The World Wants To Be Fooled

By the early 1530s Dr. Martin Luther had taught concerning the nature of the ministry and the call of pastors in various writings.  Additionally, Lutherans explicitly stated their position on the Office of the Holy Ministry in the Augsburg Confession and its Apology. Simply put, Dr. Luther and the first Lutherans asserted that no one should be preaching publicly without a proper call. [Luther on Office of the Ministry] From the beginning of the Reformation, the Lutherans also had to deal with those who believed they had a direct call from God or some special revelation.  Dr. Luther referred to those individuals as the Enthusiasts. [On the Enthusiasts]

However, Luther also pointed out the false teachers would often arise from among rightly-called pastors.    In the early 1530s, when teaching on Matthew 7:15, Dr. Luther wrote a pastor’s legitimate call does not “guarantee that people have to believe him, as though he could not be a scoundrel in the ministry.  It is not unusual in the world for villains and rascals to occupy every office and station in society and to abuse it.”  Although these preachers hold the proper office, they may become wolves through false teaching.  Therefore, Christians must hold them accountable to the teaching of Holy Scripture. [Luther, Sermon on the Mount, Luther’s Works, vol. 21, p. 251].

In his lectures on Galatians 5:25-26 (published in 1535), Dr. Luther warned preachers against the sin of vainglory.  While legitimate preachers may fall into this vice, Luther stated that the devil sends false preachers to stir up trouble in the church.  However, these false teachers deceive others masterfully as Luther argued:

“the art and skill of the servants of Satan is such that among their followers they not only know how to simulate love, concord, humility, and other fruits of the Spirit; but they also praise one another, give preference to others to themselves, and say that others are better than they…Nevertheless, they are actually extremely eager for vainglory, doing everything to gain more respect and praise among men than others have.  In short, they ‘imagine that godliness is a means of gain’ (I Tim. 6:5) and that the ministry of the Word was committed to them to make them famous” [LW 27:99] {Emphasis added}.

Notice in Dr. Luther’s description that false teachers pretend to be godly with the intention to deceive.  Their goals are fame, riches, and power.  They mimic the words and actions of true preachers, but their words and actions are a ruse.  These false preachers boast of the Spirit and divine teaching, but they enter the congregation without a call in order to manipulate others to follow them [LW 27:100].

In 1539, Luther discussed how false teachers had deceived Christians in the past.  In this case, he described how various monastic sects had arisen in the Middle Ages.  Luther compared these false preachers to screech owls used to trap other birds:

“The world wants to be fooled. If you wish to catch many robins and other birds, you must place an owl or a screech owl on the trap or lime-rod, and you will succeed. Similarly, when the devil wants to trap Christians, he must put on a cowl, or (as Christ calls it) a sour, hypocritical expression [Matt. 6:16]. Thus we stand in greater awe of such owls and screech owls than of the true suffering, blood, wounds, death, and resurrection, which we see and hear of in Christ, our Lord, endured because of our sin. So we fall, in throngs and with all our might, away from our Christian faith and into the new holiness, that is, into the devil’s trap and lime-rod” [Martin Luther, On the Councils and the Church, LW 41:127] {Emphasis added}.

When I read this text, it reminded me of a mockingbird.  These birds adeptly mimic the sounds of other birds and other animals. Borrowing from Luther’s analogy, we might understand false teachers as spiritual mockingbirds who mimic the true teaching of the Gospel, but only attract other birds to be trapped in false doctrine.


About Dr. Matthew Phillips

My name is C. Matthew Phillips and I am Professor of History at Concordia University, Nebraska. I completed my Ph.D. in medieval European history at Saint Louis University in 2006. My research has focused on medieval monasticism, preaching, devotion to the True Cross, and the Crusades. Additionally, I have interests in medieval and early modern European education and the writings and life of Martin Luther.

At Concordia I teach World Civilization I, World Civilization II, Europe Since 1914, Early and Medieval Christianity, Renaissance and Reformation, The Medieval Crusades, The History of Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union, and The Modern Middle East.


The World Wants To Be Fooled — 3 Comments

  1. Dr. Phillips,

    Do you think Luther’s words speak to the parachurch phenomenon / celebrity theologian phenomenon / social-media theologian phenomenon that we are seeing today?

    For example, what do you think Luther would say about The 1517 Legacy Project and its various “projects” (including Christ Hold Fast) who, via conferences, give a parachurch “pulpit” to many (without any call) so that they might teach the church?

    It all seems so perfectly postmodern that we have “non-preachers” “not preaching” at “not church” – as we are so often assured – when, in fact, preaching is the very thing that is happening at these conferences (along with worship), as any child or outsider would attest.

    Should we identify this as a kind of twenty-first century enthusiasm, or clandestine preachers stealing-in via internet and conference? What are your thoughts?

    Any comments on social-media “pulpits” where an individual is clearly not posting personal opinions over a diverse range of topics, but rather exclusively taking it upon himself/herself (without a call) to preach to the church?

  2. Mockingbirds are dangerous because they sound like the real thing. I could not possibly say what Dr Luther might think of the groups you mentioned. However, we could say they should be judged by what they teach. And if we respect the divine call, as Dr. Luther did, we must consider that when we listen to or read what someone teaches.

  3. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice. Philippians 1:18 ESV

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