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Luther and Small Groups
by Joel ComiskeyThis chapter is taken from Comiskey's book "2000 Years of Small Groups."
In the sixteenth century, the world was divided about Martin Luther. One Catholic thought Martin Luther was a “demon in the appearance of a man.” Another who first questioned Luther’s theology later declared, “He alone is right!” Most today would affirm he was not only right about a great deal, but he changed the course of western history for the better.
The greatest contribution of Martin Luther was the rediscovery of the truth of justification by faith alone and the authority of Scripture. He also recaptured the understanding that the church was no longer the institution defined by apostolic succession; instead it was the community of faith. Salvation came not by the sacraments but through faith in Christ. Faith no longer consisted of assenting to the church’s teachings but by trusting the promises of God and the merits of Christ.
Luther was fortunate to avoid the fatal persecution of the pre-reformation groups. He enjoyed a degree of social and political support that allowed his theology to penetrate deeply into the fabric of church and society. However, Luther acknowledged his gratitude for those who paved the way and even declared himself a “Hussite,” along with the apostle Paul.1
In fact, those living in Bohemia saw in Martin Luther a continuation of Hus’s reforms. Yet, there were key differences as well. The Hussites were more concerned about sanctification, becoming the true church, and resisting the state church practice. Luther, on the other hand, highlighted the theological doctrines of grace, faith alone, the priesthood of all believers, and the authority of Scripture. Unlike the Hussites, he also secured the political protection to maintain the changes he started.
Luther Considers Small Groups to Promote Holiness
One of the key doctrines that Luther taught was the priesthood of the believer. He believed that each believer could read the Bible, understand Scripture’s plain meaning, have equal access to God, and be actively involved as a minister of the gospel. Initially Luther looked for ways to apply the priesthood of all believers and entertained the idea of using small groups as part of the church’s reformation. However, he failed to implement use of small groups for reasons noted in the following sections: Later Change of Mind and Anabaptist Storm Gathering.
In a number of his tracts, Luther expressed his concern about the Mass and Liturgy, and even hinted at the need for house gatherings. In his preface to the German Mass and Order of Service, he said,
The third kind of service should be a truly evangelical order and should not be held in a public place for all sorts of people. But those who want to be Christians in earnest and who profess the gospel with hand and mouth should sign their names and meet alone in a house somewhere to pray, to read, to baptize, to receive the sacrament, and to do other Christian works. . . . Here one could set up a brief and neat order for baptism and the sacrament and center everything on the Word, prayer and love . . .2
Luther saw the potential of the house church and had a vision of meeting in homes for deeper expression of faith, which was absent in the institutional church. We know from Luther’s writings that he could see great possibilities for ministry in the small house churches, but he refused to go that route because of cultural ramifications.
Later Change of Mind
Although Luther spoke of the importance of small groups, he never implemented them. The answer to why he never followed through came from a personal letter discovered in 1982. Luther wrote on April 14, 1529 to a fellow priest named Karl Weiss, saying he had “changed his mind” about the formation of small groups, stating that he no longer believed that “earnest Christians” should meet together in the home in order “to pray, to read, to baptize, to receive the sacrament, and to do other Christian works . . .”3 Here are the reasons given in the letter for Luther’s change of mind:
First, Luther thought that people would fool themselves about who is an earnest Christian. He believed that an “earnest Christian” might fall into pride and a lack of understanding of grace. He wrote, “He [Satan] would be able to get us to isolate all the strongest Christians, and keep them from the weak. Then the strong would grow proud, the weak would give up, and all would go to hell in a handbasket.”4
Second, Luther believed “. . . that such self-styled ‘earnest Christians’ will start to think of themselves as the one, pure church.”5 Luther warned, “If we allow small groups of Christians to separate from the rest, to read the Word, to baptize, and to receive sacraments, we will have established a new church.”6 From this quote we can clearly see that Luther wanted everyone in Germany to come under the one church—under the one umbrella. Luther feared the potential divisiveness of small groups. He wrote,
All the elements [of the true church] would be there in these small groups and, as sure as Satan seeks to destroy our souls, some Pharisaical spirit will conclude that his little group is the church, and that everyone outside is damned. Indeed, it has already happened, if I am to believe the rumor I hear. Certain false brethren rebaptize themselves and then sneak away from God’s church to meet with other misled fools in various holes and corners. They claim that they are the only true Christians, and teach that they must separate from all iniquity.7
Luther did not believe that it was scriptural to separate from the church to set up a pure group of earnest Christians. In fact, by 1529 Luther had come to the conclusion that there was no scriptural warrant for such small groups. Rather, he quotes passages to indicate that the true church always maintained a mixture of both the pure and the impure.8
Anabaptist Storm Gathering
When Luther first wrote about earnest Christians meeting together in 1526, the Anabaptist movement was just getting under way. However, it was in February, 1527 that the articles of faith for the Anabaptist movement were written and officially declared. Just three months after the signing of those documents, Michael Slater, one of the key Anabaptist authors, was burned at the stake.9 Although Luther felt that small groups would be helpful for the church (as seen in his 1526 preface), his fear of the Anabaptist movement and the division it could cause, changed his thinking (as seen the 1529 letter).
D. M. Lloyd-Jones points out that Luther became depressed as the reformation continued, knowing that many felt like he had not taken it far enough. Lloyd-Jones writes,
Another thing that greatly aggravated this feeling [of depression] which developed in him was the phenomenon of Anabaptist [teaching] . . . He had to admit that there was a quality of life in their churches which was absent in the churches to which he belonged. So he reacts in two ways to them; he has got to discipline his people against them, and yet he wishes to have in his church the kind of thing that was working so well in their churches. The result of all this was that he felt that the only thing to do was . . . to gather together the people who are truly Christian into a kind of inner church.10
Luther, along with Zwingli and the other reformers, could not fully encourage others to practice the priesthood of all believers because they needed the protection of the government and the stability of the entire state to embrace their reforms. The ability to sustain their movement against the Roman Catholic authorities required that everyone in the state become followers of Luther’s revolutionary cause. The priesthood of all believers had little practical application in the state-run church. We know that Luther felt responsible for the revolution he was leading, since the rulers had already stepped out of their normal boundaries to support and protect Luther. Luther owed those rulers his allegiance.
But suddenly, this growing Anabaptist movement was tearing away the very fabric of the culture and possibly costing Luther the revolution. In reality, the Anabaptists were simply taking Luther’s doctrine to its logical conclusion. They were following Scripture, which taught the priesthood of all believers, the early church house gatherings, and a more simple hierarchy.
Meeting in home groups was Luther’s unwritten thesis which he believed, but failed to implement because of a spirit of caution, political considerations, and fear of losing the movement to the Anabaptists.
- Martin Luther displayed a rare combination of intellectual brilliance matched with incredible courage and commitment to stand on his convictions.
- God used Martin Luther to start a new type of church based on God’s Word, rather than church tradition.
- Although Luther transformed theology, he never implemented the priesthood of all believers through small groups. He failed to significantly change the ecclesiastical structure, baptizing all infants into the state church.
- Luther overreacted to potential dangers of small groups in the Anabaptist movement and instead of warning against potential dangers and moving to middle ground, he ended up rejecting the small group emphasis entirely
- Rudolf Rican, The History of the Unity of the Brethren (Salem, NC: The Moravian Church in America, 1992), p. 108.
- Martin Luther, “Preface to the German Mass and Order of Service,” Luther Works, Vol. 53, Helmut T. Lehman, ed. (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1965), pp. 63–64.
- Charles E. White, ed. “Concerning Earnest Christians: A Newly Discovered Letter of Martin Luther” Currents in Theology and Mission, 1983, 10 (5): p. 274.
- Ibid., p. 278.
- Ibid., p. 275.
- Ibid., p. 275.
- Ibid., pp. 276–277.
- Latourette, p. 782.
- D. M. Lloyd Jones, “Ecclesiola in Ecclesia,” Approaches to the Reformation of the Church, (Papers from the Puritan and Reformed Studies Conference), 1965, pp. 60–61, as quoted in Bill Beckham, The Second Reformation (Houston, TX: Touch Publications, 1995), p. 116.