Two Points from Luther’s Pastoral Theology
1. May a servant of the Word testify as to what he heard in confession?
Martin Luther was asked: If a pastor or father confessor absolves a woman who had smothered her child but then other people make the matter known, must the pastor also testify before the judge if he is asked about it?
Here he answers: Absolutely not because Church and temporal government must be distinguished. Because she has confessed nothing to me but rather to the Lord Christ and because Christ keeps it secret I should also keep it secret and right away say: I have heard nothing; if Christ has heard something, let him say so. But I would secretly say to her, “You whore! Watch yourself! Don’t do it any more!”
But if she said that we had absolved her and if she would want to protect and save herself with the fact that Christ had released her and therefore the temporal judge could no longer judge and pass sentence over her, and if I would then be cited, summoned and asked, I would repudiate it because I am not the man who should speak before the judge in worldly matters; but rather I should speak exclusively that which concerns consciences which I should frighten with God’s wrath against sin by the Law; but those who recognize and confess their sin I should again console by the preaching of the Gospel. Therefore I should say: Whether she is absolved, I, Dr. Martin, know nothing, but Christ, with whom she spoke, knows it; for I do not hear confessions, nor do I absolve, but Christ does. They should not drag us to their thrones of judgment and markets of dispute; therefore we have until now observed canon law and righteousness and will do so forever, and will neither grant anything to the temporal courts in matters concerning doctrine and conscience nor grant them anything in it, not even in the slightest. They attend to their duties, with which they have enough to do, and let us conduct our office as Christ has commanded; this and none other.
But what if a father confessor should give a confessional slip, like a monk in Venice did who had absolved a woman who had smothered a young one who slept by her and then afterwards threw him into the water? The monk was then bribed with money and betrayed her. The woman defended herself saying she had been absolved and showed the monk’s signature. The council in Venice decided and judged that the monk should be burned and the woman banished from the city. Dr. Martin Luther said about this: This is a truly good, reasonable verdict and wise deliberation of the council…. If I, though, had given a frightened, anxious conscience my signature and the judge had it with him I would again rightfully demand it back, as I did with Duke George of Saxony. For whoever has letters of other people without a proper claim, is a thief. A temporal judge, however, cannot possess this signature. It had been given in matters of conscience on account of God and the office that the Church has from Christ because He purchased and obtained it at great cost by His blood. (St. Louis Edition, XXII, 559 f.)
2. Should a preacher allow the head of a house to commune himself and his family at home in the house?
When this question had reached and was presented to Dr. Martin Luther, he answered it as follows:
Grace and peace in Christ! Worthy, dear pastor. To this question that your good friend in Linz N. gave you in writing and desired to have it reach me, here is my answer that you are to give the good sir and friend: he is not to take up the practice of communing himself and his household. In addition to that it is uncalled for because he has neither a call nor command to do so. Even without it, where the tyrannical servants of the Church (who are certainly obliged to do it) do not want to administer it to him or his family, he can certainly be saved in his faith through the word. It would also cause great offense to administer the sacrament in the houses here and there. In the long run it would not end well but would raise up nothing but division and sects because the people now are odd and the devil is nonsensical. For the first Christians in Acts in particular did not have the Sacrament in houses, but they came together. And even if they had done it, such an example is now no longer tolerable.
But it is right that the head of a household teach his family the word of God and this is how it should be. God has commanded us to teach and nurture our children and household servants; and that word is commanded to each one. But the Sacrament is a public confession and should have public, called servants. That is because Christ says that the Sacrament should be done in memory of Him. St. Paul says that this means proclaiming or preaching the Lord’s death until He comes; and in that same place he also says that people should come together and severely rebukes in particular those who wanted to use the Lord’s Supper individually. Yet each one is not forbidden, but instead is in particular commanded to teach his house with God’s Word, including himself, but yet no one can baptize himself. This is because a public office in the Church and a head of a household over his servants are two completely different things. Thus they are not be mixed but are to be kept distinct. Since here there is neither distress nor a call, one must not decide to do anything out of one’s own devotion without God’s certain command because nothing good will come out of it. Such, my dear pastor, you may give as my answer. Farewell! Amen. On the Day of St. John the Evangelist, in holiday, 1535. (St. Louis Edition, X, 2224)
Luther also writes to Lorenz Castner and his companions in Freiberg to beware of corner preachers [Winkelprediger]: On no account let anyone persuade you that each landlord may give the sacrament in his house, for I may teach at home but that does not make me a public preacher unless I am publicly called. Thus St. Paul also says in 1 Corinthians 11 that we should come together; each one should not make his own Communion. Thus it is meaningless to say: The Sacrament is made by the word, therefore I may make it in my house. This is not God’s command and order; instead He wills that the Sacrament be given also through the public office because the Sacrament is instituted as a public confession, as Christ says: “This do in remembrance of Me,” that is, as Paul says: Proclaim and confess Christ’s death. (St. Louis Edition, XX, 1759 ff)
In Tabletalks this topic is included briefly in the following question and answer: If, in the case of necessity, a head of a household may give his household the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. Dr. Martin Luther answered this and said, “By no means! For first of all there is no vocation or calling, like Joshua spoke, Numbers 11 [.28] ‘Moses my lord. Forbid them [who prophesy]!’ Deuteronomy 4 and 6: Place all my words in your hearts. Acts 2 and Joel 2: ‘And it shall come to pass in the last days, says God, that I will pour out My Spirit on all flesh….’ From this it follows that those who are not called may not preach. Thus in order to avoid offense it is also improper for them to be allowed to give the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper; for many of them would thus despise the servants of the Church and would not seek them out if they could help themselves.”
[Translated from the August 1930 Concordia Theological Monthly]