On October 31st 1517, 500 years ago yesterday, a German Monk named Martin Luther posted 95 complaints against the Church on the door of his local Cathedral. For a few centuries before him the church in Western Europe had been in severe moral decline. There were certainly many who remained faithful to the gospel but there was a general sense across Western Europe that Christianity as a whole had strayed too far from its roots. Martin Luther’s 95 complaints began the process of reforming those wrongs. Luther and his followers were very quickly labeled, “Protesters” or “Protestants” by their critics. It was thought that all they did was protest. However, they called themselves Reformers because they wanted to reform the church into something resembling its earliest roots.
When I teach classes about this time in history I always end up talking about one thing Luther had that nobody before him had, namely the Printing Press. Before Luther, someone could write something in England and someone else would write the same things in Austria or Egypt and they never would have known about each other. It took information a long time to circulate and because it traveled so slowly, it was easy for those in authority to stop the spread of ideas before they could take off.
Then came the printing press and suddenly all it took was a month for information to circle the continent of Europe.
As I explain to my classes, the Reformation did not begin when Luther nailed his 95 complaints to a wall. It actually started when someone took the complaints down, ran them through a Printing Press and circulated them across Europe. Luther was one of the very first historical figures to experience the odd sensation of going viral. In no time at all he was both famous and infamous. Within months his name was well known but he was also being accused for heresy and treason.
As people joined his cause and started a movement, Luther’s followers gained a popular nickname by their Roman Catholic countrymen. They called them “Protesters” or “Protestants.” It was thought that all they did was protest. They protest so that they can protest so that they can protest some more. Their critics cast them as ugly, violent protesters who were lazy and uneducated.
Some of them kind of earned it. The first generation of Protestants were more violent and more vitriolic than we are today. Some of those who read Martin Luther’s 95 theses responded in obscene ways and the German people ending up staging a brief but violent revolution against the Roman Catholic church. Some of them went around burning down entire towns and doing all kinds of ugly things in Luther’s name. Luther, of course, denounced all of it but when you start protesting you give the violent a means of exercising the violence that is within them. Some people go around looking for any and every reason to do harm and Luther unfortunately gave them one.
Now I reside in the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition and our piece of this narrative is a little bit more insane. Twenty years after Luther posted his complaints, a hormonal king named Henry VIII decided he was going to protest his wife and he asked the Pope for permission to divorce her. The Pope refused so Henry protested the Pope and he left the church to start his own church. Strangely, though, Henry could never quite figure out if he was Protestant or Catholic and this created an identity crisis in England that resulted in hundreds of years of civil unrest and war.
This century of church-inspired violence led the early American forefathers to stage their own kind of protest. Along with taxation without representation and divinely endowed monarchies, they also protested having a state sanctioned church. Tired of the Protestant Vs. Catholic Vs. Quaker wars that had defined England, our founding fathers decided to not establish a national church. The phrase that one of them chose to describe it is “separation of church and state.”
But after 240 years many have noted that we haven’t separated churches from the state nearly as well as we have separated churches from each other. By not having a state sanctioned church we have given anybody permission to do what Henry VIII did. Any dissatisfied soul can start their own Protesting Reformation and start their own church, making up their own doctrine.
I know of at least three or four churches that have had a Protestant Reformation in the last six years. In these churches a group of people got angry about something trivial. They didn’t like the songs. The pastor wasn’t Republican enough or Democrat enough. The women’s ministry stopped doing the afternoon tea social. The denomination wasn’t firm enough on “key” convictions. So they went to their social media and posted 95 theses for all to see and then they took their cronies and like Henry VIII started their own church.
They have staged these coups using their own version of the printing press, the internet. In fact, historians believe that the internet is the most significant invention since the printing press. Some of you have perhaps heard the famous quote by Eric Schmidt who said, “The Internet is the first thing that humanity has built that humanity doesn’t understand, the largest experiment in anarchy that we have ever had.”
After the printing press it took a month for ideas to circulate the globe. After the internet it takes mere seconds. The internet has made posting complaints and protests on walls one of the most popular things you can do. Social media has made us all Martin Luther. Or are we Henry VIII?
The Printing Press started the Protestant movement. The internet has completed it. But some of us are wondering if all this has made us Protestants the very thing we have been protesting. Many of us in fact have begun to ask ourselves, “Doth we protest too much?”
I’ll be honest when I look at our modern day Protestant movement I don’t see much of the gospel. Instead I think that our protests have made us the very opposite of that which we claim to protest.
By protesting we have rejected Christian charity for secular hatred.
We have also rejected the peace of Christ for the wars of the principalities and powers.
We have rejected the unifying power of the cross for the divisive rhetoric of useless doctrines.
We have rejected the justification that comes from God for the self-righteousness that comes from thinking I am right all the time.
We have rejected Scripture’s repeated and clarion call to “be quiet,” “be still,” (Psalm 46:10) “be quick to listen, slow to speak,” (James 1:18) and to “live quiet lives among the pagans.” (1 Thessalonians 4:11)
In sum, we have rejected the Spirit’s quiet wisdom and guidance to chart our own noisy path to destruction.
The Protestants doth protest too much and after 500 years I think maybe it’s time to end the protestant part of our movement. It is time for us to stop protesting and stop complaining. It’s time for us to shut our big mouths and stop our quick fingers from typing. After 500 years it’s time to do what Scripture commands, “Be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to become angry.” (James 1:19).
As Protestants we doth protest too much.
But We Doth Reform Too Little!
But Martin Luther’s followers called themselves by another name, that is Reformers. The title “reformer” signified a hope that both drove their protests but was much deeper than protest. The word “Reformer” hinted at the deep and abiding conviction that the church and the world could be better. They would tell you that they were not just protesting to protest. Their goal was not a never ending protest but they protested because they believed that all of us could do better. More than that, we could be better. We could work harder and think longer and study the scriptures more diligently. They believed that we could love the poor and that we didn’t need to tolerate systems in government or church that oppressed them.
They started the Protestant Reformation not because they were self-conceited but because they were hopeful for a better world and a better church. Not all of them were angry just to be angry. They were angry because they believed in a better world and in a heavenly kingdom that was and is still coming.
By the way, their hope was rooted in the Scriptures. They believed in the kind of church that the Apostle Paul describes in Romans 12-15. They believed that we could have a church which is for all people, not just for the rich and powerful. They believed in a church which welcomed outsiders free of charge instead of making them buy indulgences to be among the in-crowd. They believed in a church devoid of arrogance and pride but instead built on the humble love of God given to us through the Holy Spirit. They believed in a church which is not led by hypocrites who tell the everyday people to do something while they do the opposite in private. They believed there could be a clergy class defined by the fruits of the spirit instead of their opposite.
They were not just hoping to protest those things. They were hoping to reform them. And we have now spent 500 years working towards those goals.
In sum, we do protest too much but after 500 years we have not reformed nearly as much.
We need to stop the protests but keep up the reformations.
For us every Sunday is reformation Sunday. Every Sunday we gather around the Scriptures and the table and ask God to reform us. Every month our board meets and we do reformation meetings. We talk about how to continue reforming our local congregation so that it can better resemble the love of Christ to this sinful world. Every bible study we use the Scriptures to hold each other accountable to the Reformation process. Every time I meet with someone over coffee or breakfast or dinner, I am hopeful for a Reformation.
In conclusion, over the last summer God gave me a wonderful verse. I was revisiting Philippians and I was enlivened by Paul’s admission:
Not that I have already obtained it or have already become perfect, but I press on so that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus. 13 Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
After 500 year, us protesting reformers have not laid hold of that for which we are laid hold of. We have not attained to the perfection to which we were called. But for 500 years now we have pressed on and I hope for 500 more years we will continue to press on toward the goal.