Martin Luther on Being a Pastor (or Professor?)

In those rare and fleeting chimeras that I call “moments of spare time,” I have been ever so slowly working through Luther’s 1515–16 lectures on Paul’s epistle to the Romans. I know, I know. No one could ever sustain against me the accusation that I lack ambition . . . In any case, I plan to share snippets of Luther’s text with you along the way, as is my wont.

Luther remarks in the below passage on what he thinks it takes to be a pastor, and he also identifies some of the pitfalls of navigating this vocation. What he has to say is obviously interesting to me on that level, but it was another level that jumped out at me. Much of what Luther says about being a pastor here also applies – as I see it – to being a professor. So long as you make some appropriate substitutions, much of the dynamic translates. Consequently, it seems a fitting piece upon which to reflect near the beginning of another academic year. But don’t take my word for it. Here’s the text. Judge for yourselves.

Martin Luther, Lectures on Romans: Glosses and Scholia, Luther’s Works volume 25 (Saint Louis: Concordia, 1972), 139. Bold is mine.
A servant of God should be a “wise and faithful servant” (Matt. 24:25). If he does not pay attention to the former qualification (wisdom), he will become a mere specter and slothful and unworthy of such honor. Thus in those people who in foolish humility try to get along with everybody everywhere and to be popular with their charges the influence of authority is necessarily lost, and familiarity breeds contempt. How gravely do they sin! They allow the things that belong to God and that have been entrusted to them to be trampled underfoot. They should have seen to it that these things were honored. On the other hand, if he does not pay attention to the latter qualification (faithfulness), he will become a tyrant who always frightens people with his power. He wants to be considered grim. Instead of striving to make their authority as fruitful as possible for others, such people try to make it as frightful as possible, even though according to the apostle that power was given not to destroy but to edify. But let us call these two faults by name: softness and hardness. . . . These are the two main faults from which all the mistakes of pastors come. No wonder! For softness is rooted in evil desires, and hardness is uncontrolled wrath. These two faults are responsible for everything that is evil, as everybody knows. Therefore, it is difficult to accept an office unless these two beasts are first slain.
The pastor, therefore, must steer between the Scylla of hardness and the Charybdis of softness. So too must the professor. Too soft? Your authority is undermined, while your subject matter and academic tradition are betrayed by neglect. Too hard? You misuse your authority, while your subject matter and academic tradition are betrayed by – perhaps – taking them with a misplaced seriousness. In both cases, however, the real betrayal is the failure to educate. Or at least the failure to make oneself available to educate should students want to be educated, which is itself a whole other problem… But, again, much the same dynamic obtains for the pastor. In these ways the pastor fails to truly shepherd through ministration of the Word. Or at least fails to be available for the exercise of that ministry should a congregation want to receive it, which is itself a whole other problem…



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