Martin Luther was well-acquainted with epidemics. Waves of Black Plague wiped out significant portions of the local population. Pastors conducted thousands of burials; some buried entire congregations. Luther’s Wittenberg experienced an outbreak of the plague in 1527, prompting him to write a treatise addressed to a fellow pastor in Breslau concerning the question “Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague” (Luther’s Works 43:119-38). Luther’s approach provides some good reflection for our day.
Could you flee at a time of plague? Or were you bound to remain where you were? There were strong opinions on both sides. Some held that it was sin to flee since disease and death are God’s chastisement; therefore fleeing in the face of death demonstrated a lack of faith. Others held that you were free to leave provided you held no public office and had no one dependent on you.
Luther commends the former but does not condemn the latter. Not all have the same faith. “Since it is generally true of Christians that few are strong and many are weak, one simply cannot place the same burden upon everyone. A person who has a strong faith can drink poison and suffer no harm (Mark 16:18), while one who has a weak faith would thereby drink to his death.” The strong must travel with the weak. “Christ does not want his weak ones to be abandoned.” Luther lays down no hard and fast law, nor does he bind the consciences of those who do not wish to remain.
He frames the question in terms of vocation according to the three orders or estates of the temporal kingdom – church, civil society, and home (see Table of Duties).
Pastors and preachers, who are engaged in spiritual ministry, must remain steadfast before the peril of death to bring comfort to the sick and dying. Where there are sufficient preachers available, one may leave so as not to expose oneself to danger needlessly. Luther cites the examples of Sts. Paul and Athanasius.
Public officials likewise must remain at their posts as ministers of God. “To abandon an entire community which one has been called to govern and to leave it without official or government, exposed to all kinds of danger such as fires, murder, riots, and every imaginable diaster is a great sin.” Still, if they feel they must flee, they must ensure that the community is well-governed and protected by others.
The same applies to the household. “Fathers and mothers are bound by God’s law to serve and help their childre, and children their fathers and mothers.” Where one is not needed and where ample provision is already provided, one has a free choice whether to remain or flee. “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 is not unbelief, but “a natural tendency, implanted by God and is not forbidden unless it be against God and neighbor.”
Luther counsels against despair and the assualts of the devil. The devil is to be rebuffed in two ways. First, by the victory of Christ. “If you have poison in your fangs, Christ has far greater medicine.” Second, by the promise of God that those who minister to the needy are blessed in serving Christ. “If you wish to serve Christ and to wait on him, very well, you have your sick neighbor close at hand. Go to him and serve him, and you will surely find Christ in him, not outwardly but in his word.”
Faith is not reckless. Luther has no praise for those who disdain the use of medicines and do not avoid places infected by plague but lightheartedly make fun of it to show how strong they are. For Luther, this is tantamount to suicide. “If one makes no use of intelligence or medicine when he could do so without detriment to his neighbor, such a person injures his body and must beware lest he become a suicide in God’s eyes.” Moreover, by needlessly exposing himself to disease, he risks infecting others and so becomes a murderer many times over.
Luther’s advice combines faith with sound reason, medical science, and common sense, 1st and 3rd article gifts working together. Use medicine; take potions which can help you; fumigate the house; avoid persons and places where you are not needed. Those who are sick should be isolated from the general population, like the lepers of the OT, states Luther, but they should not be abandoned in their quarantine.
Luther provides sage pastoral counsel for living in times when death is in the air. First, attend church regularly and listen to the sermon to learn how to live and die while you are in good health. Second, prepare for death by going to confession and the Sacrament every week or two. Be reconciled to your neighbor and be ready should the Lord knock before the pastor arrives. Third, if anyone wishes a pastor to come, summon him while you are still lucid, before illness overwhelms you. The pastor can do you no good if you are not in your right mind.
Luther charts a pastoral course that neither burdens the weak in faith nor allows weakness as an excuse to flee responsibility. We are all responsible to ward off disease to the best of our abilities, but in emergencies, we must be bold enough to risk our health for the sake of others if that is necessary. “Thus we should be ready for both – to live and die according to God’s will. For “none of us lives to himself and none of us dies to himself,” as St. Paul says (Rom 14:7).
How might Luther advise us today with our current Covid-19 pestilence, not to mention influenza and other contagious diseases that threaten us? At the risk of putting words in the Reformer’s mouth, I would venture that he might say something like this:
1. You are free in Christ, and in Christ’s freedom you are to care for your own health and the health of those around you.
2. Whether you are weak or strong in faith, trust Christ, especially in times of trouble, and do not let the devil drive you to panic, fear, and despair.
3. Tend to your vocation and serve your neighbor in love as God has called you in your family and workplace, in society, and in your congregation.
4. Do not despise medical science and reason; these are God’s gifts to you and failure to use them is to put the Lord your God to the test. Faith, while it is bold in the face of death, is not reckless.
5. Come to church to hear the Word, receive the Sacrament, confess your sins and receive absolution while you are healthy. You do not know when the plague might come to your house. Do not presume on God’s mercy.
Pandemics and epidemics are nothing new. Only our awareness if heightened due to increased communication. Heightened awareness can be bring fear, terror, and despair. These are the devil’s work. Remember your Baptism. You have died in Christ and have been raised with Him. Nothing in this world, whether death, life, or Covid-19 can separate you from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus.
Additional reading on this work of Luther:
Gene Veith, “Luther on the Coronavirus”
Emmy Yang, “What Luther Teaches Us About the Coronavirus”