October 31, 2017 marks 500 years from one of the most significant events in modern Christian history. It is believed that on October 31, 1517, a 30-something Catholic monk and professor named Martin Luther, posted 95 theses, or statements against the Catholic church, on the door of the stately Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. If you belong to a church that professes Christ and is not Roman Catholic or Orthodox, then you can probably ultimately trace your church or denomination’s roots back to this event. This is what we point to as the birth of the Protestant Reformation. While this is overly simplified, there are three main branches of Christianity: Catholic, which almost all Christians were for the first thousand years after Christ; Orthodox, which broke off in 1054 in what is known as the Great Schism; and then Protestantism, which now has many branches of its own, but they all ultimately point back to this day 500 years ago.
This studious and fiery man didn’t, as I understand it, set out to start a new religious movement or order, and certainly not one named after him, as Lutheranism became. No, at this point he saw some of the terrible things going on in the church and wanted them fixed, or reformed. Two of the most notable things troubling him were the practice of selling indulgences, which was basically a money-making scheme designed to have people pay to get their sins forgiven, and the other, the notion that “good works” could lead a person to right relationship with God. These, and several other things, didn’t sit well with Luther, and he couldn’t stand by and do nothing. The religious environment in Europe was ripe for being questioned and seeking change and whether he wanted to or not, Luther became a central figure in the landscape and the world has never been the same.
Now, there are far more qualified and intelligent people than me who can speak and write with authority on Luther and the Protestant Reformation, but what I want to look briefly at is what this means for us today as we seek to understand and live in God’s kingdom.
I am a part of the Protestant branch of the tree of Christianity, more specifically, the Baptist arm of that branch. We Baptists trace our origins to the early 1600’s when, after a couple of generations of reformers had come and various movements were springing up, a man named John Smyth baptized himself and then Thomas Helwys and started a Baptist church. There is much that I find appealing about worshipping in and serving in a Baptist church, and in particular an American Baptist church, but I would be very shortsighted and arrogant if I thought that my church or my denomination did everything perfectly, had all of the questions of life and faith answered, and were perfectly positioned to reach every single person around us. That’s just simply not true. I believe this is the same of any church or ministry or denomination. None of us has it all figured out, and none of us is perfectly reaching everyone.
This has led some to despair and wonder if there should be no separate denominations; that since we are all Christians, we should all come together. That is certainly a lovely thought, and one that I’ve had at times, but I do believe there is validity in having different groups and different denominations. Some churches or groups of churches are better positioned to reach certain people and help connect them to God and be a vital part of His Kingdom and other churches or groups can do the same with other people. No single church can do it all. No single denomination has it all figured out. This truth ought to keep us humble, realizing that we all have a long way to go, but it can also serve to spur us on and work faithfully within the church or denominational structure we find ourselves in. As long as we keep the perspective on God’s one true Kingdom, I think we’ll be OK. When we realize that He is the One God and One King and we as individuals or churches or ministries or denominations have our small part to play in helping build His Kingdom, I believe we’re on the right track.
Yes, there will always be legitimate questions of Biblical interpretation and we may sincerely think that one group might have something wrong and be teaching people something false, but I think that just gives all the more evidence that we need each other. We need to help hold each other accountable. We still need prophetic voices like Luther’s that challenge us to get back to God’s Word and that lift up God’s Kingdom, but our voices must always be with a tone of grace and humility because we might be wrong on some other point ourselves.
Perhaps this will be a helpful way to explain this. As a pastor and church leader I have been challenged and guided by a passage from the book of Hebrews. In the 5th chapter the author is talking about the High Priest offering sacrifices for the people. There was not a higher human position that one could attain in the Jewish religious structure. This was the top guy; the most important human figure at the temple. But even this person had to be careful. This is what we find in verses 2 and 3 of that chapter: “[The High Priest] is able to deal gently with those who are ignorant and are going astray, since he himself is subject to weakness. This is why he has to offer sacrifices for his own sins, as well as for the sins of the people.”
So as we remember a courageous act from an imperfect person, may we know that in all His power and wisdom, God still wants to use us sinful and broken vessels to proclaim His truths and help build His Kingdom. May we seek His Kingdom above our individual church and denominational affiliations, but may we also faithfully serve those who do come our way in the churches and ministries that God has called us to during our time in history.