Thursday, October 1, 2020

The Doctrine of the Lesser Magistrate in the Magdeburg Confession

            The Magdeburg Confession is important because it explains the doctrine of the Lesser Magistrate. This political doctrine basically states that men in subordinate positions of authority (lesser magistrates) may, under certain circumstances, rebel against those in a higher position of authority, when the greater/higher magistrate abuses their power. This is a way for intermediate authorities to protect the citizens against tyranny. (Magdeburg 2012)  This paper will explain the historical context in which the Magdeburg Confession was written, the confession’s explanation of the doctrine of the Lesser Magistrate, and similarities between the Magdeburg Confession and the American Declaration of Independence.

When the higher authority makes an unjust or immoral decree it is the right and duty of the lower authority to disobey, even to the point of active resistance. (Magdeburg 2012) It is significant to note that this idea, as laid out in the Magdeburg Confession, does not authorize popular uprisings or insurrections. The people were to be protected from tyranny by their local leaders, who had lawful authority. An example of the Lesser Magistrate doctrine from the time of the Lutheran Reformation is the abduction of Luther by Fredrick the Wise. Fredrick the Wise, Luther’s prince, and subordinate to Emperor Charles V, protected Luther after the Diet of Worms in direct violation of the pope’s order, sanctioned by the emperor, calling for Luther’s arrest and punishment as a heretical teacher. This dramatic episode directly influenced the men who wrote the Magdeburg Confession. (Magdeburg 2012)  The Lesser Magistrate doctrine is a universal truth, like those truths enshrined in the American Declaration of Independence. It was recognized and practiced by men in positions of authority throughout history. The Magdeburg confession is the first instance, however, of the doctrine being recorded in writing. (Magdeburg 2012)

The Magdeburg Confession is written in three parts: 1) the Magdeburg pastors confess their orthodox Lutheran theology to the German princes (the lesser magistrates); 2) they explain the Lesser Magistrate doctrine; 3) they present a warning to those who would oppose them, or aid their opposition. (Magdeburg 2012) This paper will be concerned primarily with the historical background which set the stage for the writing of the Magdeburg Confession, the Lesser Magistrate doctrine itself as explained by the Magdeburg pastors, and how that political doctrine relates to the American Revolution. The American Revolution, in contrast with other popular revolts such as the French Revolution, the Peasant’s War in Germany, and the Peasant’s Revolt in England, is supported by the doctrine of the Lesser Magistrate exposed in the Magdeburg Confession. The Confession legitimizes the American Revolution because, unlike a popular revolt, the Revolution was undertaken by the colonial governments, the lawful subordinate authorities to the British crown, rather that by a group of individuals.

When the civil authority makes laws that contravene the Christian faith, Christian men have a duty to obey God rather than men. This is the basic argument of the Magdeburg Confession. Those men who have a duty to act are the lesser magistrates, the subordinate civil authorities. (Magdeburg 2012) Trewhella points out that the Magdeburg Confession declares blind and unquestioning obedience to the state to be the invention of the devil. (Magdeburg 2012) The Magdeburg Confession asserts that no one in authority holds their authority autonomously; they had to get it from God, who is the source of all civil authority. Therefore, if one in authority violates God’s law, he is not to be obeyed. (Magdeburg 2012) Like the greater magistrate, the lesser magistrate has also received his authority from God. When the greater magistrate contravenes God’s law, the lesser has lawful authority to oppose him. (Magdeburg 2012) Disobedience by lesser magistrates, Trewhella explains, was intended to be well-ordered. The authors of the confession defined four levels of tyranny, and spelled out what the appropriate, lawful response of the lesser magistrate was to be at each level. (Magdeburg 2012) The Calvinists, including John Knox, picked up the Magdeburg Confession and advanced the doctrine of the Lesser Magistrate. Knox said, “To resist a tyrant is not to resist God, nor yet his ordinance,” citing the confession as his support. (Magdeburg 2012)

The Magdeburg Confession was written by the pastors of the city of Magdeburg in defense of the Lutheran Reformation, and in direct response to Charles V’s attempts to impose the Augsburg Interim on the defeated Lutherans by force of arms. (Magdeburg 2012) In 1531, the Lutheran princes of the Holy Roman Empire who had affirmed and presented the Augsburg Confession to the emperor in 1530 formed the Smalcaldic League as a defensive measure; they all pledged to defend each other’s territory if the emperor attacked any one of them. (Magdeburg 2012) The emperor left the Smalcaldic League unmolested for 15 years. In 1546, however, Pope Paul III called on Charles V to stop the spread of the Lutheran Reformation, and to destroy the league by military force. (Magdeburg 2012)

The Lutherans who presented the Augsburg Confession to the emperor understood his reply clearly, when they received it on August 4, 1530. Charles V was not interested in theological debate. Phillip Melanchthon was willing to compromise with the demands of the reply, called the Roman Confutation, but the vast majority were not. Eventually, Melanchthon came around, and was enlisted to draft a reply to the Confutation. This reply would become the Apology to the Augsburg Confession. (McCain 2005) When the Lutheran princes who had been at Augsburg formed the Smalcaldic League in 1531, its members were required to subscribe to both the Augsburg Confession and to the Apology. (McCain 2005) The Smalcaldic League found out about the impending attack by the emperor and decided to launch a preemptive strike against the imperial forces on July 4, 1546. This was the beginning of the Smalcald wars. Maurice, Duke of Saxony, betrayed the league, however, in exchange for a promise from the emperor that Maurice would be made ruler of his cousin Prince John Frederick’s territory. The war was a disaster for the Lutherans; John Frederick was captured at the battle of Muhlberg on April 24, 1547. This was a decisive victory for Charles V. (Magdeburg 2012)

To bring the Lutherans back into the Roman fold, Charles’ theologians “negotiated” and imposed the Augsburg Interim on the defeated lands. This was an agreement reached by the theologians of the emperor and some Lutherans, notably Melanchthon. (Magdeburg 2012) The Augsburg Interim did away with most Lutheran reforms. Most importantly, it called for the Lutherans to renounce the scriptural teaching that man is saved by God’s grace, through faith in Christ (commonly referred to as the doctrine of Justification). (Magdeburg 2012) Many Lutherans accepted the Interim for the sake of peace. The pastors of Magdeburg, led by Luther’s friend Nicholas von Amsdorf, refused out of conscience. Magdeburg was besieged by the emperor’s army in October of 1550, led by the traitor Maurice. In good Lutheran fashion, the pastors wrote a confession explaining what they believed, what they were doing, and why. (Magdeburg 2012) The Augsburg Interim was intended by Charles V to remain in place until the doctrinal issues of the Lutheran Reformation could be dealt with decisively at a church council. That is why the dictate was called an interim. (McCain 2005)

After their military defeat, the Lutheran princes were expected to implement the Interim without question or opposition. They were forbidden from teaching against it in any way. (McCain 2005) Charles V compromised with the Lutheran theologians in some areas, but the compromises were superficial. The Interim allowed clergy to marry, and for the laity to receive both kinds in the Sacrament of the Altar (that is, both bread and wine at communion). But these concessions were minor, considering that the Interim called for the Lutherans, as they saw it, to renounce the Gospel, and return to subjugation under the antichrist pope in Rome. (McCain 2005) The emperor brutally enforced the Interim. Many Lutheran cities were besieged and subjected to the Interim by the sword. Orthodox Lutheran pastors were imprisoned or banished. Only the city of Magdeburg remained unconquered. (McCain 2005) The imperial forces had defeated the Smalcaldic League decisively. Charles V was in control of everything, politically speaking. There was no need for him, according to the authors, to continue to wage war against the Lutherans. Their claim was that Charles V was calling their refusal to submit to religious demands political rebellion, so that he could wipe them out once and for all. (Magdeburg 2012)

Because of the unpopularity of the Interim among his subjects, and his unpopularity for betraying the faithful Lutheran princes, Maurice again reconsidered his alliances. He realized it was more expedient for him politically to be a champion of Lutheranism. Maurice again switched sides. He drove the imperial forces from Augsburg on April 5, 1552. What followed was the Peace of Augsburg. This treaty gave equal standing in the empire to both Lutheranism and Roman Catholicism (as it would be officially codified after the Council of Trent). It also gave princes the authority to choose the religion of the realms. (McCain 2005)

The spirit of the Magdeburg confession is reminiscent of the spirit of the American Declaration of Independence. The authors of the confession make the case that they are loyal subjects of the emperor, are not in rebellion, but rather disagreement about a matter of conscience.  (Magdeburg 2012) This is similar to the Founding Fathers who, when explaining why they were severing their ties with the Crown, made the case that they had been loyal subjects, but that George III had not done his duty to protect them, and had in fact, waged war against them; they only moved into rebellion reluctantly.

Against the argument that lesser magistrates must submit to their superior magistrates and leaders in everything, as they are the governing authorities instituted by God, as explained in Scripture in Romans 13, and other places, the authors cite the history of the Maccabees. Mattathias was not sinning, they say, when he gathered men to fight against his superior authority; nor were the men under him sinning. They argue that, should the oppression of the emperor continue, the lesser magistrates of the Holy Roman Empire should act as Mattathias, and be certain that they are not committing sin. They may also then hope for the same positive outcome that Mattathias received from God for his actions. (Magdeburg 2012)

They call on Charles V to recognize that they are disciples of Jesus, members of the same body of Christ he is, and because of that to stop making war against them. The authors point out to the emperor that Christ, when he was betrayed and handed over to be crucified, was not recognized either; He was counted, not as the divine Son of God, but rather as a blasphemer. (Magdeburg 2012) The authors appeal to Charles V based on Christ’s judgement on the Last Day. They say that he, as a Christian emperor persecuting Christians, will be judged by Christ for this sin. Moreover, they warn Charles V that, if he should persist in his persecution of fellow Christians, they would testify against him at the judgment seat of Christ. (Magdeburg 2012)

Magdeburg is careful to point out that pious magistrates are not only free to resist a tyrannical superior authority which seeks to stamp out the Gospel, but they are duty-bound to do so. (Magdeburg 2012) The objective standard for good and evil works is God’s word. Without God’s external word as the final standard, all men are left to make their own; the standard for good and evil becomes as subjective as any given man’s emotions. Resistance to an evil magistrate becomes a good work. Resistance must, however, only be undertaken by someone in accordance with his vocation. (Magdeburg 2012)

The overarching thesis of part two of the confession is this: it is the duty of a Christian magistrate to oppose his superior in defense of the “Christian teachers and hearers” whom he governs, if that superior magistrate uses force to compel his subjects to worship against their conscience. This is, obviously, a Christian confession, but the Lesser Magistrate doctrine would (and I argue should) equally apply to all religions. Here is the beginning of religious liberty. (Magdeburg 2012) The true church does not evangelize by the sword; violence has no place compelling men to believe the Gospel. The authors point out that even unbelieving Jews and pagans live under Charles’ rule; they enjoy his protection, and hold their religion unmolested by the state. In this way, the emperor is treating he fellow Christians worse than pagans, as he is forcing them by the sword, to accept a corrupt Christianity and to renounce the Gospel. (Magdeburg 2012) The only division between the Lutherans and the Emperor, is that the Emperor has been persuaded by the Pope that Christ ought to be worshiped “according to human traditions.” Otherwise, the authors say, the Lutherans and the Emperor preach Christ as redeemer and savior and believe all the articles of the Christian faith. (Magdeburg 2012)

Similar to Luther, Melanchthon, and others, who said that they would submit to the papacy as the temporal head of the Church, if the pope did not claim it by divine authority, but instead as a human institution and by mutual agreement, the authors here say the same about Charles’ rule. They would gladly submit to his rule, and be obedient subjects, if they were not compelled to confess against the dictates of their conscience. In fact, they explain, their confession of the Christian faith would help them be good subjects; their confession teaches that men are to fear the governing authorities, because they have been set over them by God, and they bear the sword for a purpose (Rom. 13). The only thing that the authors and subscribers of the Magdeburg Confession were seeking, was the ability to keep their religion. By compelling them to renounce the Gospel in favor of the false doctrine of the antichrist pope, Charles V was, in their estimation, “…exceeding the limits of your dominion, and you are extending it into the dominion of Christ.” (Magdeburg 2012)

Magdeburg says that the devil uses tyrannical rulers to try and achieve his goal of destroying the Church of God, and God’s people themselves. (Magdeburg 2012) Magdeburg gives the example of a tyrant abolishing God’s natural law (they explicitly mention the abolition of marriage laws) and setting up in its place laws of “roving unclean lusts” which are contrary to God’s natural law. Under this type of tyranny, where men are forced at the point of the sword to sin, even the lowest magistrate is obligated to resist, within the confines of his vocation. (Magdeburg 2012)

Magdeburg describes four levels of offense to which lesser magistrates can be subjected by their superiors: natural weakness, atrocious and notorious injuries, forced sin, and tyrannical oppression. Natural weakness describes injury inflicted through the superior authority’s wanton exercise of sin. Atrocious and notorious injuries were the unjust use of violence to oppress the lesser magistrate and/or his subjects directly and specifically by the usurpation of their lives, liberties, or property, contrary to his sworn duty to protect them. Forced sin goes along with tyrannical oppression. In the third stage, the lesser magistrate as an individual is the target. Under tyrannical oppression, the superior authority targets the concept and right of the lesser magistrate, and decrees as law those things which are contrary to God’s established natural order, morality, and law. (Magdeburg 2012) Lesser Magistrates are encouraged to exercise caution and patience as they deal with injury and injustices from their superior. In the case of natural weakness, lesser magistrates are expected to bare up under the injustice done to him; if any resistance is to be offered at this level, it is to be through civil means, and should not expose the superior to public shame. The lesser magistrate should consider bearing such injustice as commendable before God, as Peter writes in his first epistle. (Magdeburg 2012)

When it comes to more serious injuries, God does not command lesser magistrates to submit to the usurpations of his rights connected to his vocation as a ruler. In his response, however, he should be careful not to fall into sin; as long as they are limited in scope, Magdeburg encourages lesser magistrates to bare injustices at this level and to “leave vengeance to God.” (Magdeburg 2012) When the tyranny of the superior authority reaches the level that it is not directed at a single lower ruler or land, but at the very concept or rights of the lower magistracy, Magdeburg considers this tyrannical oppression. The monarch has a duty to protect his subjects, and to preserve God’s order. If he does the opposite, he becomes a “persecutor of God”, since God is the one who ordered all things, is the source of rights, and is the one who institutes governing authorities. This is the highest level of egregious behavior for a ruler, since he is deliberately persecuting his subjects, and is not acting out of ignorance, incompetence, or in an outburst of rash emotional fury. (Magdeburg 2012)

Magdeburg says it is the vocation of the lesser magistrate to resist the superior, not that of the people. (Magdeburg 2012) This would seem to invalidate the American Revolution on the grounds that the colonists did not have the authority to revolt against the British crown. The American Revolution, however, was not a popular uprising, in the same way the French Revolution was. The lesser magistrates, the lawful lesser authorities of the colonial legislatures, were the ones who petitioned the crown for a redress of grievances, and eventually resisted the king when he reached the level of an oppressive tyranny. The American Revolution received popular support because of propaganda work by Thomas Paine, and others. The revolution was not, however, a popular uprising, like the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381 in England, or the Peasant’s War of 1524 in Germany; it was led by the lawful local governments, to wit: the colonial assemblies, and the Continental Congress, the lesser magistrates of George III. (Schweikart and Allen 2014)

In 1760, George III ascended to the British throne and presided over the conclusion of the French and Indian War. This conflict was the last in a string of costly colonial wars for the British. Great Britain won, but found itself saddled with immense debt; they also had new territories to police. The Crown believed the American colonies should bear the bulk of the cost of these wars, since they benefited the most from them. The colonies, however, would balk when confronted with taxation levied on them without parliamentary representation. (Schweikart and Allen 2014) This is a continuation of the conflict between sovereign and subject over rights and taxation that has its root in Magna Carta. (Schweikart and Allen 2014) After sometimes violent struggles with Great Britain over taxes and other oppressive laws implemented in the American colonies, the First Continental Congress drafted and passed a Declaration of Rights and Grievances in 1774. This document was a precursor to the Declaration of Independence. It contained 12 resolutions stating the rights of the colonists, chief among them being a right to life, liberty, and property. As they saw it, their rights were derived from three sources: the British constitution, the laws of nature, and the colonial charters. (Schweikart and Allen 2014)

The American Declaration of Independence echoes the Magdeburg Confession in that it enumerates the duty of the monarch to protect the people, rather than to harm them; the Declaration, like the Confession, reluctantly concludes that resistance to the supreme authority is necessary, but only after bearing with injury and injustice for as long as possible, and trying to remedy them through lawful civil means. (Schweikart and Allen 2014) The American Revolution differs with the siege of Magdeburg regarding the issue of the social contract. The American Revolution is a product of the Enlightenment, particularly the thinkers Hobbs, Locke, and Montesquieu. They saw government as something foreign to man and nature, that man created to make his life better. This is contrary to the Biblical teaching that governmental authority grows out of the authority of the father as head of the family and is established by God. (Schweikart and Allen 2014)

Leftists and secularist historians claim that the Founding Fathers were deists and atheists; conservatives claim most of them were Christians. It appears that the Founding Fathers ran the gamut of the Christian religious spectrum. John Adams was a devout congregationalist; George Washington wrote prayers of repentance in the name of Christ in his diary; Jefferson and Franklin were influenced by Christian morality but denied the supernatural aspects of the faith. (Schweikart and Allen 2014) What is certain is that, while they were influenced by Christian moral teaching to some degree, they did not intend to found a Christian nation. They were, however, concerned with protecting religious liberty. The pastors and rulers of Magdeburg, by comparison, assumed that they lived in a Christian city, within a Christian state, ruled by Christian princes, and a Christian emperor, whom they were resisting over issues of Christian doctrine. (Schweikart and Allen 2014)  The Declaration succinctly incorporates the ideas of Locke, and the concept of the rights of the governed in the phrase “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. These ideas have their root in the English constitutional system, and in English common law, going back to Magna Carta. The Founding Fathers drew the concept of rights from the British Constitution but rejected the nature of that constitution, in that it is “unwritten”. The British Constitution relies on legal precedent and charters spread over hundreds of years, and its interpretation could be (and still often is) confusing and ambiguous. The Founding Fathers wanted the constitution of their new country to be written down. (Schweikart and Allen 2014)

The Magdeburg confession is an important document, both in the history of the Lutheran Reformation, and for the development of government and the concept of civil rights in the western world. It is dense, and at times confusing to read, which might help explain why the confession is not more widely known. It has, however, served some important functions. The Magdeburg Confession documented and explained the doctrine of the Lesser Magistrate. By preserving this idea, it has indirectly influenced the development of the United States and the Declaration of Independence. The confession, and the political doctrine it enumerated, certainly influenced the development of political thought through the Enlightenment period. Though they were not trying to create a Christian state, the American Founding Fathers followed the model of the Lesser Magistrate doctrine in their resistance to the tyranny of the British crown.

The challenge for modern America is different than the one faced by the Founding Fathers, or that faced by the pastors of Magdeburg. Modern American society looks strikingly like the example given in the confession. With the courts sanctioning homosexual marriage, and the rise of transgenderism in popular culture, God’s law concerning natural marriage has effectively been abolished. Deviant sexual behavior is taught in schools to children as normal; it is celebrated in the media and on the streets. Language is being changed to accommodate this new normal. Anyone who will not submit is bullied into silence by being called a bigot, by harassment on social media, and at their place of employment so they lose their jobs. The tyrant, however, is not a single megalomaniacal dictator, but the mob, inflamed and directed by Marxists in public education, civil government, and the media. As Christians, we do well to follow the example of Magdeburg of bearing with injustice and injury, so long as we are able. When, however, they tyranny of the mob deems the Christian faith bigoted and homophobic, and demands that we worship their idols of sex, we must be prepared in our vocations as lesser magistrates to resist; it is our duty in that vocation of lesser magistrate, whatever and however low our station may be, to protect those under our charge.




Magdeburg, The Pastors of. 2012. The Magdeburg Confession. Translated by Matthew Colvin. North Charleston: Matthew Trewhella via CreateSpace.

McCain, Paul T, ed. 2005. Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions. A reader's edition of the Book of Concord. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House.

Schweikart, Larry, and Michael Allen. 2014. A Patriot's History of the United States. New York: Sentinel.