Technically Lutherans don’t believe in a “separation” of church and state, at least in as much as we hear that term being used today. Lutheran theology when it comes to politics is called “Two Kingdoms” theology or “Two Realms” theology.
Essentially these two “Kingdoms” are as follows:
- God’s rule which He maintains for Himself (often called the “Right Hand Kingdom” or “Kingdom of the Right”)
- God’s rule which He shares with humanity (often called the “Left Hand Kingdom” or “Kingdom of the Left”)
(By the way, “left” and “right” there are not equivalent in any way to the way we use those terms in modern politics.)
We don’t believe there is a separation between those Kingdoms anymore than there is a separation between my two arms (and I think it would really hurt if you separated my arms). We believe they are both manifestations of God’s singular rule.
Two Kingdoms theology is actually just the Lutheran dialectic of Law and Gospel applied to theories of power. As in the Law, God shares the responsibility of punishment and good order with human beings. This is why we have laws against such things as murder. But as in the Gospel, God retains the responsibility of salvation for Himself – making sure that it happens by His own death upon the Cross in Jesus Christ.
Human beings are famous for poorly stewarding the Kingdom of the Left. As sinners, we goof it up. We’re no better at doing the Law than we are at doing the Gospel. Anyone who tells you otherwise is likely a self-deluded descendant of the line of Pharisees. God shares the Kingdom of the Left with us like a father who hands the keys to the family car to a 15 year old with a driving permit. Perhaps we need for further proof of this than to open our newspapers or social media feeds.
But God retains the Kingdom of the Right. He retains the ability to Gospel the world through His Son, Jesus. In the illustration, this is like the Father retaining the family bank account that can purchase a new car after the 15 year old hits the concrete yellow pole (and we’re still not sure how you didn’t see it, c’mon, it’s painted yellow!). He retains the Kingdom of the Right so that He can continue to share the Kingdom of the Left. He’s not going to hand us the Kingdom of the Right. That would be disastrous. It would look like a much more debauched version of the Wolf of Wall Street.
But He does continue, against what would probably be our own advice, to hand us the Kingdom of the Left. He lets us govern ourselves – personally first and then corporately. Because His rule in the Kingdom of the Left is not monolithic – it is not His alone, but it is rather His, shared with humanity through the work of His Son, Jesus. We are an army of 15 year olds with the car keys, and we represent the rule of God.
And so what are we to do in a world full of newspaper headlines and brightly painted yellow concrete poles? We are to learn to drive, mistake by mistake. For some day, we won’t be 15 anymore, we will be Resurrected. Then we will drive like racecar drivers, for then the Kingdom of the Left and the Kingdom of the Right will both be perfect.