Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague
A Letter from Martin Luther
Grace and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. You wish to know whether it is proper for a Christian to run away from a deadly plague, and we here give you our opinion as far as God grants us to understand and perceive.
Since it is generally true of Christians that few are strong and many are weak, one simply cannot place the same burden upon everyone. Peter could walk upon the water because he was strong in faith. When he began to doubt and his faith weakened, he sank and almost drowned. Christ does not want his weak ones to be abandoned, as St. Paul teaches in Romans 15:1 and 1 Corinthians 12:22.
Those who are engaged in a spiritual ministry such as preachers and pastors must remain steadfast before the peril of death. We have a plain command from Christ: “A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep, but the hireling sees the wolf coming and flees” [John 10:11]. For when people are dying, they most need a spiritual ministry which strengthens and comforts their consciences by word and sacrament and in faith overcomes death. However, where enough preachers are available in one locality and they agree to encourage the other clergy to leave in order not to expose themselves needlessly to danger, I do not consider such conduct sinful because spiritual services are provided for and because they would have been ready and willing to stay if it had been necessary.
In the same way all those in public office such as mayors, judges, and the like are under obligation to remain. This, too, is God’s word, which institutes secular authority and commands that town and country be ruled, protected, and preserved, as St. Paul teaches in Romans 13:4, “The governing authorities are God’s ministers for your own good.” To abandon an entire community which one has been called to govern and to leave it without proper government, exposed to all kinds of danger such as fires, murder, riots, and every imaginable disaster is a great sin. On the other hand, if in great weakness they flee but provide capable substitutes to make sure that the community is well governed and protected, all that would be proper.
What applies to these two offices of church and state should also apply to persons who stand in a relationship of service or duty to one another, such as parents and children, servants and masters, paid public servants, city physicians, city clerks, constables. They should not flee unless they furnish capable substitutes.
It would be well, where there is such an efficient government in cities and states, to maintain municipal homes and hospitals staffed with people to take care of the sick so that patients from private homes can be sent there and so that it should not be necessary for every citizen to maintain a hospital in his own home. Where there are no such institutions, we must give hospital care and be nurses for one another in any extremity, or risk the loss of salvation and the grace of God. Thus it is written in God’s word and command, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” and in Matthew 7:12, “So whatever you wish that people would do to you, do so to them.”
Whoever serves the sick for the sake of God’s gracious promise has the great assurance that he shall be in turn cared for. God himself shall be his attendant and his physician. What an attendant God is! Friend, what are all the physicians, pharmacists, and attendants in comparison to God? Should that not encourage one to go and serve a sick person, even though he might have as many contagious boils on him as hairs on his body? What do all kinds of pestilence or devils mean over against God, who binds and obliges himself to be our attendant and physician? Do you not know that you are surrounded as by thousands of angels who watch over you?
So whoever wants to serve Christ in person would surely serve his neighbor as well. We should not disregard God’s command in our dealings with our neighbor and fall into sin on the left hand.
But neither should we sin on the right hand. Some people are too rash and reckless, tempting God and disregarding everything which might counteract death and plague. They disdain the use of medicines; they do not avoid places and persons infected by the plague, but lightheartedly make sport of it and wish to prove how independent they are. This is not trusting God but tempting him.
You ought to think this way: “Very well, by God’s decree the enemy has sent us poison and plague. Therefore I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine, and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to be contaminated and thus perchance infect others, and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me and I have done what he has expected of me. If my neighbor needs me, I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely, as stated above.” This is a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt God.
In closing, we plead with you in Christ’s name to help us with your prayers to God so that we may be strengthened in our work. May Christ our Lord and Savior preserve us all in pure faith and fervent love, unspotted and pure until his day. Amen.