Luther on the Limits of Temporal Authority

Martin Luther granted and even upheld the legitimacy of earthly government as an institution of God for the control of wickedness on the earth and the establishment of outward peace. He also wrote this:

The temporal government has laws which extend no further than to life and property and external affairs on earth, for God cannot and will not permit anyone but himself to rule over the soul. Therefore, where temporal authority presumes to prescribe laws for the soul, it encroaches upon God’s government and only misleads souls and destroys them. We want to make this so clear that everyone will grasp it, and that our fine gentlemen, the princes and bishops, will see what fools they are when they seek to coerce the people with their laws and commandments into believing this or that. (LW AE 45, p. 105)

First, I thank God for what protections exist in the United States (and elsewhere for that matter) against a government establishing a religion for its people. This is a key provision in the American Bill of Rights for which all American Christians ought to be thankful.

Consider what is happening in public schools around the country. Many (most? all?) refuse to teach or celebrate Christmas and Easter, lest the government establish a religion. Generally speaking, this is admirable for the reason Luther mentioned above. In some cases, it has been taken too far, where the school effectively silences the private religion of some students, for example, denying them an opportunity to gather voluntarily at school for religious purposes. But overall, the sensitivity aimed at keeping the government out of the realm of faith is a good thing.


There is a religion which claims not to be a religion, and could therefore be embraced by the public education system. It teaches religious tenets. For example, it claims to teach the origin of the world and life. It trains students to trust in humanity, reason, and even themselves above all things. It defines and teaches its own values of morality, which are based upon the notion that truth is relative, not absolute. This philosophy has the earmarks of a religion, but calls itself other things. Often it’s called “science,” though it should be sharply distinguished from real scientific study.

Unfortunately, this religion-that-is-not is being established by the government of our states and even our nation. Parts of it have crept into the “No Child Left Behind” act and other federal educational endeavors. It serves as a baseline of mutual tolerance for work in the public sector. Even those who promote the homosexual agenda and the murder of unborn children have tried to shelter under its roof.

A church transgresses when it dabbles in politics. But when the topic of political discussion is religious or moral in nature, then the line is blurred. I think Luther has highlighted a problem in our society. Even in the land of the free, our government has been establishing a particular religious perspective for some time now.

As a product of the public school system, I can vouch that there are many good teachers and administrators. That’s beside the point. The problem is that this “non-religion” has weaseled its way into the system itself. What can be done about it? Christians should learn about it and then act together as citizens, parents and students. What each Christian does will depend upon several factors. You might begin by having a look at the well-documented book FedEd by Allen Quist.

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