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Washing Diapers for God’s Glory: How Martin Luther Transformed Work

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This month we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the first flames of the Protestant Reformation. At the heart of the Reformation, Martin Luther helped to bring clarity to the gospel via his articulation of the doctrine of justification by grace through faith alone. This expression was revolutionary. It not only helped to inspire changes to the church that were to direct the course of modern history, but it has also directly shaped much of what we know today as evangelicalism. Yet, Luther’s unveiling of the gospel was not the only thing that the reformer helped to change for both his world and our own. In particular, Luther’s recasting of the notion of priesthood, a consequence of his work to redress the divide that had existed between the clergy and the laity for centuries, offered a much-needed ecclesiastical corrective. It also transformed the workplace as well and brought meaning and purpose to the labors of all Christians who desired to work unto the Lord.

Clergy/Laity Divide

Martin Luther’s world affirmed a strict demarcation between the clergy and the laity. For centuries, the clergy were a class that had been viewed as those divinely appointed to exclusively oversee matters relating to the church and religion. On the other hand, the laity, which included people from all walks of life and the stratified culture of the period, were relegated to the less-important temporal estate. The laity’s place in culture, along with their work, was valuable. Still, their labors could not compare to the clergy’s who mediated God’s grace to humanity via the church’s sacraments.

In 1518 the reformer began the process of dismantling the clergy/laity divide when he chose to offer an explanation of his 95 Theses in German. This move scandalized the church, for Latin was supposed to direct all ecclesiastical discourse of the day. However, Luther chose to write and speak to the people in their own native German language – directly to their hearts and minds. Luther’s voice was relatable, empowering and pastoral. Luther’s embrace of the vernacular provided him access to a re-imagining of priesthood.

Luther’s voice was relatable, empowering and pastoral.

The Divide Dissolves

Luther’s embrace of the vernacular had several important consequences. But of greatest relevance to his newly fashioned form of Christian priesthood was the way in which the laity were granted a place at the table of the religious discussions that were brewing during those early years of the Reformation.

From the outset, Luther made clear that the clergy/laity divide must be abolished, for it was unfounded according to Scripture. In his To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, Luther clarified, “There is no true, basic difference between laymen and priests, princes and bishops, between religious and secular.”

Based on his reading of 1 Peter 2:9 and Revelation 1:4-6; 5:9-10, Luther argued that all Christians are priests, especially given that they all share in “one baptism, one gospel, [and] one faith.” Of course, the logical corollary of such a notion meant that all Christians may go straight to God; no earthly priest need serve as a mediator. Such a privilege had been made possible by the intercessory work of Jesus on the cross.

Still, this did not mean a removal of the ministerial office, as some have reasoned. The office of pastor was a New Testament office and Luther affirmed its retention in the church. However, instead of seeing a stark distinction between the clergy and the laity, as the medieval church had affirmed, Luther believed that the clergy were different only in terms of their ampt (office or function) and werke (work or responsibility).

All work is valuable — including (and especially) something as menial as washing diapers.

Luther’s Doctrine of Vocation

With the separation between the clergy and the laity dissolved, a natural reorientation took place. Luther began to consider not only the common peoples’ worth as people, but their work as well. Here are a handful of biblical passages and quotes from Luther will elucidate the reformer’s contributions to the doctrine of vocation.

1 Corinthians 7:17-24

Luther translated the word “calling” in this passage as Beruf in the German, which means “occupation.” Here, Luther believed that Paul was not only encouraging people to understand that they should remain in their “work,” whatever that might be, but also to take great pride in that work for it was appointed unto them by God. And if it was God’s calling on their lives, then that work should be viewed a spiritual sacrifice of labor, ultimately done as unto the Lord. This was true of the King, prince, blacksmith or the farmer.

Luther came to this realization given his work as a reformer. He even believed his work made him a contemporary prophet, serving as God’s spokesman to the people! Thus, one’s vocation does not determine any man or woman’s value or human worth. With few exceptions, all vocations were a calling from God. Moreover, Luther believed that the diminished value of what was previously considered “temporal” had been overstated and entirely missed the point of how God uses all people to accomplish His divine purposes to provide for and protect His people.

Psalm 147:12-14 

So, God uses all people to accomplish his purpose and provide for his people. But how does this fill what we consider “secular” work full of meaning? Luther argued in his Exposition of Psalm 147:

By the word ‘bars’ we understand not only the iron bar that a smith can make, but… everything else that helps to protect us, such as good government, good city ordinances, good order… and wise rulers… This is a gift from God.

Therefore, God is concerned about our daily temporal needs and protection just as He is our eternal spiritual ones. And He makes provision for those needs through the hands of the men and women that offer what is to be understood as “God’s provision.” Thus, in vs. 14 of Psalm 147, the satisfaction that comes from “the finest of wheat” implies a farmer who tilled the soil, planted the seeds and reaped the harvest. God’s provision is seen even in the farmer’s supposed menial labors.

Large Catechism (1530)

Luther continued to flesh out the importance of vocation in his Large Catechism. He wrote,

“When you pray for ‘daily bread’ you are praying for everything that contributes to your having and enjoying your daily bread… You must open up and expand your thinking, so that it reaches not only as far as the flour bin and the baking oven but also over the broad fields, the farmlands, and the entire country that produces, processes and conveys to us our daily bread and all kinds of nourishment.”

How then does God provide food for His people? Through all of His people who are His hands and His feet of provision. As Luther would go on to argue, “God could easily give you grain and fruit without your plowing and planting, but he does not want to do so.” Just as God does when He asks Christians to proclaim the message of His gospel to a lost world, so too has He sovereignly appointed us to be participants in His divine work of provision and protection for the daily needs of humanity.

In all of this Luther challenged the prevailing notion that contended only the work of the church qualified as “God’s work.”  His theology postulated a leveling of the playing field, which included humbling the clerics who had too high an opinion of themselves and their work, while also empowering lay commoners to see the value of their work in God’s world.

Still, there was one very important qualifier behind the value of work in Luther’s mind. It must be done “in faith.” Just as faith was a crucial component of Luther’s understanding of justification, so too was it a foundational, empowering aspect behind his view of vocation.

Babylonian Captivity of the Church (October 1520)

Luther addressed the importance of doing work “in faith” in his Babylonian Captivity of the Church when the reformer wrote,

The works of monks and priests, however holy and arduous they may be, do not differ one whit in the sight of God from the works of the rustic laborer in the field or the woman going about her household tasks, but all works are measured before God by faith alone.

In other words, consider a comparison between a priest who fulfills his clerical duties without faith and a peasant who boorishly tills the soil and does his work “in faith.” In this instance, only the peasant would be fulfilling his calling and stewarding the gifts God has granted to him. Only one person is finding favor in God’s sight and being used as God’s instrument of provision for the community — and it is not the priest.

Therefore, Luther would exhort us to remove the word “just” from the description of our jobs and everyday tasks. The housewife is not “just a housewife,” but the one divinely called to shepherd and care for the home and family. The stockbroker is not “just a stockbroker,” but the one entrusted by God with the long-term financial provision of His people. The sanitation worker is not “just a trash man or just a janitor,” but the one called to care for the beautiful world God created.

Estate of Marriage (1522)

Is all work really valuable? Some of us might balk at the notion that God cares about mundane tasks. However, read what Luther said about the menial task of washing diapers:

“Now you tell me, when a father goes ahead and washes diapers or performs some other mean task for his child, and someone ridicules him as an effeminate fool—though that father is acting in the spirit just described and in Christian faith—my dear fellow you tell me, which of the two is most keenly ridiculing the other? God, with all his angels and creatures, is smiling—not because that father is washing diapers, but because he is doing so in Christian faith. Those who sneer at him and see only the task but not the faith are ridiculing God with all his creatures, as the biggest fool on earth. Indeed, they are only ridiculing themselves; with all their cleverness they are nothing but devil’s fools.”

All work is valuable — including (and especially) something as menial as washing diapers.

Conclusion

To be sure, Luther’s Reformation influenced how we understand the gospel in the twenty-first century. But the revolutionary ideas undergirding his theology affected multiple aspects of our life — including our work. As Luther demolished the divide between clergy and laity, he helped everyday men and women realize that God cares about their work — even the most menial and basic of tasks. So, allow the changing of that odious diaper to be transformed into act of worship — a fragrant offering pleasing to God.

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  • history
  • reformation
  • vocation
  • work
Stephen Eccher

Dr. Eccher is Assistant Professor of Church History and Reformation Studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is a self-proclaimed “lover of all things Reformation(s).”

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