In October 2016, my wife and I flew to Frankfurt, Germany, rented a car, and picked up her aunt and uncle at a hotel outside the city. We drove through central and eastern Germany on a tour of Martin Luther (1483-1546) historical sites. We visited Worms Cathedral where Luther stood before the powerful Holy Roman Diet and would not refute his writings. We climbed up a steep hill to Wartburg Castle where Luther was hidden while translating the New Testament into German. We walked the wet streets of Eisleban, his birthplace, and the Augustinian monastery at Erfurt where he was educated as a monk. Our last days were spent in the university town of Wittenberg where Luther on October 31, 1517 nailed his 95 Theses on the church door. The city was in preparations for the upcoming 500th anniversary of this famous event.
Luther was a brilliant scholar but was also a very earthy man. His dogmatic character kept the various Protestant sects from uniting in their common belief that Catholicism needed reforms. In fairness, his dogmatic courage and pragmatic writings enabled a small movement to gain followers and princely protection.
Rev. Dr. D. Michael Bennethum, Executive Associate of the Bishop/Director for Evangelical Mission at Northeastern Pennsylvania Synod authored Listen! God is Calling!: Luther Speaks of Vocation, Faith, and Work (Augsburg Fortress, Minneapolis, MN, 2003, pages 51-52) which details Luther’s theology of vocation. Luther wrote extensively on vocation, primarily to counter the Catholic two-tier theology; the contemplative life (priests, monks, church leaders) was held in higher esteem by God than the active life (all other workers). One aspect of Luther’s vocational theology was the concept of stände, a German word which is defined as “stations,” “estates,” or “walks of life.” He believed that God ordained three “orders of creation:”
“This life is profitably divided into three orders: (1) life in the home; (2) life in the state; (3) life in the church. To whatever order you belong – whether you are a husband, an officer of the state, or a teacher of the church – look about you, and see whether you have done full justice to your calling.”
Luther believed that God’s order stabilized society and “all human activity takes place within them.” He used vocation and stände interchangeably since to Luther, vocation was the totality of a person’s life, not simply an occupation.
Since a person’s stände was given by God, Luther generally opposed changing one’s stände, something that is contrary to modern beliefs.
“There are very few who live satisfied with their lot. The layman longs for the life of a cleric, the pupil wishes to be a teacher, the citizen wants to be a councilor, and each of us loathes his own calling, although there is no other way of serving God than to walk in simple faith and then to stick diligently to one’s calling and to keep a good conscience.”
This may sound strange coming from a man who was training to be a lawyer, yet during a fearful storm, cried out to St. Anne to spare him by promising to become a monk! He wanted to please God and in his pre-reformation youth, the best way to please God was to join the contemplative life. Later, Luther changed his theological beliefs to the equality of all vocations that served their neighbors. “Rather, Luther wanted to be clear that leaving one’s present station [stände] is not necessary in order to please God. God, ‘does not want people to change or abandon their vocations, as under the papacy it was once considered piety to have given up one’s customary way of life and to have withdrawn into a monastery.’ He was not saying, ‘you must stay where you are,’ so much as ‘you may stay where you are’ and still serve God. In other words, one does not need to escape the routine of daily living in order to be pious.”
In the modern world, young and old adults change their stände, a perfectly normal career progression. Today’s youth may have ten or more different jobs prior to retirement, and few will base their changes on Luther’s theology. But during Luther’s life, most youth had little choice but to accept their parent’s occupation and stände. Today’s expansive vocational choices were limited during the 16th century in which Luther lived. But he did pave the way towards honoring the active life and the structures of society.