by Rev. Stephen Preus
Certain eras of the church have had to contend with certain errors. The church does not get to choose her battles. Current events often dictate them. True, they do not encompass all of what the church teaches since she is to teach the “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). Yet, they often present her with the responsibility to defend particular truths. God asks every generation of the church to face battles, and there is need to respond faithfully.
With this in mind, what events does the church need to respond to today? The deterioration of the family? The declining membership in churches? The false teachers in the church? Islam? The worship wars? Feminism and a sexualized society? Corruption in government? It’s like we’ve got one glove and thirty baseballs are coming our way! It seems daunting. Where do we begin? How do we respond to it all?
One area of Reformation theology that helps address these things is the teaching of the three estates: the church, the household, and the state (ecclesia, oeconomia, politia). Luther called these the “three divine, natural, and temporal laws of God.” While many positive laws change according to country or ruler (like how fast you can drive on the highway), “these divine stations continue and remain throughout all kingdoms.” Whatever the current event, then, it is going to involve and affect the church, the household, and the state. Knowing these estates well helps us respond with God’s truth to current events.
The origin of the three estates, writes Luther, begins with the creation of Adam, the first man:
“Here we have the establishment of the church before there was any government of the home and of the state; for Eve was not yet created….After the church has been established, the household government is also set up, when Eve is added to Adam as his companion…. Moreover, there was no government of the state before sin, for there was no need of it. Civil government is a remedy required by our corrupted nature. It is necessary that lust be held in check by the bonds of the laws and by penalties.”
The church, the household, and the state are creations of God. Each functions for particular purposes. The purpose of each estate is illuminated by the Table of Duties, an oft forgotten, yet most helpful part of Luther’s Small Catechism. In this section Luther gives certain passages of Scripture for Christians in their callings that fit nicely into the three estates. The responsibilities of the church are mentioned first, both for “bishops, pastors, and preachers” and also for the hearers of pastors. Next Luther moves on to how the state should act toward its citizens and how citizens should behave toward their government. Then he addresses the household, instructing husbands and wives, parents and children, employees and employers, youth, and widows how they are to live according to God’s Word.
Knowing the Table of Duties and how God has ordered the three estates for our lives here on earth is tremendously helpful when responding to any current event. It aids us as we respond either positively or negatively. Positively, God is “pleased by these estates, provided that they remain within the limits of His commandments.” The Lord established the three estates so that “in the world there may be a stable, orderly, and peaceful life, and that justice may be preserved.” Negatively, God is not pleased when those who seek only what the sinful flesh desires “direct their lives in accordance with a self-chosen norm of sanctity and righteousness.”
Thus a Christian is able to discern what is right or wrong, what is ugly or beautiful, what is true or false when it comes to any current event. How does it uphold or denigrate these three estates as God has instituted them? Any current event that upholds these estates of God and encourages holy life in them is commendable. Any current event that denigrates these estates of God is wicked. When it comes to current events—whether involving Islam, feminism, shrinking churches, divided families, war and bloodshed, etc.—ask yourself, “How is this affecting these three estates?”
One final note on the three estates: At the end of the Table of Duties Luther gives the “common order of Christian love,” whereby we are taught to love our neighbor as ourselves. His comments on this in another work help us remember why and how to respond as Christians to any current event.
“Above these three institutions and orders is the common order of Christian love, in which one serves not only the three orders, but also serves every needy person in general with all kinds of benevolent deeds, such as feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, forgiving enemies, praying for all men on earth, suffering all kinds of evil on earth, etc. Behold, all of these are good and holy works. However, none of these orders is a means of salvation. There remains only one way above them all, viz. faith in Jesus Christ.
For to be holy and to be saved are two entirely different things. We are saved through Christ alone; but we become holy both through this faith and through these divine foundations and orders.”
The Rev. Stephen K. Preus is pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church, Vinton, Iowa.
 AE 41:177
 AE 13:369
 AE 1:103-104. Emphasis added.
 1 Timothy 3:2-4, 6; Titus 1:9
 1 Corinthians 9:4; Galatians 6:6-7; 1 Timothy 5:17-18; 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13;Hebrews 13:17
 Romans 13:1-4.
 Matthew 22:21; Romans 13:5-7
 1 Peter 3:5-7; Colossians 3:19; Ephesians 5:22; Ephesians 6:1-9; 1 Peter 5:5-6; 1 Timothy 5:5-6
 AE 7:312
 AE 13:367
 AE 7:313
 AE 37:365