When Reformers Reform Reformers

The church in Wittenberg where Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door.

The church in Wittenberg where Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door.

2012 seems like forever ago. I can barely remember what I did last week, let alone 5 years ago, but I do know that was a significant year for me. For one thing, I had the chance to travel to Germany with my family, and visit Wittenberg with my mom and eldest brother.

Perhaps the name of this little city is familiar to you. For protestant Christians, it’s quite important. 500 years ago on October 31, Martin Luther did something radical and unexpected. 

At that time, there was only one church in the West - the Roman Catholic church. But the 34 year old theologian and monk wasn't happy with it. The church had become an empire. It was so closely connected to the state that they seemed inseparable. Luther, who loved the church, didn't agree with some of its teachings and practices, like the selling of indulgences for the forgiveness of sins. Yes, that’s right. For only $34.99, you could buy a piece of paper that said you were forgiven!

Me standing in front of the new door (where the old door used to be) on which Luther nailed his 95 theses.

Me standing in front of the new door (where the old door used to be) on which Luther nailed his 95 theses.

So what do you do when you disagree with what your church is doing? Well, you write a blog. But without internet in the 16th century, Luther did the next best thing. He wrote down 95 of the things he believed were wrong with the church and should be changed, marched to the state church in Wittenberg, and nailed his list to the door.

No one could have guessed that this action would spark a revolution around the world. It marked the start of the Protestant Reformation.

At that time in history, if you went against what the church taught, its leaders had the power to excommunicate you, or worse. If you didn’t agree with their teaching or follow their rules, you were a threat to their system and to God. They had the right and the duty, in their mind, to force you to reconsider or to get rid of you.

Luther couldn't let go of his convictions. He insisted that following scripture alone (sola scriptura) was the only way to be a Christian. He found that a lot of the teachings of the church were not based on scripture, like the selling of indulgences, and that deeply troubled him. He saw the Pope and priests taking advantage of the people, and it weighed heavy on his conscience.

Well, as you might guess, Luther’s public stunt didn't sit well with the church leaders. What's worse, Luther wouldn’t stop. The invention of the printing press a century earlier had made it possible for Luther’s writings to become widespread. He even translated the Bible from Latin into common German so that everyone could read it, rather than the priests alone.

The more Luther criticized the church, the more trouble came his way. He was labeled a heretic. He was excommunicated from the church by the Pope. He was made to appear before the Diet of Worms in 1521, where they implored him to recant. He said that his conscience would not allow him to. He would have died were it not for a friendly kidnapping from his prince, who kept him safe in the Wartburg castle in the city of Eisenach (I had a chance to visit this castle in 2010).

Luther’s actions sparked a reformation that led to the start of the Evangelical State Church in Germany and the Lutheran denomination around the world. Surprisingly, this was never Luther's intention. In fact, he wanted to bring change to the Roman Catholic church, which he loved. But what the church lacked at that time was the toleration for any beliefs that were not their own.

This past week, in commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the reformation, Canadian Mennonite University hosted the JJ Thiessen Lectures on exactly this topic. C. Arnold Snyder brought us into the 16th century to analyze what role the lack of tolerance had in the protestant reformation, as well as other subsequent reformations.

Snyder points out the irony in the church’s history of heresy, intolerance and reformation. What Luther really wanted was to be ale to follow his convictions within the church. He wanted tolerance because he believed he found the truth about the Bible and the Christian faith. But instead, he got intolerance. He was called a heretic, who believed and taught something other than the truth. That intolerance led to a split in the church and a lot of hatred and animosity.

Here’s the irony. Eight years later, in 1525, Christians in Switzerland were also dissatisfied with their church. They read scripture in a different way and were convinced that practices, like infant baptism, were not part of being Christian. Instead, they believed people should be baptized when they can make that conscience decision for themselves, so they re-baptized each other (which is where we get the name Anabaptists).

What was the response of the Catholics and Lutherans? Heresy! They sought the Anabaptists out, persecuted them, and had them killed. How is it that Martin Luther, who longed for tolerance from his church, refused to be tolerant to others who themselves where following their convictions like he was?

This is where Snyder’s analysis comes in handy. To go against the Catholic church was heresy. The state felt the obligation to coerce people to change their minds even to the point of death. Luther’s church took on this practice, persecuting those within the Protestant church who didn't subscribe to the Lutheran confession. We find that Luther was really advocating for tolerance for himself, not everyone, because he believed he had uncovered the truth.

What follows in the Anabaptist reformation, and others, is groups of people who disagree with the church to which they belong, believe they have uncovered the real truth, stand by their conviction on punishment of death, decide to start their own reformed church, and then turn around and persecute anyone who doesn’t believe what they believe.

“[A heretic is] essentially someone who disagrees with me. We are all heretics in the eyes of those who do not share our views.” - C. Arnold Snyder

So where does that leave us? Historically speaking, it leaves us with about 10,000 Christian denominations around the world. It leaves us with a divided church that, even now, is still splitting over disagreements about beliefs and confessions. It leaves us with an ethos in which we can only be comfortable worshiping with brothers and sisters who are just like us. This is dangerous, because it implies that we, and nobody else, holds the absolute truth of God. 

In contrast to this, Snyder suggests that what we need is religious toleration. Not acceptance, but tolerance. And, of course, this makes our flags go up. To what extent should we tolerate? How can we live together in peace with people with whom we disagree? How can I worship God beside someone who I know thinks differently about the birth of Jesus? How can I serve our community next to someone who believes something different about human sexuality?

These may be great questions for us to wrestle with, but I wonder how important they are in comparison to unity and peace in the church, or to humility and love for one another. Perhaps change, growth and transformation isn’t always a bad thing. Can any of us say that we have fully arrived at the truth of who God is? So for now, I have resolved to be more tolerant, because as we can see, when reformers reform reformers, the result isn’t all that appealing.