Today we commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.
It was a watershed moment for the Church when the Augustinian monk, Martin Luther, published his Ninety Five Theses on October 31, 1517. It brought the Church in the west to where we are at today, decentralizing power and authority, bringing the Church back to its biblical roots, to sound doctrine, at least would say those who follow in the wake of his precedent.
Protesting against the sale of indulgences Luther would challenge the practices of the establishment in a tone of scholarly searching. The public call of accountability and request for dialogue, however, would birth a firestorm which would ultimately lead to his excommunication. When asked to recant his writings at the Diet of Worms in 1521, Luther would respond:
“Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.”
He would then raise his arm in the traditional salute of a knight winning a bout.
It was a new beginning. What was meant for his harm would end up being used for good and would birth a gospel movement and a reformed church. He would publish his German translation of the New Testament in 1522 and found himself birthing a church body by 1526.
The ethos of his work was the power of Christ. That salvation was not by works, nor by paid tithe, but by faith in Christ alone. Also in the belief of “the priesthood of all believers”, the proposition that there are no qualitative differences between clergy and laity.
History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.
It is a saying often misattributed to Mark Twain but as it relates to the Reformation, and the Church today, this remark may have some application.
When you look back at history you will see that cycles repeat themselves. Men have a tendency to drift back to things that were once the cause of revolution and reform. One example of this in scripture is the Galatian church, which drifted back to the Law after knowing the freedom of Christ and salvation that comes by faith in Him alone.
You could also argue that today the evangelical Church is drifting back to that which Luther and the reformers sought to challenge.
There may not be the sale of indulgences, but we have drifted back to large cathedrals with pomp and circumstance. Corrupt men with absolute power sit atop large organizations with little to no accountability. Operating with no elders or only a few elders, ‘yes men’ that act as a barrier of defense rather than a governing body. Money is not exchanged for salvation but for favor within the institutional hierarchy.
Similar to the Roman Catholic Church, the institutional Church is in bed with state politicians. Money donated is exchanged for political power and position.
The parishioners, now equipped with the Word, simply do not read it. Complacency breeds spiritual infants that show up to be spoon fed by men who accept the codependency, the dysfunctional cycle of ignorance and oppression continues. Discipleship is traded for cheap entertainment and we drift back to the dark ages of Christendom.
One has to wonder what Luther would think if he could see the evolution of his work today.
Imagine a man today calling the Church to repentance, in similar fashion to Luther, making the call to accountability public. They would call him critical, disenfranchised or judgmental. He would be considered defiant, an enemy of the Church and an imposter. They would blackball him from their network, a form of excommunication.
It was Luther’s honest heart and courage to ask for dialogue that sparked an undesired firestorm, forcing a crossroads which altered the course of history.
Luther didn’t fear men, he feared God.
Like Luther there are change agents that still exist today. Men and women who are not afraid to challenge the system, to stand up to oppressors and corrupt men who use their power to manipulate those underneath them. To confront those that twist the Word of God to their political and social benefit and use money donated to the storehouse to promote their political views, increase power and polarize those who do not agree.
Whether it was Luther’s moment in history or the Revival of 1857, for example, we see that the heart of the Lord is to grab ordinary men and women, laymen, fishermen, and create not a pyramid of institutional power but an army of relational evangelists that impact the culture at its grassroots.
Perhaps the next Reformation or revival will be in similar fashion, a return to the basics of Christ, turning away from the systems of men that ultimately lead to corruption and the worship of man.
Whatever it may be, let us not be so proud to think that future reform will not be necessary, or that we have arrived. Rather, that we walk in humility willing to admit weakness and accept reform.