“A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” Amidst The Raging Plague: Learning From Luther’s Pastoral Principle And Practice

What happens when twenty-five millions of people in a single continent died within just two years?  What a horrifying reality!  This is exactly what had happened in the European continent between 1348 to 1350 when thirty percent of their population perished by the Bubonic Plague, or popularly known as the Black Death.  This epidemic was started in the fourteenth century and continued to the next three centuries, which took away the lives of two hundred million people.  In 1522, when the plague began to surge in Florence, Italian writer and poet, Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375), described the grim and dreadful circumstances in that city: “Many took their last breath in streets while others died in their houses . . . until the entire city was filled with dead bodies . . . with no proper burials, no loved ones to cry beside them, no candles and hearses to carry them.”  Had you and I lived during those days in Florence, won’t we say that such reality perfectly describes hell?

        In the midst of those dark times, Protestant Reformer Martin Luther (1483-1546)—who lived in a small town called Wittenberg in Germany—also had to face the reality of a raging plague in August 2, 1527.  Out of fear and perplexity, Johann Hess, a fellow clergy from Silesia, wrote a letter to Luther on behalf of his peers.  The purpose of that letter was to seek advice through the following question: “Is it acceptable for a Christian to flee during a time of deadly plague and sickness?”

        Luther’s response came out in November 1527 with a title, Whether One May Flee from the Deadly Plague(Luther’s Works, Vol. 43: Devotional Writings II [ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, dan Helmut T. Lehmann; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1999] 119–138).  While he would have never imagined a global pandemic such as the novel coronavirus that we are currently facing, his writing is still relevant as it provides a principle for every Christian and servant of God in our time.

        The heart of Luther’s answer lies in this conviction: If there are Christians who have a strong faith and choose to stay in their respective places, let them do so.  But if there are other Christians who realize that their faith is weak, thus choosing to flee the danger, let them do so as well.  Nevertheless, Luther decided to stay where he was and refused to relocate to another place, especially when he and his colleagues were advised to go to the nearby city of Jena, close to Wittenberg.  At the same time, he was quick to affirm that those who have fled the danger did not commit any sin, by saying:“Examples in Holy Scripture abundantly prove that to flee from death is not wrong in itself.”

        In the meanwhile, he also gave several examples from the biblical characters who did the same (e.g., Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, and Elijah).  And so, he did not blame, let alone curse Christians who escape or flee the danger of plagues.  That said, Luther has never advised Christians, especially God’s ministers, to evade their responsibilities, because he emphatically asserted that Christians have to be ready to face death: “… since death is God’s punishment, which he sends upon us for our sins, we must submit to God and with a true and firm faith patiently await our punishment.

        On the other hand, he also remarked that death is not merely about punishment: “ . . . we can be sure that God’s punishment has come upon us, not only to chastise us for our sins but also to test our faith and love—our faith in that we may see and experience how we should act toward God; our love in that we may recognize how we should act toward our neighbor.”  With that in mind, in approaching death, believers ought to realize one thing: that God may test their faith and love.  Therefore, in the context of loving God and neighbor, Luther holds to a clear principle, i.e., remaining to stay where he was serving and continuing his pastoral commitments.  “Godliness is nothing else but service to God.  Service to God is indeed service to our neighbor,” as he added.  Based on John 10:11 (“I am the good shepherd.  The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep”), he encouraged pastors, teachers, preachers (including the city council, church leaders, and leaders of Christian households) to remain to stay where they were and carry out their tasks and responsibilities by offering spiritual care for their neighbors who are affected by the plague.

        We should notice this: Because of the enormous need of medical helpers like physicians and nurses at that time, Luther and his wife Katharina von Bora had to be involved in providing care for and hosted their parishioners who fell sick in their home.  While we have no idea how malignant was the bacteria that had ravaged the population at that time, their decision can be said as daring with such great risk, a decision that one might have to reconsider in the present context of COVID-19.  In today’s world, hospitals and medical centers are available to the extent that pastors and ministers—in my understanding—do not have to worry about taking the place of physicians and medical workers.  In the case of Luther, he did later fall sick, although it did not become life-threatening.  What this tells us is that there were actual risks and dangers that people had to face at that time.

        Still, according to Luther, when shepherds tend to their flock, it has to be exercised with great care, prayerfully watching over their own soul and asking God for protection.  The shepherd must also disinfect or sanitize his or her house, porch, and driveway, purifying indoor airflows, and take medication.  In this context, one ought to see how Luther denounced fellow church members who were antagonistic toward safety measures and medication.  He deemed that particular attitude as putting God to the test: “They disdain the use of medicines; they do not avoid places and persons infected by the plague, but lightheartedly make sport of it and wish to prove how independent they are.  They say that it is God’s punishment; if he wants to protect them, he can do so without medicines or our carefulness.  This is not trusting God but tempting him.  God has created medicines and provided us with intelligence to guard and take good care of the body so that we can live in good health.”

        For Luther, even faithful Christians ought to distance themselves from certain dangerous places and refrain from any contact with others in order not to be infected or even to prevent from being a carrier that would claim other people’s life because of his or her negligence.  Therefore, in this context, we are helping others while remaining to be alert so that we would neither get infected nor become a carrier of the disease to others.  This, by all means, stands in contrast with the reckless decisions of several churches or pastors who keep their public services, healing revivals, or touch the congregation with the anointing oil—which ended up spreading the virus to numerous people—to the point where there were pastors who died in several countries after being infected with COVID-19.  While worship gatherings may be postponed, helping others is a higher priority, albeit all the risks.

        The above lethal blunders are quite similar to the spread of the coronavirus that had happened in March 2020 among the congregation of the Shincheonji church in Daegu, South Korea, which remarkably started of just one person (https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2020/world/coronavirus-south-korea-church/).  This elderly woman had already exerted some symptoms and refused to seek medical assistance while she insisted on worshiping at her church.  The self-professed Christian, then, became the virus carrier to more than six thousand congregants, thus furthered the spread of the plague in the K-Pop country.

        Therefore, in the midst of the raging plague occurred during his time, Luther reminded in his letter: “[A]ct like a man who wants to help put out the burning city.  What else is the epidemic but a fire which instead of consuming wood and straw devours life and body?”  Notwithstanding, he continued by affirming his readiness to sacrifice: “God should wish to take me, he will surely find me and I have done what he has expected of me, and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others.  If my neighbor needs me, however, I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely. . . .  See, this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt God.”  That means the act of sacrifice in helping fellow church members or others who are suffering ought to be grounded on faith instead of arrogance, ignorance, self-confidence, or putting God to the test.  Finally, he concluded his letter with a benediction: “May Christ our Lord and Savior preserve us all in pure faith and fervent love, unspotted and pure until his day. Amen. Pray for me, a poor sinner.”  Still Luther thirst for the prayers of others, having realized his own weakness and sinfulness before God!

        How fascinating it is that this sixteen-pages work filled with profound truths still applies today when it was written almost five hundred years ago at a time when modern technology and health science were not as sophisticated as they are today!  In a time when diseases caused by bacterias and viruses were largely mysterious, a set of principles for Christians to respond and to serve amidst these circumstances has been laid out through his work.  We need to exercise humility in learning about the ministries and sacrifices of this great man of God.

        In the midst of those appalling and incomprehensible circumstances, still, Luther was able to write a hymn that has continued to be sung in churches throughout the centuries up to the present day.  This hymn was written based on his confidence in Christ and also out of his struggle in facing difficult circumstances: “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” (English translation by Frederic F. Hedge)

A mighty fortress is our God,
A bulwark never failing:
Our helper He, amid the flood
Of mortal ills prevailing
For still our ancient foe
Doth seek to work his woe;
His craft and power are great,
And armed with cruel hate,
On earth is not his equal

Did we in our own strength confide,
Our striving would be losing;
Were not the right Man on our side,
The Man of God’s own choosing
Dost ask who that may be?
Christ Jesus, it is he;
Lord Sabaoth is his name,
From age to age the same,
And He must win the battle