Not a blank check Of course, this doesn’t mean that government can’t be questioned. The belief that political authority is a good gift of God doesn’t justify all forms of government and all laws. Rather, it provides a perspective from which to hold government accountable. Civic leaders are stewards to whom God has entrusted the responsibility of establishing and maintaining good order in the world. When they fail to do so, they are rightly criticized. This understanding of government as one

of the means through which God provides for God’s people and for creation is an important contribution in our time too. Often our conversation in the U.S. focuses on the size of government. Our political parties use the polarizing rhetoric of “big government” or “small government.” Luther recognized that both extremes are problematic. Difficulties occur, Luther wrote, when govern-

ment reaches too far but also when it’s restricted too much. What Lutherans can contribute to the conversation is what we might think of as a “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” perspective. How do we shape a government that is neither “too big” nor “too small” but “just right” to fulfill its God- given functions in this place and time?

This isn’t an easy task “We disagree profoundly about matters such as what constitutes a well-lived human life, what is in the public interest, what is the role of the government in society, and what rights and duties we ought to have with respect to each other,” said Brad Wendel, professor of law at Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., and co-chair of the ELCA Task Force on Women and Justice: One in Christ. For him, it’s essential that we treat each other

with respect, recognizing that those with whom we disagree are also operating in good faith. “To me, one of the most important Lutheran

insights is that we’re simultaneously saints and sinners,” Wendel said. “Even as we’re working in the world as part of the left hand of God, we’re sometimes unable to see clearly what we ought to do, or to act in the way we’re supposed to, because of our sinfulness. From that follows what I think is one of the most important and underappreciated Lutheran virtues, which is humility.” Wendel cautions that there isn’t a direct, straight-

forward relationship between God’s design for the world and how any one of our civic institutions should be set up and regulated. Living out our faith in the public sphere will never be as simple as a “What Would Jesus Do?” bumper sticker.

“Nevertheless,” he said, “I take heart in the

gospel and believe that God is at work in the world through civic institutions like legislatures, courts, businesses, private charities and foundations, unions, advocacy organizations and so on.”

What does this mean for us today? It’s easy to be cynical about politics. In the movie Fiddler on the Roof, a member of the Russian Jewish community asks the rabbi, “Is there a proper blessing for the czar?” The rabbi responds, “May God bless and keep the czar … far away from us.” It’s a good laugh line, but it’s a sad commentary on popular attitudes toward political leaders. Nathan Pipho, a pastor of Trinity Lutheran

Church, Worcester, Mass., has had a lifelong interest in politics. He returned to school in 2015 to study the intersections of faith and politics at Harvard Kennedy School of Government. As a member of the school’s mid-career group, he had classmates from more than 70 countries, with government, nonprofit, private sector and military backgrounds. “Across the political spectrum, my classmates

had a heart for public service and for making the world a better place,” Pipho said. “In the diversity of their vocations, and in their shared desire to work for the common good, I saw God at work bringing order and stability to the world and meeting the needs of humanity.” With this, Pipho offers advice for Christians:

“First, live out Luther’s explanation of the Eighth Commandment: ‘To come to the defense of our elected officials, speak well of them, and to interpret their actions in the best possible light.’ Second, find ways to help our elected officials succeed in their vocations as public servants. “In my experience of city, state and federal

government, there are lots of officeholders in both major political parties trying to make a positive difference. Finding ways to help dedicated public servants succeed in their vocations is not about advancing a narrow partisan agenda, but about establishing responsive local, state and federal governments that effectively address the real needs and issues of the communities they serve.” Luther would agree.

Download a study guide by clicking on the “Spiritual practices & resources” tab at

Kathryn A. Kleinhans is the Mike and Marge McCoy Family Distinguished Chair in Lutheran Heritage and Mission at Wartburg College, Waverly, Iowa, where she has taught since 1993.


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