In July 1524, 150 men arrived in Strasbourg as refugees after being forced to flee from their small German town of Kentzingen (now known as Kenzingen) in Breisgau because of their Protestant faith. Under the threat of military force, the male parishioners of the town’s Lutheran church had accompanied their pastor, Jacob Otter, out of town. However, when the men tried returning, the prince’s soldiers had already taken control, and they were unable to reenter. So, the men, with their pastor, rowed boats up the river Rhine until they arrived in the Protestant sympathetic city of Strasbourg, leaving their wives and children behind.
On their first night in Strasbourg, 80 of the men were taken in by a local Protestant pastor and wife, by the names of Matthias and Katharina Schütz Zell, who opened up their parsonage as shelter. Over the following four weeks, the Zells fed 50-60 of them per day with the help of neighbors. News arrived of the situation back in Kentzingen: The overlords had killed the city secretary for owning Luther’s German New Testament, confiscated and burned Lutheran Bibles and books and persecuted the wives of the men who fled.
Katharina felt a particular pastoral concern for the wives of the men she was feeding. So on July 22, 1524, she published an open letter to “the suffering women of the community of Kentzingen, who believe in Christ,” which was eventually reprinted and even sent to Martin Luther.
“If you want to be Christians and to enter into his glory with him, you must also suffer with him, and for this you encounter abuse. Yes, even if you are put in chains for Christ’s sake, how happy you are!”
Their situation was “distressing.” Not only did they lose their husbands and providers (in all practicality they lived as widows), but now they and their children faced the real possibility of persecution and death. Katharina’s main pastoral concern was that the women would remain steadfast in their “God-given faith” and in faithfulness to the Lord Jesus Christ.
While it is unlikely that any of us reading this magazine today have had this type of experience of suffering, we all have lived through a distressing year and have suffered in other ways. As we prayed and brainstormed about the theme of this year’s Beeson magazine, we remembered the difficult year this has been for our alumni. Pastoring and ministering to congregations during a pandemic and a year of political and racial turmoil has taken its toll. Many of you are discouraged, tired and perhaps ready to give up and leave ministry altogether. Additionally, many of you have personally experienced pain and suffering due to the pandemic: your own health struggles with COVID-19, the death of a loved one, financial difficulties, depression and the list goes on.
These days, the popular phrase is “thriving in ministry.” At Beeson, we even have a Thriving Pastors Initiative. Unfortunately, though, in the United States, thriving (its basic definition meaning to flourish and prosper) can be misunderstood and misapplied when associated with ministry. As Americans, to thrive or prosper is too often measured in material accumulation, power and numbers. When this concept of flourishing is projected onto ministry (and it often is), we might be apt to think of thriving as promotions, baptisms and memberships, tithes and offering dollars, platforms, book deals and name recognition. Yet, this year there has been very little of this type of “flourishing.” So, should we drop the term altogether when speaking of ministry? Or can flourishing also encapsulate suffering and want?
In this issue we want to propose that thriving in ministry means to remain faithful to God while enduring suffering. How can we remain faithful under suffering? I believe Katharina can help us with this question in her letter to the suffering women. The following are six points of pastoral wisdom that Katharina offered the suffering women, and which can be helpful for us today.
First, meditate on God’s Word. Katharina wrote, do “not let the invincible Word of God go out of your heart, but always meditate on that Word that you have had with you for so long and heard with all your earnestness and faithfulness.” It is in God’s Word that the women will be reminded of the suffering of God’s faithful people in Scripture, the suffering of God’s own Son, the goodness of God in the midst of suffering, and the purpose of suffering.
Second, share in the faith of Abraham. Katharina pointed to the example of Abraham when God commanded him to sacrifice his son, Isaac, the promised son of God’s covenant. “In the opinion of the world,” Katharina wrote, “that was truly an unfatherly thing to do!”
“But Abraham believed and knew that his heir was invisibly kept safe for him and that God could also bring him back to life. So, I beg you, loyal believing women, also to do this: Take on you the manly, Abraham-like courage while you too are in distress and while you are abused with all kinds of insult and suffering. When you may meet with imprisonment in towers, chains, drowning, banishment, and such like things; when your husbands and you yourselves may be killed, meditate then on strong Abraham, father of us all; struggle after him as a good child should follow his father in a faith like the father’s.”
Third, look to Jesus Christ, who suffered on your behalf, and share in his sufferings. “If you want to be Christians and to enter into his glory with him, you must also suffer with him, and for this you encounter abuse. Yes, even if you are put in chains for Christ’s sake, how happy you are!”
Fourth, remember faith is a “holy struggle.” Katharina pointed again to Christ as an example, who struggled with his own impending death, praying, “If it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will” (Matt 26:39). “Dear sisters, even though sometimes your faith may be discouraged, and the flesh may fight against the spirit, do not therefore be frightened away. It is a holy struggle; it must be thus: faith that is not tempted is not faith.”
Fifth, speak God’s Word to one another for mutual encouragement. “Trample your flesh under foot, lift up your spirit, and speak comfortingly to your husbands and also to yourselves the words that Christ himself has said: ‘Do not fear those who can kill the body.’”
Finally, place your hope in the God of resurrection and the God who is for you in Christ Jesus. Katharina told the women if their husbands are killed, then remember that Jesus is the resurrection and the life. Whether their husbands are gone for a short time or permanently, God will be a husband to them, for they are “beloved by God,” she said. “His mercy and covenant of eternal peace will not be divorced from you in such a storm, for he will not divorce himself from you. … He himself wants to be your Comforter, trusted Guardian, and Protector.”
Kristen Padilla is Beeson’s manager of marketing and communication and director of The Center for Women in Ministry. She also is the author of Now That I'm Called: A Guide for Women Discerning a Call to Ministry.
Material for this article came from Katharina Schӥtz Zell: The Life and Thought of a Sixteenth Century Reformer and Church Mother: The Writings of a Protestant Reformer in Sixteenth-Century Germany, both by Elsie McKee.