Pandemics may be new to us—at least in our lifetime—but they’re not new to the world. What can we learn from the Reformation theologian Martin Luther who lived through the Bubonic Plague?
Hi, I’m Rex Rogers and this is episode #2 of Discerning What Is Best, a podcast applying unchanging biblical principles in a rapidly changing world, and a Christian worldview to current issues and everyday life.
We are living through a time when a virus has literally gone worldwide, bringing some countries to their knees. COVID-19 has resulted not only in illness and suffering but also death, extensive if debatable government response, and negative economic ripple effects, along with confusion, fear, political rancor.
Seems like it would behoove us to learn a bit about how our forebears dealt with virulent diseases.
Martin Luther was one of the greatest Christian reformers, the man who on Oct. 31, 1517, called the Roman Catholic Church to account by posting “95 Theses” on Wittenberg All Saints Church door.
As enormously important as this is, Luther should also be remembered for his actions and thoughtful response to the dreadful Black Plague – and what his wisdom suggests for us today in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the 1300s, Black Death, also called the Bubonic Plague, swept across two continents, eventually killing half the population of Europe in a short span of four years. Between 75 and 200 million people died and it took nearly two hundred years for the population to return to former levels.
During the 15th and 16th Centuries, various epidemics took even more lives in the known populated world. And worse, the Black Death proved episodic, meaning it would die off only to resurge later.
In 1527, the plague came again, visiting Martin Luther’s hometown, Wittenberg, Germany. Luther was instructed to leave by his university elector, but he stayed to minister to the sick. Days later, several around Luther had died. Thankfully, they survived, as did Luther, but he was asked, even challenged, about the decision he made not to leave ahead of the epidemic.
Later that year, Luther wrote a fourteen-page pamphlet, an open letter entitled “Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague.” He began his address to Rev. Dr. John Hess, pastor of Breslau, saying, “You wish to know whether it is proper for a Christian to run away from a deadly plague.” Luther’s answer bears repeating at length.
Luther noted: “When (the Lord) speaks of the greatest commandment he says, ‘The other commandment is like unto it, you shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matt. 22:39).
Luther made it clear that Christians have a communal responsibility.
Then Luther stated: “This is said as an admonition and encouragement against fear and a disgraceful flight to which the devil would tempt us so that we would disregard God’s command in our dealings with our neighbor and so we would fall into sin on the left hand.”
Luther did not take lightly the idea of fear or flight, and in fact indicated Christians should not succumb to either.
At the same, time, while Luther rejected fear and flight, he thought people foolish for not using the brains God gave them to avail themselves of reasonable and current ways to protect their health.
“Others sin on the right hand,” Luther said, “They are much too rash and reckless, tempting God and disregarding everything which might counteract death and the plague.
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.”
But for Luther, “This is not trusting God but tempting him. God,” Luther said, “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.”
Luther was attempting to discern what is best. That’s what this podcast is about, Discerning What Is Best. If you find this thought-provoking and helpful, look for us on your favorite podcast platform. Download an episode for your friends.
In case his reasoning was somehow misunderstood, Luther went right to the point:
- “Use medicine;
- take potions which can help you;
- fumigate house, yard, and street;
- shun persons and places wherever your neighbor does not need your presence or has recovered, and
- act 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?”
Luther further recommended, “I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance inflict and pollute others and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If 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 as stated above. See this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash no foolhardy and does not tempt God."
When the Black Death arrived at his doorstep, Martin Luther did not run screaming into the woods. He did not close his eyes and whistle past the graveyard. He did not stick his head in the sand. He was neither fearful nor foolish but a man of faith who applied his biblically Christian worldview to a real, sin-cursed-world problem. He learned and he served, and he trusted the Sovereign God to work his will with grace and love with respect to both Luther’s family and his community.
COVID-19, the coronavirus, is a real-world pestilence, or in modern terms, a pandemic. It is our challenge in year 2020-2022, and maybe longer yet.
Borrowing from Luther’s application of his Christian worldview:
We should love God by loving our neighbor, both caring for them and for ourselves. We should be good stewards, acting with reason and judgment, taking preventative precautions.
Regarding masks and vaccines, we should be fully convinced in our own minds, as the Apostle Paul reminded us in Romans 14. God has given us reasoning ability, the capacity to think and to choose what we believe honors him, and the responsibility to discern what is best in our decisions.
It may be difficult for some to embrace, but we need to acknowledge that there are dedicated Christians on both sides of the mask and vaccine debates.
I do not understand pastors who have led their churches into adamant positions on one side or the other of mask and vaccine debates, even disinviting or otherwise excluding those who disagree.
I respect pastors who have led their churches to a nuanced, open, informed, mutually respectful attitude toward mask and vaccine decisions among their flock, welcoming all in what can be awkward circumstances.
It’s possible, in fact given the doctrine of Christian liberty it’s biblically defensible, to say that both pro and anti-mask and vaccine advocates can honor God in their decisions.
It is most assuredly not honoring God to judge, to condemn, to assume positions of moral superiority, to perpetrate division in the Body of Christ, especially when many of the arguments are built upon political talking points rather than theology.
It seems to me that the great challenge of the Christian Church in this season of pandemic and post-pandemic is not masks and vaccines per se but helping believers to overcome fear, not based upon our own finite reasoning and not based upon politics but by leaning upon God’s strong right arm, as the Psalmist did.
This pandemic era is an opportunity for the Christian Church to point to a Sovereign God who is not surprised or perplexed by disease. It’s an opportunity to live as unto the Lord, proclaiming the Lordship of Christ in and through all he gives us to experience, and “Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thess. 4:16-17).
Well, we’ll see you again soon.
For more Christian commentary, be sure to subscribe to this podcast, Discerning What Is Best, or check my website, r-e-x-m as in Martin, that’s rexmrogers.com. And remember, it is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm.
© Rex M. Rogers – All Rights Reserved, 2022
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