When Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of a Wittenberg church in 1517, he was nailing himself to a cross. From that time on, the governing authorities of Rome wanted him dead. Gone. What stood in their way was the lesser magistrate. A small number of local authorities in Germany who were refusing to comply with an ungodly order.
Prince Frederick was the local Elector of Saxony. His superior was the Emperor, Charles V. Charles had ordered Luther to come to a town called Worms and defend his views. With the help of Prince Frederick, Luther was guaranteed safe passage to Worms so that he could personally answer the charges of heresy that were being levelled against him.
When Luther failed to renounce what he had written and submit to Roman Catholic rule, Charles ordered Luther’s, “apprehension”. A polite way of ordering Luther’s death.
Though directly under the authority of Charles, Prince Frederick did not arrest Luther. Instead, Frederick feigned Luther’s abduction in order to hide and protect him.
Sorry boss, we can’t find him. Looks like he’s been kidnapped.
Prince Frederick had used his authority as the lesser magistrate (the local authority) to countermand the Emporer’s unjust order against a godly man. This defiance against a tyrannical ruler would have far-reaching consequences for the Reformation and western civilisation.
Thirty years later, the protection of Luther by Frederick appears to have had a significant impact on the small town of Magdeburg.
In 1548 Emporer Charles V imposed a law that would force the growing number of Protestants back under Roman Catholic belief, rule and practices. In the whole of Germany, only one city stood against the new law. Magdeburg.
In that city, the local magistrate protected the community and defied what they believed to be the godless law of a God-appointed Emperor. While all the rest of Christendom went along with the new law in order to protect their status, paychecks, comfort and security, the lone city of Magdeburg said no.
As things got tense, the Pastors in Magdeburg got together and wrote a defence of their position for standing in defiance of Charles V. The document later became known as The Magdeburg Confession.
The first name affixed to this confession was Nicholas von Amsdorff, a close friend of Luther’s throughout his life. He was also with Luther at the meeting in Worms and was with Luther when Prince Frederick “kidnapped” him on his way home.
In that letter, the magistrates (local authorities, including the Pastors in Magdeburg) stated that they refused to comply on the grounds of conscience, the unjust nature of the law in tyrannising good people, their understanding of God’s Word and their love for Christ.
The Magdeburg Confession consisted of three parts. First, they laid out their theology from scripture. The second part laid out a biblical defence of their refusal to comply with a God-ordained authority (What is commonly known as the “Doctrine of the Lesser Magistrates”).
They stated that unlimited obedience to any human authority was an “invention of the devil”, and that all true authority is delegated by God. Therefore, they reasoned, if the one in authority makes commands contrary to the law of God, then those who are subject to his authority have both a right and a duty to disobey and a duty to actively resist.
The third part was a warning to those who opposed God’s Word or else did nothing to defend those who were trying to uphold it. They appealed to Charles to remove those around him who had given him such bad advice and made it clear that the only reason for the impasse was due to his attack on their Christian Faith.
They stated that when any civil authority makes a law that sets aside or contradicts the law of God, Christian men have a duty to obey God, rather than men. They also assured Charles V that they were his best citizens and were more than willing to submit to every good and right exercise of his authority as Emporer.
In response to Magdeburgs’ defiance, Charles V sent intimidating forces to surround the city. The good people of Magdeburg responded by burning everything outside the city walls and shutting the city gates.
The resulting battle left Charles with 4,000 dead soldiers and Magdeburg with 468 dead Christians and the freedom to practice their Christian faith without hindrance. Charles V was run out of Germany. Weary from battle, Charles V eventually caved and enacted what became known as The Peace of Passau, a treaty that stated,
Cuius regio, eius religio… Whosoever region, his religion
This was not the first time, nor the last, where the church had leaned on Gods Word for it’s defence and defiance of God-appointed rulers and there are a couple of simple and very valuable take-aways from Magdeburg.
First, no government is absolute, except the Government of God, under which, all governments are commanded to submit.
Secondly, our testimony and our evangelism is not always a simple matter of rattling off the four spiritual laws to unsuspecting Tesco shoppers.
When Magdeburg stood up against unjust laws, many of the Christian communities who had been faint-hearted in their response suddenly regained their courage and joined Magdeburg in booting Charles V out of town.
People change. Magdeburg’s courage begat courage and was a witness that drew a wandering church back to a godly cause. Sometimes, simply doing and saying what is right is your best witness.
Such was the steely backbone of these Magdeburger pastors and magistrates, and such was the resolve of this lone Christian community. While the whole world was caving, they stood for Christ alone – on their own. Not on the grounds or guarantee of a local victory, but on the grounds of what is good and right and true to Christ.
Karen Mackay says
Great read. Thank you!
David Trounce says
Thanks Karen. Keep the faith!