Today marks the 500th birthday of the Reformation. Half a millennia ago, Martin Luther wrote 95 complaints about church – and nailed it to a church’s door. He was a Rogue at heart! The Reformation was a movement toward church reform following in Jesus’ footsteps, calling for the reform of the religious.
The vital point: Luther’s appeal for reform within Catholicism looks remarkably like Jesus’ appeal for reform within Judaism, and both movements look remarkably like Millennials’ appeal for reform within churches today.
Catholicism was the predominant and “state” church of Luther’s day, but don’t assume it was the “only” church. Christianity was thriving across the globe, from African churches like in Ethiopia to the Greek Orthodox faith in the East to various splinter movements across Europe. Luther was a priest of the Catholic church but realized it was hardly the “only” church – and was particularly troubled by many practices that seemed counter to the attitudes and values found within Scripture.
Luther called for a return to caring about people, elevating them to be ministers of the Gospel instead of lording over every issue, taking advantage of congregants, and intentionally keeping people in ignorance about their faith. He tackled well-known issues such as questioning the authority of the Pope, opposing the sale of indulgences, and encouraging sermons and translations of Scripture in the language of the people instead of talking over their heads in Latin.
In many ways, Luther argued that Christ’s Church should move toward greater populism and a decentralized religious authority – which is both what first century Christians practiced and what many Millennials seem to yearn for and work towards.
Indulgences as a Case Study
Among his better known criticisms of Catholicism was the sale of indulgences. Luther felt the church should take care of people, not take their money in corrupt ways for corrupt purposes. Churches were collecting money religiously – and often by corrupt pursuits like selling people forgiveness – but often poured this money into construction of fancy churches, padding the pockets of clergy, and sending money back to build further infrastructure in Rome instead of serving the people in their parishes.
It’s hard not to see parallels with Jesus. He gave blistering attacks against the reigning religious leaders of his day, and often for the same financial concerns. In Luke 16:13, Jesus reminded listeners no one can serve both God and money. Luke goes on to inform us in verse 14: “The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all of this and were scoffing at Jesus.”
Think back on Jesus’ other words about money and it’s corrupting power. The wealthy young ruler walked away instead of following. A camel through the eye of a needle, right? Blessed are the poor. Don’t hoard up money like the man who built warehouses to store his stuff and then died. Invest your money in Kingdom purposes, like the servants given multiple talents instead of the one who buried his single talent in fear. Give to the poor, provide for those who need food or clothes, open up your home in hospitality despite the risk of financial loss. Flipping the tables of money changers for turning a church into a place of business ring any bells?
Jesus fought the same corruption that Luther recognized years later and addressed in his 95 theses.
Connecting the dots, many Christians today feel a frustration toward the amount of tithe money that is poured into church empire building instead of ministry. We should be taking care of people’s needs, pursuing evangelism and discipleship, and tackling the world’s most pressing social issues. Building funds, pastoral salaries, high tech performances and fleets of vehicles are all well and good, but they take a disproportionate amount of most church budgets when compared to missions and local impact.
Unhealthy Churches Start With Unhealthy Leaders
Matthew records Jesus’ take on the preachers and church leaders of his day (Matthew 15:7-9,14):
“You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.’ … Leave them; they are blind guides. If a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit.”
This theme of corrupt leaders who speak truth but don’t practice the love of God is common. Can you imagine anything worse than God telling someone, “You worship me in vain”? Let that sink in. You could be worshiping God, but it’s all for nothing if you don’t really love him, if you don’t really serve him, if you don’t cultivate a lifestyle of holiness and following after his heart – aka the things he loves and cares about and values.
Jesus warned that Pharisees in Matthew 23:
“Pile heavy burdens on people’s shoulders and won’t life a finger to help. Everything they do is just to show off in front of others… You Pharisees and teachers of the Law of Moses are in for trouble! You’re nothing but show-offs. You lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. You won’t go in yourselves, and you keep others from going in.”
Unhealthy leaders – ones with the wrong motives, ones who add restrictions that God didn’t, ones who value things that God doesn’t, one who overlooks the things God really cares about – are the root of unhealthy churches.
Luther noticed the same corruptions rampant in his church and called for reform.
- He denounced the authority of the Papacy just like Jesus revolted against the Jerusalem priesthood, with all it’s Pharisees and scribes and teachers of the Law.
- Like Paul, who advocated relaxing Old Testament legalism such as dietary laws and circumcision, Martin Luther advocated relaxing church traditions that got in the way of reaching the lost.
- Luther opposed preaching only in Latin, the sale of indulgences, having to confess through priests instead of going straight to God, viewing Christians as spiritual customers instead of empowering them to being a priesthood of believers, and other practices that created a religious caste system and locked people out of the Kingdom of God.
Jesus, Paul and Luther all sought to bring ministry back to the people. Even prostitutes can evangelize their town, according to Jesus. Even tent makers are ministers, according to Paul. Even pew sitters are in the priesthood, according to Luther.
They all sought to bring people back to God, even if that didn’t mean bringing them back to the institutionalized versions of faith popular in their day. Jesus said true worship wouldn’t occur in the Temple of Jerusalem anymore, Paul spent most of his time teaching from home to home and in marketplaces, and Luther reminded the people of God that for a healthy faith they need each other more than they need a religious ruler in Rome or a priest near home.
And they all sought to remove things that were keeping people from entering into a relationship with God.
How about that for a dangerous discussion for your congregation?
- What in our church makes people leave and keeps people from coming back?
- What in our church makes people feel like less, feel like they don’t belong, feel like a lower class of Christian?
- What things do we impose on people that makes their burden heavier, when Christ never imposed it on us?
- What should we seek to remove that keeps people from entering into a relationship with God?
Let’s be honest. It’s an uncomfortable discussion to have, because changing faith is a dangerous idea if God isn’t guiding it. Faith sometimes needs updated. Through Noah, God updated faith from what it was before. Through Abraham, God updated faith again, taking it to a new level of covenant expectations. Through Moses, God updated faith again, laying it out clearer than ever before. And after it was thoroughly corrupted into legalism instead of keeping close to God’s heart, Jesus updated faith again – bringing us back to the heart of the Gospel and away from the letter of the Law. Paul consolidated those changes, and Luther called us to return to them.
Is it time for your church to do the same? Looking at areas you are off the narrow and need to get back to Christ’s unity, simplicity, love and actions is not just for individuals. It’s for communities of faith as well.
We could make a list of thousands of preferences different Christians hold that aren’t strictly biblical but that Christians spend ridiculous amounts of time condemning each other over. Do people baptize differently than you? Do they do communion less frequently? Do they worship a different way? Do you condemn them for it? That’s textbook Pharisee – making it harder for people to get into the Kingdom of God by constructing innumerable man-made rules that you then impose on all other Believers – instead of recognizing the bounty of diversity God empowered his Church toward.
The Home Stretch
I know. You wanted to hear a happy post about how we should make statues of Martin Luther, or at least pinatas, to celebrate the Reformation’s 500th birthday.
But something else might need to be heard – that we live in a time when religion is rusty, convoluted, complicated, divisive, judgmental – Pharisaical for lack of a better word. We’ve made faith so hard and complicated that we’d be better off going back to carrying Jesus’ light yoke. Jesus called for reform of Judaism, Paul called for reform of Jewish Christianity, Luther called for reform of Catholicism.
Millennials are calling for reform in modern Christian movements.
- A reform that puts Christ first instead of whatever denomination or institution you happen to hold membership with.
- A reform that gets Christians out of the pews and back into the trenches as ministers helping with society’s most pressing needs.
- A reform that puts money back into solving needs of people instead of building church empires.
- A reform that welcomes people in with only the demands Jesus made of us, instead of the thousands we have concocted from our personal preferences and legalisms.
- A reform that treats the church across the street and the denominations across the globe as brothers and sisters in Christ, despite theological differences.
So 500 years down the road and in the same woes. What’s the take away? Our work isn’t done, folks. Reform is a regular pursuit every denomination, congregation and individual must engage in, looking inward at what needs to change so we look more like Christ and looking outward at what needs to be done to bring more to Christ.