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Luther and the Church

Posted by on Feb 19, 2010 in church history, gathering | 2 comments

Three years ago, I first read Martin Luther’s “The German Mass and Order of Divine Service”. I wrote a post about it called “Luther and the Church.” Since then I’ve written other posts as well. I was surprised when I read that Luther was convinced that the “Mass” or “Divine Service” was not for the church but was for unbelievers. I was also surprised to read what Luther said a meeting of true believers should look like.


Luther and the Church

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.”


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  1. 2-19-2010

    It goes back to what you have written recently (especially with relation to what Felicity Dale wrote) about trusting Jesus to be the head of his church and letting all believers contribute.

    Luther saw this “ideal” in his imagination, but didn’t trust anyone else to actually live it out.

    I’m not sure that Luther saw this meeting as open and free, though, as Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 14:26ff. He saw quite a bit of tradition and repetition as necessary (i.e., catechism, etc.) in the gathering to teach. I don’t see the “believers would teach one another” that you see, but I may be missing it.

  2. 2-19-2010


    You’re probably correct that Luther did not have in mind the kind of open and participatory meetings that I favor. However, the line “assemble by themselves in some house to pray, to read, to baptize and to receive the sacrament and practise other Christian works” does indicate that he wanted others (besides the clergy) to take part in their meetings.