A Lesson From Luther

Just over two weeks ago, people around the world marked an auspicious occasion — the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. On Halloween night, 1517, a German monk named Martin Luther went to the front door of the church in his village — Wittenberg, Germany — with a hammer and nail. He nailed to that door a list of 95 theses. These were 95 protests. Ninety-five things that the church was getting wrong. That act sparked a movement of reform that has led to millions of churches and billions of protestants, stretching right up to today. 

While there is much we can learn from the reformers’ experience, I’d like to point out three similarities with our day. There were three cultural shifts happening in 1517 that contributed to the Reformation's taking hold. 

First, there was new technology. The printing press had recently been invented. Just 62 years before — the space of one lifespan — the Gutenberg Bible became the first mass-produced book in history. Before that, books were created by hand, which meant that they were very valuable and reserved for the rich and educated. Literacy rates were very low. But by 1517, a revolution of printing was taking place so that not only could every church have a printed Bible, so could every family, even individual households. The shift from the Word of God taught by the experts to the Word of God in the hands of the common man was tectonic. It’s not an exaggeration to say that it changed the course of human history. 

Second, there was abuse in the church. Remember, there was only one kind of church in 1517. Actually, there were two because the Great Schism that produced the Eastern Orthodox church happened 500 years before. But most of the Christian world was Roman Catholic. And the Catholic church had drifted into some dangerous and extra-biblical territory.

Here’s an example: the church established a system of something called indulgences. They believed that the souls of their departed loved ones were “working off” their sins in a place called purgatory. Purgatory itself is a false doctrine that deserved reforming. But indulgences took it from a misunderstanding to an abusive lie. The church taught that those still living could shorten the penalty of their loved ones in purgatory by making financial donations to the church. That’s right. They turned eternal salvation into a tactic for capital campaigns. 

One Dominican friar was famous for saying: "As soon as a coin in the coffer rings / a soul from purgatory springs.” 

Third, the church was losing influence. The Bible wasn’t the only thing printing presses were used for. The philosophies of Aristotle were translated and printed to the rest of Europe for the first time. There was ongoing conflict between secular sources of power — Kings and Emperors — and clerical power of Popes and Bishops. And though the Scientific Revolution wouldn’t officially begin for 26 more years, great strides were being made in scientific method and discovery. All of these factors were contributing to the rise of a more secular worldview. 

The church at the beginning of the Renaissance — the church of 1517 represented by Luther’s Wittenberg door — faced three factors: new technology, abuses in the church, and loss of influence.

Sound familiar?

New Technology
The smartphone has only been around for a decade. When I went to college the Internet was barely a thing. Technology is changing our culture at breakneck speeds. You only have to watch a video of the Robot Sophia to realize we are facing technological advances that will change our world every bit as much as the invention of the printing press. 

Abuse In the Church
Sexual abuse in the priesthood. Scandals about sex and money and power in megachurches. I was at a conference with leaders from other churches around the country last month and one church in the Northwest was telling me they have a whole department for religious abuse — like a 12-step program for people who have been misguided or manipulated by church leaders. 

Loss Of Influence
Our culture has made dramatic shifts away from Christendom. You may have heard our nation described as pluralist, secular, or post-Christian. All of those labels mean that the church is losing influence. Last year the Barna group released some research that said that 45% of religiously unaffiliated Americans agree with the statement, “Christianity is extremist.” The church has less influence now than at any point in American history. 

Our temptation when seeing these external cultural shifts is to bemoan the hand we’ve been dealt — to insist that the godless culture or the technological wizardry is set against us. And here we might learn from Luther’s wisdom. The target for Luther’s reform was internal. He didn’t write about 95 things that were wrong with German politics or modern science. Luther insisted on confronting the failures of his ecclesial brethren, not the influence of his progressive neighbor. 

Luther’s call to Biblical fidelity rang out in a world-changing movement that has impacted anyone reading this blog. It reshaped the world. Might the post-Christian North American church have a similar opportunity?