Martin Luther and Resistance Theory

Aspects of Luther’s social and political thought:

Protestants have given much thought to the issue of if and when it is permissible for the Christian to resist the state and stand against unjust tyrants. Some of the earlier Reformers argued that there was a limited place for this, but that ordinary citizens as such should not be involved in any sort of active resistance. At best, it was the various magistrates that should be involved in this when necessary.

The teaching on the “lesser magistrate” was developed further by Lutherans and others. One expression of this was the Magdeburg Confession. For more on that, see this piece:

But to get a better sense of Luther’s thought on these matters, an historical outline is worth offering here.


1483, November – Luther born in Eisleben.
1517, October – The 95 theses are posted.
1519 – Emperor Charles V elected as Holy Roman Emperor.
1520 – Luther pens The Freedom of the Christian.
1520 – Papal Bull of Excommunication issued against Luther.
1521 – The Diet of Worms; leads to making a decisive break from Rome.
1523 – He writes On Secular Authority.
1525, February – German peasants in revolt produce The Twelve Articles.
1530, June – The Augsburg Confession produced.
1530, October – He and Melanchthon issue the Torgau memorandum. Lesser or inferior magistrates can resist unjust rulers in some areas.
1531 – The Schmalkaldic League is founded – a military alliance of Lutheran princes.
1537 – He draws up the Schmalkaldic Articles.
1939 – He writes Disputation Concerning the Right to Resist the Emperor
1546, February – Luther dies.
1550, April – The Magdeburg Confession appears, a Lutheran tract outlining the place for resistance to authority by lesser magistrates.
1555 – The Peace of Augsburg

The views of Luther on how church and state relate, and what obedience or lack thereof is owed to the magistrate can be somewhat complex. He had a major concern to resist anarchy and uphold order. But he also believed that the state was not absolute, and was to be under the authority of God.

So he had an uneasy relationship with the powers of the days, and changing situations could result in changing alliances. Some remarks by Jean Bethke Elshtain are fitting here:

Given Luther’s bias against institutions and his greatest fear—disorder and chaos—he is compelled to rely on secular authority. Alas, the prince’s conscience is the weak reed that checks his exercise of power. This is problematic because by no stretch of the imagination does Luther believe most temporal authorities will be authentic Christians and therefore self-binding, servants to all as well as lords of all. Luther’s is not a theory of the divine right of kings; rather, it is a doctrine that temporal authority is divinely instituted. The state’s tasks are both punitive and positive in that the prince must protect freedom to worship. Luther articulates his thesis concerning temporal authority in one of his seminal essays. Typically, he throws down the gauntlet and states forthrightly that rulers cannot command in matters of conscience. They have not the competence—they are not authorized—to do so.” Unfortunately, temporal rulers are usually a bunch of fools or knaves, so one must expect the worst and hope for a bit better until that rare bird, the Christian prince, comes along. Don’t hold your breath, Luther advises. (pp. 82-83)

A major part of Luther’s position on all this is found in his term die zwei Reiche (the two kingdoms). However, as Luther scholar Robert Kolb reminds us, it “has wrought confusion within and outside Lutheran circles [because] he was not careful in his use of the phrase.” He says that Luther in fact used the phrase “in at least three different ways.”

Let me feature just two commentators on this idea of the two kingdoms. Alister McGrath notes that this doctrine “is central to Luther’s social thought.” He says of the two governments:

“God’s spiritual government is effected through the Word of God and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. . . . God’s worldly government is effected through kings, princes, and magistrates, through the use of the sword and the civil law. They have no authority in matters of doctrine…” (pp. 211-212)

Image of Reformation, Resistance, and Reason of State (1517-1625) (Oxford History Political Thought)
Reformation, Resistance, and Reason of State (1517-1625) (Oxford History Political Thought) by Mortimer, Sarah (Author) Amazon logo

Alec Ryrie puts it this way:

Christians live simultaneously in two worlds. As redeemed and regenerate believers, they live for God and do not need laws to live by any more than trees need laws to tell them how to grow. But as sinners, subject to human frailty, they both need and deserve the smack of firm discipline. This is Luther’s theory of the “two kingdoms,” the foundation of Protestant political theory. …


Whenever two kingdoms exist side by side, there are boundary disputes. Where does the line fall? Luther had some partial answers. He argued that princes could regulate practical features of church life such as finance, property, and governance, but could not trespass onto matters of faith or doctrine. He did not spell out how to deal with issues which straddle that line. He did at least tackle some of the obvious hard cases. Could princes punish heresy? No, because errors should be corrected by loving admonition from ministers, not by persecution…. (pp. 48-49)

Luther’s views about civil authorities evolved over the years, partly due to changing circumstances. Earlier on had counselled against revolt and resistance, although in his 1523 tract, On Temporal [or Secular] Authority he said there were some instances where the lesser magistrate – but not the common folks – could resist unjust rulers.

But with the mid-1520s Peasant’s Revolt, he rebuked the peasants and sided more closely with the magistrates. He penned a reply to their Twelve Articles in April of 1525, but the more of the violence and bloodshed he witnessed, the more incensed he became with the revolt. He wrote Against the Murdering, Thieving Hordes of Peasants perhaps in May of 1525.

However, later on he could counsel for more resistance to the powers that be, as in his 1539 Disputation. In it he said:

“For we cannot allow the damnation of souls. I am obliged to lay down my life for the emperor, but not my soul. If the emperor defends the pope, who is a wolf, one is not to yield or stand for it, but one must attack him …. Self-defense is the natural course. The princes must resist the tyrants, a thing which the First Table [of the Decalogue] also requires.”

Luther generally counselled against rebellion, but also said there are limits to obedience. He believed that we must respect the office of the magistrate. Because civil government is established by God, people must not resist it. However, he also said that obedience to the state is not unconditional. He said for example, ‘There are lazy and useless preachers who do not denounce the evils of princes and lords…. Some even fear for their skins and worry that they will lose body and goods for it. They do not stand up and be true to Christ!’

Appealing to Acts 5:29 he taught that we must obey God rather than man when tyrannous rulers violate God’s laws. But his insistence that we resist such magistrates was to be understood as more of a passive resistance or civil disobedience as opposed to active revolt.

Some summary statements might be in order here: One important earlier biographer of Luther, Roland Bainton, puts it this way:

Luther did inculcate reverence for government and discountenanced rebellion. He was the more emphatic because he was accused by the papists of subversiveness to government. He countered with characteristic exaggeration which left him open on the other side to the charge of subservience. “The magistracy,” said he, “has never been so praised since the days of the apostles as by me” by which he meant that none had so stoutly withstood ecclesiastical encroachments. Christ himself, affirmed Luther, renounced any theocratic intentions by allowing himself to be born when a decree went out from Augustus Caesar. In most unqualified terms Luther repudiated rebellion because if the mob breaks loose, instead of one tyrant there will be a hundred. At this point he was endorsing the view of St. Thomas that tyranny is to be ended by insurrection only if the violence will presumably do less damage than the evil which it seeks to correct.


All of which is not to say that Luther left the oppressed without recourse. They had prayer, which Luther did not esteem lightly, and they had the right of appeal. . . . Neither was conscience surrendered to the state. The illegitimacy  of rebellion did not exclude civil disobedience. This was not a right, but a duty on two counts…. (p. 188)

Oxford University historian Sarah Mortimer offers this encapsulation of his social and political thought:

Political authority was, for Luther, an important part of the Christian paradox, at least in his early writing. It was necessary to curb the sinful tendencies which all humans displayed, but this necessity stood in tension with the gentle, spiritual rule of the heavenly kingdom. Viewed in this light, worldly rule seemed to be little more than a mechanism for dealing with depraved and corrupt human beings, indispensable but of little positive value, and certainly Luther sometimes presented politics in this way. In his short work On Secular Authority, Luther emphasized that the kingdom of the world existed primarily to restrain sinners—in contrast to spiritual authority—and ‘care must be taken to keep these two governments distinct” Luther was also concerned about the impact of rulers on slowing down the progress of the gospel and in this tract he wanted to restrict the ruler’s powers by differentiating as clearly as he could between the Church and temporal authority. There are ‘two parts into which the children of Adam are divided; he explained, ‘the one the kingdom of God under Christ, the other the kingdom of the world under [secular] authority’. If a temporal ruler took it upon themself to legislate for the soul, then they overreached themselves and any such command was unjust and illegitimate, contrary to the freedom of the Christian. Secular power existed instead to protect people and ensure that they did not tear each other apart in a world marked so deeply by human sin and wickedness. (p. 68)

Finally, Alister McGrath says this:

Luther was no political thinker, and his limited and deficient experiments in this field are best regarded as an attempt to accommodate himself to the political realities of his time. For the consolidation of the German Reformation, the support of the German princes and magistrates was essential. Luther appears to have been prepared to lend these rulers religious dignity in return for their continued support for the Reformation. The end justified the means.


Luther appealed to a specific power group; but had a different group held political power, he would almost certainly have appealed to that group instead and justified its existence. Thus Luther was clearly a monarchist, whereas Zwingli argued that all monarchs eventually degenerate into tyrants. For Zwingli, aristocracy (even when it degenerates into oligarchy) is to be preferred to monarchy. One wonders what would have happened if Luther had been a reformer in oligarchical Zurich and Zwingli in electoral Wittenberg. The “ifs” of history, even if unanswerable, are intriguing. (p. 215)

References and further reading

Bainton, Roland, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. Mentor, 1950.
Elshtain, Jean Bethke, Sovereignty: God, State, and Self. Basic Books, 2008.
McGrath, Alister, Reformation Thought: An Introduction, 4th ed. Wiley-Blackwell, 1988, 2012.
Metaxas, Eric, Martin Luther. Viking, 2017.
Mortimor, Sarah, Reformation, Resistance, and Reason of State (1517-1625). OUP, 2021.
Porter, J. M., ed., Luther: Selected Political Writings. Fortress Press, 1974.
Ryrie, Alec, Protestants. William Collins, 2017, 2018.
Skinner, Quentin, The Foundations of Modern Political Thought, vol. 2: The Age of Reformation. CUP, 1978, 2013.
Wengert, Timothy, ed., Dictionary of Luther and the Lutheran Traditions. Baker, 2017.

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2 Replies to “Martin Luther and Resistance Theory”

  1. Thanks, Bill. This is another great article.
    When one reads the biographies of Luther by Roald Bainton and Eric Metaxis Luther’s humility is discovered. Though strong of will and unflinching in expressing his views, I always see, between the lines, that he has his eye on God and his finger in the scriptures. He never forgot that he was a mere man, who had faced the powers of the world (Charles V and the Pope) and lived to serve his Savior. The burden that was thrust upon him as a result also revealed his very humanity.

    The world does not know, by and large, the enormous contribution he made. Nor do they appreciate the enormous contributions made by the steadfast Lutheran theologians that followed him – Martin Chemnitz to name only one.

    Out of the Protestant Reformation was born our very political freedom. Many strong Christians, mostly Reformed, are responsible for both English and American democratic government. The list is long. But it was Luther’s determination to ask questions and seek answers that started it in the modern sense.

    These two articles are crucial to helping our fellow Christians understand what we must defend, what we must resist, and where we must go. As with the Kingdom of God, the road to righteousness in our earthly governance is quite narrow.

    Keep you in prayer.

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