Second in a series of posts on Luther, Lutherans, and calling by Lutheran pastor Adam Roe with responses over at Cranach by Gene Veith. See the whole series at the bottom of this post, and Gene’s response to this post here. They’ll appear from time to time in this space for the next couple of weeks. Enjoy!
Popular depictions imagine Luther to be an entirely conflicted monk who spent day and night obsessing over his failures. Such opinions too simply dismiss that, on the whole, Luther was Catholic through and through. Luther spent 19 years wearing the monastic habit, and most of his time in the monastery was spent going about his daily routines.
But one of Luther’s battles was grounded in his interior reaction against the idea that priests, monks, and nuns were a more elevated class of Christians. The early Luther was a believer in the idea that vocation was specifically designated for the theological classes. In this worldview, priests, monks, and nuns are called to a battleground for souls, and folks in secular life are relegated to a sort of second-class spiritual citizenship. Indeed, Luther’s purpose for becoming a monk was to follow the way of the “holier”vocational classes. As Roland Bainton noted in Here I Stand: “The man who was later to revolt against monasticism became a monk for exactly the same reason as thousands of others, namely, in order to save his soul.”
Over time, though, Luther realized that such views tended to cripple the vitality of Christians individually, and the church as a whole. Certainly, much in his observations were the result of his own psychology, but for the priest or monk who was particularly sensitive to the ugliness of his sin, there were two very great dangers to the ecclesiastical discipline of the medieval period. First, it led to despair, for an honest priest or monk realized that the exercises designed to lead to holier living did not, on the whole, remove the sense of unworthiness. In Luther’s case, the more precise and devoted he became, the worse he felt. He could never achieve the perfection necessary to stand before a perfect and holy God–a reality that later led him to state, “I was myself more than once driven to the very abyss of despair so that I wished I had never been created. Love God? I hated him!”Luther fell into a web of despair, not because he failed to see God’s true nature, but because he saw God’s perfection and could not stand justified before it. For Luther, therefore, there were no super Christians. A person of the cloth is a sinner, just as the person in secular life.
The second danger in making ecclesiastical offices a more holy state for humans than secular employment is that it assumes that lay life is in some way less than holy. In such a view, God is not in the secular work, at least not to the degree as He is in religious work. The baker, the farmer, the bookkeeper, and the doctor might be believers, but their work is not necessarily an extension of their faith. The result, from Luther’s perspective, was that people who were not in religious work assumed that their stations in life are of lesser spiritual significance. Indeed, the person who is doing important and valuable work for society may begin to see his other work as comparatively unimportant.
That is not to say that Luther and the Lutheran reformers failed to see the importance of religious work. It is simply to note that Luther, and the Lutheran reformers, believed strongly that all Christians had been given a specific vocation by God, and this vocation is a kind of ministry.
Adam Roe is the pastor of New Life Lutheran Church in Sterling, IL.