Happy Protestant Reformation Day. On this day in 1517 an Augustinian monk and theology professor named Martin Luther ignited a protest against several abuses and common church practices of the Roman Catholic church by nailing his 95 theses to the All Saints church doors in Wittenburg, Germany.
Many view this disputational challenge as a theological matter. Luther was certainly making a theological statement by calling the practice of the selling of indulgences into question.
Others celebrate this disputational challenge as a model of social reform. This interpretation is popular in China, where religious liberty is not valued but social reform is all the rage. Luther was certainly overturning the apple cart of religious control of the masses.
However, The Protestant Reformation was also another kind of reformation, one gets far less explanatory traction in the halls of academia. The Protestant Reformation was a call for the reform of leadership within the church.
Consider these historical tidbits: Historian Frank James estimates that as many as ¼ of all Low Country (Netherlands) priests took concubines as their regular living companions. That number explodes to 2/3 when talking about the percentages of priests in the Swiss/German cities who regularly practiced concubinage.
Now to be historically fair, concubines in Europe during this time period were not hookers. They were women who developed an emotional relationship with a male priest. The priest and his concubine were forbidden to marry due to church laws and thus chose to follow R. Kelley’s advice and “Keep it on the down low.” Many of these relationships would be considered common law marriages by today’s standards as priests and concubines had children together, held common property, etc… The issue was one of immorality, but was also one of poor leadership.
Citing the ruling of the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 the Catholic Church developed a practice of utilizing synods as a way to admonish and regulate morality and ethical codes of conduct among the clergy. One leadership response was that of Heinrich von Hewen IV, bishop of Constance, who called his clergy out for their practice of taking concubines, even demanding that his priests end their relationships within 12 days of receipt of his letter. Another response was that of Bishop Hermann von Breitenlandenberg, who took a similar approach to concubinage and to regular immoral practices of card playing, visiting taverns, excessive eating, and blasphemy against Mary.
These other indiscretions aside, why didn’t the priests push for legal marriage? Why didn’t they study the Bible and look for a Biblical argument to include this practice? Why didn’t the ruling Bishops see this trend and make an adjustment to church law. Again — this was a failure of good leadership. And it is an issue that Martin Luther later addressed (Watch Mark Driscoll’s talk below).
Understandably, this overarching moral reform at the hands of mid-level leaders was not enough to stem the tide of concubinage and other vices. Thus, it was time for the Pope to interject and lead from the top-down. His leadership solution – put a tax on priests who take concubines so that, at least, the church can monetarily benefit from such immoral practices.
Can you imagine what young Martin Luther and other low ranking priests must have felt within this system of leadership? The very Gospel that was intended to produce life change was producing inconsistent life change within the leadership organization. The simple issue of marriage was never addressed Biblically. And the top ranking leader not only allowed for rule breaking among his leaders, he also turned a profit from it. What could these priests ultimately hope to expect from their parishioners?
Luther’s dialogue partner and fellow priest Desiderius Erasmus constructed a reform solution. His idea hoped to exact change from within the leadership organization of the Roman Catholic church. Sadly, as Erasmus’ reform efforts demonstrated, the church could not be reformed from within. It needed to be liberated from its poor top-down leadership constraints. Enter Martin Luther in 1517.
Luther’s reform may not have initially and specifically called for a leadership change per se, but it certainly presumed such a needed change in structure. Luther started the first alternative church organization (The Lutheran Church) that had its own training program for leaders, its own leadership structure, and its own evaluation review system. The bittersweet story of Luther’s church is that it too soon fell into malaise and was itself in need of reform – something that Philip Jakob Spener brought about in part in the 17th century with his emphasis on Pietism.
With his act of defiance, Martin Luther’s greatest contribution to church leaders becomes evident – reform. Holy-Spirit-Directed Reform is the way that God uses good church leadership to bring swift correction to bad church leadership. It is the theological reason for the recent church planting boom, the megachurch trend that preceded it, and the emerging church restart movement taking place in cities all over the world.
So today, we celebrate Martin Luther’s Holy-Spirit-led reform movement, from which God’s church leaders are saying nein to poor leadership and saying Amen to good leadership.