Luther and Reformatory Ideas: Discipline and Democracy

The Reformation is paradoxical. On the one hand it embraces distinctions in social rank and the need for discipline, and on the other ideas about liberty and equality that could provide a basis for democracy.

Luther believed that discipline was necessary for high and low alike. Everyone needed to know how to avoid doing wrong. All people were, according to Luther, basically egoists operating on the basis of their own self-interest rather than for the benefit of their neighbour and to serve God.  As a result, he believed that discipline was a prerequisite for any community.

For any society to function it is necessary that all its members are in relationships where they either give or obey orders. This was a view that fit well with feudal society. Luther also believed that everyone should understand the fundamental ideas of Christianity. Embarking on working life was conditional upon a basic knowledge of Christianity and one’s duties. The introduction of confirmation in 1736 structured this learning – and the entry into adulthood.

According to Luther, everyone is equal in the eyes of God. Here there is no difference between high and low, or men and women. And the idea that everyone is to acquire a basic understanding of the essence of Christianity contributed – in the long run – to the empowerment of ordinary people. This is where the idea of ‘the universal priesthood’ has meaning, i.e. the idea that there is no principle difference between laypeople and pastors.