Martin Luther on Religion and Politics

How far are Christians to obey the law of the land? How much should religion and politics meet? Paul mentions in Romans how Christians should obey the earthly authorities and governments placed over them.

Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience. This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. (Rom 13:1-6)

Is this always the case. What about when governments interfere with civil liberties and so on? How much should a Christian be involved informing/changing/overthrowing that government?

In February 1522, the ruler of Albertine Saxony, Duke George, banned the sale of Martin Luther’s German translation of the Bible (I think this was the first one which had been translated directly from the Greek and Hebrew, avoiding the Latin Vulgate). This led him to write a treatise on earthly law: ‘Temporal Authority: To what Extent should it be Obeyed?’ In it, he proposed that there were two ways in which God rules the world: the Kingdom of Christ made up of those who follow Christ – these people (theoretically) obey the civil law gladly from the heart; and the kingdom of the world, consisting of everyone else. These people need compulsion to obey the law of the land, hence the threat of punishment.

The gospel (kingdom of Christ)  advises Christians to turn the other cheek, forgive repeatedly, to be self-givingly generous and so on. As this is an impossible way of running a worldly government, the Christian operates in both spheres. In public roles, when acting on behalf of others, they are bound by the laws of the land (giving out punishment where necessary etc.) , but in private interactions, offences must be met with values in keeping with God’s kingdom, and not those in keeping with the law of the land.

So Luther seemed to see some sort of dualism in the way Christians act in public life – a clear separation of matters of national governance and matters of faith. Luther’s application was that as the Duke George had interfered in a matter of faith by banning the sale of the German Bible, therefore Christians were free to disobey the ban.

I agree with this to a certain extent – there are definitely two kingdoms. Jesus said “My kingdom is not of this world” – therefore it seems logical that kingdoms of this world (such s governments) can never be entirely ‘Christian’. However, I’m not sure if I’m comfortable with such a separation in the way Christians interact with politics (i.e. the kingdom of this world). Our lives are a continual flow of interactions, decisions, and networks which in the public and private sphere. Faith is to be lived out publicly as well as privately nurtured. It is important to say that Luther’s context sheds a lot of light on what he was saying. He was reacting to the ban of the german Bible as well as writing in the midst of the Peasants Revolt in Germany in 1525-6 – when (some) priests were rallying people to get involved in violent uprisings against the rulers of the day. He was exhorting people that they could disobey the laws of the land on some things, but shouldn’t on others, whilst also saying that the church should not be in the business of gaining wealth, governing countries, going to war etc.

“Luther wanted to insist that it was the task of rulers to rule and clergy to preach. Both are agents of God’s rule, both are demonstrations on God’s care for his world – but the two must not get confused” (Graham Tomlin in Luther and his World).

However, In 1930s-40s Germany, many churchgoers were using exactly this belief in this separation, but taking it out of the context of Luther’s situation. On the whole, churches completely failed to stand up to Hitler because of their belief that they shouldn’t get involved in secular government. On the whole, this separation is unhealthy.

So what should we make of Christians in politics? That’s fine so long as the church is not doing the governing, making the policies, or owning the parties, as inevitably this will require compromise from the values of God’s kingdom. Creating heaven on earth is not possible until Jesus comes back. However, Christians are called to ake political stands, such as Martin Luther King on segregation – done peacefully and effectively. It seems clear that just voting for the *right* candidate isn’t enough – unjust policies need to be opposed. But I think Luther is right is saying the church as a whole are not there to govern.

However, I’m not sure if I’ve entirely understood his position.

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One thought on “Martin Luther on Religion and Politics”

  1. I think that was a clear and appropriate words said by Luther,He championed peace in a very acceptable manner in our society

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