Boy, things have changed in the 500 years since Martin Luther’s actions and writings sparked the Protestant Reformation. Recently, so much of the news has been about governments and government politics, it is almost impossible to imagine that five centuries ago, the real power was not held by presidents or prime ministers, princes or kings, but by priests and cardinals and ultimately the pope!
Oh, trust me, there was just as much political intrigue going on, it was just under the umbrella of church politics rather than those of a particular country’s government.
I almost hesitate to bring up this week’s subject because the conditions today are so different than what they were 500 years ago for Luther, but maybe closer to what was experienced at the time of Jesus. However, it is fairly well known that Luther espoused a doctrine of Two Kingdoms: a spiritual kingdom of God and a temporal kingdom of the world.
Now, there are a number of different interpretations of how this doctrine might unfold and at least two very easy paths that could get us confused right off the bat. The first confusion would be to equate this with that Jeffersonian separation of church and state we talk about in terms of U.S. law. The second would be to look at the structure of the church, legal and governmental, versus the structure of a country, legal and governmental. The problem with both of those paths is that they both head down the same side of the temporal kingdom of the world but sub-divide into earthly church organization versus earthly governmental organization. And that’s not what Luther meant at all!
In the Bible, several passages get at what Luther tried to refine. When asked about paying taxes, Jesus says in Luke 20:25 “Then give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
St Paul say in Romans 13:1, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.”
In essence, the kingdom of God, heaven if you will, is ruled by God in all God’s glory where grace and love abound. This earthly realm, however, is tainted with sin and evil. It too is nonetheless under God’s authority, but is ruled by the sword over the evil and wicked. This dichotomy (much like Law and Gospel or Saint and Sinner at the same time) therefore holds in tension what might have been with what actually is.
Luther says if the world were all populated with holy and faithful Christians (this point kind of ignores the Saint-and-Sinner-at-the-same-time aspect of human existence on the worldly plane), then there would be no need for laws or punishment (the sword) because all would live in grace.
Of course, a big part of pointing out the doctrine of the Two Kingdoms for Luther was not to let us know that God is the authority in heaven (didn’t we already figure that one out?) but that it is by God’s authority that anyone rules on earth in the here and now. And that point should at one and the same time cause leaders to pause and reflect with humility and awe at the servant-task they are taking up.
In the real world, two modern mottos tell us about earthly human authority on the extreme ends of the spectrum of positive and negative. “With great power comes great responsibility.” (Thanks, Stan Lee!)
“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” (Ditto, Sir John Action.)
However, both these sentiments lack the recognition of divine authority that Luther sought to highlight in both kingdoms.
It is one thing to be the sovereign lord and king of all that you survey. But it is quite another to be the one who stands in the stead of the true authority. In church terms, we use the image of being a steward. It is a concept which is considerably fleshed out in “Lord of the Rings: Return of the King” when the steward of Gondor is required to relinquish the throne when the true king, Aragorn, returns.
Luther says, “He who would be a Christian ruler must put away the thought that he would rule and be mighty. For the mark of judgment is upon all life whose end is self-advancement, and upon all works which are not done in love. And these are done in love when their end is not the desire or advantage or honour or comfort of the doer, but the honour and advantage and good of others.”
In this earthly kingdom, this side of death, all our rulers would do well to heed Luther’s doctrine and steward well for those they serve and not self. The same would be true whether we lead a scout troop, a classroom, a church or a country. For those who serve in this kingdom, all serve at the pleasure of our true Sovereign Prince, our King of kings and Lord of lords.
Pastor Zach Harris has been an ordained minister for 25 years and currently serves Ascension Lutheran Church in Wilson. His column, “Through a Lutheran Lens: A Pastor’s Perspective,” will appear regularly in The Wilson Times. Previous columns are available at WilsonTimes.com.