As I See It
The Public Role of the Minister of Word and Sacrament
By Frank C. Senn
On or about the 4th of July, our Presiding Bishop, Mark Hanson, sent an electronic encyclical to ELCA pastors enjoining us to use our public office of word and sacrament to address public issues, such as matters of social justice and world peace. He gave several examples of his own recent forays into the field of public policy and foreign policy and appealed to the example of Martin Luther, who gave advice on social and political matters in hundreds of tracts and letters.
As it happened, I was reading, at the time, Martin Marty’s fine new popular biography of Martin Luther, and a number of Luther’s pronouncements on public policy leaped into my consciousness because of Bishop Hanson’s admonition. Some of his more famous ones are these:
- Luther called on the princes to put down with the sword the murdering and marauding peasants.
- He turned the function of episcopal visitation of churches over to the princes who soon made the Evangelical Church a department of state.
- He reluctantly but finally joined other reformers in calling for civil authorities to defend the gospel against the Anabaptists by putting them to death.
- He counseled Prince Philip of Hesse to avoid the sin of divorce by practicing secret bigamy.
- He called the pope the Antichrist of the Apocalypse and set efforts toward Christian unity back by several centuries.
- He advised against launching a crusade or holy war against the Turks and initially saw their incursions up the Danube as God’s punishment of the sins of Christendom.Luther granted that the emperor had a duty to defend the Empire from the Moslem assault, but he also called for repentance, praying only (in the second line of his hymn, “Lord, keep us steadfast in thy Word” ),
Restrain the murderous Pope and Turk,
Who fain would tear from off Thy throne
Christ Jesus, Thy beloved son.
Finally, his Jewish policy was to evict Jews from the land if they would not turn to the gospel.Philip of Hesse took this advice seriously and banished the Jews from Thuringia, forcing them to move to neighboring Saxony where Luther’s prince also invited them to move on.
I know this is not the example of public ministry Bishop Hanson would have us pastors follow. But with a few exceptions (e.g. the bigamy of Prince Philip, the “no holy crusade against the Turks” advice), Luther’s positions were not exceptional for the time.
Luther’s situation is quite different from our own. He was the charismatic leader of a reform movement that had been embraced by a number of political leaders and implemented by princely decree or the vote of city councils. Church and state were intertwined in any case, and there is little that Luther wrote that did not have public policy implications.
Thankfully, in his final years of physical pain and mental exhaustion, he left among his more scurrilous late-in-life pronouncements a theological last will and testament, The Smalcald Articles (1537), in which he clearly articulated justification by faith as the doctrine on which the church stands or falls.
None of his other pronouncements ultimately matter. In hindsight we believe that Luther got the gospel right even though, in retrospect, we wish he had kept his mouth shut on all these other matters. Would to God that we pastors would get the gospel right and avoid making fools of ourselves by making pronouncements on foreign policy, maps to peace in the Holy Land, tax policies, health plans, and other matters on which we have little expertise and can only repeat tired nostrums.
Another matter that Luther got right was the vocation of the priesthood of all believers. The lay priests exercise their callings in the world; we pastors exercise ours in the church. We hold no public office in the world; our public office is in and for the church. Let us support the laity as they pursue their vocations for the common good of society by pursuing our vocation to preach the gospel and administer the sacraments.And let bishops judge doctrine and preach the gospel, not instruct temporal rulers.