Monday, May 19, 2008

Luther on House Churches

Most of the people I talk with about house churches are Lutherans. One of my favorite things to do is to find out whether they know that Luther himself proposed house churches as the natural, even preferred context for people who were serious about following Jesus. (He calls these people the ones who are "desirous of being Christians in earnest and are ready to profess the Gospel with hand and mouth.") It's great fun to see the look of surprise on their faces - especially the ones who went to seminary and, amazingly, somehow never encountered this fact!

I've got the relevant section from Luther's writings uploaded in my "document vault" but I've neglected to post it here so now's the time to fix that. Here is the key excerpt, with citations at the end. Friends, and Lutherans especially, you'll want to take note of the following:

  • Self-organized

  • Home-based

  • Lay led

  • Full sacramental life

  • Stewardship and social ministry

  • Simple catechetical instruction

  • Ideal context for loving accountability after Matthew 18

  • "Form and Order" are not imported but emerge spontaneously from community life.

I also enjoy pointing out that Luther gave two reasons for why he did not implement this: 1) he lacked the "requisite persons" (leaders, presumably), and 2) no one wanted to do it. So he decided to wait "until those Christians who are most thoroughly in earnest shall discover each other and cleave together." Well, we've got lots of people capable of leading this now, and lots of people who want it, and I can tell you, there are a whole lot of people discovering each other and cleaving together.

Anyway, enough from me. Here's the Old Man himself:

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. In the meantime, I would abide by the two Orders aforesaid; and publicly among the people aid in the promotion of such Divine Service, besides preaching, as shall exercise the youth and call and incite others to faith, until those Christians who are most thoroughly in earnest shall discover each other and cleave together; to the end that there be no faction-forming, such as might ensue if I were to settle everything out of my own head.

This material can be found online at the Hanover Historical Texts Project, and in Volume 53, pp. 63-64 of Luther’s Works, American Edition.


Steve Gartland said...

Nice work, Tim. As a Lutheran "lifer" this is new to me, but very refreshing. I think this could provide Lutherans with the impetus to explore another creative means of being the church at a time when 2/3 of our churches are plateued or declining in attendance and membership. Reggie McNeal, for example, has said that a growing number of people are leaving the church not because they have lost their faith, but because they want to preserve their faith (p. 4, The Present Future). Younger people in particular are not content to practice a passive faith where we pay others to "do" ministry. They want to engage in ministry directly, because that's really what Jesus did, and what He commanded His disciples to do. It's also a more genuine expression of "being the church," as oppossed to "going to church."

Even though this is new road to travel, and new roads always bring change, which usually challenge us to move out of our comfort zone, I think it's a very promising road that can lead to some new reformation in the church. And Lutherans have always been on the cusp of that.

DLW said...

Was this early Luther or later Luther?


Feral Pastor said...

Hey DLW -

I'm not sure what is considered early vs. late... maybe scholars have a turning point they like to refer to. It's well known that in the years before his death Luther wrote some pretty nasty stuff about Muslims and Jews in particular. If that's what you have in mind for "late" then I think the house church material cited here would be considered early by comparison. Below are some dates I scavenged from Wikipedia to give you some context.

1517 - 95 Theses

1520 - Babylonian Captivity; Freedom of a Christian

1524-5 - Peasants' War

1525 - Bondage of the Will

1526 - HC comments cited here

1529 - Lg & Sm Catechisms

1530 - Augsburg Confession

1542 - Luther reads (Latin) Qur'an, subsequently writes some pamphlets on Islam.

1543 - On the Jews and their Lies

1546 - Death of Luther

Feral Pastor said...

A friend commented on Facebook re. this post, noting the concern about factions at the end of the excerpt. Here's what I wrote in reply:

Actually, in my copy of Luther's works there is one more sentence in the section before he concludes his paragraph: "For we Germans are a rough, rude, and reckless people, with whom it is hard to do anything, except in cases of dire need."

Re. factions, I'm not sure if what I've seen in the HC folks I've encountered is really "factions" so much as simple diversity. Both are phenomena rooted in difference and distinction, but I haven't seen a lot of mutual rejection or cross-condemnation among groups, which would be the hallmark of true factions. I may be projecting, or may have had the good fortune of only encountering more theologically generous people in my explorations so far, but that's what I've seen. It's encouraging.

Feral Pastor said...

Hard to believe it's nearing 10 years since I put up this post! but it continues to be a touchstone for me, which is why I'm excited to announce that I am hosting a conference to explore Luther's proposal on Saturday, November 18th, here in the Twin Cities!

For more info and registration, visit or the Facebook page at

SethWT said...

500 years may be about an appropriate gestation for this sort of thing. It might be a bit early by historical Holy Spirit timing. But things do seem to be going faster these days... or am I just getting old? Yes, I Am.

Have fun Bro.
I'm sure you will post video.

As prayed daily; "Lord Jesus, open the doors you want open for Tim and Kisten and their family, close the doors you want closed for us, and place us in the center of your perfect will. Amen"

Feral Pastor said...

Thanks Seth (and for the lovely prayer.)

That 500 span has been noticed by others too. There's a book by Phyllis Tickle called The Great Emergence where she reviews that and argues that we are at another 500-mile marker. If I recall, she says it's as if every 500 years or so the Church holds a huge garage sale and reconsiders what it wants to keep and what it wants to let go. :)

You can find the book here on Amazon: