By  the Rev. Amy Reumann, Director of ELCA Advocacy


   When the Attorney General and the White House Press Secretary invoked St. Paul’s instruction “be subject to the governing authorities” to quell criticism of the Administration policy of separating families seeking asylum at the border, faith leaders reacted swiftly to the misuse of Scripture. The ensuing uproar focused on a narrow interpretation of Romans 13 that ignored the larger meaning of the passage, which holds all persons and structures to God’s higher standard of love. It can in no way be used justify the horrific practice of tearing children away from their parents or any unjust law. Many have weighed in on the misapplication of the text to falling in line behind this new interpretation of immigration policy.  But it also raises a larger question. Just what is our relationship to government, as Lutherans? When do we submit, and when is resistance called for? 

Luther had a lot to say about this. He bequeathed us with a unique take on the role of the church in society. As branches of the emerging Protestant movement wrestled with how to relate to the ruling powers – full separation from the irredeemably sinful affairs of state and society, or fully combining royal and church leadership – the Lutheran movement forged its own path. Luther’s reading of the Gospel and understanding of God’s ordering of the world led him to believe that Christians can make use of the governing structures, because they are gifts from God for order, for peace and for providence for those who have little.  

In the Large Catechism, Luther stresses the place of government three times, with an emphasis on the ways it is a means by which God cares for the most vulnerable:

  • Fourth Commandment:civil government is an extension of the parental role, responsibility and authority, and is to serve so that children can live full and productive lives.
  • 1st Article of the Apostles’Creed:“good governments” is lifted up as a gift of God,  alongside necessities like body, soul, life, food, drink, spouse, child, air, water, peace and security.
  • 4th Petition of the Lord’s Prayer:daily bread includes all the necessities we need for our daily life and the role of the rulers was to ensure daily bread for all.

Luther drew on the poetry of the Psalms to speak further regarding governmental care for the poor. In his commentary on Psalm 82 he addresses the duties of a prince and their virtues that include furthering the Word of God by ensuring “justice for those who fear God,” and just laws to prevent the oppression of the poor, wretched, widows and orphans. The government itself is a “divine hospital” to care for those in need, to ensure no one will become a beggar.  

Luther is very clear on what makes a good government. Cooperation, participation and submission to the just laws of a benevolent government are in line with these emphases. But submission to the governing authorities is never blind nor automatic. We are to evaluate laws, discuss policies as a faith community and discern a faithful response. As the ELCA, we do so within the framework and guidance of our social teaching documents.

The ELCA Social Statement “Church in Society: A Lutheran Perspective” sums up this up when it states that:

This church must participate in social structures critically, for sin also is at work in the world. Social structures and processes combine life-giving and life-destroying dynamics in complex mixtures and in varying degrees. This church, therefore, must unite realism and vision, wisdom and courage, in its social responsibility. It needs constantly to discern when to support and when to confront society’s cultural patterns, values and powers. (Church in Society, p. 3)

Lutherans are called to careful discernment on social issues and, rooted in our understanding of the Gospel, to affirm laws that align with it, oppose those that are contrary to it and to speak up in all cases. Laws and policies that do harm to the most vulnerable are to be strenuously opposed. The social statement continues:

As a prophetic presence, this church has the obligation to name and denounce the idols before which people bow, to identify the power of sin present in social structures, and to advocate in hope with poor and powerless people. When religious or secular structures, ideologies or authorities claim to be absolute, this church says, “We must obey God rather than any human authority” (Acts 5:29). With Martin Luther, this church understands that “to rebuke” those in authority “through God’s Word spoken publicly, boldly and honestly” is “not seditious” but “a praiseworthy, noble and … particularly great service to God.” (Church in Society, p. 4)

Lutherans have some wonderful theology here that we need to dust off and put it back in use. Now. When rhetoric dehumanizes or demonizes people of different races, nationalities or religious traditions the church is called to name and denounce idols of white supremacy, ethnic nationalism or religious intolerance, inside itself and in public life. When public policies perpetuate the poverty or oppression of our neighbor, we are to work tirelessly to change them. Family separation spectacularly fails the test of our faith values and has earned our rebuke and resistance. Should all the children be reunited with their parents, there are still families torn apart by our nation’s policies, caught in our broken immigration system, separated by this Administration’s travel ban, or locked up in our system of mass incarceration. If children at the border horrifies us, so should these other cases.

Faith community leaders, including Presiding Bishop Eaton, have spoken resoundingly in opposition to family separation. When the Presiding Bishop speaks, it is a call to action for the church to join in confronting not only the policies but the values and powers behind them. We must speak God’s powerful Word publicly, boldly and honestly in these days. ELCA Advocacy is here to help you with that.


Be sure to join the ELCA e-Advocacy Network.