by Rev. A. Brian Flamme

When Martin Luther prepared the text of the Small Catechism, he included a list of duties that people in various callings and stations in life have, as both a command and blessing from God. Some editions of the Small Catechism treat it as an appendix and do not print it, others do, so it may not be familiar to everyone who knows about the Small Catechism.[i]

The Table of Duties returns to a topic introduced by the Ten Commandments, how a Christian should live in this world. Having gained the comfort and freedom of the Gospel, by memorizing everything that was taught by the Creed, Lord’s Prayer, Sacraments, etc., you’re able to appreciate the Law in a new way, that is, with a soul that’s untroubled by the devil’s accusing sting. You’re able to say ‘Amen’ to the works that God finds pleasing without at the same time twisting them into a ladder to climb into heaven. There’s no need. Jesus has already secured your place before God by his own blood and merit.

What are the Table of Duties? Luther writes, “Certain passages of Scripture for various holy orders and positions, admonishing them about their duties and responsibilities.” There are 26 distinct passages that address 13 distinct but familiar groups. Luther pulls verses almost exclusively from the New Testament’s Epistles that speak to the baptized saints. Whether you’re a housewife in the Midwest, a herdsman in Africa, or an Arab cabdriver in Palestine, the duties are directed at you, which is another way of saying that the 10 Commandments instruct the church no matter where she’s found.

Pastors are reminded to “hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught” (Titus 1:9). Hearers are reminded to pay their pastors (1 Cor. 9:14). Citizens must render to Caesar his due (Matt. 22:21). Husbands are to love and respect their wives (1 Pet. 3:7), while wives are to submit to the headship of their husbands (Eph. 5:22). Fathers should instruct their children (Eph. 6:4) even as children are reminded to honor their parents (Eph. 6:1-3). Workers obey (Eph. 6:5-8) while masters treat them in fairness knowing that their Lord Jesus shows no favoritism (Eph. 6:9). Youth are admonished to be humble (1 Pet. 5:5-6). Widows are encouraged to pray (1 Tim. 5:5-6). And in the end, every Christian is to keep the Commandments by love (Rom. 13:9) and prayer (1 Tim. 2:1).

The Structure of the Table of Duties

Luther’s choice of Bible passages teach two things, the Ten Commandments and the Three Estates,[ii] which really boil down to the same thing. As Luther’s colleague Justus Jonas writes, “These three estates, Ecclesiae, Politiae, and Oeconomiae, are indeed the Summa Decalogi [sum total of the Decalogue].”[iii] The first section of the table addresses members of the ecclesial estate, both preachers and hearers. The second portion addresses members of the civil estate, citizens. And finally, the last portion speaks to the family. This reflects Luther’s description three estates set forth in his Great Confession of 1528:

“But the holy orders and true religious institutions established by God are these three: the office of priest, the estate of marriage, the civil government. All who are engaged in the clerical office or ministry of the Word are in a holy, proper, good, and God-pleasing order and estate, such as those who preach, administer sacraments, supervise the common chest, sextons and messengers or servants who serve such persons. These are engaged in works which are altogether holy in God’s sight.

Again, all fathers and mothers who regulate their household wisely and bring up their children to the service of God are engaged in pure holiness, in a holy work and a holy order. Similarly, when children and servants show obedience to their elders and masters, here too is pure holiness, and whoever is thus engaged is a living saint on earth.

Moreover, princes and lords, judges, civil officers, state officials, notaries, male and female servants and all who serve such persons, and further, all their obedient subjects—all are engaged in pure holiness and leading a holy life before God. For these three religious institutions or orders are found in God’s Word and commandment; and whatever is contained in God’s Word must be holy, for God’s Word is holy and sanctifies everything connected with it and involved in it.

Above these three institutions and orders is the common order of Christian love, in which one serves not only the three orders, but also serves every needy person in general with all kinds of benevolent deeds, such as feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, forgiving enemies, praying for all men on earth, suffering all kinds of evil on earth, etc. Behold, all of these are called good and holy works. However, none of these orders is a means of salvation. There remains only one way above them all, viz. faith in Jesus Christ.”[iv]

What about this “common order of Christian love?” Love doesn’t overthrow the estates, but fulfills them, which is why Luther includes admonitions to love and pray as the last two Bible passages in the Table of Duties (Rom. 13:9; 1 Tim. 2:1). This is good to remember so that we don’t fall into the trap of thinking that Luther is developing some sort of secular political philosophy. Rather, he’s speaking to Christians who know and confess Jesus and who desire to keep the Lord’s commands to love our neighbor within the bounds of the 10 commandments, which brings us to our next point.

Holy Orders and Positions

The surprise from all this comes from the “orders and positions” that the Scriptures call “holy.” Luther and the other reformers want to remind you that the Bible doesn’t encourage you to live an austere life of super-spiritual exercises by running off to join a rigorous, puritanical monastery that’s tucked away in the desert somewhere. Nor would they have you become an activist that despises family and friends for the sake of some cause. Instead, the Holy Ghost exults and honors the familiar offices of fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, and workers. The world scoffs and calls these orders too common to be spiritual. [v] But the Table of Duties reminds us that these orders aren’t arbitrary. Nor are they optional, as if we could come up with something better. They’ve been instituted by God and made holy by His Word. Yes, Christians are different from unbelievers because of their confession and faith, but their lives often look as they did before. There’s nothing wrong with that. Luther writes,

“We are not to understand the Christian faith as the fanatics do, who straightway overthrow constituted authority; nor as the papists, who define spiritual life in distinction from worldly life in terms of an outward discipline. On the contrary, we should know that a Christian and believer is one who has gotten another Lord. As far his outward life goes, it remains as before, as St. Paul says, (Gal. 3:28): ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female; for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.’ It does not follow that for the sake of the Christian faith a person’s external life is altered; rather it remains as before. Whatever you were when you were called to faith – husband, wife, servant, maid – continue so, as St. Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 7:20-24. We must rightly distinguish one’s status as a Christian from the external existence, so that we properly spell out what it means to be a Christian, namely, to acknowledge Christ alone to be true Lord, who redeemed us and whose debtors we are.”[vi]

Because our Christian faith reinforces rather than destroys the orders of preaching, family, and civil society, Luther’s Table of Duties is a breath of fresh air to societies that have been fooled into chasing after the devil’s contrived works of holiness that are supposed to go beyond the Ten Commandments.

For most of the Christians in Luther’s day, “orders and positions” referred to the formal orders of monks and nuns that were set aside as a refuge from the temptations and sins that made salvation difficult for the common man to achieve. Monasticism taught that the duties and cares of the world got in the way of being the kind of Christian that God wants. It taught if you wanted the surest and safest path to heaven, you needed extra-spiritual works of poverty, chastity, and obedience. You needed to not only keep the Ten Commandments, the old law, you also needed to keep the new commandments of the Gospel, like loving your enemies. This profound confusion of Law and Gospel led the princes at Augsburg to confess,

“It was pretended that monastic vows would be equal to baptism, and that through monastic life on could earn forgiveness of sin and justification before God. Indeed, they added that one earns through monastic life not only righteousness and innocence, but also that through it one keeps the commands and counsels written in the gospel. In this way monastic vows were praised more highly than baptism. It was also said that one could obtain more merit through the monastic life than through all other walks of life, which had been ordered by God, such as the office of pastor or preacher, the office of ruler, prince, lord, and the like. (These all serve in their vocations according to God’s command, Word, and mandate without any contrived spiritual status.)”[vii]

Against this abuse of making up works of love that compete with the gifts of grace, Luther’s Table of Duties, and the whole body of Lutheran literature that was spawned as result, stand as a biblical corrective.[viii] Rather than abandoning your life to chase after a spirituality that will score points with God, the Scriptures open your eyes to appreciate where you stand as a parishioner, son, daughter, husband, wife, and worker as the center of your Christian life, where God has placed you. The Scriptures, in this way, both focus and expand your perspective. You gain focus by recognizing your faithful congregation, where God’s gifts are rightly administered, as the place where God wants to give you forgiveness and eternal life. Your home, full of family and friends, is precisely where God wants you to exercise yourself in works of love. Your perspective is expanded by the Table when it reminds those who have been justified by grace through faith that they shouldn’t be lazy. You’re baptism doesn’t immediately transport you to heaven. You still have neighbors who need your love.

Learning to appreciate and take Luther’s Table of Duties to heart is more than artificially importing lifestyles of the 16th century into our progressive world. It’s binding ourselves to the instruction of God’s unchanging Word. The church, family, and government aren’t going anywhere. What God institutes, he also preserves. Though the world might disdain these estates, we uphold them and call them holy. What the Lord says to fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, and workers will not change until Jesus comes back in glory. Luther writes,

“It will be a long time before people produce a doctrine or social order equal to that of the Ten Commandments, for they are beyond human power to fulfill. The one who does fulfill them is a heavenly, angelic person, far above all holiness on earth. Just concentrate upon them and test yourself thoroughly, do your very best, and you will surely find so much to do that you will neither seek nor pay attention to any other works of other kind of holiness.”[ix]

The Rev. A. Brian Flamme is a pastor at Hope Lutheran Church, Aurora, Colo.

[i] “The List of Household Responsibilities thus reaches back to a point even before the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer, to the Decalogue, thus effecting a united presentation in the catechism…” Albrecht Peters, Commentary on Luther’s Catechisms: Confession and Christian Life, trans. Thomas H. Trapp (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2013), 113.

[ii] Peters writes that Luther’s above quoted introduction “harkens back to the Confession of 1528, in which the reformer identified specific points of his teaching on the three holy estates and on the proper institutions that God had established though His Word, being directed against the human impertinence that sets up ordinances and estates wither without or in direct opposition to Go’s will” (109).

[iii] As quoted in Peters (123). We should go on to note that another way of reiterating Jonas’ point is to say that the Commandments protect God’s institutions that bring forth, protect, and save human life. There are clear places in Scripture where God institutes both the church (John 20:21-23) and family (Matt. 19:6). The government, which is an extension of the familial estate as Luther explains in the 4th commandment of the Large Catechism, is also well attested as God’s own institution by which he curbs wickedness and rewards virtue (1 Pet. 2:13-14). So, naturally, the first table of the Law, especially the 3rd Commandment, protects the public preaching of the Word. Beginning with the 4th Commandment, the second table of the Law protects families and those things that are necessary for our good in civil society.

[iv] LW 37:365

[v] Luther writes, “But such works are not important or impressive in the eyes of the world. They are not uncommon and showy, reserved to certain special times, places, rites, and ceremonies, but are common, everyday domestic duties of one neighbor to another, with nothing glamorous about them” (LC I 313 (Kolb-Wengert, 428)).

[vi] Martin Luther, “Third Sunday After Epiphany,” in The Complete Sermons of Martin Luther: Vol. 5, ed. Eugene Klug (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000), 248-249.

[vii] AC XXVII 11–14 (Kolb-Wengert, 82).

[viii] One of the early reformers, Hieronymous Weller, argued for such lists for two reasons. Albrecht Peters writes, “On the one hand, he attacks the type of sermon on justification that is restrictively antinomian, which does not end up demonstrating that our sanctification is the final causa iustificationis [final cause of justification]; on the other hand, he battles against the medieval Catholic view that diminishes the value of the so-called worldly estates.”

[ix] LC I 317–318 (Kolb-Wengert, 429).