On What We Might Learn from Luther About Ministry in A Pandemic


[1] COVID-19 disparately impacts our lives and families. My elderly parents fear contracting the virus, even though their rural Western North Carolina home makes social distancing a fact of life. In Los Angeles, my brother, a clinical psychologist, sees patients via Skype, while trying to home school my nephew. My best friend fears catching the virus at the grocery store, lest he infect his daughter who suffers from a respiratory condition and his wife whose immune system is compromised by ongoing cancer treatments. He only leaves the house when necessary, and says he fearfully, furiously showers when returning home. Another friend, an elementary school teacher, turned her dining room into a classroom to broadcast lessons to students. A fellow chaplain is under quarantine after his hospice admitted a patient who tested positive for COVID-19.

[2] What is in common is that many Christians wonder what faithfulness requires during the pandemic. Luther’s reflections on the matter are contained in “Whether One May Flee a Deadly Plague” a treatise written in response to a request for advice from Johann Hess, leader of the Reformation in Silesa. However, Luther’s views about the use of reason means his advice cannot simply be repristinated. Luther biographer Lyndal Roper reports that during this plague, “Jonas and Melanchthon both left with their families with the rest of the university to  Jena as the Elector had ordered Luther to do and despite suffering from what we would call depression [Luther] was determined to stay and nurse the sick.”[1] Pastor Johannes Bugenhagen also remained in Wittenberg with Luther. Historian Heiko Oberman noted that Luther’s experiences in 1527 shaped other areas of his thought and that “the knowledge that God’s care sustains him in “office” is probably one of the roots of Luther’s discovery of vocation.”[2] Luther believed that the ethical requirements placed on one during a pandemic are dependent on one’s station in society and the needs of one’s neighbor. Hence, individual discernment is required, and Luther refused to prescribe a universal rule for individual conduct.

The Current Situation

[3] In my current context, at Duke in North Carolina, students have not been allowed on campus since spring break, unless returning to their homes presented a grave danger. Duke staff shipped students’ textbooks and computers to their homes. As a teaching assistant for Duke Divinity’s “Theological Bioethics” class, we now meet on-line, students gathering virtually from across the United States. The Chapel is locked, commencement has been canceled. Duke Medical Center prepares for the worst. My congregation has suspended services. The church council approved “drive through communion.” The pastor’s gloved hands hand us the elements in a plastic bowl, as we stay in our car. I had to obtain special permission to enter the church to retrieve a book to write this article.

(4)  North Carolina did not exempt churches from its statewide “stay at home orders.”  Across the country, congregations used wise and foolish arguments, both theological and legal to stay open. Some pastors claimed that God would protect them from COVID-19. Other congregations continued worshiping by claiming it was a legal right under the United States Constitution. An on-line article by Catholic theologian Rusty Reno generated a social media debate. Reno argued that “Closing churches and cancelling services betrays [the church’s] duty of spiritual care. Many are speaking of death and disaster. Social media whips up fear. Stern faces on TV tell us how many people are infected. Cancellations cascade into our inboxes. In this environment the faithful need spiritual truths from their church leaders, not recapitulations of public health bulletins and exhortations to wash their hands.”[3] Early in the pandemic one New York City church I knew stayed open, because it is a safe haven for a vulnerable population. It too, closed, as the pandemic spread.  Some congregations sheltering immigrants from deportation refused to close.

What Would Luther Say?

[5] For Luther, the office we hold during the pandemic shapes our response to its course.  Luther argued that civil order was vital in times of plague. Thus, he explained, “All those in public office, such as mayors, judges and the like are under obligation to remain. This too is God’s word.”[4] Luther’s view fits within his belief that civic officials have a God-ordained purpose.  The claim that a church has a right to violate state orders would have been foreign to Luther. Theologian George Forell claims that Luther’s social ethics “expressed itself in practice within from framework of the ‘natural orders.’ [The human being] as a member of society is part of certain orders or collectivities, such as the family, the state, and the church. Luther asserted that this membership in the natural orders was part of God’s design to preserve the world and to contain the creative forces within [humanity] which under the influence of sin might lead to disorder and destruction.”[5] Jarrett Carty notes that Luther believed “temporal governments’ primary responsibilities were peace, order, and the protection of life and property. Thus, these responsibilities fell first and foremost to the political powers and offices, even though parents, teachers, and petty magistrates were also office holders in the temporal regiment.”[6]

[6] In the same way, Luther’s counsels for individual ethics depended on how the service to their neighbor is shaped by the office an individual holds. He argued that civil servants must remain, noting that “paid public servants such as city physicians, city clerks, and constables, or whatever their titles should not flee unless they furnish capable substitutes who are acceptable to their employer.”[7]  While Luther believed that we must care for the vulnerable, one can flee if the need that one’s office fulfilled was met by others. Luther’s treatise did not explain why he disobeyed the Elector and remained in Wittenberg.  However, it is clear that he felt his pastoral office compelled him to continue ministering and providing sacraments to the sick.

[7] Luther urged reason’s use in non-theological matters writing that “in temporal affairs and those which have to do with men, the rational man is self-sufficient: he needs no other light then reason.”[8] A desire to flee from the plague did not indicate a lack of faith, “To flee from death to save one’s life is a natural tendency implanted by God and not forbidden unless it is against God and neighbor.”[9]  Luther lists the host of  biblical patriarchs that  fled from death, including Abraham, Jacob, King David, and the prophet Uriah. He acknowledges that none of these individuals fled from plagues but argued that “death is death” and so if one can flee it for one reason, one can flee it for another.[10] For Luther, one must consider that  reason shows that church attendance at congregations in both Georgia and South Korea led to the spread of the plague. Thus, Luther would not have approved of the argument that God would protect churches from COVID-19.

[8] However, Luther also acknowledged that in times of plague one may choose not to flee in order to serve the neighbor. He urged that such individuals “commend [themselves to God] and say, ‘Lord I am in thy hands; thou has kept me here, thy will be done.”[11] At the same time, Luther acknowledged that one can get hurt and lose one’s life while fleeing and attempting to save it. He noted that the devil is active everywhere, so that fleeing only keeps one safe from plague, but not from death or other harm.

[9] Luther lacked our scientific knowledge of the plague but gave it theological meaning. He believed that “all the epidemics, like any plague, are spread among the people by evil spirits who poison the air or exhale a pestilential breath which puts deadly poison into the flesh.”[12]  Few modern authors would claim that evil spirits spread pandemics, but Luther was correct that individuals can exhale a “pestilential breath” which puts the deadly virus, not an evil spirit, into the air. As Christians, we acknowledge that death is the punishment of sin. However, our scientific understanding of disease means that we often find natural instead of theological cause for the pandemic although its exact origin remains unclear. Of course, we may make theological meaning out of what we learn in a time of social distancing.

[10] Yet, beyond the scientific explanations, several theories have been proposed about the origin of the disease and many demonizing political conspiracy theories have emerged.  While our scientific knowledge helps us understand what practices best keep us safe in terms of social distancing, we must still think through the theological questions we encounter as we both face the pandemic and the effects of our response to it. And while there is a lack of clarity about the origins of the novel coronavirus first observed in Wuhan, China, science has taught us about the plagues’ spread and thus how to contain it. This science should be the basis of the ministry decisions we undertake in most cases.

[11] Luther’s concern for care of the neighbor make his ethics distinctive. Christians serve the neighbor freely in response to the grace given to us in baptism. For Luther this freedom makes us “Perfectly free, Lord, of all, subject to none. A servant is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”[13] This means, for Luther that one has an obligation to continue to care for the young and the sick, and an individual should only flee if he has made arrangements for others to be cared for.[14] This calls for the use of reason to the extent that rational practices  can prevent the spread of plague. Importantly, Luther’s advice was in accord with what we now know from science. He noted that he asks for God’s protection but then he “fumigates [to] help purify the air, administer medicine and take it.”[15] He noted that “if people panic, and desert their neighbor in their plight, and if some are so foolish as not to take precautions but aggravate the contagion, then the devil has a heyday, and many will die.”[16]

A Faithful Lutheran Response in the Time of COVID-19

[12] My work did not change in the pandemic’s early weeks.  As a hospice chaplain, I work for a health care company that cares for over twenty thousand patients across the Southeastern United States each day. Most of my patients are in nursing homes and preparing for life’s end. Initially, chaplains were considered essential staff, and while I had my temperature taken and was screened upon entering the nursing home, I continued making visits. I am not sure, based on what the CDC now advises that this screening prevented individuals infected with COVID-19 from entering. We hired additional staff to clean surfaces. I have to admit, I was afraid. There have been outbreaks in our nursing homes, dozens of staff have become ill. And as more cases of the pandemic were reported in our area, we were told not to visit.

[13] The bioethical framework of my secular medical setting prizes patient autonomy. Hospital Chaplains “cold call” patients to see if they would like spiritual support. I only visit patients who requested it. Even before the pandemic hospitals discouraged chaplain visits to patients preparing for bone marrow transplants, unless requested. Medicare now permits chaplains to perform phone visits which had not been allowed before the pandemic. This seems to be a good use of reason. Duke Medical Center, only a few miles from my home forbids all outside visitors, with a rare exception for  severely ill pediatric patients. Luther would say that pastors should risk their lives to provide care for the dying if there is no one else to do so. Duke has hospital chaplains capable of meeting patient requests for confession, communion, and prayer. Given this reality, Luther rightly might have urged other pastors (who can be disease vectors no matter what their ordination status) to flee. While some pastors may be willing to take the risk, that it is forbidden by an institution for the common good falls in line with Luther’s view of neighbor love.

[14] Luther attributed death by plague to God’s action that believers should endure “since death is God’s punishment, which he sends upon us for our sins, we must submit to God with a true and firm faith and await our punishment.”[17] Luther argues that faith has a protective value,  “A person who has strong faith can drink poison and suffer no harm, Mark 16, while one who has a weak faith may drink to his death.”[18]  However, understanding this quote requires thinking deeply about how Luther defines both faith and harm.  That faith in God’s love can protect one from ill health was not Luther’s meaning.  Indeed, empirically, faith does not protect people from COVID-19. Although faith may protect people from bad conscience, anxiety, and fear, there are many faithful Christians dying of COVID-19. Luther believed that all Christians need to prepare for death. “Pastors must likewise remain steadfast before the peril of death.”[19] Luther notes that it takes “more than a milk faith to await a death before which most of the saints themselves have been and still are in dread.” [20]

[15] Contemporary medicine is concerned with bodies and science, not with spiritual care. Luther, however, saw illness as a spiritual event even as he modified medieval Catholic Ars Moriendi traditions. As historian  Berndt  Hamm notes that for Luther, “the dying person’s Christological gaze aims not at an imatio of Christ, or at an imitation of the robber on Christ’s right, but solely at Christ’s place as a substitute through his dying and rising for us Christ has taken death, sin,  and damnation upon himself and has overcome them.”[21] That view does not settle the question. Lutherans value a pastor’s power to comfort anxious, grieving souls. Luther’s theology clearly values embodied presence. Quoting Matthew 25 Luther rebuked those who would not visit the sick if there was no one else to visit them, “It shall be judgement on those who failed to visit the sick and needy and to offer them relief, what will become of those who abandoned them and let them like there like dogs and pigs?[22] But the situation is complicated. My parents who reside at home with their families, refuse chaplain visits to social distance and not place others at risk. And as Luther clearly allowed pastors to flee from the plague, Lutherans can certainly choose to protect their pastors by refusing pastoral care when they are infected.

[16] In fearful, anxious times Lutherans cling to Christ’s consoling promises for the living and the dying. We are learning new platforms like Zoom and Facebook to proclaim these promises. Lutherans also value the Sacraments, for in them God is made present to us, for both our comfort and our salvation. We know now better than ever that gathering with fellow Christians allows us to be little Christs to one another in times of anxiety and despair.  The internet in many cases, has allowed us to safely hear the proclamation of the Gospel, in our homes. It is not the same as an embodied gathering, but it is enough. That trust empowers our love of neighbor in the stations in which we find ourselves, in government, education, ministry, and health care.

In Conclusion

[17] Luther has a two-part answer to our pandemic fears. He urged faith, and he also counseled Christians to use reason and follow medical advice. There is a Facebook meme very much in this spirit that is circulating. It shows Jesus outside a locked door saying to a woman inside, “Lisa, you have to stop telling people your life is in my hands, you should social distance and wash your hands like everyone else.”  This is a comical way of saying, use common sense and do not test the Lord. I suspect, given our understanding of the plague’s spread, Luther would have approved of church closings. During all times Lutheran ethics asks us to discern how our station allows us to serve our neighbor. Luther, himself, did not urge people to foolishly tempt God by making light of the plague.

[18] We face challenging decisions now and in the days ahead. Yesterday, our hospice admitted a patient dying of COVID-19. My social work colleague and I discussed what we would do. Can we provide care without putting our health at risk? More than half the patients in the nursing home where the patient resides have tested positive for COVID-19. With N-95 masks in short supply allowing them to go to my nursing colleagues who care for patients’ bodies at close range placing them at greater risk seems to be a use of reason and an expression of the love of neighbor. An an ordained pastor, I feel the same responsibility to provide spiritual care for the dying, as Luther did. Perhaps I go in faith to provide care, and in reason use the best personal protective equipment offered me. Perhaps I will provide support by phone. However, I decide, I commend myself to God’s judgement and mercy.

[19] With faith, we should hold the world in prayer. With reason we should follow the best guidance available about how our actions can prevent the pandemic’s spread, socially isolating, and allowing vulnerable populations to shop at the early grocery stores hours, as an act of neighbor love. If our station, or our faith, calls us to care for COVID-19 patients, we should pray, wash our hands, and commend ourselves to God. We do not take up serpents to test God, but Luther noted we can handle them if we must, in order to serve our neighbor. Our faith calls us to serve, our reason calls us to serve carefully. If we must flee out of fear, or to protect others, we can do so freely. We can do no other, may God help us all.



[1] Lyndal Roper, Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet, (London: The Bodley Head, 2016) 317.

[2] Heiko A. Oberman, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil, (New York: Image Books, 1992) 316.

[3] Rusty Reno, “Keep the Churches Open” March 17. 2020. Accessed at https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2020/03/keep-the-churches-open.  Reno  continued to maintain  his position in subsequent columns even as the death toll in New York City mounts.

[4] Martin Luther, On Whether One Can Flee from A Deadly Plague (1527), in Luther’s Works, vol. 43, ed. Gustav K. Wiencke, (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1968) 121.

[5] George Wolfang Forell, Faith Active in Love: An Investigation of the Principles Underlying Luther’s Social Ethics (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1954) 113.

[6] Jarrett A. Carty, God and Government: Martin Luther’s Political Thought, (Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2017) 38.

[7]Luther, On Whether One Can Flee from A Deadly Plague, 122.

[8] This is a quote from Luther’s Postil for Epiphany on Isa 9:1-6. Quoted in Brian Gerrish,  Grace and Reason: A Study of the Theology of Luther, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962) 12.

[9]  Luther, One Whether One Can Flee from a Deadly Plague, 123.

[10] Ibid., 124.

[11] Ibid., 125.

[12] Ibid., 127.

[13] Martin Luther, On the Freedom of a Christian (1520), in Luther’s Works,  vol 31, ed. Helmut T. Lehmann, (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1958) 344. The theological and philosophical underpinnings of the treatise are actually quite complicated. See Andrea Vestrucci, Theology As Freedom: On Martin Luther’s ‘De servo arbitrio” (Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2019).

[14] Luther, On Whether One Can Flee from A Deadly Plague, 122.

[15] Ibid., 132.

[16] Ibid., 132.

[17] Ibid.,  120.

[18] Ibid., 120.

[19] Ibid., 121.

[20] Ibid., 123.

[21] Berndt Hamm, “Luther’s Instructions for a Blessed Death” in The Early Luther: Stage in a Reformation Re-Orientation, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014) 140.

[22] Luther, On Whether One Can Flee from A Deadly Plague, 126.

Aaron Klink

Aaron Klink is Chaplain at Pruitt Hospice in Durham, North Carolina.  He received his MAR is Systematic Theology from Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, his M.Div. from Yale and a ThM with a concentration in Ethics from Duke Divinity School.