Read “Lessons from Magdeburg, Part 1”
Fourth, the Magdeburg Confession makes very clear that the church may not change its confession or its practice because of the edicts of the government. The government is God’s institution. We should not and must not conclude from this that we are obligated to obey its every decree, no more than we would say we should obey the church’s every decree or a father’s every decree. Neither the government, nor the church, nor the father of a home has absolute authority. Their authority depends on Christ, who meant what He said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matt. 28:18).
It is in fact the primary duty of both the home and the government to serve the Christian church, and the final goal of every one of these estates is the glory of God and the salvation of men. It can’t be otherwise, because this is Jesus’ goal and He’s the one with all authority. His is the authority the home, the state, and the church all wield. So the Magdeburg Confession states, “Although [God] does not want the estates to be confused with one another, He does want them so to serve one another that in the final result they all harmonize one with the other and each in its own place and its own way promotes as of first importance the true knowledge and glory of God and the eternal salvation of their members; or, when it does not attain this ultimate goal, at least effects the secondary goal of men living peacefully, honestly, and beneficially in this life’s civil society” (Magdeburg Confession, ch. 7).
The Magdeburgers point out that every time the Bible commands obedience to the government, it qualifies it, gives a reason for it. The government is to reward the good and be a terror to evil. And this “good” must be understood to include not only the last seven commandments, but also the first three commandments. If the government punishes or persecutes or becomes a terror to the good of confessing Jesus, going to church, and worshipping Jesus according to Jesus’ instruction, then it is owed no obedience. They sin, the Confession states, “who think that [governmental] powers are so sacrosanct and inviolable even when they try to oppress the good works which they ought to honor, and, on the other hand, try to establish and honor the evil works to which they ought to be a terror” (MC, ch. 7)
So when it comes to the church and the home—to Christians as members of their churches, to Christian parents as leaders of their homes, to pastors who are to conduct services in the Christian congregation according to God’s Word—the government may make no law to oppress the good. And if they do, we are at the very least to disobey it. It depends on our calling in life and our ability as to what else we should do. So the Madgeburgers confess, “Just as it is for God’s sake that citizens necessarily owe obedience to their leaders, and likewise children and the rest of the family owe obedience to their parents and masters, so, on the other hand, when magistrates and parents depart from true godliness and virtue, obedience is not owed them because of God’s Word. When they openly persecute true godliness and virtue, they remove themselves from the offices of magistrate and parents before God and their own consciences, and instead of an ordinance of God they become an ordinance of the devil, which can and ought to be resisted in an orderly manner according to one’s vocation” (MC, ch. 7).
So when the government told the Magdeburgers to worship like Roman Catholics, it’s not simply that it was stepping outside its God-given role; it’s that it was exactly contradicting, denying, and removing itself from its God-given role to protect the Church and serve it. And at that point it becomes the duty of the Christian to resist and disobey. And we resist of course according to our vocation. A pastor will still preach the truth, that is, even if the government tells him not to. A layman will still bring his family to church, even if the government tells him it’s illegal. A pastor will still distribute the blood of Christ from the chalice, even if the government mandates something else.
And by so doing, not only does the Church confess the Word of truth, she exalts it to its proper place, which is over the Church, over the government, and over the home. Jesus’ Word is simply the final authority.
So now we turn to some practical applications of these lessons in our day. And the segue should be quite clean and obvious. In the last year, our government did in fact order the Christian Church, our congregations and congregations all over this country, to do bad things. In some states they banned meeting together completely for weeks or months. In other states they banned the Lord’s Supper. In still others they banned singing in churches. In Wyoming they attempted, very briefly, thank God, to tell us we couldn’t use the common cup for the distribution of Christ’s blood. These are objectively bad things. The government has been instituted by God to be a terror to these bad things, not to promote them and most certainly not to mandate them.
The Word of God commands us in no uncertain terms to take the Lord’s Supper often and gives us the example of the ancient Church, which celebrated the Lord’s Supper every single Lord’s Day, with far more disease going around then than in our day and with no such thing as plastic jiggers or hand-sanitizer. The Word of God commands us not to forsake meeting together, as is the habit of some. The Bible exhorts us to sing with one another (Eph. 5:18-19). Most instances of the command to pray in the Bible, even, are not commands to pray at home by ourselves or with our families (though that is certainly our Lord’s will), but specifically commands for public prayer in the congregation (Eph. 6:18-19, 1 Tim. 2:1-2; cf. Acts 2:42). And the commands to read the Scripture are likewise commands that Scripture be read in the gathered congregation (1 Timothy 4:13, Col. 4:16). This is the command, the assumption, the context, the background of the entire New Testament.1 Christ’s Church is to meet together to hear the Scripture, hear preaching and exhortation, receive the body and blood of Christ, and pray together. This is the greatest goal, the overriding priority of our Creator, and it is the end to which He directs all authority in heaven and on earth, including the authority exercised by the government.
So, in the first place, it was wrong and it is wrong for the government to order the closure of Christian churches or for them to dictate how the Christian Church is to distribute the body and blood of Christ. The argument that the government’s job is to protect the lives of people and therefore has the right to ban the gathering of Christ’s Church or to mandate how we distribute the Holy Supper is completely misguided. Yes, the government’s job is to protect and promote the good, but having the Christian Church meeting together regularly is a greater good than having temporal health. It is the greatest good. This is how the Magdeburg Confession puts it, “[W]e must hold that the eternal salvation of souls is more important than the fleeting health of the body, and that the preservation of His few members is more precious to Christ than all the rest of the world of unbelievers, together with all their trappings and gifts” (MC, Preface). Besides this, going to church contributes to overall health, something most epidemiologists can’t wrap their minds around, but which a seven-year-old Christian knows very well.
Now as to the Church’s confession in this last year of Covid, it was our duty to have church—real church, with people gathering together around the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments. What an amazing thing, that the greatest confession we could make in A.D. 2020 was to actually have church, to actually do what God commands us to do, what we simply took as a matter of course until March of 2020—as did the entire Christian Church for two millennia, through hundreds of serious pandemics—the gathering together for church on a Sunday morning.2 And this, our very simple duty, this meant in many cases defying the state’s mandates.
It was our duty to do so. I want to stress this generally, and then to talk about a few specifics.
First, generally, it was our duty to put first things first. It is more important to hold church and distribute the body and blood of Jesus than to live a long life or to be healthy or to possibly slow the spread of a disease. The people of God needed not only to hear that but to see it. I’m not saying that we should have told people who are obviously sick and symptomatic to come to church—we don’t do that with any disease. We don’t want people vomiting in church; individuals can and sometimes should miss church for a week or for a time because of sickness. And I’m not saying that it was wrong to hold smaller assemblies or offer more services to avoid crowded sanctuaries. Not at all. I’m saying it was our duty to hold church so that the faithful could come and in order to encourage those who were inordinately frightened, to teach them and everyone that hearing God’s Word and receiving the body and blood of Jesus and singing and praying as the Church is more important than anything in the world. Our children needed to see it, our youth needed to see it, our young families, our middle-aged, our elderly—all of us needed to see it and know it. We ask our children to risk death fighting needless wars. Is it really so hard a thing to ask Christ’s Church to risk getting a cold with a 0.3 percent mortality rate in order to receive the medicine of immortality? In short, any government mandate to close Christ’s Church and ban its assembly altogether should be defied.
Now for a couple of specifics. The government told us, here in Wyoming and in many other states as well, to distribute the Lord’s Supper in (prepackaged) individual containers.3 Jesus says something different. He tells us to distribute bread, and then to distribute wine. To distribute the body. Then the blood. None of us would have thought of distributing the body and blood of Christ in a prepackaged individual container or of allowing such a thing in our congregations, had the government not ordered us to do it. When the government ordered it, they decided to be a terror to the good: Jesus’ clear command. So we were duty bound to disobey.
The second specific was the mandate to wear masks, especially that pastors wear masks.4 Masks, even if they have some health benefit, have also obvious deficits. I have several old ladies in my congregation, for instance, who can’t understand me on the phone, because they can’t see my lips, and my voice is too deep for them. They need to see my face to hear me preach. More than this, the face itself is a vehicle of communication. Everyone knows this. When you cannot see the face and its expression, you can very often misunderstand the meaning of words. It would have been one thing if the government recommended masks. It was quite another to mandate it. It is a bad thing, an evil thing, if people can’t hear the Word of God because of a mask. If the government’s goal were God’s goal, as it should be, it would not make such mandates. The Church must know this and act accordingly.
Those congregations that insisted on remaining open and holding church during the pandemic should be commended. This is the good confession. It puts first things first. It encompasses all the elements of confession taught by the Magdeburg Confession. 1) It evinces an optimism that preaching Christ is the end goal, that so long as we do it we have everything. 2) It understands that this particular time called for a specific confession, a simple one, but a necessary one: to stay open and do what the Church does, even in the face of death. 3) It realizes that not just the doctrine of the role of Church and state was at issue, but the Gospel and its primacy. 4) And finally it shows that the Church obeys God rather than man. And God has and will bless this confession.
If we have failed in this confession—and most of us, if not all of us, did fail in one way or another, especially at the beginning—then we need to own this failure and admit it as pastors and congregations. At the beginning we were caught off guard. We were told any closure would be temporary. We were told about outrageously high mortality rates of 8%.5 But instead of justifying shutting down services or obeying unrighteous mandates because we didn’t know any better, we should learn from any mistakes made and never let them happen again.
The response of the LCMS at large has been quite mixed. From the synod, we received no encouragement to stay open. In fact, Palm Sunday of last year pastors of the synod received an email telling us to “refrain from regular congregational services” and to obey the government, even though some state governments had banned meeting altogether and banned the Lord’s Supper.6 A similar appeal was made in the Lutheran Witness.7 Many churches remained closed for over a year. And many pastors have decided to pretend to give the Lord’s Supper over the internet. Some banned singing. Others banned the common cup. It’s become common to assert, “I go to church over the internet,” as if watching a service online is the gathering of the church. These are all bad confessions. They were and remain wrong. They obey man rather than God. They evince fear. Some are just silly. And just as the Magdeburg Confession called on those who had obeyed the government instead of obeying God to return to the good confession, we should do the same according to our calling and ability and circumstance. We should first correct any impression we ourselves may have given that gathering as church and singing and praying and receiving the Holy Supper as Christ instituted it is somehow secondary or non-essential or dangerous to human life. We should commit to never making this mistake again. We should thank God that we have brothers—and I know I have benefited from this tremendously—brothers and fellow congregations who have encouraged us by word and action to put church first. And then we should call on the rest of our brothers to walk with us in this. That there were still churches closed after a year, that churches were closed for more than even a Sunday or two, that pastors robbed people of the chalice or of the Lord’s Supper, that they banned singing—these false confessions need to be addressed for the good of the Church and the glory of God.
Many in the LCMS have already worked to correct these false confessions to some extent. I would point to a Lutheran Witness article of June/July, 2020, where Rev. Thoma writes, commenting on Acts 5, “[T]he apostles’ flexibility [with the government] came to a screeching halt the moment they were commanded to stop preaching and teaching the Gospel. Again, as Christians, we know that a government born of God’s truest intent—one that can rightly be called good—would not call for the silencing of the Gospel, but at a minimum would let the church be.”8 But even here, the article stops short of addressing what it means to silence the Gospel. Banning the assembly of the Church is silencing the Gospel, period. Mandating masks on a pastor is silencing the Gospel (again, for my old ladies, this is literally true). That this was not the message from synod from the start is one thing. It is quite another for the synod not to realize it now and confess it. A confessing church is a repenting church. I recommend Dr. Joel Biermann’s short article on the necessity of meeting together, which comes much closer to calling on the synod to realize the obvious danger and error of shutting down church services.9
There are finally some conclusions we should draw, both from our review of the Magdeburg Confession and from its application to our time. First, it is never too late to confess. Magdeburg stood alone for some time, but the Lutheran lands returned to Lutheran control and the Lutheran confession before too long, spurred on in part by the written and visual confession of Magdeburg, which put gathering as a Lutheran congregation over their health and over their government’s decrees. So also, those who made the mistake of slavishly obeying the government’s mandates instead of obeying their confirmation and ordination vows can and will, I pray, come to realize their mistake, especially if we humbly realize ours and we continue to confess the truth frankly. Secondly, God has put us here at this time and in this place to confess the truth of God’s Word, and this confession will last all our life through. So long as we are doing it, we have every reason to be optimistic. Luther confessed at Worms fully expecting death as a result, but God gave life to His Church through Luther’s confession. Magdeburg confessed to its own bodily detriment, even though it meant lack of peace and constant war and death for over a year, and through that confession God overturned armies and gave peace to Lutheran churches all across Germany. So we confess that the Lutheran faith, the truth of the Bible, hearing it at church, singing it, praying it at church, confessing it at home, this is our life and can never be given up. And God will bless this confession now and forever.
1 The term church (ekklesia) means a bodily gathering, an assembly.
2 Some have argued that the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic is precedent for shutting down churches. There are 5 reasons this is not a good precedent to cite. 1) The Spanish flu was a far more serious pandemic than Covid-19, killing 1 percent of the U.S. population and primarily affecting the young, not the old, as is the case with Covid-19. 2) The lockdowns were localized, especially in big cities. 3) We have records of Lutheran churches meeting despite the lockdowns. 4) The lockdowns were very brief. 5) Precedent of banning church services is precedent of a bad thing, not justification for further banning of church.
3 The Wyoming health order of May 13, 2020 included this mandate: “g. Communion shall be served in individual containers.”
4 The Wyoming health order of May 13, 2020 included this mandate: “i. Staff who come within 6 feet of attendees or other staff must wear a face covering.”
5 See, for instance, “Italian doctors note high COVID-19 death rate, urge action,” where a 7.2% death rate was still being suggested on March 24, compared with a 2.3% death rate in China (still extremely high compared to reality): https://www.cidrap.umn.edu/news-perspective/2020/03/italian-doctors-note-high-covid-19-death-rate-urge-action, accessed May 5. Cf. also the JAMA article “Corona Virus Disease 2019 (Covid-19) in Italy,” where the 7.2% figure is again cited: https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2763401, accessed May 5. On March 9, 2020, Tucker Carlson Tonight, the most-watched cable news show, put the overall death rate for the virus at 3.4%, “34 times deadlier” than the flu, with an 8% death rate for ages 70-79 and 15% death rate for those over 80. See Carlson’s “We must remain calm,” monologue at https://youtu.be/EbyPW8lJX2E
6 The email of April 3, 2020 included the following: “Please, for your safety and well-being and that of your parishioners, refrain from regular congregational services. While we cannot gather together, many pastors are using the best technology to stay in contact with their people.” And: “The government is not persecuting us (Fourth Commandment). These rules apply to all, as reasonably as possible. And it appears we are nowhere near the end of this.”
7 “This pandemic is temporary,” Lutheran Witness, Matthew Harrison, May 1, 2020.
8 “When does the church say, “Enough?”, Lutheran Witness, Christopher Thoma, June/July, 2020.
9 “The Post-pandemic Pew: A reflection for pastors,” https://issuesetc.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/The-Post-Pandemic-Pew-A-Reflection-for-Pastors.pdf, accessed 5/5/2021. “Perhaps the notion that ‘the church can still be the church even when we can’t be together’ has merit in the teeth of a legitimate crisis (a flood or a fire) and for a few week’s duration; but it cannot ever become a normal way of thinking or behaving, which is, I believe, precisely what we have allowed to happen. We need to be together in the flesh, and separation for any reason should provoke a restlessness and yearning that will not be satisfied until we gather again in person. Despite our sincerest aspirations, love of technology, or yearning for the avantgarde, the virtual church is a patent oxymoron. To pursue this course for the church is complicity with the designs of the enemy.”