A Radical Monk, a Breakaway Pastor, and What Really Matters Most

On October 31, 1517, a “radical” monk strolled up to the entrance of the church in Wittenberg, Germany, and laid down a challenge of debate to any defender of the practice of the sale of indulgences.  Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in the contemporary tradition of such debate challenges.  (Andreas Carlstadt, arguably the theological ancestor of Puritanism, had nailed 151 theses to the door of the Church of All Saints—the same Castle Church— on April 26, 1517.)

In the 95 Theses, Luther outlined 95 resolutions that he was willing to debate, obviously some from the affirmative and some from the negative.  Of these theses, numbers 62 through 66 are quite interesting. 

“62.  The true treasure of the church is the Holy gospel of the glory and the grace of God.

63.  It is right to regard this treasure as most odious, for it makes the first to be the last.

64.  On the other hand, the treasure of indulgences is most acceptable, for it makes the last to be the first.

65.  Therefore the treasures of the gospel are nets which, in former times, they used to fish for men of wealth.

66.  The treasures of the indulgences are the nets which to-day they use to fish for the wealth of men.”

Luther was masterful at the turn of a phrase, such as the treasure of the gospel being used as a net for fishing “for men of wealth”, vs. the corrupt practice of selling indulgences to buy a shortened stay in purgatory for one’s self or a loved one, which he said was used as a net to fish “for the wealth of men.”  As I read number 62, it appears that this was one that Luther would debate from the affirmative, since numbers 63 and 64 appear to be an interpretation of the Church’s position in favor of indulgences.

Within two months, the 95 Theses, originally inscribed in Latin had spread like wildfire throughout Europe.  Within three, they had been translated into German and disseminated en masse to the public via the printing press.  By 1522, Lutheran services began to be held instead of Catholic masses.  Although not the only reformer, Luther’s work against the Catholic hierarchy’s corruption had sparked a spiritual revolution, and the Protestant Reformation had begun.

I awoke today thinking about the 95 Theses, and the courage that any reformer must have had to stand up against the orthodoxy of his faith tradition and point out its flaws.  Surely even those men in the late 18th and early 19th centuries who called for a turning away from the sectarianism that had so permeated the realm of Christendom in its broadest sense faced ridicule and ostracism.  Of the five men who signed “The Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery,” one of the documents heralding the beginning of a new reformation movement (later called a restoration), only Barton W. Stone remained true to its tenets and principles. 

In that document, dated June 28, 1804, Stone and his collaborators opened with the founding premise: “We will, that this body die, be dissolved, and sink into union with the Body of Christ at large; for there is but one body, and one Spirit, even as we are called in one hope of our calling.”  That call to action in this radical declaration would be echoed five years later in Thomas Campbell’s “Declaration and Address.”  I marvel at the clarity of thought and the purpose with which these men approached the task of attempting to set aright many centuries of complacency, punctuated with moments of reform and restored vigor, yet cycling back toward the entropy of dogmatic, creedal disunity.

Dogmatism rears its ugly head in many ways.  But in all my association with it, I have never seen dogma defended in humility.  I recently endured a sermon (I cannot say it was “enjoyed,” since it most certainly was not) in which the topic of obedience was thrashed to within an inch of its life by a steadfast recitation of the instructions to the Israelites found repeatedly in Deuteronomy.  Of particular interest to the speaker, it seemed, was the practice of stoning for unruly children, for false prophets, and for anyone who would entice another to follow after false gods.

Now, as a historical presentation, this is a fine discussion.  But where things got strange was where the speaker essentially said it would be great if we could go back to stoning and eliminate a lot of this “false teaching” that goes on today.  If we could only see people like Nadab and Abihu as they writhed in burning agony for “presuming” to “go beyond” their charge, we would take seriously the necessity to obey every fine detail.  (Nadab and Abihu didn’t really presume anything: they completely violated a direct command.)    

That was something of a shocker, and yet it should not be unexpected.  For those who take the extreme legal approach to religion, it is very natural and normal.

As I reflect on that incident, I have come to some interesting observations regarding the legalist’s approach: 

1)  You may use any example of swift judgment from the Old Testament to instill fear in modern day worshippers.  Nadab and Abihu and the later example of Uzzah are all very useful for pointing out the terror of God.  Forget all of the passages from the prophets where God begs Israel and Judah to return to him so he could heal them and restore them to their rightful place as his chosen people. 

2) You may use the Old Testament to support any position that you wish to support today, but you are obligated to deny its value when it violates your position.  Look at what happens when you go against God.  Never mind that God calls for “social justice” and caring for the poor and powerless throughout the Old Testament.  We aren’t under that Old Law today.

3) Depending on your preference and the historical position of your splinter of a wing of a larger movement, you may accept one example as binding and deny the validity of any other example.  The Jerusalem church’s sharing of all possessions must not be addressed, since it was a special case, and did not meet the requirements of real apostolically approved example, even though Peter and company were directing the activities at that very early time.  The approved examples come from Paul, especially regarding the Lord’s Supper and weekly collections.

4)  It is perfectly acceptable to take verses from their rightful context if they can be and have been historically used as proof-texts by your faith heritage.  For example, all issues of acts of worship, church polity, and benevolence are covered by texts like II John 9, even though the context specifically addresses the heresy that denied the incarnation.  While Revelation 22.18,19 must surely, unequivocally apply to all scripture, forcing a topic to fit into a specific proof-text is acceptable, and does not constitute adding to or taking away from the words of scripture.  Textual fidelity and an awareness of the intent of the message are secondary to supporting our traditions.

5) Our traditional understanding of passages like being “unequally yoked” in II Cor 6.14 applies specifically to marriage, even though marriage is not the subject of the discussion.  Attempts to broaden them to generally “avoid being led by an unbeliever” are in error, and must not be proposed.  This is a case in point, demonstrating that God sprinkled his law throughout the divine writings, which we must diligently and carefully hunt for, like Easter eggs. 

6) All other groups, whether variations of our own brand or those very different from us, are all wrong in every way and consigned to hell.  Let there be no questioning of our conclusions, nor actual study of any other group’s teaching, even though what we teach as being their doctrines may be from sources outdated by half a century or more.  We have found all truth, and only error exists outside of our group.  Never mind that Paul anticipated that there may be misunderstandings and disagreements in passages such as Phil 3.15,16: “15 Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. 16 Only let us hold true to what we have attained.” 

7) All acts of benevolence must only be individual acts, as directed by James 1.27.  Gal 6.10 has nothing to do with a group responsibility, even though Paul used plural pronouns in that discussion.  If we are ever asked to use the church treasury to help a brother or sister in need, we must carefully weigh whether or not this fits the “pattern.”  Never mind that the Old Testament was very direct in saying that “there will be no poor among you” (Deuteronomy 15), since we aren’t under that Old Law.  (Incidentally, all examples of punishment for disobedience are fair game, and should be rehearsed at every opportunity.)  Also, never mind the example of the Jerusalem church in Acts 4.34, where “There was not a needy person among them…” because those who were able sold their possessions and distributed to each as he had need.  And never mind the fact that individual and collective acts are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

8) Errors in the translation of the King James Version are forgivable, since Jacobean English is the language of God.  Also, words like “fear” and “terror” are especially helpful in keeping people in line.  Never mind that “fear” in many places probably connotes “respect” more than trembling and cowering.  All other translations, especially the modern ones, are marred by the hand and ideology of the “denominational” translators.  Never mind that the King James Version was translated by a council of 47 Anglican clergy and scholars, who were ordered to produce a version that maintained the Church of England’s fundamental doctrines regarding the church, the hierarchy of the church, and the practice of an ordained clergy.

I could go on for pages about the inconsistencies of the legalistic approach to faith.  But over the years, I have come to realize that there is virtually nothing to be gained by arguing with them.  As the old saying observes, “There is none so blind as he who will not see.”  It’s not that they can’t.  It’s that they refuse to consider anything but what they have been taught by other practitioners of the same dogmatic narrowness.  And ironically, they say the same thing about anyone who cannot see every issue exactly as they do.

The most dangerous force opposing legalism is a group of people who can and do think for themselves.  If their hearts are honest, then conclusions will be carefully weighed and accepted or rejected based on their merits.  To seek to break something down that is correct is every bit as as wrong as seeking to prop up something that is in error.  This is where honest inquiry must come into play.

Real study is more than rehashing the group’s positions and subjecting one’s self to the group-think mentality.  More and more, I hear of people from many denominations who are questioning the status quo in their groups.  I hear similar conclusions arising from different quarters, so boldly and with such similarity that I cannot accept that it is merely statistical background noise.  I believe there are people from across the map of Christianity who are examining their beliefs and seeking something that is more about Jesus and less about any particular “church.”  The gentle breezes may continue, or they may gather and create a tempest that will rock the orthodoxy of many established groups. 

If we are seeing the next wave of “reformation” or “restoration,” we can only hope it will indeed lead to something closer to the liberty envisioned in the restoration ideal of Barton Stone, who wrote, “We will, the Synod of Kentucky examine every member who may be suspected of having departed from the Confession of Faith, and suspend every such suspected heretic immediately, in order that the oppressed may go free, and taste the sweets of Gospel liberty.” (emphasis mine)

As Paul told the Galatians (5.1), “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”  Legalism’s binding of law where there is none is the most encumbering yoke in the life of faith.  Later, in the same letter, he wrote, “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.” (Gal 5.13)  There it is: the recurring theme of love, as demonstrated in service to one another.  That is the second great commandment.  That is a law to which I willingly submit, because it was endorsed by Jesus, and it makes me more like him. 

It is ironic that the most often stressed “command” –the command to love one another–is one that cannot be forced.  You cannot make someone truly love another.  It must come from within, and it must arise because of a transformation.  Legalists may yell all they want about following commands that only they can seem to find, but love is the pinnacle of Christian existence.  Romans 13.10 says, “…therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.” Real obedience flows from it, and John says there is no fear in it.  If we really get that right—love for God, and love for our fellow man—everything else should fall into place.  Not that it always does. 

Romans 6.14 tells us, “For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.”  Law-keeping, whether the written, codified law of the Old Testament or the interpolated, reconstituted constructs of the New, cannot save us.  I return again and again to Ephesians 2, where Paul unequivocally lays out the foundation for any consideration of salvation.  “4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”  That just about says it all.   

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