Martin Luther is My Homeboy: The Legacy of Luther (Part 5)

The church I help pastor is full of people who probably have never heard of Martin Luther. Roughly 50% of our weekly attendance comes in the form of recovering addicts, and the next largest portion is college students, and a few of us who don’t fit either of those bills. For most of our folks Martin Luther is a seemingly unimportant person in their lives. And our church’s style isn’t exactly reflective of Reformation Germany (or traditional American for that matter). But whether they know it or not our church is an heir of Luther’s ecclesiological reforms. His legacy has made much of our church’s nature and practice a reality today.

Luther’s revolt against Rome was not an attempt to launch into some form of  rugged individualism. He wanted to reform the church, not depart from it. We’ve already discussed Luther’s love for the church. He spoke of the church saying, “The Christian church is your mother, who gives birth to you and bears you through the word.” His contention was not with the church, rather, as Timothy George wrote, “He revolted against the church, for the sake of the church” (Theology of the Reformers, 86). Luther’s biggest complaint was with the way in which the church had become institutionalized and, in many ways, despiritualized. For him, the church was “holy believers and sheep who hear the voice of their shepherd.” For Luther the church was, simply put, the community of saints.

The idea of the church as a “community of saints” has a very special and specific definition in Luther’s works. It has a two-fold definition: Participation in the benefits of salvation and the works of Christ, and a participation in the merits of the community of believers. Simply put Luther’s understanding of the church meant those who were united together by their faith in Christ and their service to each other. These two concepts were quite different from the institutionalized church of the Roman Catholic tradition in Luther’ day. No man could, in Luther’s day, access the benefits of Christ directly accept through the ecclesiastical structure of the church. In addition to that the “Saints” referred to the holy men and women of God, the special class of Christians, who could access the merits of Christ on your behalf. But no single, average, Christian could do this. Furthermore, because the church was defined as the clergy itself the average Christian was obligated to help the church, who in turn could help others (though at times it did quite a miserable job of this). By tearing down the concept of an institutionalized ministry Luther paved the way for church’s just like mine, where ministry happens through faithful believers living their daily lives among the needy.

The priesthood of all believers means several important things. First, it does mean that there is no distinction between “laity” and “clergy.” This was a huge detriment to growth and ministry in the Medieval era. The high class distinction that the church had put on men in the service of the church was enough to bring all real growth and service among the average Christian to a halt. Second, this phrase (priesthood of all believers) means that each man has access to God himself, by virtue of his being found in Christ. Christ is our only mediator, we need no other to go before God for us. Lastly, and this point is most frequently ignored, Luther saw this to mean that each Christian is a priest to every other. The priesthood of all believers means we are all priest for the sake of each other. Luther wrote:

The fact that we are all priests and kings means that each of us Christians may go before God and intercede for the other. If I notice that you have no faith or a weak faith, I can ask God to give you a strong faith.”

This is not something that “saints,” in the old Medieval sense, do for us, nor is it something that we do for those who have died and are in need of our prayers to get them to heaven. No, it is something the average Christian does for his fellow members in this life. Luther wrote: formerly a man thought he ought to serve the saints staring into heaven; now he looks about himself right here on earth for the lowliest brothers of Christ.

Care for one another became a hugely important aspect of what Luther saw as the church. He hated that word, “church.” It had come to represent so much of an institution and not a spiritual community sharing together for the sake of one another. Much of this same mentality has crept into the church today. We are a church culture of consumers. The most popular question in the church today is, “How can I get my way?” We fight over issues of carpet, Sunday School, auditorium seats, cleanliness of the auditorium, and the style of worship music (will the worship wars ever cease! I hope so). In conjunction with this we have returned to a culture of institutionalization. The church refers to the pastor and his staff who develop programs to satiate the masses of religious activity consumers. If your church doesn’t have a bowling league, a cafe, a great kids program, etc. then we are leaving! But here Luther calls us back to a Biblical ecclesiology. One that says we are priests, and therefore all servants. We exist in community to serve one another. Paul Althaus summarized Luther’s teaching on this subject in this way: Through the power of love the good works of the saints benefit the other members of the church. The church’s love thus expresses itself in the sharing of goods (The Theology of Martin Luther, 297).

This reminds us that we need each other. “All of this means that no one can be a Christian alone. Just as we cannot give birth to ourselves, or baptize ourselves, so neither can we serve God alone” (George, 96). We exist as a community of “saints,” benefiting together from the great work of Christ, and working to serve each other as Christ has called us to. As Luther says:

Whatever it is that you want to do for the saints, turn your attention away from the dead toward the living. The living saints are your neighbors, the naked, the hungry, the thirsty, the poor people who have wives and children and suffer shame. Direct your help toward them, begin your work, here.

Are you part of a community? Are you a “priest” in that community? Do you serve the church?


  1. Good post, Dave. Luther’s take on the church is quite interesting. From what I’ve read it seems he saw more than he was willing, or felt able, to put into practice. His own writing seems to admit that much:

    “The right kind of evangelical order cannot be exhibited among all sorts of people, but those who are seriously determined to be Christians and confess the gospel with hand and mouth, must enroll themselves by name and meet apart… With such order it would be possible for those who did not behave in a Christian manner to be known, reproved, restored, or excluded, according to the rule of Christ… Here it would not be necessary to have much or fine singing. Here a short and simple way of baptism and the Sacrament could be practiced, and all would be according to the Word and in love. But I cannot yet order and establish such an assembly, for I have not yet the right people for it. If, however, it should come about that I must do it, and am driven to it, I will willingly do my part. In the meantime, I will call, excite, preach, help, forward it, until the Christians take the Word so in earnest that they will themselves find how to do it and continue in it.” (taken from The Pilgrim Church by E.H. Broadbent)

    Oddly enough, there were many believers among those called Anabaptists who were doing just that, yet Luther condemned their actions. It reminds me of something I read once from Mark Driscoll in his book “On Church Leadership.” In the opening sentence of the first chapter he defined the church as the community of regenerated believers, those who have been born of the Spirit through faith in Christ. Then in the very next sentence he said, “in the church there are both believers and unbelievers.” I was floored at the obvious contradiction in terms. But this is similar to what I see in Luther’s ecclesiology, for you are right in saying that evangelical Protestant churches stand in the line of his ecclesiological reforms. If indeed Luther saw the church in the former light as the community of saints, the practice he initiated was more derived from a view of the church as a great mixture of wheat and tares. In fact, that is the very verse (Matthew 13:24-30) Driscoll referenced in his writing. It just doesn’t sit right with me. What do you think?

    1. I am not sure I understand the question, but if you’re asking do I believe that the church is composed of both believers and non-believers the answer is a sort of both yes and no. The reality, of course, is that the Community of Saints can only truly be composed of genuine believers. But Scripture also makes clear that there are those who make false professions or who are not genuine believers who for whatever reason join up with the community. Since it is not evident to us whether someone is truly a convert or not, and I would never want to make those kinds of judgments, then the “church” is composed of both wheat and tare. This is why I strongly believe in intensive discipleship and not just religious consumerism, it makes it harder to be a false convert in the church.

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