500 years ago, on October 31, 1517, Martin Luther’s 95 Theses added fuel to a fire of reformation that was already being kindled throughout Europe. Perhaps you’ve sensed similar, pre-reformation-type rumblings throughout Christendom lately. Whispered and shouted, online and in private conversation, prophetic voices are rising up from every direction, in every denomination. There is a corrective movement underway, and I think history may show it as equally significant to the one Luther led.
If the powers at be listen, the Church will be better for it. If they resist, there will be a significant split in Christianity. Either course could prove a good thing, of course, as was Luther’s “divisive” movement. With this Spirit of reformation among us, I thought I’d compile what I think are the most pressing movements and tensions within the Church.
Right up front, a disclaimer: I would estimate Martin Luther is at least 10 times smarter (and 10 times more verbose) than I could ever dream of being, so in place of his 95 theses I’ve curated the issues to post just 9 (and a half) Theses for Today. This will prove more readable for today’s attentions spans as well, which are considerably shorter than they were in 1517 and the printing press was still a relatively new technology.
1. The critique of the powerful is an essential part of the community of faith. It always has been. Prophets of God practiced confrontation within the community of Israel. Jesus critiqued and questioned those in power — both civil and religious leaders. Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli (and before them Hus, Wycliffe, and others) urged the Church forward with their nagging but essential questions. Still, Church leaders today seem resolute in their attempts to silence sisters and brothers who ask too many questions. Those who question religious (or even civil) leaders are branded as divisive, insubordinate, or lacking in spiritual maturity. This muting must stop if we are to be the whole, beautiful bride we are called to be.
2. Nationalism has no place in the Body of Christ. An “America First” (or any individual nation first) mindset motivates many believers. Jesus said to seek first the Kingdom (Matthew 6:33), and our goal should not be to make America great, but to make the Kingdom come. American nationalism is crippling the Church’s witness. Our calling transcends our flag. We must pledge allegiance to Jesus alone. Saying “God Bless America” but refusing to ask God to bless Iran, Pakistan, or North Korea exposes idolatry. It’s time to be Kingdom people, not kingdom people.
3. For too long, the Church has aligned themselves with the politically powerful. Since the rise of the Religious Right and the Moral Majority (in America, this issue is as old as Constantine), Christians have too often sought to influence culture through political means. For three or four decades, Christian subculture has foolishly aligned itself with political movements. Seeking influence with culture by hitching our wagon to the politically powerful is not the way of Jesus. The practice must cease. Jesus followers have been duped and used by politicians long enough. Christians worrying about the makeup of the Supreme Court more than the fact that millions don’t have the bible in their language is unacceptable. More than half of Americans view “evangelical” as a political affiliation, not a religious commitment. We must un-blur these lines to regain our witness.
4. The Church has been crippled by chronic individualism and must repent. A “personal relationship” with Christ is to Christian discipleship what training wheels are to a triathlon. We must go deeper. Individual restoration is not the goal of the Gospel. Complete restoration within the community, between us and creation, and between us and God, in addition to the Gospel’s impact on us personally, is how the full force of the Gospel must manifest itself. Jesus prayed “Give us this day our daily bread (Matthew 6:11), not give me today my daily bread.” Our tendency toward hyper-individualism must cease.
4. Bigotry, hatred, racism, sexism, xenophobia, and homophobia are pervasive in the Body of Christ and must be eradicated and repented of. Women are often treated as junior varsity members of churches and are deserving of opportunities to live out their giftedness in a full and meaningful way. Gay individuals who desire to follow Christ are treated differently than others. People not like “us” are feared and avoided. In short, an Us vs. Them mentality is far too prevalent within the Church and must be eliminated. We must commit to building bigger tables, not taller walls. Behind all bigotry is bad theology. The Bible clearly teaches that the Gospel is for all ethnicities and people. None are superior to any other. We should examine our theology and practice deeply and rid it of any trace of favoritism (Deuteronomy 10, James 2).
5. A gatekeeper mindset reminiscent of Phariseeism has infiltrated the Church and is creating unnecessary fissures. Disagreement is treated by the modern church as the equivalent of disunity. This must not and cannot be. Empathy and transparency must replace self-centeredness and pride for the Church to grow. We must listen more deeply. We don’t have to agree with everything someone says or does to partner with them in ministry, and labeling people with whom we disagree as false teachers, disqualified for leadership, or unwelcome at the table of fellowship is a dangerous pattern. Jesus must do the work of judgement while we do the work of wisdom — listening, empathizing, and humbly asking ourselves what we have to learn from people with whom we have discord. And we must remember that Jesus reserved his harshest judgment for those who made the Kingdom inaccessible (Matthew 23).
6. Attractional, corporate church methodology must be surrendered. The Church was meant to be missional, not attractional. Every time a crowd gathered around Jesus he tested their motives, running some of them off (John 6, Luke 9, Luke 14). These days, Churches go out of their way to not upset anyone. We’ve forgotten that gathering crowds is not the goal. The modern Church has placed a higher value on leadership than discipleship for far too long. We must return to our roots — as a people, not a program. As a calling, not a club. It is better to equip a faithful few than entertain shallow masses.
7. The allocation of Church resources must be examined in light of the Gospel and a Biblical concern for justice. The average church spends between just 5%-10% of their budget on global missions while allocating 20% on utilities and maintenance. 525,000 children die annually from drinking dirty water while some churches have decorative indoor fountains. Our concern for the extremely poor must grow, even if to the detriment of our personal and congregational comfort (Proverbs 29:7). Our concern (or lack thereof) for the poor and marginalized is indicative of our salvation (Matthew 25).
8. Certainty is an idol that needs smashed. Questions and wrestling can be evidence of a high view of Scripture, not a low view. Offering rehearsed answers to life’s painful realities leads people to believe that they must be sure and secure to follow after Jesus. It is when we struggle together that we most represent the Body of Christ in a Gospel centered way. Christianity should not be reduced to practiced, empty slogans. There is far more nuance to that which we believe, and we must embrace that nuance even as we continue seeking in faith after Jesus.
9. The silence (on so many issues) must be broken. 450 million people suffer with mental illness. The Church is almost completely silent about it. Sexual abuse within the Church is rampant and unaddressed as a means of saving face. Far too many churches don’t engage difficult cultural topics for fear that they may alienate some. It’s okay to not be okay. We must stop pretending, and we must stop building culture in our churches that disallows for this vulnerability, especially among our leaders. It is time that the Church speaks up about more than just a small handful of hand-picked, politically conservative issues.
9.5 This struggling together could serve to solidify our unity, if we walk in humility and wisdom together. We should not seek to retreat from one another because of perceived differences, but hold fast in love even as we wrestle with the truth.
It was not Luther’s goal to start a denomination, but to reform the Catholic church which he loved. It was resistance to his prophetic voice that caused the schism. We would do well as a Church to listen to the voices among us calling for these reforms.