- Tom Gehring
Five hundred years ago, the foundations of Christianity were shaken to their core by a well-meaning Augustinian monk named Martin Luther who was armed with 95 theses written in the hopes of sparking a theological debate over the validity of selling eternal salvation. Tradition tells that Luther nailed his theses to the door of the local Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, but this detail is debated and it does not really matter.
What does matter from these events that transpired half a millennium ago is the legacy that remains to this day. Luther translated the entire Bible into the spoken vernacular, which decentralized the power and control of interpretation from the Catholic Church and placed it in the hands of the general public.
In addition, he developed a theology that emphasized free grace gifted by a God who steps down into humanity’s lives, thereby setting us free to love one another and moving the work of God out of the institutionalized church and into the lived experiences of human lives. Luther and the reformers set into motion a complete and totally new understanding of Christian life and identity that this year celebrates its 500th year of existence.
Now this is all well and good; 500 is a great number to celebrate, yet a question seems to loom over the festivities and jubilations. “Will there be another 500 years of this? Will there even be another 50?”
Christianity is experiencing a shift within its U.S. context. The age of Christendom has come and gone, and Christianity is losing its controlling grip on the politics and policies of the nation. Many people contend that the church is “dying” as membership across all Christian denominations continues to decrease and every month church buildings close their doors and end their ministries.
It seems natural on this momentous anniversary to wonder if the tradition is due for another visionary leader and shift in ideology. Is it time for another prophet to rise up from the ranks of the commoners and usher in a new era of discovery, prosperity, and reform?
No. It is not the time. Nor will it ever be the time. And here’s why: Christianity is still in the era of reformation that began 500 years ago. Luther provided the theological framework that handed the work of continually reforming the church into to the hands of the wider church body who then gladly took it and ran with it.
Instead of waiting for another singular reformer to “save” Christianity, the entire Christian community needs to live into the tradition of reforming the Church so that it accomplishes the work the world most desperately needs.
This communal work of reforming is already taking place. An example from my context of ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) Lutheranism is a grassroots movement known as #DecolonizeLutheranism that has gained incredible momentum within the church. This movement works to dismantle the systems within the ELCA that oppress, divide and damage individuals who encounter the church. The work of #DecolonizeLutheranism is deeply reformational and an example of how the work that began 500 years ago continues within Christianity today.
Another example of the continuing reformation is German pastor, theologian and assassination conspirator Dietrich Bonhoeffer. After having been arrested by the Third Reich, Bonhoeffer wrote several letters and papers from prison. One such paper, “After Ten Years,” reflects on a decade of life under Hitler, and the relevancy of Christianity. A section titled “Are We Still of Any Use?” explores questions similar to those being addressed in this article. Bonhoeffer answers his own question saying: “We will not need geniuses, cynics, people who have contempt for others … but simple, uncomplicated and honest human beings. Will our inner strength to resist … have remained strong enough, and our honesty with ourselves blunt enough, to find our way back to simplicity and honesty?”
Bonhoeffer understands the needs of the church not to be another reformation, but individuals who are simple, honest and able to continue the already present work of reforming the Church in the face of great evil.