Luther and Missions

I find it very sad how some Lutherans seem to wring their hands over Martin Luther’s paucity of mission-talk. Some are embarrassed at how little the Reformer spoke of “witnessing” or “evangelizing” others. The Lutheran Witness has an apologetic article this month entitled “Reaching Out: Luther on Mission,” which must say half a dozen times that there were “few opportunities” in Luther’s day, and his world was “not conducive to promoting individual participation.” In my seminary-mandated mission class at Concordia, St. Louis, a few of the “mission-minded” students were literally wringing their hands at the scarcity of historical mission models, discussion, and theology that Lutherans produced. And the instructor wrung his hands too!

They ask why and apologize and make excuses for Luther not being like the LCMS today. Some of this is understandable. People and culture and society have changed, does change, through the ages, and it is ultimate presumption (and logically fallacious) to assume that what we think and value is what all people have thought and valued. The problem, is that they ask why he’s not like us instead of the obvious and reasonable: why are we different? Where have we changed? Is this a good thing, a bad thing, or an indifferent thing?

Weedon provided this quotation from H. Sasse several days ago:

Despite its decided rejection of false teachings which prevail in other churches, our church has never denied the presence of the church of Christ in the established churches of England and Scotland, in Holland and Switzerland, in Spain and Italy, in Greece and Russia. It has not tried, therefore, to conduct missions for the Lutheran confessional church in these countries, just as it has avoided the “evanglicalization” of Catholic territories in Germany. Let all those who accuse Lutheranism of intolerant confessionalism reflect on the fact that the Lutheran Church is one of the very few churches in Christendom which has never, under any circumstances, engaged in propaganda for itself or conducted missions among Christians of other persuasions. (Here We Stand, pp. 182, 183)

Did Sasse get his facts wrong? I doubt it. One can argue with his praise of this or not, but it’s much harder to criticize an historian for getting facts wrong.

Perhaps instead of wringing our hands over Luther’s “missional” insensitivities we should rather be asking ourselves what has changed within our understanding of Lutheranism? Is it possible even to go back? Is there something within Lutheranism as a movement that leads in this direction of not only growing farther from the early Reformers but from the Fathers and the ancient practice of Christianity as well?

17 comments on “Luther and Missions

  1. Does our doctrine effect the way that we, as Lutherans, should view “missions”?

    I think so. There are many teachings in our church that influence our approach to witnessing and making disciples. Our mission is flavored by what we believe about:

    1. Where and what is the church?
    2. The Bondage of Sin
    3. Original Sin and Baptism
    4. Justification by Sola Fide
    5. Real Presence
    6. Vocation
    7. Law and Gospel
    8. New Obedience
    9. Predestination vs Free Will

    More than anything else, our rejection of all forms of synergism places the power surrounding conversion, not in the hands of the witness nor the hearer, but in the hands of God. This is the Scriptural approach [1 Cor 3:5-7].

    When you agree that we don’t save people, and that people don’t save themselves; human systems like conversion quotas, alter calls, seeker-sensitive revivals, deceptive sales tactics, and marketing approaches are no longer realistic strategies.

    To some, it looks like there is no strategy, but looks can be deceiving.

    True mission work is often hidden in the “mundane” work of the church: Preaching, teaching, baptism, confirmation, and living out your vocation through love of your neighbor. It is not about numbers, but about souls. The focus of the Lutheran witness is uniquely Biblical. It is the double approach of proclomation to the lost and retention of the saved. It is not about racking up converts or creating temporary connections that fade away, but about making true disciples [Matt 13:1-9].

    Theology and witnessing are linked. If the Lutheran church moves away from its confessional understanding of Scripture, it will adopt more and more heterodox doctrine. Doctrine flavors how you witness because what you believe effects how you share that belief.

    Our historical battle with pietism is a perfect example. When confessional Lutheran teaching decreases, you start to see the popularity of non-Lutheran mission strategies increase.

  2. How can one say Luther didn’t have a focus on “missions”? Have you not ready any of his writings? Did you not see how he tried to teach any and all – and indeed taught many throughout all of Europe. Indeed, he specifically wrote the catechism so that generations upon generations would know God’s Word. How can you say Luther didn’t have a focus on. . .

    Oh. . . wait. . . that doesn’t count as “missions” – I guess. Simply teaching those who do not know isn’t glamorous enough for the title of missions. Unless you are in some far, far, away place talking to some random stranger. . . it isn’t missions. Unless you aren’t the great white hero helping the savage barbarian, I guess it doesn’t count as missions.

    Now I have to go rant on my own blog.

  3. Well, not only that but “reaching out” by “witnessing” to the “unchurched” people around you.

    Now to be sure Luther did emphasize our vocations and our duties to others, even in instructing those we are given to instruct. Here the missions people are more comfortable, and is the gist of much Luther-missiology (where do they get these words???)

  4. I have just been looking at Mission and Praxis for a college assignment. Two things stuck me:
    1) The sense just a generation after Luther that Mission was the theology of good works and
    2) That too amny people consider evangelism to be mission. Look up Missio Dei and see where that idea takes you.

    (By the way Christopher. Prague is my spiritual home.)
    D.P.

  5. The question to ask is: ‘Why are you “reaching out” by “witnessing” to the “unchurched” around you?’

    If the answer is ‘because Jesus told us to do so in the Great Commission’, I throw the legalism flag and challenge anyone to find any of those three terms (or even that conversion concept) in the text. This mindset of “winning souls for Christ” is what hampers our witness the most. It is a bait-and-switch swindle of the worst degree. It is not about meeting the needs of others like we claim. If we are honest, it is about selling, presenting, and pushing our product (salvation) effectively.

    Members of modern society are confronted with this type of service-oriented sales pitch all the time and it is no longer effective. Perceptive unbelievers today see right through this effort to convert them and into our true motive: selfishness. We want to be good Christians by witnessing. We want to obey Christ’s commission. We want to grow our church. We feel guilty that we are not sharing Christ with others. We want to stop the shrinking trend of our synod. We want to reform society by increasing Christian influence. We want the size of the Kingdom to grow. These may be the most popular reasons for “reaching out” to others, but they certainly aren’t the pure ones.

    This is why the majority of research today indicates a lack of trust in the credibility of Christians by unbelievers. Our witnessing is being perceved as hypocritical and dishonest. Are they that off base?

    To me, Christian evangelism looks more and more like the work of the JWs with every passing year. It’s all about maximumizing contacts to push the mission and drive success. It’s a corporate initiative filled with highly trained, talented, and motivated sales people. We throw seed out there just to see what sticks. No follow-up. No real concern. No intimacy. No consistancy.

    Most of the time, we sound less like satisfied customers and more like Amway salesmen. One of my nonChristian friends calls evangelism “the Christian Ponzi Scheme”. Sadly, he is right more often than not.

    As always, we take a good thing like preaching the gospel and taint it with our own corrupt motives and methods.

    Also, who exactly are the “unchurched”?

    According to the Encarta Dictionary:

    Unchurch (v)-

    1. excommunicate: to expel somebody from a church

    2. declare to be no longer church: to remove the status of being a church from a building

  6. So a man who risked the spiritual and temporal wrath of the spiritual and temporal establishment of his time to bring the sacraments properly administered and the Gospel rightly preached to the people had no interest in “missions”.

    Give me a break.

  7. See, it’s started!

    Anon and Past Elder make one of my points exactly.

    First (and again), what does it matter if Luther did, or did not, have a “mission focus????” Why “debunk” it? What does it really matter?

    Second, Past Elder, it is not my contention per se that Luther had no interest in “missions.” That’s what the missionaries are worried about. Frankly, I have not read enough of Luther to know, except to say that the 7-8 vols. of Luther’s Works did not discuss it at all, whereas the Lutheran Witness et al. mention it on every other page it seems.

    Third, perhaps it reflects an inner coherence with Lutheran theology that the Reformers did not emphasize world missions and “personal evangelism” as some Lutherans do today (see Mr. Baker’s first comment).

  8. To play the part of Devil’s Advocate, let’s take the argument that Luther was silent on missions at face value and look at it. For now, let us say that Luther never spoke a word about missions to far away lands and did not consider evangelism to the unbeliever a high priority. Let’s accept that there were no real opportunities for outreach during the time of the Reformation.

    (Just typing that drivel made me throw up a little… give me a minute…)

    Okay. The obvious reply then becomes, “Didn’t Luther and the reformers do enough for you?!? Is every random utterance by Luther the inerrant authority that Lutherans look to for doctrine and practice? If the historical record of Luther quotes is silent on a subject are we Lutherans paralyzed like robots who lost their command protocol?”

    It’s not enough that the reformers pointed out and removed the errors that had been added to the church. It’s not enough that these men unseated the primacy of men and restored primacy to the Gospel pure and entire. It’s not enough that these men condensed 1,500 years of Christian teaching into simple, clear articles and helped restore the Bible and the Mass to the language of the common people. Sheesh.

    All of Christianity is blessed by Luther’s important contribution to the church. Who are we to bemoan that he did not address our pet issue in his day? Who are we to wring our hands that Father Martin did not take time from his busy days of fleeing a death sentence, translating the Bible, exposing error and heresy WITHIN the church, and performing pastoral care for his sheep to write an immortal treatise about how we should think about witnessing to unbelievers… a concept that was assumed to be common sense up until a generation or two ago and has only become a novel idea very recently?

    Get a grip!

    Let Luther be Luther. It’s bad enough that people use Luther out of context to endorse their wacky personal views. What’s worse is to make conclusions based on the kinds of things that he didn’t say. Instead of searching for Luther quotes on mission work, people should look to the rest of his writings and apply them to their evangelism strategies when they are constructive and relevant.

    For example, one that many ‘Lutheran’ outreach approaches would do well to memorize: “Reason is a whore, the greatest enemy that faith has.”

  9. I understand that the contention that Luther had no interest in “missions” is not yours — sorry if I gave the wrong impression.

  10. Mike, your comments here have been great. I especially liked your phrase, “Lutherans paralyzed like robots who lost their command protocol?”

    Great writing! You need to start your own blog.

  11. Thank you for the compliment, Pr. Hall. I guess this is one of those places where a big, opinionated mouth comes in handy. I’m not sure that I want to create a central location where my brothers and sisters can go to watch me embarrass myself.

    IF [<-- note the emphasis] I decide to start one of these things, I will let you know.

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