Back to the Reformers (3): Luther and Calvin were intimate with fellow believers
[Third in a series.]
For years, I watched my father and father-in-law navigate the troubled waters of celebrity Christian leadership. They did so without losing their humility, and both men’s homes had a constant stream of guests both short and long-term who shared their tables, living rooms, and conversations.
Reading about John Calvin and Martin Luther’s daily life and work reminds me of Dads Bayly and Taylor in a way our contemporaries who are celebrities of the church don’t. Take for instance speaking engagements, travel, and money.
Today, if you want to invite The Great John Doe to speak at your conference, church, or Christian International University, just try getting in touch with him.
You won’t. You’ll be doing well to talk to his personal assistant who, with a purring voice belying her bulldog tenacity, informs you the next opening for a phone conversation with the Eminent and Worthy Rev. Dr. John Doe is on May 23rd of 2026. She then asks if you would like her to pencil you in for 6 AM?
Being naive, you may try to explain that you don’t know if you will still be hosting the conference in 2026, so you inquire if it would be possible to talk with His Eminence, The Rev. Dr. John Doe, sometime earlier—say in the next year or two?
There’s an embarrassing silence, followed by the clearing of a throat and a “well now” and “let’s see” and “I’m afraid it’s just not possible.”
Slowly, you begin to realize from the tone of the conversation what an infringement you are on the successful completion of this dear woman’s work for the day. It occurs to you to try to reassure her by explaining how much you appreciate this Rev. Dr. John Doe. You might explain how, in the insignificant and small circles of your own petty life, he is the constant cause of the people’s great rejoicing. They consider him their benefactor. He blesses them with much happiness, and thus it is that you have dared to become an advocate for your very small and insignificant corner of the church in which those you love are pining for an appearance of their hero. Their champion. Their demigod.
At this point, His Eminence’s female or male assistant begins to clue you in on the hopelessness of your case—even if you did decide to wait until 2026 to have a conversation with him and even if he did agree to speak for you. Oozing condescension, she explains to you The Rev. Dr. Doe has a board that requires his speaking engagements to rise to a certain level of strategic value. His board won’t permit him to speak to fewer than 1,000 people for an honorarium that is less than $10,000.
She goes on to inquire whether your invitation is for that sort of “strategic opportunity?”
It now dawns on you what a complete idiot you are, so you try to get off the phone as quickly as possible. You don’t quite remember what you came out with at this point except that it was something like, “Oh, I’m sorry. Yes, I do understand. Quite right! No, I simply didn’t know. Sorry, sorry, sorry. Of course The Rev. Dr. Doe could not waste his time speaking to my measly 75 souls for which we would only be able to provide him a cheapskate honorarium of $1,000.”
Note before we bring this to a conclusion that I have not mentioned other requirements such as The Great John Dough’s demand for a hotel suite, his requirement that he fly first class, his expectation that he will have a driver at his beck and call from the time of his arrival to the time of his departure, his stipulation that he have a green room where he can retire after his performance, avoiding any human contact that might threaten to go what-you-say “pastoral” on him, and so on.
Readers only have to look at the picture of Katie and Martin’s dinner table each night to see the stark contrast with the Christian celebrities of our day. There were usually thirty-five to fifty people around this table and he often spent his evenings afterwards having unguarded conversations with a roomful of men and his dear wife. Which is to say Luther knew nothing of the priorities our rich and famous churchmen set for themselves today.
Martin Luther didn’t spend his time cultivating or burnishing any image of sinlessness and perfection. Had he tried, his Lord Katie would have taken great delight in lampooning him with the goal of bringing him back down to earth.
Martin and Katie lived and ate and fought under the watchful eye of a large household and a larger city, and the idea of hiding behind first class airfare, hotel suites, green rooms, and drill sergeant personal assistants would have struck them as ludicrous. They didn’t avoid people; they loved them. People were God’s sheep and it was Martin’s calling to feed and protect them.
Luther was no dilettante, prig, or narcissist. Luther was no preacher who avoided making applications. He didn’t “let the Holy Spirit do the work of convicting.” He wasn’t the sort of pompous man who, after preaching, declines to greet the sheep in the door of the church as they depart for their homes.
I could continue, but I won’t.
Luther and Calvin lived out in the open and spent their time worrying about others and doing everything they could to serve them. It’s inconceivable to think of either the reformers or our fathers demanding an audience of a certain size or payment of a certain amount for speaking to that audience.
Inconceivable, I say.
Calvin spent hours each week listening to, then working on a resolution for church discipline cases in which, for instance, a woman complained that the man there next to her had “drunk marriage” to her in the tavern, but now wasn’t willing to be married to her or own her baby daughter as his own.
Luther spent hours each week seated at the head of a table where thirty-five to fifty others, men and women, boys and girls, old and young ate and drank and fought and kissed and argued and grew in the knowledge and love of the Lord.
Again, look at the picture and meditate on it. We need church officers who would be comfortable with Katie placing them halfway down the far side of the table, seated to the right of Auntie Leene and directly across from the swineherd.
Let’s return to the model the Apostles, early church fathers, and reformers set for us. Give us pastors who shepherd their flock. Their sheep. Shepherds who are down in the muck with their flock, solving vexing conflicts, comforting the sick and dying, and never stopping their dead-ahead instruction in the doctrines of Scripture.