Martin Luther and Civil Disobedience
When we are desirous of encountering and expositing Reformed perspectives, we must not forget one of our greatest spiritual fathers: Martin Luther. As Reformed people, we are particularly indebted to this reformer, although as often as not it appears that we have forgotten him. Last year was a marvelous year in Europe as Germany and its neighboring countries celebrated Luther's 500th birthday. Even though the spate of books which appeared on Luther and his theology has not captivated the reading attention of some Reformed people, we would do well to listen to brother Martin as he speaks to us on an issue that faces many Christians today: abortus provocatus on demand without medical necessity. I have chosen to deal with Luther instead of Calvin in this article, for I am convinced we shall understand the latter better if we first devote our attention to Luther.
Three-Fold use of the Law?
One of the on-going discussions between Lutherans and Reformed people has been the question whether the Law has a two-fold or a three-fold function. Rather than accentuate where we differ on this point, let us concentrate on the point where we do agree, namely, the first use of the Law: the public and political application.
The government is subject to God's Law because the government is created by God. It is, thereby, one of God's creatures. The separation of Church and State must not be confused with the separation of God and State. Church and State are separate, but God rules over both.
The Doctrine of the Two Regiments
Especially since the 1930s there has been a tremendous increase in the studies devoted to Luther's doctrine of the two regiments (German: Zwei-Reiche Lehre). This came about, in part, with the rise of National Socialism in that era, and also, in part, with a Luther's renaissance. If one examines the major works on Luther's theology prior to 1930, a discussion of the doctrine of the two regiments is missing. Since that time, it is virtually impossible to find a work on his theology that does not include a discussion of it. As one might well expect, a total unanimity on this matter does not exist, but certainly an agreement on the main points can be found. It is this agreement that we shall now examine.
The Positive Value of the State
It is interesting to note that, in addition to the specifically political writings of Luther, many of his theological expositions also treat certain political themes. One could mention, in passing, the following expositions: Psalm 82 (1530), Psalm 101 (1534/35), Psalm 127 (1532/33), and the book of Canticles. Of course, it goes without saying that his exposition of the Sermon on the Mount provides a veritable gold mine for this subject. With these matters in mind let us examine what Luther has to say concerning the State and the Christian's relationship to it. Unless otherwise stated, all quotations are taken from the Weimarer Ausgabe of Luther's works.
The State, or the government, is God's work and is ordained by God. The same is true for the people. The people are God's possession and the State must never forget that in dealing with them. The State must regard its subjects in the fear of the Lord and with humility (31 I, 194, 32). Yet, it cannot be denied that the State is firmly established by God's Word. Luther refers to texts such as Genesis 9:6, Romans 13:1ff., 1 Peter 2:13ff., and Matthew 22:21 to confirm his position. He is convinced that the use of the word "gods" in Psalm 82 indicates that the office-bearers in the State bear the title of "gods" and that the State itself is "a divine thing," a "divine ordinance" (31, I, 191, 22; 192, 4). This means that disobedience to the State is synonymous with disobedience to God (20, 455, 41; 456, 332; 376, 10-37; 383, 58). It is God's express will that the government be held in esteem by those who have subjected themselves to it. On the one hand, Luther cannot praise the State enough. He can affirm that, next to the office of preaching, the State is the most beneficial and most necessary office on earth, the highest service to God, the best good. The exalted position has given by God, but with a charge: the State is required to protect its subjects against the violence caused by brutal self-interest and the inordinate liberties of their fellowmen. The means given to the State to maintain peace and tranquility is the "sword." Without the power of the sword, no law is beneficial and Right is powerless. It is when the State exercises this power of the sword that Right receives power and life (14, 665, 1). This sword is no "fox's tail" (Fuchsschwanz!), but is given to the State by God both for the enforcing of the laws — even to the point of capital punishment — and for the defense of the nation in time of war.
In light of the many questions which faced the populace of Luther's time, he constantly affirmed to them that even though there may be civil servants who misuse the worldly regiment, the State itself remains a good gift from God (31 I, 88,19). We must remember that.
The Relation of the Christian to the State
Rather remarkably, when Luther speaks of the relation of the Christian to the State, he can say that the State belongs to the "daily bread" for which the Christian is commanded to pray and which the Christian must receive with thanksgiving (30 I, 253, 5). It is with regard to this relationship that Luther draws heavily on Romans 13:1ff. and 1 Peter 2:13ff. Even if the Christian is convinced that he does not need the State, he is to honor it and support it for his neighbor's sake to whom the State is necessary. This is simply another way of saying that the Christian is to act in love. Whoever anarchistically rejects the State and breaks the laws of the State does not act in love. To subordinate oneself to the State is a work of love, as Luther puts it (11, 253, 33; 254, 25). What if the State acts wrongly and does not acknowledge its divine appointment? That does not allow one to break the laws of the State. In the current issue of abortus provocatus, where there is no clear medical reason such as an extrauterine pregnancy (the fetus grows in a fallopian tube) or a cancerous womb, the Christian must oppose this taking of life, but must observe and obey the laws of the State in doing so. Breaking a law in order to protest against an incorrect law is not acting in love.
If the State is unjust to me, if it takes advantage of me, if it takes my possessions, I must suffer with patience. No doubt, the State is inequitable in many ways. I stated above that Luther could not praise the State enough, but I must mention that there is yet another side to his approach, which poses somewhat of a tension in Luther's thought: the fallenness of the State. The State executes its laws in a fallen world and the State itself is fallen. It is easily tempted and all too easily transgresses the boundaries established for it by God. For that reason it is imperative that a Christian be willing to work as a political official, which is the most beautiful offering of thanksgiving. For it is the Christian who knows that God's Word is the authority and boundary for both Church and State (28, 24, 15). We are now reaping the results of non-political involvement in both the US and Canada. We are witnessing what happens to a culture when the Christian separates himself from active involvement in matters of the State. The bed we made by virtue of our viewing the State as separate from God, of our viewing politics as something intrinsically evil and secular, is the bed we are now sleeping in! But as Luther says, "Sin abolishes neither government nor obedience" (Letter 5, 258, 13; 259, 38).
Does this all mean that the Christian has no means at his disposal to withstand the wave of secularism which particularly manifests itself in the State? No, the Christian is called upon to resist what is sinful in the State and its laws with the mightiest weapon: the knowledge of the Truth. The Christian must constantly call the State back to its proper boundaries: God's infallible truth. It must not be expected that the State will always either appreciate or adhere to the word of truth, but we have no other and no better means at our disposal to resist.
I shall summarize this article by stating that Luther is a spiritual father of the Reformed. He places the State at an elevated position in a fallen world. This elevation is not without boundaries, however. The State is not separate from God, but rather under God's commands, because it, too, is a creature of God. The State is ultimately responsible to God for its laws and actions. The Christian is to honor and obey the laws of the State. If the State passes legislation granting abortus provocatus on demand without medical indications, the Christian must not make use of this law and must resist this law with the acknowledgment of God's truth. He may peaceably demonstrate, but must refrain from all violence. Luther would have opposed the bombing of abortion clinics. Yet, the Christian must be actively involved in government to the glory of God.