Few topics have caused as much controversy throughout the history of the church as the relationship between the church and the state, and the era of the Reformation was certainly not immune to these conflicts. The sixteenth century opened as an era when church and civil authorities were closely wedded together, and this brought about diverse responses from those seeking to reform the church.

Magisterial reformers such as Luther and Calvin assumed that the civil magistrates were Christian, and believed that the involvement of the civil authorities was necessary for the reform of worship and the preaching of the gospel. Their radical contemporaries, on the other hand, taught that it was better either to withdraw from the world in the hope of creating a perfect Christian community, or to resist the rulers who would not yield to their expectations. Commenting on Romans 13, Lutheran theologian Philipp Melanchthon (1497-1560) provides a concise statement typifying the magisterial position, arguing that government is a good gift from God and is meant to be obeyed.

What Is Government?

Up to this point Paul has taught two rules, that authorities or government are good things and approved by God, and also that it must be obeyed, where he includes the teaching about punishment, which he repeats later. Meanwhile he inserts a description of the government—what it is—in this way: The government is a minister of God to us for the good, a protector for defending right actions and for punishing transgressions with the sword, that is, with corporal punishments . . . But in connection with this definition people ask how we know what are right actions.The government is a minister of God to us for the good, a protector for defending right actions and for punishing transgressions. I answer: Paul here avoids a longer discussion and speaks generally in order to approve the laws of all peoples about civil matters, if only they are in agreement with the law of nature. For from it he wants right actions in civil matters to be judged. Therefore he is here teaching the third rule: A Christian is not bound to the Mosaic form of government, but is permitted to use the laws of all nations that are in harmony with reason. A Christian owes obedience to his present government . . . He owes obedience to the present laws that are in agreement with reason. Therefore it is permissible to hang thieves; it is permissible to divide inheritances according to our laws, because the gospel does not establish a new, worldly form of government but preaches about eternal and spiritual life. Meanwhile it permits us to use various forms of governments, even at various times of days. Because obedience toward present laws is taught, it is taught also that we may make use of present laws. In Luke 3 service in the Roman army is approved. And in Acts 15 the apostles forbid that the Gentiles should be burdened with the Mosaic form of government. Paul also says:“In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek.”

Commentary on Romans (1540).

Philip D. W. Krey and Peter D. S. Krey, eds. Romans 9-16. Reformation Commentary on Scripture, NT Vol. VIII, pp. 157-58.