Local News: Mississippi State Hospital in Whitfield will be hosting its annual Christmas parade on Friday, December 7 at 10 a.m. To learn more about this event, contact the hospital’s Public Relations Department at (601) 351-8338.
In our day, we are frequently warned of the erosion of our religious liberties. It’s hard to listen to Christian talk radio for long without hearing this theme touched on in some way. This Sunday, we enter into the season of Advent and the controversy over whether companies will sell “Christmas” gifts or “holiday” gifts will be back in full swing.
What the relationship between Church and State ought to look like is an old question, and it is this topic that brings the Augsburg Confession to a close. This week, we will explore Article 7 of Part 2, which is titled, “Of Ecclesiastical Powers”. It’s necessary to put the article in its historical context, as having been written in 1530. This was at a time when the Church wielded what would be considered in the 21st century to be far too much influence over political affairs. Today, as we will see, the pendulum has swung almost to the opposite extreme.
- What authority the church does and doesn’t have
The article begins by complaining that bishops have “mingled together the Ecclesiastical [i.e. churchly] power and the power of the sword.” Because of this confusion, some bishops had taken it upon themselves to violently excommunicate people, confer political kingdoms on people, and take away power from emperors.
Helpfully, Augsburg outlines what the “power” of the church should look like:
“The power of the Bishops, by the rule of the Gospel, is a power or commandment from God, of preaching the Gospel, of remitting or retaining sins, and of administering the Sacraments.”
The work of the church, then, is to proclaim the gospel and administer the sacraments—not to get entangled in political affairs or vie for political power. The work of spreading the gospel is done, not by a sword or by military conquest, but by preaching. To put it another way, the church is chiefly concerned with defending men’s minds and souls. The civil government, armed as it is with military might, is concerned with defending people’s bodies.
The government, not the church, Augsburg says, “coerces men by the sword and corporal punishments, that it may uphold civil justice and peace.” Ancient Israel, both a faith community and a government, had authority to execute people. The Church has no such authority today, though it has sometimes vied for it. In point of fact, and contrary to popular misconception, the Roman Catholic Church never executed anyone during the infamous Inquisition; the Church did, however, use its influence to get the government to execute suspected heretics.
Bishops, Augsburg says, have limited power. They are only to be heeded as long as they are faithful to the gospel. They don’t have the authority to add to God’s Word, and they don’t have authority to set up traditions that are necessary for salvation (this was explored a few weeks ago). Augustine is quoted to validate this point: “Neither must we subscribe to Catholic Bishops, if they chance to err, or determine anything contrary to the canonical divine Scriptures.”
Augsburg goes on to say, “The Bishops… have no other jurisdiction at all, but only to remit sin, also to judge in regard to doctrine, to reject doctrine inconsistent with the Gospel, and to exclude from the communion of the Church, without human force but by the Word of God, those whose wickedness is known.”
This authority to practice church discipline is not always respected in our society. In his 1987 book, Kingdoms in Conflict, Chuck Colson tells a story of a woman who, after being publicly excommunicated from her church for living in an adulterous relationship, sued her church for defamation and won. It may well be that the church may not have been as tactful as it could’ve been. But, as Colson said, to deprive the church, a voluntary organization, the right of exercising discipline over its members, is to render it impotent. How can a church which allegedly stands for Biblical holiness function if nothing can be done about members engaging in public sin? The extreme modern view is that the church can’t really “interfere” in what people are doing outside of the church building—this is an extreme compartmentalization that is good neither for the church nor for society.
- Controversy over the Lord’s Day
As an example of the authority Bishops possess to set guidelines that were necessary for salvation, many appealed to the custom of worshipping on the Lord’s Day. In other words, some believed that the Bishops had, by their authority, transferred the requirements of the Jewish Sabbath, which was Saturday, to Sunday. Augsburg argues against this, saying that the Gospel brings an end to all Mosaic ceremonies and has thus “abrogated the Sabbath”. Worshipping on the Lord’s Day is, according to Augsburg, a human custom, just as the celebration of Easter or Christmas any other Church festival is—something we do to commemorate the day Christ rose, but not something that is “necessary”.
Incidentally, this is something that should be kept in mind regarding Christmas. Some well-meaning Christians are troubled by the pagan origins of the holiday celebrated on December 25 and can’t celebrate it in good conscience. Though this examiner can’t relate to their objections, they are certainly not disobeying God if they abstain from celebrating Christmas.
Back to the topic at hand, Augsburg concedes that God has commanded Christians to regularly come together for corporate worship, but Augsburg argues that no specific day is specified in the New Testament regarding when this is supposed to take place. Presbyterian confessions, differing strongly from Lutherans on this point, regard Sunday as the “Christian Sabbath”, a day of mandatory rest and worship—no less mandatory than the Old Testament Sabbath. The Sabbath isn’t regarded by Presbyterianism as part of the ceremonial law, which came to an end when Christ came. The Presbyterian confessions point out that the Sabbath rule is part of the Ten Commandments—God’s moral law, which is in effect for all time.
This examiner has to admit that the Lutheran approach to the Sabbath seems much preferable to the Presbyterian approach. That being said, there is a delicate balance between legalism and licentiousness. At times, Augsburg appears to overstate things in this article, rendering things Scripture clearly prohibits as matters of conscience. For example, Acts 15:20 tells us that the Jerusalem Council ordered people to “abstain from eating blood and the meat of strangled animals”. Augsburg asks:
“Who observes that nowadays? Yet they do not sin who do not observe it. For the Apostles themselves would not burden men’s consciences with such a servitude, but they forbid it for a time, because of scandal.”
Scripturally, there’s no basis for surmising that anything from the Jerusalem Council was of a “temporary” nature. The prohibition against eating blood, therefore, should, it seems, still be as binding today as it was in the 1st century.
This article ends by saying that the point isn’t to strip Bishops of any all power. Rather, the point is that they should permit the Gospel to be preached purely and relax human traditions that cannot in good conscience be kept.
This brings Jackson Presbyterian Examiner’s survey of the Augsburg Confession, which began in May, to a close. Hopefully, some readers may have possibly gained a new respect for the Lutheran tradition. Also, hopefully readers have seen that when it’s all said and done Presbyterians and Lutherans agree on far more than they disagree on. As C.S. Lewis famously said in his preface to Mere Christianity, “At the center of each there is something, or Someone, which speaks with the same voice.”