The Pastoral Care Dimension of the Reformation
When trying to “condense” the history of the Reformation Movement, one immediately focuses on the clash between Luther and the Pope and the Emperor. These are the dramatic moments that make a good story or screenplay. You know these points of conflict well enough (Luther standing before the Emperor and declaring, “Here, I stand!” But, Luther’s concerns in 1517 were every bit as much pastoral care concerns as they were doctrinal. It was the effect upon the faith-life of his parishioners that motivated Luther to confront the false pieties and false theologies of his time. The problem with the common misuse of the “selling” of Indulgences is that it took money from people who were poor while also taking their focus away from the Cross; It robbed them of both money and faith.
The motivation of providing pastoral care and defending his parishioners lets us see Luther active in his role as a parish pastor. As much as he taught and wrote, Luther preached every day and was living life with his congregation. Therefore, everything he taught had an immediate application and effect upon real people. Given that the Elector was also the “Defender of the Faith” all doctrinal innovations applied to the Principality and then by extension into the Holy Roman Empire. Nothing Luther did was done in a vacuum or in the abstract.
Within ten years, Luther, the University and the Prince recognized that away from Wittenberg, in the countryside, both the clergy and the laity were suffering with poor support from the government and the church. Education was confused and the churches and priests were not in good condition. To address these concerns Luther encouraged a “visitation” whereby these conditions could be assessed and remedies addressed. The Duke appointed respected judges to accompany professors from Wittenberg to examine both the administration of the churches and the training of its clergy. (Remember, there is no separation of church and state as we know it.)
To support the teaching of sound doctrine, Luther began a preaching series that would form the basis of the Small Catechism. This is typical of his practice. He has a theological issue to study as a professor but he also applies that issue as a pastor—so he preaches on it!
What he finds is written in his preface to the Small Catechism and is vintage Luther:
"The deplorable, wretched deprivation that I recently encountered while I was a visitor has constrained and compelled me to prepare this catechism, or Christian instruction, in such a brief, plain, and simple version. Dear God, what misery I beheld! The ordinary person, especially in the villages, knows absolutely nothing about the Christian faith, and unfortunately many pastors are completely unskilled and incompetent teachers. Yet supposedly they all bear the name Christian, are baptized, and receive the holy sacrament, even though they do not know the Lord's Prayer, the Creed, or the Ten Commandments! As a result they live like simple cattle or irrational pigs and, despite the fact that the Gospel has returned, have mastered the fine art of misusing their freedom.”
It is no surprise, then, that the Small Catechism has two distinct features: first, that it is small! and second, that it is addressed “to the head of the household…” The purpose of the “this little book of instruction” is to have a foundational faith and life for all.
This dovetails with another of Luther’s principles of the Reformation: The Priesthood of All Believers. Since any Christian was expected to have a faith-life in Christ informed by the Word, it was necessary to be able to read the Word. That then required schools to create literacy and teachers and preachers who could provide such instruction. Encouraged by Luther, the Duke would provide the resources to examine the parishes and address the problems discovered. Luther’s complaint about how corruption affected Germany illustrates his pastoral concerns for his people and his frustration with the pervasive corruption he faced in the church.
The archbishop was to visit, watch over, and supervise the bishops as to their teaching. But in time this office became such a show of secular pomp when the bishops made themselves princes and lords, that the duty of supervision was turned over to a provost or vicar or dean. Then the provosts and deans and chapter heads became servile courtiers and left supervision to deputies who with their notices of summons plagued the people with their extortions and visited no one.
Finally, when things reached their lowest, the deputies themselves remained at home in a warm house and sent perchance some rascal or ne’er-do-well who wandered around the countryside and in towns, and what he heard from mean mouths or gossip among men and women in the taverns he reported to his superior who then exercised his fleecing office, scraping and skinning innocent people of their goods and leaving murder and misery where there had been honor and good name. In brief this is what befell so worthy an office and nothing remained of it except the burdening and banning of people because of money, debts, and temporal goods and the making of a divine order out of the bellowing of antiphons and versicles in churches. No attention is paid to how one teaches, believes, loves, how one lives a Christian life, how to care for the poor, how one comforts the weak, or punishes the unruly, and whatever else belongs to such an office. They are altogether officious and gluttonous fellows who destroy what belongs to the people and do worse than nothing for them. This office has fared like all holy and ancient Christian doctrine and order—it has become the farce and contempt of the devil and Antichrist with awful and terrible destruction of souls. (Preface to the Saxon Visitation Articles.)
The solution involved a radical idea: that the laity can study and learn from Holy Scripture themselves. To help them study was printed the Holy Scripture in German and the Small Catechism for the laity and the Large Catechism for the clergy. The Elector, as a faithful layman, knew and understood the Confessions of the Lutheran Church and applied this teaching to his secular administration of his realm. (The signatories to the Augsburg Confession are laity.) According to Luther, John, Duke of Saxony acts “out of Christian love (since he is not obligated to do so as a temporal sovereign) and by God’s will for the benefit of the Gospel and the welfare of the wretched Christians in his territory.”
Think of that, an Elector of the Holy Roman Empire acts in an honorable manner toward his own Principality based on his own understanding of Scripture and his own confession of faith in Christ to protect and defend the Gospel! It is the layman (although also the Sovereign) who acts to end the corruption of the church and protect the laity and the parish priests from the abuse of their “supervisors.”
Today, if you ask me what the strengths of the Lutheran Church are, I could give you many good answers. But my best answer is that the strength of the church is its well catechized and well instructed laity. In brief terms, it is the strength of the Priesthood of All Believers. Luther, establishing this teaching, ultimately protected his flock by giving them the tools and the authority to protect themselves. May such a Reformation continue….