How the State Promotes Morality (According to the Reformers)

Troy Skinner

The question “How should the church and state relate?” is of utmost importance, thus the subject of heated debate. Looking at Protestant history—particularly the political philosophy of two giants in the Christian faith—will be instructive for our context today. Ironically, modern society is immersed in a highly charged and contentious political climate, and so too were the societies of the 16th-century reformers, Martin Luther and John Calvin. Their political writings can be drawn out of Luther’s On Secular Authority and Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion.

Before the Protestant Reformation, 1,000 years of blurred lines between church and state had already taken root. This blurring was intertwined with the various theological issues that sparked the Reformation. Thus, the 16th-century upheaval required not only theological clarifications but also political ones.

What Say You, Martin Luther?

Martin Luther was particularly dependent on the protection of civil authorities because the Roman Catholic Church was calling for his head. Many would argue the state retained too much influence on the church, but Luther was careful to push back against this notion by asserting that liberty and equality were fundamental to Christianity – even that both ought to remain untouched by any earthly authority. The government of the state and the government of the church were to remain distinct according to Luther. He didn’t argue for theocracy, but neither did he argue for a “complete” separation of the church and state.

Luther believed the state should be busy about the work of maintaining peace, enforcing laws, protecting law abiders, and punishing lawbreakers. This function wasn’t to be controlled by the church, but Christians were to be involved in it, since the state’s primary function was to prevent chaos, and Christians were to be in full support of maintaining peace and order in society.

To prevent chaos, Luther would say it’s sometimes necessary to use force. But the power to wield force belongs to the state, not the church. The church is to be concerned with the salvation of the soul primarily, not the maintenance of temporal order. In reverse, the state has an obligation to defend order but has nothing to do with the salvation of the soul. Luther thus marks out the demarcations of his two-kingdom view. There’s God’s eternal kingdom, and there are the temporary kingdoms of earthly rulers who are placed in power by God.

Everything is subject to the will of God and to God’s moral Law. If a state law violates God’s Law, then the state law is to be ignored or overturned. Luther stressed the importance of having godly, wise, and reasonable state leaders who will do the right thing even when it appears to be at odds with state law. To do this effectively, state rulers should always be on guard, and put their final trust in God as opposed to man. God is the chief advisor of the magistrate.

Luther’s Legal Freedom

One may suggest that state law doesn’t apply to Christians because true Christians are going to abide in God’s moral Law by virtue of being Christian. The problem, of course, is there’s a short supply of true Christians and far too many counterfeit Christians. So, it’s only for “real” Christians that state law could ever, even hypothetically, be irrelevant. The “real” Christians have their own way of governing themselves as outlined in the New Testament. Hence, true Christians shouldn’t always resort to the authority of state government when dealing with one another. True Christians also shouldn’t sue each other in court, for example (1 Corinthians 6:1-8).

Luther was careful to clarify that the state can’t operate the same way as the church body, because this kind of governance would only work for Christians truly led by the Holy Spirit. Non-Christians, or merely “professing Christians,” have not experienced the new birth. Naturally, non-Christians would still be mired in their sinful attitudes and actions. The simple fact that wolves exist among the sheep puts on display why the institutional church shouldn’t be “officially” running state government. While Christians shouldn’t appeal to the sword of the state in matters between themselves, they can (and should) support the state’s use of the “sword” in helping to defend others.

If a true Christian should find himself in a position of leadership, according to Luther he should, “Judge in accordance with love (for then) you will distinguish and decide all things easily, without law-books. But if you remove the law of love and nature, you will never hit on what is pleasing to God … Good judgment is not to be found in books, but from free good sense.”

What Say You, John Calvin?

John Calvin, a key figure in the development of the Protestant Reformation, had a higher view of the public office compared to Luther. There is some difference here between the two, but their political philosophy runs in the same general direction. However, some commentators make a larger deal of this than is probably needed.

Like Luther, Calvin saw two distinct kingdoms playing different roles; the eternal Kingdom of God related to spiritual matters, and the temporal kingdoms of man related to political matters.  These earthly kingdoms had been set in place by God to provide civil order (like Luther asserted) and the more civil order there is, the better it is for God’s church. Agreeing with Luther, Calvin said Christians are to subject themselves to the rule of earthly leaders so long as it’s not in conflict with God’s Law. The two agree that secular leaders are to be just and fair. Where Luther speaks of reason and common sense, Calvin speaks of God-given natural law imprinted on the human conscience.

Calvin structures his argument in a more orderly fashion than Luther does. He breaks down the structures of civil government into three categories (the rulers, the rules, and the ruled). He discusses various forms of government structure, favoring aristocracy because it seems to strike the best balance for a fallen world; a balance between the sinful authoritarian dictates of one man on one end, and the sinful mob mentality of the masses on the other end. He talks about specific purposes of the “sword” such as just war, corporal punishment as a deterrent, and taxes to help aid in enforcing order.  He also talks about different kinds of law (i.e. moral, ceremonial, and judicial). Calvin says all these types of law are to be “measured against the law of love.”

Calvin’s Departure from Luther

The overlapping of Luther’s and Calvin’s positions can be obscured by differences in their argumentative methodology. There’s also a tonality difference between the two men. While Luther’s rhetoric tends to have the ring of a cannonball blasting from the barrel, Calvin’s rhetoric is more akin to the sound of a cannonball loudly splashing into the sea. In the final analysis, their differences are more rhetorical than substantive.

Literary structure and tonality aren’t the only differences between the two men, of course. Departing from Luther, Calvin believed it was appropriate for a Christian to bring his Christian brother to court to resolve their dispute. Calvin emphasized the need for brotherly love to be maintained throughout the process but said that failing to make use of the court system was to reject an ordinance of God. The key was to avoid embarking on some vengeful quest but to maintain love as the motivation of the heart. If going to court causes love to be lost between the brothers, then the Christian should give up his rights to preserve love.

Calvin said “The governors of a free people ought to employ all their efforts in seeing to it that the people’s freedom, whose protectors they are, suffers no diminution of any sort under their rule.”  If the state authority should fail to do this, then believers are to go to the Lord in prayer and supplication, willing to suffer exile before entering into personal rebellion.

What Say You, Christian?

Agree or disagree with these giants of church history, their thoughtful instruction at least provides a historical perspective for Christ-followers today wrestling with the same slippery issues. Sure, neither Luther nor Calvin were flawless in their assessment of church and state relations. Nonetheless, seeing how these men labored to answer such a difficult question ought to humble us today who have just now entered the ring of debate. Consider that perfect answers to the tough questions might be evasive until the fullness of glory is realized. In the meantime, the disciples of Jesus can work together to understand the best ways to apply biblical truth in a broken and sin-filled world; always with a posture of brotherly love toward fellow co-heirs in Christ, and a commitment to the full sufficiency of Scripture. 

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