Lessons Learned in Teaching Luther in a Pandemic

[1] In Spring 2021, I taught a course on Lutheranism for the first time in a few years. As with probably every single other institution of higher education, Midland University, where I have taught since 2008, was responding to the COVID-19 epidemic and to the challenges it presented to our students, staff, and faculty.  We asked ourselves in real time: What does it mean to teach under new and seemingly impossible, ever-changing circumstances? What do our students need? How can we stay safe? How do we as a small liberal-arts institution, a college of the ELCA, adapt our practices and – as much as possible – embody flexibility and grace?

[2] It was a good time to study Luther and the heritage, both intellectual and spiritual, of Lutheranism. My class was relatively small and we got to know each other well. We were not all Lutheran, and were not all pursuing Christian practice. I began the semester by framing the course as an invitation to reflect together on the Lutheran tradition and told my students that it was not my goal to convert them. In keeping with Midland’s policies at the time, we met in person and wore masks, and we got to work thinking and reading about Luther and the concept of reformation. We adopted Luther’s rhetorical question from the Small Catechism as our mantra: What does this mean?

[3] We also asked: What relevance does a tradition now (famously) more than 500 years old have to offer us in this moment of stress and transition and challenge? How can Luther’s approach shape our relationship to our work as students and teachers? What might we find in the Lutheran tradition that is off-putting and unhelpful and how do we respond?

[4] One strand of Luther’s thought that became important to us as the semester progressed was his emphasis on the neighbor. The Small Catechism reminds the reader that “We are to fear and love God, so that we neither endanger nor harm the lives of our neighbors, but instead help and support them in all of life’s needs.”[1] The ELCA Social Message on Government and Civic Engagement in the United States puts Jesus’s instruction to love your neighbor as yourself in very pragmatic terms: “Civic engagement takes many forms. Examples include: informed and regular voting; participation in government efforts such as the census; attending public meetings; public service as a government employee or in public office; involvement with political parties and campaigns; advocacy about particular issues; volunteering for public-service organizations; community organizing for social change; nonviolent protest.”[2]  In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic this felt especially necessary to us. “Love your neighbor,” I argued, “wear your mask.”

[5]  One day in class I noted that the imago Dei is one of the theological concepts that I find axiomatic: every single human being we might encounter is a beloved child of God, created in God’s image. One of my students responded, succinctly and thoughtfully: “Look, there goes my neighbor!”

[6] Conversations on vocation emerge naturally from that observation: What should I do to serve the neighbor? My students have been primed throughout their time in college, and likely much longer, to articulate a sense of purpose and to identify a career path for themselves. However, that question – What do you want to do with your life? – is not always framed in terms of community, service, or vocation. We thought about vocation in Lutheran terms. My students spoke and wrote about who they were and how they saw themselves as contributing to their communities; each of them described a future that they envisioned after college and how that future might reflect a response to a vocational call. The book Radical Lutherans/Lutheran Radicals[3] was useful as we explored this question. The text examines the legacy of several Lutheran thinkers and then concludes by inviting the reader to consider their own vocation.

[7] Along with this book, we read the ELCA social statement Faith, Sexism, and Justice: A Call to Action. We began our close reading with this passage: “We believe all people are created equally in the image of God. Every individual is dependent upon God, and all share in the God-given vocation to contribute their gifts to help all of creation flourish. Being in the image of the triune God means that we humans are relational, that we are interconnected. Just as we interact with God, we are social creatures relating with each other and all of creation.”[4] This ties together several important themes of the course that apply to people broadly, not only practicing Lutherans who are members of the ELCA. While the language affirming the Trinity speaks to ancient Christian doctrine, the idea of recognizing the inherent value of every person, and extending that recognition to affirm human rights and our mutual obligations to each other, is applicable to any group of people. When mutual obligation is more clearly than ever a matter of life and death, as it has been since early 2020, this way of understanding the self and others in relationship is invaluable.

[8] The statement continues by rejecting the use of Scripture to subordinate women: “This misuse of the Scriptures continues to foster inequity based on sex (biological) and gender. It subverts the abundant life God intends. Even today some would deny women positions of leadership in the church or in society, calling the arrangement ‘natural’ and citing such scriptural texts as ‘[W]omen should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate. … For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church’ (1 Corinthians 14:34-35) This church believes that God calls Christians into a different vision. Jesus Christ calls us to a new kind of freedom in service to God and neighbor. This is not a revision of the Lutheran tradition but a reaffirmation of its core emphasis. As Lutherans, we interpret the Scriptures in light of the Gospel promise. This emphasis on the Gospel as God’s promise characterizes a Lutheran reading of Scripture.”[5] One reason this statement is so useful is that Christian scripture is often interpreted in ways that encourage us to cut ourselves off from the (gay, lesbian, or transgender, immigrant, racial “other,” political opponent) neighbor, to deny our neighbor’s humanity and full status as a child of God. Such biblical interpretation harms us and harms our neighbors, and we must face this head on, ideally with some interpretive tools that emphasize love at the ready.

[9] My students engaged in lively conversation about this passage from 1 Corinthians and others like it. One important part of Luther’s own biography that helped us to contextualize Lutheran teaching on gender roles was our study of Katharina von Bora Luther. While Luther’s letters to his wife are often loving and it is clear that he regards her as a partner in both theological and household concerns, he also voices beliefs about women that reflect the patriarchal norms of his era. Luther says on the one hand that “A man who marries a wife should know that he cares for a child”[6] and that women must be subordinate to their husbands. He writes, “The rule of women never accomplished anything good. God made Adam the lord of all creatures so that he might rule all living things. But when Eve persuaded him that he was a lord above God, he thereby spoiled it all. We have that to thank you women for.”[7] This is most unhelpful for modern readers.

[10] On the other hand, Luther argues that Christian faith tells fathers to say, “O God, because I am certain that thou has created me as a man and has from my body begotten this child, I also know with a certainty that it meets with thy perfect pleasure. I confess to thee that I am not worthy to rock the little babe and wash its diapers, or to be entrusted with the care of the child and its mother.” He continues, “ … when a father goes ahead and washes diapers or performs some other mean task for his child, and someone ridicules him as an effeminate fool – though that father is acting in the spirit just described and in Christian faith – … God, with all his angels and creatures, is smiling – not because that father is washing diapers, but because he is doing so in Christian faith.”[8] Nor did Luther fail to regard his own marriage as a partnership and a gift from God. Luther’s wife was certainly no child at the time of their marriage; she was twenty-six, a former nun, well-educated, and she was entering into married life as an accomplished adult woman used to contributing to a community. She ensured that the family would prosper through her agricultural and other work. “Indeed, Martin realized that he could not carry out his many tasks as writer, preacher, and teacher without Kathe’s unstinting, efficient labor in household and garden. So much did he value her judgement that in private he occasionally consulted her about matters of running the church.”[9]

[11] Luther writes to Katherine often during his travels; his addresses to her are often loving and playful, and he discusses the business of the household with her, asking her to use her judgement in executing necessary tasks and sending her his earnings. One letter begins, “To my friendly, dear housewife Catherina of Luther, von Bora, preacher, brewer, gardener, and whatever else she can be.”[10] He reminds her in another letter that when they read the Small Catechism together, she told him, “But I have said everything that is in that book.”[11]

[12] What does this mean? The Luthers drew on their married life, their childrearing, the large collection of friends, extended family, students, and colleagues who shared their home, and their religious training to discuss and create the methodology and content of the Small Catechism. This foundational Protestant text is centered around the family, broadly understood, as a locus of Christian education. Luther also understands that everyday labor can be part of a person’s vocation, and uses the situation of the household to develop his theology. His description of God’s concern with washing diapers expands upon the metaphor of God as Father, in a way that is vivid and clear to anyone who has cared for a baby. Luther’s own lived experience in some instances reached beyond the customs of his era. Evidence in Luther’s writings suggests that Katharina von Bora Luther’s experience also influenced his thinking; this has profound implications for modern people as we incorporate empathy into our worldview and recognize our neighbors as authorities on their own experiences.[12] As with the Luthers, our lives – yours, mine, my students’, anyone’s – can provide us with the context in which to become more thoughtful people, to follow our vocations more fully, to respond to the neighbor in need, and if we choose, to be faithful Christians.

[13] Another common thread that my students identified in the ELCA social statements and social messages that we read was the requirement for Christians of active, ongoing interpretation of the gospel message. The social statement Faith, Sexism and Justice: A Call to Action argues, “When scriptural passages are unclear or even contradictory, this Lutheran reading suggests that Christ, as God’s gift of forgiveness, reconciliation, and new life, is the lens through which such passages are to be read. Our church, for instance, places more weight on Galatians 3:28 (‘[T]here is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.’) because of its Gospel focus, than on 1 Timothy 2:12 (‘I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man.’). This church’s teaching about how to interpret the Scriptures reinforces this Gospel orientation. In this way, Scripture interprets Scripture.”[13] This emphasis on Christ as the embodiment of God’s love is thus an interpretive tool.

[14] Lutheran methodology provides us with the means of interpreting scripture and applying it to our own social contexts so that we can love God and serve the neighbor. Darrell Jodock, reflecting on the practice known as “Rooted and Open,” argues “ … the Lutheran tradition is dynamic, living, and changing. It is constantly being re-formed at the intersection of its theological principles and the contemporary context. It retrieves neglected elements of Luther’s thought and rejects others. The tradition has been revitalized and reshaped by reaching back behind the movements that shaped our colleges in their early years … to Luther himself.”[14] Thoughtful reading of Luther’s theology, and the work of Lutherans who succeeded him, helps us navigate our world more thoughtfully and with more compassion, and helps us develop our identities as loving, contributing members of the communities we inhabit.

[15] We do not need to be Lutheran, or to be Christian, to reflect on Luther’s approach to vocation and serving the neighbor. But his work provides a path for us to see ourselves, and our neighbors, as part of a shared world. As a religion professor teaching at an ELCA university, I am grateful for Luther’s clear demonstration of question-asking: “What does this mean?” is a guiding question appropriate to any intellectual enterprise. The ELCA’s work to articulate Lutheran theology that challenges and engages us is in keeping with this ethos.



[1] Small Catechism of Martin Luther. From Sundays and Seasons.com. Copyright 2013 Augsburg Fortress.

[2] Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Social Message on Government and Civic Engagement in the United States, p. 15. 2020.

[3] Edited by Jason Mahn, a friend and Professor of Religion at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois

[4] Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Social Statement on Faith, Sexism, and Justice: A Call to Action, p. 2. 2019.

[5] Social Statement on Faith, Sexism, and Justice: A Call to Action, p. 41

[6] Luther on Women: A Sourcebook. (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2003). P. 94

[7] Luther on Women, p. 94

[8] Luther on Women, p. 108

[9] Luther on Women, p. 187

[10] Luther on Women, p. 193

[11] Ibid, p. 194

[12] Luther’s ability to empathize and see the point of view of another person is of course notoriously limited; his writings on Jews are one example, and some of his responses to disabled people are another.

[13] Social Statement on Faith, Sexism and Justice: A Call to Action, p. 41-2

[14] Darrell Jodock, “In a Diverse Society, Why Should Lutheran College/Universities Claim their Theological Roots?” Intersections, Spring 2019, p. 12

Courtney Wilder

Courtney Wilder

Courtney Wilder is Professor of Religion at Midland University in Fremont, Nebraska.  Her areas of research include theology of disability and Christianity and popular culture.  Her book This is My Body? Disability, Christianity and Popular Culture is forthcoming from Baylor University Press.  She and her daughter Grace Klinefelter, a student at St. Olaf College, have co-authored a chapter in the volume Still Living the Edges: A Disabled Women’s Reader.   She lives with her family in Omaha, Nebraska and is a member of Augustana Lutheran Church in Omaha.