Nov 23

What Authority Does a Government Have? Let’s Ask Luther

Article by Matthew Crocker

Something you may have noticed over the past few months has been an increase in conversation around the topic of government authority. Vaccination mandates, passport programs, anti-vax protests, and much more have forced people to ask, “what does the government have authority to do?” To put the question more bluntly, “where do my rights end and government power begin?” These are difficult issues. Issues that have been discussed for hundreds and hundreds of years by political philosophers. From Jean-Jacques Rousseau to Karl Marx to Adolf Hitler, each having a different understanding of the proper authority of government in the lives of regular people. So how do we answer these questions from a Christian perspective? How do we understand the role of government and the part it plays in society as a Christian community?

In no way do I think that I have the answer to these difficult queries. I am sorry to disappoint you if that is what you came here looking for. However, there are people throughout church history who have sought to answer these questions and provide a suitable Christian ethic around governing authorities. One of these people was Martin Luther. If you are unfamiliar with Luther, I would greatly encourage you to spend some time learning about this great man. A great place to start would be with Here I Stand by Roland H. Bainton.i Likewise, the writings of Luther himself are extremely edifying and definitely worth the read. I would suggest picking up Martin Luther: Selections from his Writings as it gives a depth of knowledge and a breadth of material.ii It’s from a selected writing in this latter work that we will be focusing our attention in answering the above question.

Luther, in a short work titled Secular Authority: To What Extent It Should Be Obeyed, provides his framework for how the Christian should relate to the governing authorities. His answers are both illuminating and surprising to the reader of his time and of our own. Here we will highlight some of the key themes that Luther draws upon in his work and by doing this, hopefully, come to a better understanding of our responsibility as Christians to the governing authorities.

First, we must ask what the purpose of having governing authorities is. Why is it that we need government at all? Could we not just live in a state of blissful libertarian anarchy? Not according to Luther. For him the government exist specifically for the purpose of limiting the evil of humanity and punishing evildoers. He writes,

“If it were not so, seeing that the whole world is evil and that among thousands there is scarcely one true Christian, men would devour one another, and no one could thus preserve wife and child, support himself and serve God; and thus the world would be reduced to chaos. For this reason God has ordained two governments; the spiritual, which by the Holy Spirit under Christ makes Christians and pious people, and the secular, which restrains the unchristian and wicked so that they must needs keep the peace outwardly, even against their will.”iii

The government has a specific function, and that function is to prevent sheer wanton violence and evil against the average person. From this it should be clear that the governing authorities primarily have a negative role rather than a positive one. Not negative in the sense of lesser value, but negative in the sense that its function is one of restraint rather than proactive culture formation and change. Therefore, the government does not have the ability to usher in utopia. It merely exists for the lessening of evil, “for no one can become pious before God by means of the secular government.”iv

Secondly, because the function of government is one of restraint it is distinguished from the church in its function. The church exists to “produce piety,” or to put it another way, to change men’s hearts. While the government exists to “bring about external peace and prevent evil deeds.”v Since these two exist—church and state—the question must be asked, “what is the Christian’s relation to the government?” According to Luther this can be answered with the great commandment. Christians are called to love their neighbours and, therefore, have a duty to submit to the ruling authorities for the sake of societal peace. To quote Luther once again,

“Since, however, a true Christian lives and labors on earth not for himself but for his neighbour, therefore the whole spirit of his life impels him to do even that which he need not do, but which is profitable and necessary for his neighbor. Because the sword is a very great benefit and necessary to the whole world, to preserve peace, to punish sin and to prevent evil, he submits most willingly to the rule of the sword, pays tax, honors those in authority, serves, helps, and does all he can to further the government, that it may be sustained and held in honor and fear.”vi

Similarly, the Christian is free to participate in government roles as long as they continue to promote peace and justice within society. For this is beneficial to the neighbour, “Therefore, should you see that there is a lack of hangmen, beadles, judges, lords, or princes, and find that you are qualified, you should offer your services and seek the place, that necessary government may by no means be despised and become inefficient or perish.”vii In other words, one of the ways we can love our neighbours is by fostering a just and equitable society which the government does by punishing evil and promoting good.

So, the function of a good government is to prevent evil. Christians—insofar as they are seeking to love their neighbours—can participate in these governments and help better society through them. But what constitutes a genuine overreach of government power? How can one know when a government has gone too far and must be stood against? According to Luther, when the government begins to leave its sphere and encroach upon the church. He writes, “For over the soul God can and will let no one rule but Himself. Therefore, where temporal power presumes to prescribe laws for the soul, it encroaches upon God’s government and only misleads and destroys the souls.”viii It is when secular authority seeks to abandon its function as a limiter of evil and begins prescribing how one must be in order to be saved that it steps out of its place and functions in a tyrannical way. Luther,

“The soul is not under Caesar’s power; he can neither teach nor guide it, neither kill it nor make it alive, neither bind it nor loose it, neither judge it nor condemn it, neither hold it nor release it, which he must do had he power to command it and impose laws upon it, but over life, goods and honor he indeed has this right, for such things are under his authority.”ix

And where the government does not have authority, it must remain mute. This is especially true when the government seeks to enter into the religious sphere.

In recent days the big questions about government overreach largely have to do with vaccination and other COVID related issues. Here Luther, dare I say it, might encourage us to submit to the governing authorities. They are acting within the sphere for which they were created—the protection of society and prevention of evil. In this case, possible unnecessary death. However, much more frightening, is the governments seemingly growing desire to encroach upon the realm of the soul. It is becoming more apparent that the secular authorities around us want to prescribe the correct way to think and the correct way to act in order to achieve “utopia”. Luther’s words from 1523 carry as much weight today as they did then, “For God Almighty has made our rulers mad. They actually think they have the power to do and command their subjects to do, whatever they please. And the subjects are led astray and believe they are bound to obey them in everything.”x Yet, we are not bound. At least according to Luther, “But if you command me to believe, and to put away books, I will not obey; for in this case you are a tyrant and overreach yourself, and command where you have neither right nor power, etc.”xi Where there is no right, there is no power, and where there is no power we are under no obligation to obey. “Should he take your property for this, and punish such disobedience, blessed are you.”xii

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily held by everyone at Christ City Church. 

Endnotes

i Here I Stand, Roland H. Bainton.
ii Martin Luther: Selections, edited by John Dillenberger. iii Luther, Secular Authority, 370.
iv Luther, Secular Authority, 371.
v Luther, Secular Authority, 371.
vi Luther, Secular Authority, 373.
vii Luther, Secular Authority, 375.
viii Luther, Secular Authority, 383.
ix Luther, Secular Authority, 388.
x Luther, Secular Authority, 365.
xi Luther, Secular Authority, 388.
xii Luther, Secular Authority, 388.