At first glance, Luther’s 1527 piece Whether One May Flee From a Deadly Plague is a curiosity that has little relevance to today. On August 2, 1527, the bubonic plague arrived in Wittenberg. The university closed, and students were sent home.
Luther remained to provide care to the sick. Out of this experience, he wrote about the question of when we should flee from a plague and when we should stay put.
Most of us don’t face this situation today, although I remember when the SARS virus raised similar questions in 2003. Others face this question when they’re in the path of a hurricane or tornado.
In a less dramatic way, we face the same underlying issues regularly in ministry. When ministry costs, when do we pay, and when do we take steps to protect ourselves and flee? When is it right to flee from a deadly ministry?
Luther teaches us a few principles about ministry.
Lessons From Luther
Fulfill Your Ministry, Even When It Costs
Pastor, fulfill your ministry even when it’s tough. If you are a pastor, then suffering is part of the job description.
Those who are engaged in a spiritual ministry such as preachers and pastors must likewise remain steadfast before the peril of death. We have a plain command from Christ, “A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep but the hireling sees the wolf coming and flees” John 10:11. For when people are dying, they most need a spiritual ministry which strengthens and comforts their consciences by word and sacrament and in faith overcomes death.
Those in public office, such as mayors and judges, are under the same obligation. “To abandon an entire community which one has been called to govern and to leave it without official or government—and exposed to all kinds of danger such as fires, murder, riots, and every imaginable disaster is a great sin.”
The Lesson: I find it easy to put boundaries on what ministry costs. Luther reminds me that the call to pastor is the call to suffer. If we bail when ministry costs, we never understood ministry in the first place. Pastor: expect to suffer, and don’t flee when there’s a cost.
Don’t Take Unnecessary Risks
On the other hand, Luther reminds us not to go looking for trouble. Sometimes suffering is necessary; other times it’s just stupid. “Examples in Holy Scripture abundantly prove that to flee from death is not wrong in itself,” he writes. It’s appropriate to take precautions and to avoid unnecessary suffering, and to help others do the same. “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.”
Be prepared to suffer, but don’t be stupid about it.
The Lesson: Ministry involves suffering, but don’t go looking for it. Take precautions to keep yourself as healthy as possible.
Know Your Limits
“Since it is generally true of Christians that few are strong and many are weak, one simply cannot place the same burden upon everyone,” Luther writes. When either staying or leaving are both valid options, we can choose based on our strength and boldness.
If someone is sufficiently bold and strong in his faith, let him stay in God’s name; that is certainly no sin. If someone is weak and fearful, let him flee in God’s name as long as he does not neglect his duty toward his neighbor but has made adequate provision for others to provide nursing care. To flee from death and to save one’s life is a natural tendency, implanted by God and not forbidden unless it be against God and neighbor…If someone is so strong in faith, however, that he can willingly suffer nakedness, hunger, and want without tempting God and not trying to escape, although he could do so, let him continue that way, but let him not condemn those who will not or cannot do the same.
The Lesson: All of us are called to suffer. Some of us, though, are better suited to ministries that are more burdensome and costly.
Be on Guard Against Satan
We don’t just face dangers from the plagues and troubles; we face the attack of Satan.
It is the devil who stirs up such abhorrence, fear, and loathing in his heart. He is such a bitter, knavish devil that he not only unceasingly tries to slay and kill, but also takes delight in making us deathly afraid, worried, and apprehensive so that we should regard dying as horrible and have no rest or peace all through our life. And so the devil would excrete us out of this life as he tries to make us despair of God, become unwilling and unprepared to die, and, under the stormy and dark sky of fear and anxiety, make us forget and lose Christ, our light and life, and desert our neighbor in his troubles.
Annoy the devil, Luther writes, by helping your neighbor and serving God when it costs.
If Christ shed his blood for me and died for me, why should I not expose myself to some small dangers for his sake and disregard this feeble plague? If you can terrorize, Christ can strengthen me. If you can kill, Christ can give life. If you have poison in your fangs, Christ has far greater medicine. Should not my dear Christ, with his precepts, his kindness, and all his encouragement, be more important in my spirit than you, roguish devil, with your false terrors in my weak flesh? God forbid! Get away, devil. Here is Christ and here am I, his servant in this work. Let Christ prevail! Amen.
The Lesson: Ministry’s hard enough. Don’t make it harder by taking your eyes off Christ and beginning to believe the devil’s lies.
Ministry’s tough. It costs. It takes wisdom to know when to stay and when to go. Luther’s writing reminds us of some important truths that will guide us as we serve:
- Fulfill your ministry, even when it costs.
- Don’t take unnecessary risks. Look after yourself while you pay the cost.
- Know your limits. Stay when it’s required or when you’re bold; feel free to leave when that’s the faithful, reasonable option.
- Keep your eyes on Christ. Frustrate the devil by loving and serving God and others even when it’s hard.
Good advice for plagues and for the ordinary hardships of ministry.
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