible citizens for the good of all the other citizens (e.g., by voting, letters to the editor, activism, and any other means open to them).  If the State proscribes religious practice, the members of the Church must obey God rather than men.
  34. Since the Church is the realm of the Gospel and of revealed Christianity, the symbols of the State do not belong in her buildings (e.g., national flags).
  35. Since the State is the realm of Law and of reason, the symbols of the Church do not belong in her buildings (e.g., crosses).
  36. The Church should never give the impression that she is anything other than an outpost of the Kingdom of God within whichever State it finds itself.
  37. The Church is always in a State, but she is never of the State.
  38. The Church should never give the impression that she belongs to a particular State, because the members of the Church are scattered throughout every nation.  Therefore, she should not sing songs that do not apply to any Christian in any State.
  39. The Church should always retain a critical distance from any State, even when the State seems to support the free exercise of the Church’s rites.
  40. The State’s laws can always change; the Reign under which the Church is found never changes.
  41. The State and the Church often use similar words, and yet, according to their proper realms, these words signify completely different things.
  42. Freedom in the realm of the State does not signify the same thing as freedom in the realm of the Church.  Since there is no such thing as sin in the realm of the State (only the breaking of laws), there can be no such thing as freedom from sin in the realm of the State.
  43. Soldiers do not fight and die for the same freedom for which Christ died.  They are absolutely distinct, and must be kept that way to preserve the Gospel itself.
  44. Righteousness in the realm of the State does not signify the same thing as righteousness in the realm of the Church.
  45. Righteousness in the realm of the State is external and earned, not given–and as condemning before God as the worst sin.  Righteousness in the realm of the Church is in the heart and freely given, not earned–and as saving before God despite the worst sin.
  46. Christians ought not put their hands over their hearts for the Pledge of Allegiance or the Star-Spangled banner, because they cannot serve two masters, nor do they have room in their hearts for both Jesus and the State.
  47. The United States is the worst country on the face of the earth–except for all the others; Christians will remember that though she is an excellent and prosperous Babylon, she is still Babylon.
  48. When we ceased to be strangers and aliens to the people of God in Christ, we became, by definition, strangers and aliens to whatever country in which we find ourselves.  Whatever we are as citizens of the United States (rich, poor, governor, governed), we remain in the Church vagrants, beggars, and supplicants who live only by the mercy of God in Christ.
  49. We will take advantage and use fully the benefits which all people are accorded in this country, but we will never rely on them for our life.  They are in the end, like all things that are not Christ, only death.  We will keep the laws, as long as they do not interfere with what God commands, or encroach upon the Church’s proclamation of the Gospel and administration of the Sacraments.  We will give thanks that we do not have to pay taxes on church buildings, etc., but we will not pretend that the Church lives or dies by its tax-exempt status.  We will give thanks for the protection of the Church under the First Amendment to the Constitution, but we will not pretend that the Church lives or dies on whether the government recognizes that freedom.
  50. The Church lives or dies by one thing only: whether the Gospel of the free forgiveness of sinners by Jesus Christ is preached from her pulpits and given out from her altars.

[Open for debate!]


This God

“Madame,” I said, “if our God were a pagan god or the god of intellectuals–and for me it comes to much the same–He might fly to His remotest heaven and our grief would force Him down to earth again.  But you know that our God came to be among us.  Shake your fist at Him, spit in His face, scourge Him, and finally crucify Him: what does it matter?  My daughter, it’s already been done to Him.”

Georges Bernanos, The Diary of a Country Priest, 133

True Reformation

For the church does not live by morals, by the knowledge and observance of God’s law.  Nor does it live by religion, by lofty experiences of the divine and an awareness of the mysteries of God.  It lives solely by the forgiveness of sins.  Hence reformation does not consist, as the late Middle Ages believed, and as has been believed in wide circles of the Protestant world, of an ethico-religious correction, of a moral quickening and a spiritual deepening throughout the church.  It consists, rather, according to its own peculiar nature, of the revival of the preaching of the Gospel of the forgiveness of sins for Christ’s sake.  That such a revival of the church’s message must have important consequences also in reviving the life of its members and in renovating the external forms of the church is only natural.  But these are only consequences.  What the world called, and still does call, reformation of the church is only the fruit of the real Reformation, the revival of the pure doctrine of the Gospel.

Hermann Sasse, Here We Stand, 69-70

“The Unity of the Church…Will Not Be Seen By the World”

If you want the clearest and most succinct explanation of why orthodox Lutherans declare church fellowship before they share in altar fellowship, read Hermann Sasse’s “Theses on the Question of Church and Altar Fellowship” in The Lonely Way, vol. 1.  Sasse distills down to their essence the Scriptural principles of unity and confession by which the Church lives in this world.

There is only one Christ, so there can only be one Body of Christ, the Church.  But the “unity of the church, and with it the indissolubly connected unity of the Supper, will not be seen by the world.  For since the days of the NT, where people believe in Christ and desire to belong to his church, they have been rent asunder by schism and heresies into various fellowships, and there have been division and separation at the Supper” (332).  Sasse emphasizes again and again in his essays that there never was a golden age of the Church, where there were no divisions and everyone agreed.  This is why every attempt at restorationism, or returning to such a golden age, only ends in more division.

Sasse is not afraid to deal with the scandal caused in the world by what the world views as a destroying of the bond of love among and between Christians.  But:

The worst difficulty which the splintering of Christianity has brought can never be overcome simply by declaring that the barriers between the altars are no longer present, and by pronouncing a general altar fellowship.  Altar fellowship is only possible where a real church fellowship already exists.  Should altar fellowship be pronounced, as was the case in the Unions of the previous [Nineteenth] century, as the means and beginning of a prevailing church fellowship, not only is this fellowship not established, but the church is also destroyed.  Such measures make the church a human religious society, and the Supper is made a mere religious celebration of such a society.  This thesis has been confirmed by the experiences of all unions, which treat altar fellowship not as goal, but as point of departure for ecclesiastical unification (333).

The divisions among the churches are caused, on the one hand, by the sin of “lovelessness, which lead[s] to schism and division of the congregation,” and, on the other hand, by “the intrusion of heresy into the congregation, which leads to the formation of sects and necessitates the separation of pure doctrine from false, the church from the sect” (333).  Here Sasse gives examples of both from the Scriptures: on schism, e.g., 1 Cor. 1:1ff.; 11:18; Eph. 4:1ff.  On heresy, e.g., 1 Tim. 4:1; 2 Tim. 3:1ff.; Gal. 1:7ff.; Titus 3:10; 1 John 4:1ff.; 2 John 10ff.

He who destroys the unity of the Christian congregation sins against Christ.  He who causes divisions of the congregation about the Supper celebrates the Supper unworthily and eats and drinks the body and blood of the Lord to judgment. … [And] Christianity has the duty to strictly avoid every church and altar fellowship with heresy, to examine individual believers, to instruct the erring in love, and to most strenuously advance church and altar fellowship within orthodox Christianity.

6. The fulfillment of this duty presupposes the clear knowledge of what pure and false doctrine, what church and heresy are” (333).

He goes on to discuss both the Roman and Reformed communions, on either side of the Lutheran “lonely way.”  He says that the “judgment that another church is a heretical church, with which one may not have church fellowship, in no way entails that this church must then be treated only as a synagogue of Satan, or a ‘devil’s church'” (334).  So: “One may see therein an unbearable contradiction: that, to be sure, heresy comes from the devil, but that also among heretics the church of Christ may yet exist.  Yet he must grant that this contradiction stretches through all of church history, from the controversy over Baptism by heretics to the struglle over the Baptism of rationalists” (334).  Nevertheless, the Lutherans have never drawn from this fact (that there are truly Christians in other communions) the conclusion “that one may thus commune at Roman altars” (334); nor is it possible, though the Reformed may indeed have Christ’s Supper, “there is for the Lutheran Christian no possibility, not even in the peril of death [periculo mortis], of taking part in the Reformed Supper [nota bene ELCA!]. … Altar fellowship with the Reformed churches would only be possible if they were to deny Calvin’s doctrine and teach the bodily presence of Christ under the forms of the bread and wine” (335).

Here Sasse highlights how the Reformed and the Lutherans accuse each other of the two opposite causes of division: the Reformed accuse the Lutherans of lovelessness and schism; the Lutherans accuse the Reformed of heresy.  “The situation is this: that either the Lutheran Church can surrender to the Reformed doctrine, or the Reformed Church to the Lutheran doctrine of the Supper, but there is no higher unity transcending both” (335).  For the Lutherans, there can be no church or altar fellowship with the Reformed unless and until the “Reformed churches have renounced their errors” (336).  And if a Reformed Christian wishes to receive the Sacrament at a Lutheran altar, he or she must confess “the doctrine of the Lutheran Catechism. … Therefore the participation of a Reformed [Christian] in a Lutheran Supper means his joining the Lutheran Church” (336).

Finally, Sasse answers the objection that his theses “can ‘no longer’ be carried out in the practice of churchly life.”

To this we must immediately answer: If strict churchly and confessional principles can “no longer” be carried out in our time, then there is no point in maintaining an Evangelical Lutheran Church.  But then we would do well to ask ourselves whether the truths of the Reformation still apply.  Luther did not ask how the truths of the Reformation would play out.  What is really true and right is just as difficult or easy to carry out in the twentieth [or twenty-first] century as it was in the sixteenth (336, emphasis added).

“We will even have to learn,” he writes, “to improve the diminishing abilities to think through ecclesiastical questions and to come to the correct conclusions.  Certainly any new arrangement will not be brought about quickly.  What has been neglected for centuries cannot be made good in a few years.  We must think in terms of decades” (336-337).

We know today what a perverted doctrine of the Supper and its corresponding practice has produced in our churches.  It has nearly robbed us of the Sacrament and thus nearly destroyed the church.  The renewal of the doctrine of the Sacrament, which we are experiencing today with astonishment, will be followed by the renewal of the correct celebration of the Holy Supper.  And if this renewal is carried out first in a few places, and in smaller circles, if it is really the rightly understood and rightly celebrated Sacrament of the Altar, then the church will necessarily be renewed through it.  For the church, which is the body of Christ, is built on earth when Christ feeds his community which truly believes in him with his true body and blood (337, emphasis added).