The Source of All Authority
The Scriptures are the source of God’s authority, be it in the Church or in the civil realm. The authority God gives to the Church and government are signs of His love for us, providing for our spiritual and temporal well-being.
“The Church is the congregation of saints [Psalm 149:1] in which the Gospel is purely taught and the Sacraments are correctly administered.” (AC VII 1)
The Church does not exercise secular, or civil, authority. She may not employ the power of the state to compel people to accept the teachings of the Gospel, to enforce Christian living, or to punish or imprison heretics. Lutherans teach that the state has the power of the sword, but the Church has the power of the Word. Christ gave His Word to His Church. The Word of the Gospel brings people to faith. Peter expresses this understanding when he speaks of the “ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4). Not by force or fines but by teaching and the work of the Holy Spirit the Church wins people for Christ and shepherds them to life under Christ in His kingdom.
Some teach that the Church’s authority comes from both the Scriptures and sacred tradition. Lutherans believe that the authority given by God is found in Scripture alone. A Roman Catholic, for example, asks the question, “What does the Church say?” A Lutheran asks, “What do the Scriptures say?” Therein lies a critical difference in understanding Church authority from a Lutheran point of view.
The Authority of the Church: The Office of the Keys
The Office of the Keys is the term used to designate the power given by Christ to the Church on earth. Jesus said, “As the Father has sent Me, even so I am sending You. . . . Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld” (John 20:21–23). In the Book of Matthew, Jesus announces that He will give the disciples “the keys of the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 16:19). This power was not exclusive to the apostles, but transmitted successively by the Church to those whom the Church ordains and places in the Office of the Holy Ministry.
“The Office of the Keys is that special authority which Christ has given to His church on earth to forgive the sins of repentant sinners, but to withhold forgiveness from the unrepentant as long as they do not repent.” (SC Confession)
The Lutheran Confessions teach “It must be recognized that the Keys belong not to the person of one particular man, but to the Church. . . . This is why it is first the Church that has the right of calling” (Tr 24). The Church exercises the Office of the Keys through her ministers, who, in the stead of Christ, and on behalf of the congregation, assure that the Means of Grace are administered. Through these means the Holy Spirit imparts to people the blessings of Christ’s redemption. Christ obtained the forgiveness of sins and salvation for all people. Through the Means of Grace, the Holy Spirit imparts these blessings to the people. Through her ministers, the church administers these means.
“Our churches teach that no one should publicly teach in the Church, or administer the Sacraments, without a rightly ordered call.” (AC XIV)
The Releasing Key
The releasing key is the power to remit sins (that is, to cancel the punishment of God against sin) and absolve the sinner (that is, declare the sinner free from the guilt of sin). This power is not separate from or above the Gospel of Christ, but is a specific application of the Gospel. The Lutheran Confessions hold that “the Power of the Keys administers and presents the Gospel through Absolution, which is the true voice of the Gospel” (Ap XIIA 39). In Christ, sinners are forgiven. In Absolution, the message of grace and forgiveness is applied to the individual in a more direct way.
The called ministers of Christ, who speak God’s Word in the Christian congregation, have the power and authority to remit sins.
The Binding Key
The binding key is the power to retain sins. To retain sins, or bind them to someone, does not mean that these sins were not atoned for by Jesus or that they are not forgiven before God. Instead, it is the announcement that the unrepentant sinner, by desiring to remain in sin, has rejected the gift of grace offered by Christ for all those who have faith in Him. Forgiveness is received in no other way than by faith (Romans 3:28). The impenitent, because they refuse to believe it, have excluded themselves from the general amnesty proclaimed by God, and hold themselves outside of God’s forgiveness.
Using the Power of the Keys
The Church does not use the power of the keys lightly. Instead, she strictly follows the instructions of Christ. The Church remits sins to penitent sinners and retains the sins of impenitent sinners as long as they do not repent. Whenever the Church on earth through her ministers deals with sinners in this way, her actions are certain and sure also in heaven (Matthew 18:18).
So, What about the Rest of Us?
While it is given to pastors to serve in their particular way, all of God’s people are given many opportunities to serve both God and others. There is a “flow” in every Christian’s life. The flow is to receive God’s gifts and then to serve God by serving others in daily vocations. The service of laypeople in the Church is referred to by Lutherans as “the priesthood of all believers.”
“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.” (1 Peter 2:9)
Pastors serve as God’s representative in a congregation, but all believers have a role in serving God. Those who have received the gifts of God cannot help but thank and praise the Lord who gives them. As Christians live their daily lives fulfilling their vocations, they also have opportunity to tell about the gifts they have received from Jesus to those around them.
All Christians have the responsibility to grow in their faith and understanding of God’s love for them in Jesus Christ. All Christians have the privilege to serve as members of the “royal priesthood” by telling others about Jesus and pointing them to His gifts given in the Word and Sacraments in the Church.
“But in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.” (1 Peter 3:15)
There is no “ranking” of service among Lutherans. Lutherans do not view the service of pastors as more important or holy than that of laypeople. Pastors are given certain things to do, and laypeople are given certain things to do. Together as the Church they work to the glory of God.
Authority Given to the Government
The Scriptures tell us that God has also given authority to the civil government. Instead of forgiving sin as the Church does, the government rules for the sake of order, safety, and peace in the world. God tells us to obey those who are in authority over us unless they command us to sin.
Civil power and authority to rule and govern originates with God. The apostle Paul writes: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Romans 13:1). It is the will of God that there should be government because anarchy is contrary to His will. This power of government is not invested in any particular person, family, or class but in God’s Word. With this understanding, you can understand that the vocation of governing is divinely instituted and through it, God works in the world.
Purpose of Government
Since the fall of Adam and Eve into sin, humanity’s relationship with God has been disrupted. By means of civil government God works to provide for security and peace. Governments, therefore, are to protect the lives, the property, the honor, and the reputation of the people. Those in civil authority are to preserve order, discipline, and safeguard the people as they pursue their occupations and enjoy their liberties. Government wields the sword of God’s justice as “God’s servant for your good” (Romans 13:4).
The government may also engage in other activities that will promote and secure the general welfare of the people. This would include the education of its citizens, conservation and promotion of natural resources, the improvement of adverse conditions and suffering, combating those who threaten the peace, both within and from outside its borders, and improving living conditions in general.
Right of Government
To fulfill its purpose, the government has the right to enact suitable laws (1 Peter 2:13), to enforce these laws, to judge people in accordance with these laws (John 18:31), and to impose penalties on those who break these laws. To support these activities and other purposes, the government has the right to levy taxes (Matthew 22:17–21; Romans 13:7). The government has the right to wage war for the protection of its citizens.
Some churches teach that Christians should not be involved in politics or government. But not Lutherans! Our Confessions encourage us to be as involved as possible so that our Christian lives can witness to and shape society. The Lutheran Confessions hold that Christians who serve as government authorities may “impose just punishments . . . engage in just wars, [and] serve as soldiers” (AC XVI 2). Also, it is not sinful for Christians to take an oath when required to do so by the magistrates.
“Our churches teach that lawful civil regulations are good works of God. They teach that it is right for Christians to hold political office, to serve as judges, to judge matters by imperial laws and other existing laws, to impose just punishments, to engage in just wars, to serve as soldiers, to make legal contracts, to hold property, to take oaths when required by the magistrates, for a man to marry a wife, or a woman to be given in marriage.” (AC XVI 1–2)
The Basic Principle of Government
God appoints the governing authority, but this does not mean that the authority must govern according to the Scriptures or make the Bible the fundamental law book of the land. The Roman emperor Nero certainly did not rule according to the precepts of the Bible. However, the authority he represented was appointed by God. The Bible is the sole authority in the Church or the kingdom of grace. It is not the sole authority in those institutions that, like civil government, belong to the kingdom of power.
The basic principle in civil government is human reason, which turns natural knowledge of God into the organization and laws that promise and promote the achievement of the purpose of government. It is by the structures and laws that government rules, and government enforces these laws by the power of the sword.
It should be noted. This article was written for, and subsequently included in Lutheranism 101 © 2010 Concordia Publishing House.