Many will already be familiar with Dr. Luther's "Christian Exhortation to the Livonians Concerning Public Worship and Concord" (Luther's Works 53, Fortress Press, 1965), but his words to the people then are surprisingly appropriate and helpful even now, 482 years later. For myself, at least, I find them to be a particularly salutary encouragement this week. Here, in part, is what Dr. Luther had to say in June 1525:
"We must remember that it will not be any better with us than it was with the Corinthians and other Christians at the time of St. Paul, when divisions and dissensions arose among Christ's people. Even as St. Paul himself acknowledges and says, 'There must be factions and sects among you so that those who are genuine become known.' For Satan is not satisfied with being the prince and god of the world. He also wants to be among the children of God (Job 1), and 'prowls about like a roaring lion seeking some one to devour' (1 Peter 5).
"This causes confusion among the people. It prompts both the complaint, 'No one knows what he should believe or with whom he should side,' and the common demand for uniformity in doctrine and practice. In times gone by, councils were held for this purpose and all sorts of rulings and canons made in order to hold all the people to a common order. But in the end these rulings and canons became snares for the soul and pitfalls for the faith. So there is great danger on either side. And we need good spiritual teachers who will know how to lead the people with wisdom and discretion.
"For those who devise and ordain universal customs and orders get so wrapped up in them that they make them into dictatorial laws opposed to the freedom of faith. But those who ordain and establish nothing succeed only in creating as many factions as there are heads, to the detriment of that Christian harmony and unity of which St. Paul and St. Peter so frequently write. . . .
"I hope that you still hold pure and unblemished the teachings concerning faith, love, and cross-bearing and the principal articles of the knowledge of Christ. Then you will know how to keep your consciences clear before God, although even these simple teachings will not remain unassailed by Satan. Yes, he will even use external divisions about ceremonies to slip in and cause internal divisions in the faith. This is his method, which we know well enough from so many heresies.
"Therefore, we will deal with factions in our time as St. Paul dealt with them in his. He could not check them by force. Nor did he want to compel them by means of commands. Rather, he entreated them with friendly exhortations, for people who will not give in willingly when exhorted will comply far less when commanded. . . .
"Accordingly, I exhort you preachers with the same words as St. Paul, that they would consider all the good we have in Christ, the comfort, the encouragement, the Spirit, the love, the mercy, and in addition the example of Christ. In praise and thanksgiving for all these gifts, let them so conduct themselves that they establish and preserve unity of mind and spirit among themselves. They should be on their guard lest the devil sneak in through vainglory, which is especially dangerous and chiefly attacks competent men who hold the office of the Word. . . .
"Now even though external rites and orders - such as masses, singing, reading, baptizing - add nothing to salvation, yet it is un-Christian to quarrel over such things and thereby to confuse the common people. We should consider the edification of the lay folk more important than our own ideas and opinions. Therefore, I pray all of you, my dear sirs, let each one surrender his own opinions and get together in a friendly way and come to a common decision about these external matters, so that there will be one uniform practice throughout your district instead of disorder - one thing being done here and another there - lest the common people get confused and discouraged.
"For even though from the viewpoint of faith, the external orders are free and can without scruples be changed by anyone at any time, yet from the viewpoint of love, you are not free to use this liberty, but bound to consider the edification of the common people, as St. Paul says, 'All things should be done to edify' (1 Cor 14); and, 'All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful' (1 Cor 6); and, 'Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up' (1 Cor 8). . . .
"Now when your people are confused and offended by your lack of uniform order, you cannot plead, 'Externals are free. Here in my own place I am going to do as I please.' But you are bound to consider the effect of your attitude on others. By faith be free in your conscience toward God, but by love be bound to serve your neighbor's edification, as also St. Paul says, 'Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to edify him' (Rom 14). For we should not please ourselves, since Christ also pleased not Himself, but us all.
"But at the same time a preacher must watch and diligently instruct the people lest they take such uniform practices as divinely appointed and absolutely binding laws. He must explain that this is done for their own good so that the unity of Christian people may also find expression in externals which in themselves are irrelevant. Since the ceremonies or rites are not needed for the conscience or for salvation and yet are useful and necessary to govern the people externally, one must not enforce or have them accepted for any other reason except to maintain peace and unity between men. For between God and men it is faith that procures peace and unity.
"This I said to the preachers so that they may consider love and their obligation toward the people, dealing with the people not in faith's freedom but in love's submission and service, preserving the freedom of faith before God. Therefore, when you hold mass, sing and read uniformly, according to a common order - the same in one place as in another - because you see that the people want and need it and you wish to edify rather than confuse them. For you are there for their edification, as St. Paul says, 'We have received authority not to destroy but to build up.' If for yourselves you have no need of such uniformity, thank God. But the people need it. And what are you but servants of the people, as St. Paul says, 'We are not lords over your faith, but rather your servants for the sake of Jesus Christ' (2 Cor 2)
"At the same time, I also ask the people to have patience and not to be astonished if differences in teaching and practice are caused by factions and sects. For who can stop the devil and his legions? Remember that tares always grow amidst the good seed, as every field of God's work shows and Christ confirms (Matt 13). . . . Thus among Christians there must also be factions and heretics who pervert faith and love and confuse the people. . . . Nevertheless, both you and your preachers should diligently seek to promote unity and to hinder this work of the devil, because God appoints the devil to do this in order to give us occasion to prove our unity and in order to reveal those who have stood the test. For in spite of all our efforts, enough factions and disunity will remain."