When Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door at Wittenberg 500 years ago on October 31, he did not dream that he was starting a revolution that would reverberate throughout Christendom for centuries.
While he was gifted in a number of ways, his greatest asset was the ability to think outside of the box, rediscovering the centrality of Scripture for those who thought they were followers of Christ.
In his open letter to Pope Leo X, he alleged that “the Roman church, once the holiest of all, has become the most licentious den of thieves…and for three hundred years had … a great increase of corruption and wickedness.”
It was a brazen challenge for the most powerful institution of the time.
It seems that Luther was the last Christian who could think outside of the box. Most other reform denominations followed Luther’s path but no one has really nailed 95 theses to the church door since 1517.
In fact, any folks who dared think outside of the box were burned at the stake as heretics by other true believing reformers, all with the consent of the faithful. That certainly discouraged any other Luthers from coming forward.
The magnitude of Luther’s challenge has been muffled by the passage of time. But to appreciate his courage and discernment, let us conjure up a couple of comparable thesis that would create the furor that Luther faced in 1517.
While we may not be able to think of 95 challenges for American Christianity, here are a few that would draw the wrath of the today’s Christian church.
Thesis One: Christian churches, your members have abandoned the Gospel for the comforts and privileges of a secular culture. You have been secularized so that there is no longer any distinction between believers and nonbelievers.
Thesis Two: American Christian churches, your members have become a congregation of nation worshippers, glorying nationalism and all of its emblems and rituals. You were asked to honor and obey the king. But patriotism is one thing; adulation is idolatry.
Thesis Three: Christian churches, your members have forgotten the needy and downtrodden. In the struggle between the “haves” and “have-nots” you have chosen the side of the “haves” against the “have nots” because you are now among the “haves.”
Thesis Four: Christian churches, your members have become contentious and confrontational, bringing dishonor to Christ by their behavior. Christian universities now have law schools to escalate contentiousness with expertise. Unbelievers know better than Christians what Christians ought to be. They know a hypocrite when they see one.
Thesis Five: Christian churches, your members are anti-intellectual. They are afraid that inquiring minds will undermine their faith when all science can do is prove what God has done. Remember the stupidity of the church in dealing with Galileo. As Luther said: ‘Heaven was not made for geese.”
So we have enraged today’s believers with only five possible theses that would be as inflammable as the 95 Luther nailed to his Wittenberg door. But imagine what would happen if a Christian in the Luther tradition would stand in the back of the church and rail on the congregation to implement these theses.
“Sell your fine clothes, cars, homes and give it to the poor. Defend the “have-nots.” Quit being contentious. Love everybody, including Jews, Moslems and African-Americans. Your bigotry is showing.”
Well, the odds are pretty good that this troublemaker will not be welcome next Sunday.
So it has been 500 years since Luther put his life in danger by confronting the church. Maybe his work isn’t done but it will probably be another 500 years before we see a theologian able to think outside of the box as Luther did.
Lloyd Omdahl is the former Lt. Gov. of North Dakota and professor at UND. His column can be found in newspapers around the state.