Luther’s House Church


So imagine my surprise when I came across this: Martin Luther’s Preface to The German Mass and Order of Divine Service, January 1526Therein are described two orders of Divine Service—a Latin mass (so that the universal language would not pass out of use) and a German mass (so that the unconverted could “stand there and gape, simply to see something new”).

But it is a third order of service that caught my eye. Of this Luther says:

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. For we Germans are a wild, rude, tempestuous people; with whom one must not lightly make experiment in anything new, unless there be most urgent need.

Please re-read the boldfaced type. It’s basically a house church that Luther is describing. Can you IMAGINE anyone recommending such a thing today in a confessional Lutheran forum? Can you imagine the YouTube videos that would be cut: “What do you mean by ‘Christians in earnest,’ Dr. Luther? What ‘conduct’ precisely befits a Christian—or didn’t you know that we are simul justus et peccator?”

Now, granted, we have to put this into its historical context. There was much confusion in the land regarding right worship. Everything was in flux, and rumors and misunderstandings abounded. Apparently, there were a lot of faux, albeit baptized, Christians running around. Morals were in ruins.

Unlike today, when order, discipline, sobriety, chastity, and unalloyed worship of the one true God are the defining characteristics of the church catholic.

Strange to say, this put me in mind Adolf Köberle’s Quest for Holiness, which was recommended to me during the great sanctification debate of a few months ago, as being a fine confessional statement on the Lutheran construal of non-growth in holiness. But I read strange and confounding things there:

For neither visions nor merciless castigations nor ecstatic feelings at the reception of the Sacrament are the true signs that we are in a proper state of faith, but the test is whether we feel [!!] constrained to assist our neighbor and to help him “bear his sorrows and sufferings.” In the place of mystical experiences of God has come the certainty of experience described in the First Epistle of John: “We know we have passed from death unto life because we love the brethren.” […]

Even the need for prayer and fasting Luther derived from the obligation of being prepared at all times for the service of our neighbor: “For at the last day Christ will not ask how you have prayed, fasted, gone on pilgrimages or done this or that for yourself, but how much good you have done to others, even to the very least.” (Luther) If the idea of service be lacking in devotion, or benevolent offerings, or these become only a secondary appendage to sanctification, their exercise becomes more dangerous than their omission. Only when service has become the central motive, when the very “subjugation of body and soul” is only for the accomplishment of this purpose, is the sanctifying process of a Christian’s life honest and profitable.” […]

“On the other hand we must understand the nature of Christ’s office and work in His Church, that while He pours out His purity on us at once, through the Word and faith, and, in addition, renews our hearts through the Holy Ghost, He does this in such a way that this work of purification is not completed all at once, but He daily labors with us and purifies us so that we become continuously purer and purer.” […]

Because sin and the Spirit of God destroys God’s holiest works, faith, prayer and renewal, Scripture demands that we break with it unconditionally. Scripture also demands that we break with it immediately, not only in the beginning but also in the further maintenance of faith. Both demands, that of a radical and that of an immediate severance from sin, are made by Scripture with such an emphasis that it is well not to criticise too unconditionally the importance Pietism attached to conversion. The psychological form it assumed in many revivals was and perhaps still is exaggerated but the fact of a call to conversion has the weight of Scripture behind it. The antagonism between Methodistic and churchly teaching does not involve the question as to the necessity of conversion. In this there should be complete unanimity. The difference in spirit appears when some come to regard the first, possibly sudden conversion, that can sometimes be fixed as taking place at some definite time, as something of unique significance that, like baptism, cannot be repeated, instead of recognizing the fact that daily renewal, the daily journey to the Cross is extolled by Scripture as the only possible expression of a living state of faith and that it holds good even for the one who has been justified and is progressing in sanctification; that it is necessary if we do not want to fall into a dead legalism or a false freedom. […]

A third decisive sphere for the activity of Christian asceticism is the training of our thoughts to purity, to chastity in the wider sense of the word, by cleansing the whole mental life from wrath, envy, malice and immorality. Here particularly our previous statement, that uncleanness is best overcome by the believing and prayerful contemplation of divine holiness, becomes very evident, and yet, because of our twofold posture in sanctification we still need the negative attitude of avoidance.

To bring the matter immediately into the practical life of our day we can say that the avoidance of the modern dance and questionable films, of the excessive frequenting of theaters and the intemperate reading of fiction (particularly during the years of adolescence, and for that matter during all the later times of special temptation of or lowered powers of resistance) is as important as the attendance at divine service and the practice of prayer.

Because sin has such a mysterious influence and ensnaring power, those places where it is glorified in sensuous and wild revelry are to be absolutely avoided. At the present time there are many things about which previous generations might have had differences of opinion but which today are no longer permissible for a Christian. In a time as morally lax as ours it is necessary in considering the Pauline assertion, “All things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient” to lay the greatest emphasis on the second part pf that statement, “all things are not expedient.” But it is not enough to exclude the gross, sensuous, defiling lusts, there must be a continuous readiness to surrender all secular good, no matter how exalted it may be, when it threatens to master us. “It can be a part of the care of souls to take the newspaper out of someone’s hand—even out of our own.” […]

Luther, who was not so poverty-stricken mentally that he could not grasp more than one idea at a time, could poke fun at the people who proudly thought that “it was much more excellent if they did not eat flesh, eggs, or butter” . . . but he also knew that “gourmandizing, intemperance, excessive sleeping, loafing and idleness are weapons of unchastity by which purity is speedily overturned” and therefore did not cease, by invoking the authority of the “holy Apostle Paul” to warn men against gluttony and drunkenness. […]

Our times need both statements; the emphasis on the freedom of faith as well as the exhortation to maintain a watchful discipline. In the new life program of the Youth Movement in the linking of the reform of life and natural hygiene, a situation that demands the careful consideration even of Christians, has again come to its fitting expression; it is the recognition of the multitude of sinful temptations that arise ceaselessly from the great morass of improper nourishment, clothing and neglect of the awakening consciousness that our responsibility toward God is for our physical welfare as well as for that for our souls and that the whole previous separation of the two (Greek and Roman Catholic) has been a mistake that was fraught with serious consequences. […]

If the break with sin is not complete, nor rightly timed, nor constant, faith will at last be lost.

Whoa. A lot to take in. And a lot to do! I may have to lie down and calm my intemperate thoughts…

I do wonder if late Luther felt the same way about those more intimate “accountability” meetings as he did in ’27. Sounds very Puritany. Perhaps there never materialized a sufficient number of “earnest Christians” to make such gatherings necessary, or possible.

Don’t get me wrong: I would never join such an assembly should some ambitious Lutherans decide they’ve had it with the great unwashed-mass Mass. First of all, the snacks always run out way too early in the course of the meeting. Second, there’s always some jackanapes who does nothing but ask questions for hours on end until you want to punch him in the pancreas, thus ruining your Christianity—again. Then there’s the touchy-feely prayers, where everyone has to hold hands or something unhygienic like that, and make those passive-aggressive gestures like, “And please Lord, convict Brother Wolfgang of his selfishness, greed, lust, and idolatry. And remind him, through your Holy Spirit, to pay me back the five bucks he owes me for coffee and crullers. And should his smokin’ hot wife tire of his faithlessness, if it be your will, compel her to devote the rest of her days to abject submission to my headship, now that my beloved has disappeared without a trace, due to no fault of my own, regardless of police inquiries to the contrary. In His Name, Amen.”

I’d like to think there’s a happy medium between a mind-numbing routinization of the faith, where believers are emotionally null objects aware only of their own capacity for self-deception and 24/7 evil coram deo, and Finneyism. It may be auricular confession to a pastor. Or even the occasional—wait for it—-exhortation from the pulpit. Not of the “You miserable sinners disgust me” kind. But an acknowledgement that it’s just possible that the work of the Spirit appears hidden in some lives because it’s not only invisible; it’s nonexistent. And while feelings may not be determinative of everything, swearing to make it your life’s work to avenge a slight rendered in 1978 may not be the best attitude to harbor. I do remember a “as we forgive those who trespass against us” clause that was popular for a while, until some keepers of the Faith decided it smacked of closet Romanism if taken literally, as something we do, when we know we can’t do anything, that no one has ever done anything, except sin constantly, and any attempt to take Jesus’s words at face value, as opposed to a reminder of what we can’t do it, so shouldn’t do, because that’s semi-pelagianism, which is bad, or at least semi-bad. So it’s better to harbor resentment against that slight rendered in 1978 and just keep confessing it. Although confession is something we do. And ostensibly it’s is pleasing to God. But nothing we do can possibly please God. So perhaps we should stop doing that. Maybe, just to be on the safe side, so as not to offend God’s holiness and the strictures of monergism, we should give up on this Christianity business altogether. Because you just never know what rules you’re breaking in an effort to combat legalism.

(Oh everybody calm down. I kid because I love, miserable peccator that I am.)

In any event, Luther and Köberle were definitely not weak on sanctification—or holiness. They merely preached it in a Lutheran key. The question is: How many Lutherans today have been taught to sing in that key? Or does every discussion on this topic end up with a cry of “Rick Warrenism!” and go nowhere.

Via the Calvinist International—please check out Steven Wedgeworth’s post, which drew my attention to Luther’s “Preface.”


9 thoughts on “Luther’s House Church

  1. LMAO, “But an acknowledgement that it’s just possible that the work of the Spirit appears hidden in some lives because it’s not only invisible; it’s nonexistent.”

    I suppose I shouldn’t do this, but I’m going to share a story. Said family who lives many miles away wants to have 2nd child baptized in our little church. For this one, I ever so gently suggested that maybe you should have a home church. Reply comes back, sure, no problem, we’ll go to this church A. Plans slip a few months. They come back asking for a new date for baptism. I ask how their church visits went. Haven’t been. But this week we promise to go check out church B which is toward the heretical end of the spectrum. Ok, so I’ll baptize the child and hand it over to a meth-head to spiritually raise. Must keep the peace.

    But here is the kicker. The gospel this week was Luke 14:25-35 – you know the one that says you have to hate you parents and family to be disciples and all kinds of salty things. I did my best to convey the idea that – “hey, baptism starts this disciple thing. The baptized (i.e. member of the church) should be about the hard work of discipleship. The least of that might be showing up at worship or Bible class more than at birth, marriage and death. The Christian life needs word and sacrament and is about more than membership kind of stuff. No kidding, grandma and grandpa, on the way out shaking hands, sorrowfully nodded that “we understand what you are trying to do with our adult child…but, you know, its just hard. It is really hard finding a church and attending and taking part…we hope that doesn’t stand in the way of the baptism.”

    Bang head on wall.


  2. Context is everything when reading Luther. This comment is not a blanket endorsement for house churches when there are orthodox, faithful congregations otherwise available. Just FYI.


    1. Of course. Which is why I really do wonder what the older Luther would have made of these suggestions. Does anyone know whether the state of the evangelical church(es) is addressed in his Table Talks (with the caveat that such quotes would be coming to us secondhand)?


  3. And, of course, we know who is able to draw the quick and easy bright lines that determine which are the orthodox and faithful Lutheran congregations, don’t we?


  4. I know people, some are very close relatives of mine, who actually tried this. I don’t think it worked out very well. Some went back to conventional Lutheran congregations. Some became Calvinists, and joined congregations preaching that theology. Almost all the problems pastors might warn against when people get too far removed from the larger Body of Christ came to pass in one degree or another. Most of them are still Christians, though, to the best of my knowledge, so it wasn’t a complete bust. But I don’t know of any of them still doing it, or of their children continuing it.


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