the weblog of Alan Knox

Luther and the Church…

Posted by on Feb 26, 2007 in church history, gathering | 15 comments

In the preface of “The German Mass and Order of Divine Service” (1526), Martin Luther describes three different kinds of “divine service”. The first and second kinds of “divine service” are differentiated only by the languages used (Latin and German, respectively). Importantly, this is what Luther says of these two kinds of “divine service”:

Both these kinds of Service then we must have held and publicly celebrated in church for the people in general. They are not yet believers or Christians. But the greater part stand there and gape, simply to see something new: and it is just as if we held Divine Service in an open square or field amongst Turks or heathen. So far it is no question yet of a regularly fixed assembly wherein to train Christians according to the Gospel: but rather of a public allurement to faith and Christianity.

Thus, for Luther, the public service in both Latin and German are for the purpose of exposing unbelievers to the Gospel. Notice that he does not see these services as being for Christians. So, what does Luther proscribe for believers? Keep reading for his “third sort of divine service”:

But the third sort [of Divine Service], which the true type of Evangelical Order should embrace, must not be celebrated so publicly in the square amongst all and sundry. Those, however, who are desirous of being Christians in earnest, and are ready to profess the Gospel with hand and mouth, should register their names and assemble by themselves in some house to pray, to read, to baptize and to receive the sacrament and practise other Christian works. In this Order, those whose conduct was not such as befits Christians could be recognized, reproved, reformed, rejected, or excommunicated, according to the rule of Christ in Matt. xviii. Here, too, a general giving of alms could be imposed on Christians, to be willingly given and divided among the poor, after the example of St. Paul in 2 Cor. ix. Here there would not be need of much fine singing. Here we could have baptism and the sacrament in short and simple fashion: and direct everything towards the Word and prayer and love. Here we should have a good short Catechism about the Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer. In one word, if we only had people who longed to be Christians in earnest, Form and Order would soon shape itself. But I cannot and would not order or arrange such a community or congregation at present. I have not the requisite persons for it, nor do I see many who are urgent for it. But should it come to pass that I must do it, and that such pressure is put upon me as that I find myself unable with a good conscience to leave it undone, then I will gladly do my part to secure it, and will help it on as best I can.

It seems that Luther is calling for a different type of meeting for believers. In this meeting, Luther does not have to order things. Instead, he sees that “the form and order would soon shape itself.” (I would add that it is the Spirit that forms and orders the meetings.) In fact, Luther sees baptism and the Lord’s Supper happening in this group – not in one of the public meetings that are meant for unbelievers. Notice also that in this meeting, believers would teach one another and take up money to give to the poor.

So, why did Luther not pursue this type of service? Well, he tells us here that he does not know “earnest” Christians willing to participate in this type of meeting. History tells us that Luther later relented from this position in order to appease the state church.

Everything that follows this point in “The German Mass and Order of Divine Service” describes how to carry out the first two kinds of “Divine Service”, which Luther said were not intended for believers, but for unbelievers. We will never know what would have happened historically if Luther had held to his convictions: “I will gladly do my part to secure it, and will help it on as best I can.”


Comments are closed. If you would like to discuss this post, send an email to alan [at] alanknox [dot] net.

  1. 2-26-2007

    History tells us that Luther later relented from this position in order to appease the state church.

    Can you imagine what the state of Christendom might look like today had Luther carried out his conviction about this “third” mode of meeting? My own conviction is that we would probably be on the brink of completing the Great Commission, if not sooner.

  2. 2-26-2007

    Interesting! I’ve not read any of Luther’s writings other than parts of the 95 theses. It looks as though, from the snippet that your shared, he desired a return to the 1st century church.

  3. 2-26-2007

    Guy and Heather,

    I don’t know what “would” have happened. But, I believe that since Luther did not purue this “third” type of order (the only one he saw applicable to believers), believers (and unbelievers) continued regarding the institutions and organizations as the church.


  4. 2-26-2007

    Alan, will you please provide me your email address by emailing me at bwriley4[at]yahoo [dot]com? Thank you!

  5. 2-26-2007

    Luther’s behavior here sounds like Zwingli’s when he did not want to move forward with believer’s baptism even though he had some convictions in that direction.

    So here is the question? Why did they not move in that direction?

    You pointed to the fact that Luther did not move in that direction because of the lack of people willing and then to appease the state church. Some have suggested that Zwingli did it because of pastoral concern and to appease the local magistrates.
    One would hope, though, that with time and teaching Luther could have seen willing people. Zwingli, who claimed that people were not ready, ignored and then persecuted the ones who were ready: the Anabaptist.
    Alan, we have talked before about humility and balance between teaching what one believes to be the truth and loosing ones voice in a brother’s life. Where is the fine line? I do not want to be like the Anabaptist who moved forward and at times forsake their weaker brothers, but I do not want to be like Luther and Zwingli who did nothing.

  6. 2-26-2007


    I sent you an email.


    Someone complained to me recently for asking questions in comments instead of offering answers. But, I’ll let it pass this time…

    What is the answer? Well, I think history has shown us what happens when believers let any pendulum swing too far one way or another. The answer to me is humility. We never stop listening to and caring for and loving others, especially when they disagree with us. But, we also never stop teaching those who are willing to listen to, care for, and love us even when we disagree with them.


  7. 6-26-2009

    Mr. Knox, great blog and equally great is your last comment. It makes me really want to delve more into early church history and Martin Luther to weed out so many of the extra things in Christianity I’ve been infused with. Many of our spiritual “to do lists” are fallacies and impede real growth and understanding. It behooves us not to have a holistic approach to the faith that allows us to examine it appropriately.

  8. 6-26-2009


    Thank you for your post. I think you’re right. Living a life of faith in God through Christ by the Holy Spirit requires a holistic approach.


  9. 3-9-2011

    wow. just amazing how off track things can go so quickly.

  10. 6-12-2012

    I wonder what Luther’s return to the liturgy of the 1st century church would have looked like. It sounds like he wanted to return to the Agape meal. But the early Christians who celebrated the Agape meal did so according to the customs and liturgical practices of the Jewish community they came from, with definite order and continuity with the past, which Luther would not have been familiar with. In many respects the “German Mass” that Luther describes is very close to ancient practice. He would have recognized much of his own Roman Catholic Mass in the Liturgy of St. James, the larger part of which was written down in the 1st century (having been developed and practied earlier). John had developed a defininte liturgical practice by the end of his life. In Revelation, John describes the heavenly liturgy which mirrors the liturgy that John and his disciples practiced here on earth :-).

  11. 6-12-2012


    It is interesting that Luther’s “third kind” of church gathering looks much more like the descriptions we find in Scripture than any other liturgical plan. Of course, many of those early practices flowed from the 1st century synagogue, but others were different.

    Why do you think that John’s descriptions of the throne of God “mirrors the liturgy that John and his disciples practiced here on earth”? By the way, that “heavenly liturgy” was temporary, right, since both the heavens and the earth are recreated at the end of Revelation?


  12. 6-12-2012

    The description indeed sounds similar.

    On the theory that Revelation is a mystical meditation on forms of liturgy as John had experienced them:
    It’s just a theory. One which I personally agree with :-). For John, the “wedding feast of the Lamb” was not only something for the angels, but a real experience that Christians, through Christ, are able to participate in NOW.

    Noone can know exactly what John and his disciples practiced since we weren’t there to see it. Some scholars say the Apocalypse uses as a literary framework the liturgical forms that John and his disciples performed. The Apocalypse of St. John meditates on aspects of Temple worship that could no longer be practiced with the desctruction of the Temple in Jeruselem. Perhaps you could say that it’s a two-way street, where the Apocalypse was influenced by John’s liturgical experience, and later liturgy was influenced in turn by the Apocalypse.

    Pardon me, but I don’t understand your last question.

    I’ve heard this from two specific literary sources:
    1. Dr. Jeannie Constantinou, a biblical scholar who presents papers at the Society of Biblical Literature, relates this theory on her “Beyond the Veil” podcast (www[dot]myocn[dot]net/index.php/beyond-the-veil).
    2. Fr. Thomas Hopko, Dean Emeritus at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, in a CD audio recording “Apocalypse: The Book of Revelation Within Orthodox Christian Tradition”. You can access another lecture (probably the same subject matter) on the Apocalypse by Fr. Tom for free here: http://ancientfaith[dot]com/specials/hopko_lectures

    I’ve heard the same teaching from others in person. I’m sure there are some peer-reviewed articles on the subject, but since I’m not a scholar, I’ll leave that up to you PhDs!

  13. 6-13-2012


    As you can probably tell, I don’t buy into the notion of various “forms of liturgy” in the New Testament. I think that different liturgies were developed later, and anachronistically read into the New Testament. It seems to me that Luther was headed in that direction with his “third kind” of church gathering, although he later abandoned that direction for various reasons.


  14. 3-2-2013

    Luther on the Order of Service: “The service now in common use everywhere goes back to genuine Christian beginnings, as does the office of preaching. But as the latter has been perverted by the spiritual tyrants, so the former has been corrupted by the hypocrites. As we do not on that account abolish the office of preaching, but aim to restore it again to its right and proper place, so it is not our intention to do away with the service, but to restore it again to its rightful use.” LW 53:11 Concerning the Order of Public Worship

    Curious as to your take on this comment. I find Luther essentially stating the adage – “Just because a certain thing is abused/ misused, doesn’t necessarily make that thing wrong or evil.”

  15. 3-2-2013


    In LW 53:11 (apparently written about 3 years before The German Mass and Divine Order quote above), does Luther explain what he believes the purpose of “the service” and “the office of preaching”? Unless he changed his mind, in The German Mass, he says they are for the unbeliever, not for the church.



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