Most people know Martin Luther as a theologian and as the father of the Reformation but he also happened to have some pretty relevant advice for communities dealing with the coronavirus.

Back in 1527, a deadly plague hit Martin Luther’s town of Wittenberg and he wrote a letter to a friend, explaining how churches should deal with such complicated circumstances. Sure, science has progressed immensely in the last 500 years and we know way more about infectious diseases than we did back then, but the heart of his words still ring true.

“Use medicine; take potions which can help you; fumigate house, yard, and street; shun persons and places wherever your neighbor does not need your presence or has recovered, and act like a man who wants to help put out the burning city,” Luther advised. “What else is the epidemic but a fire which instead of consuming wood and straw devours life and body?” 

We have a better understanding of medicine, “potions” and the value of fumigation but Luther’s advice about loving your community by avoiding going out is just as pertinent today.

The scientific consensus is that “social distancing”, staying home and avoiding crowds is the best way to prevent the spread of the virus and help those who are most vulnerable. But Luther knew that as Christians, even these precautions have their limits.

“If my neighbor needs me, however, I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely, as stated above,” he wrote. “See, this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt God.”

In other words, be smart. Use discernment. Protect your community by staying in but if someone needs help, remember the Gospel’s call to assist those in need. That may look different for everyone but we can all do something:

Call an isolated friend who might be lonely. Check-in on elderly neighbors and family members. Don’t hoard groceries and supplies. Be generous with extra income, remembering that many people will be suffering financially in the coming days. Support medical professionals through prayer and respect of their advice and guidelines.

And most of all, remember that though the war on the coronavirus is one that can be won through wisdom and science. We protect our bodies and the health of our communities through social distancing and self-isolation, but we battle not against flesh and blood, but spiritual forces that want to strip us of peace and replace it with fear.

Luther wrote: ”In closing, we admonish and plead with you in Christ’s name to help us with your prayers to God so that we may do battle with word and precept against the real and spiritual pestilence of Satan in his wickedness with which he now poisons and defiles the world.”