NEWS FROM THE CENTER FRIDAY DIGEST - August 12, 2022 - Lutherans are on the front lines of the battle for religious liberty: Part 1


Lutherans are on the front lines of the battle for religious liberty: Part 1

Acton Institute Interview with Dr. Gregory Seltz

by Anthony Sacramone

If there’s something Lutherans are known for other than great hymnody and potluck dinners, it’s keeping their heads down. Lutherans typically are a staid bunch, not big on “revivals” or drum kits in the sanctuary. And they haven’t exactly produced many celebrity preachers (to their everlasting glory).

They’re also not known for taking prominent, which is to say public, roles on social issues. Preaching is for proclamation, and by proclamation, Lutherans mean the gospel. You’ll rarely if ever hear politics coming from “confessional” (aka “orthodox”) Lutheran pulpits, nor will you see them marching in the streets (the one glaring exception being the annual March for Life).

But that doesn’t mean traditional Lutherans don’t have opinions or care about what’s going on in the culture around them. Take as one great example the Lutheran Center for Religious Liberty. Part of the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod (LCMS), the largest confessional Lutheran church body in the United States, the Center in its own words “provides input, education, advice, advocacy, and resources in the areas of life, marriage and religious liberty and seeks to engage in discussions in Washington, D.C., to establish partnerships and resources in our nation’s Capital for the sake of our churches, schools, universities, and seminaries.”

I asked Dr. Gregory Seltz, the Center’s director, to talk about contemporary religious-liberty issues. Dr. Seltz has been in involved in urban ministry in places like New York City, Dallas, and Los Angeles for more than 30 years. From 2011 to 2017, Seltz was also the voice for The Lutheran Hour, a Christian outreach radio program with over 1 million listeners, airing on more than 1,600 stations across North America, as well as on the American Forces Network.

Seltz holds a bachelor’s degree in New Testament/biblical languages from Concordia University in Ann Arbor, Mich., a master of divinity in systematics/New Testament, a master of sacred theology in systematics, and a Ph.D. in theology and culture from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis (his thesis: “Black Liberation Theology and Its Challenge to LCMS Urban Ministry”). He was also awarded the doctor of divinity degree from Concordia University Irvine.

You’ve had a varied and rich career in academia, church startups, The Lutheran Hour. What motivated you to enter the world of religious liberty issues?

My initial foray into liberty issues started with dealing with the political reality of New York City as it pertained to launching ministries in the city. As an urban church planter in the 1990s in one of the most exciting yet politically challenging cities in the country, I found it maddening to discover that church work that “empowered” the neighborhood often conflicted with the city’s politics of dependency. We had to discover ways to deal with real issues such as preschool, childcare, even working with the poor, etc., as an extension of being the Church in the community for the sake of the community.

Another impulse had to do with Obamacare and its federal demand that we provide abortifacients as part of our private healthcare, which was clearly against our teaching and against the consciences of our members.

What are the biggest religious liberty issues facing churches today?

With the federalization of virtually every aspect of healthcare, the government is intricately woven into issues from the beginning of life to its end. The temptation of the government to stand against clear moral teachings that are fundamental to many Christians and religious people of the country is one thing, but the coercive capability of such an expansive intrusion into areas of conscience is another. We’ve seen that in the Obamacare mandates and more recently in the COVID-19 restrictions on the Church, virtually reclassifying it as a secondary institution. Such a reclassification stands in stark contrast to the constitutional protections of religious liberty enshrined in the First Amendment.

While those issues are troubling, the most pressing issue is the reclassification of gender identity as a protected class like race, sex (male/female), ethnicity, or religion. Differences of opinion are one thing, but the notion that the Church must change its teaching regarding marriage and the healthy, biblical directives for sexual expression within the marriage bond now stands not merely as a different understanding of sex, sexual practice, and intimacy—it may become “hate speech,” defining one side of the equation as constitutional and the other as not. We are seeing this already in Europe with the prosecution of Bishop Juhana Pohjola and Paivi Rasanen in Finland merely for publicly teaching that marriage is defined as the lifelong union of a man and woman and sex is part of the marriage bond.

To what extent have the COVID lockdowns and mandates affected religious liberty? How might they continue to affect it even post-COVID (assuming there ever truly is a “post-COVID” era)?

Again, the big concern was the government’s reclassification of the Church as a secondary institution. Doctors and nurses were vital. Grocery store workers were vital. Yet ministers and spiritual leaders and the worshipping/serving body of the churches were not. Worship services and hospital calls by pastors were deemed unnecessary. If doctors and nurses could be masked up for their service, surely pastors could as well. With people literally dying from COVID early on, the voice of the pastor sharing the gospel with them, praying with them, offering Communion to them especially at the possible moment of their death was much more vital than the mere physical issues associated with the pandemic.

Even worse was the politicization of health issues whereby free citizens were literally deprived of their right to work, to worship, and to deal with the risks of life on their own terms, faithful to their families, to their church, and yes, to their communities. The notion that one governing person has the power to make those kinds of decisions for 330 million was and remains ridiculous.

Lutherans have a reputation for political quietism, standing on the sidelines during the great social churnings, focusing strictly on gospel proclamation. Is that reputation deserved? If so, do you see yourself as trying to alter that image, opening up a space for Lutherans as Lutherans to enter the political arena?

I’m biased here, of course, but I think that the representation isn’t well deserved. Some would point to the German Lutheran state church and Hitler, but there were plenty of churches speaking out and even acting against the secular takeover of the state church and the state itself. Here in America, many of the foundational Supreme Court cases—Hosanna Tabor, Trinity Lutheran, and others—are the result of Lutheran churches standing up to government encroachment when the time is right. I think the label of “quietism” comes from a misunderstanding of our teaching of “Two Kingdoms.” Richard Niebuhr’s book Christ and Culture is a good example. There the Lutheran position is defined as Christ and culture “in tension” rather than in the proper differentiation of God the Father’s preserving work (through Caesar, through people’s vocations) and God’s unique saving work in Christ for all.

Differentiation does have a limited view of what “good” government can do, and that may be why we are not leading the charge on many of the political issues of the day. Such a view also supports a healthy limitation of what government “should do.” But that doesn’t imply nonaction.

I think my work in D.C. is trying to bring more clarity of that “engagement” strategy for the sake of the culture and the mission of the Church. So, yes, it is a change in what most people view the Lutheran position is vis-a-vis the culture in some sense. But it is also a needed response to the secularizing of our culture and our institutions.

This interview was first published here. Read part 2 in next week’s Lutheran Center for Religious Liberty Friday email.


Be Informed

Peer pressure is real. “Resist the urge to leap into the abyss, and instead keep your feet firmly planted on the solid ground that is traditional marriage.” Learn more in a recent article by Kylee Griswold.

Be Equipped

Be Encouraged

“Today we lovingly invite all to listen to Jesus’ call, ‘repent and believe in the gospel’ (Mark 1:15). If you have caused an abortion, the taking of life, there is forgiveness in Jesus! Don’t be hardened in sin or advocate for more sins. Today you have hope in the One whose way John the Baptist prepared. Jesus is for sinners. Come join the rest of us forgiven sinners! Jesus is for you! You need not have a bad conscience! Repent and believe the Good News of God’s love for you in Jesus.” – Rev. Dr. Matthew C. Harrison, president, The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod

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