“Teacher,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.”
“Do not stop him,” Jesus said. “For no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us. Truly I tell you, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to the Messiah will certainly not lose their reward.“
-Mark 9:38-41 (NIV)
The last day of October this year is something a little more than just Halloween. It marks a significant event in the history of Christianity. On October 31, 1517, a German priest had had it up to here with what he regarded as the blatant corruption and abuse of spiritual authority that was clustered around many of the practices of the church in his era. He was particularly (but not exclusively) incensed over the sale of indulgences to fund the reconstruction of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
Indulgences actually had a more solid theological foundation than is often assumed, but they were popularly regarded as a way to purchase freedom from the consequences of sin, whether for self or loved ones. While indulgences were more often given in return for prayer or good deeds, in 1517 the basilica needed some work, and so the good deed most prized by the church was the giving of money. And so priests were sent from village to village “selling” indulgences. When this particular priest heard that there was to be an indulgence sale in his village of Wartburg, he decided to make public a few criticisms of the church he had so far kept more or less to himself. Ninety-five of them, in fact. He nailed them to the door of the Castle Church, and when they were printed and published a few months later Martin Luther found himself at the center of a firestorm that remade the religious landscape of Europe and eventually the world. Luther’s 95 Theses launched what would become known as the Protestant Reformation.
Many of the denominations that make up the Christian world today connect in one way or another to Luther’s criticisms of the church. Predictably, of course, many who agreed that reformation was needed disagreed as to the specifics. Many of those reformation efforts would later go through reformations of their own. Still, that date almost 500 years ago has marked our world indelibly. Especially for those of us who wear the name of Jesus.
I noticed an article recently on this topic that I think sort of missed the point. The author (who I’m sure has good intentions) points out that all this occurred 500 years ago, and so he concludes “there is no Protestant denomination which is older than 500 years, certainly none that reaches back to the time of Christ and the apostles.” The author goes on to argue that “denominationalism is not in harmony with the teaching of the Scriptures” and that “the disciples were not encouraged to wear the names of men in religion.” OK, fair enough, as far as it goes. He talks about the “worthy things” Luther accomplished, like making the Bible accessible and undermining the power that was possessed and often misused by the church hierarchy.
“Yet,” the author writes, “he did not go far enough.” He lays at Luther’s feet the formation of “denominationalism with its multiplicity of creeds, names, and organizations. None of this conformed to the ‘one body’ revealed in the New Testament.”
It is easy to see the splinter in brother Martin’s eye and fail to see the beam in our own.
This all reminds me of the time Jesus’ followers “caught” someone casting out demons in Jesus' name. “Don’t worry,” they told Jesus later when recounting the story. “We shut him down since he wasn’t one of us.”
That’s so easy, so alluring. It’s maybe the path of least resistance to fall into Watchdog Mode and think the Lord needs us to monitor who’s “one of us” and who isn’t. In pointing out this tendency in my brother’s article, I don’t want to pretend that I’m immune to it. There's something rewarding about it. It provides clarity. It locates “correct” comfortably close to where I’m sitting. It makes what’s familiar and easy for me into the norm for all believers, everywhere, at all times.
The disciples didn’t exactly have it all together, did they? We’re like them in that. We have 500 years of hindsight that Luther didn’t enjoy, and yet we want to sit in judgment on his efforts? “Nice try, Martin. Really, you had some good ideas there. Too bad you didn’t carry them through.” Well, look: Luther stood up to Popes. His faith didn’t wither under the pain of excommunication. When the church could bring dire consequences to bear, he didn’t blink. Through his work and suffering, the Spirit brought fresh air and new life into the church. How dare we dismiss him with a wave of our hands and a patronizing “A for effort”? How dare we pretend that we’re somehow superior to him?
The author of this article would say that the fellowship of Christians of which he and I are members is different. Instead of just reforming the church, we’ve restored the church of the New Testament. If that sounds like a matter of semantics to you, that’s because it is. The spiritual forebears at the headwaters of “my” tribe stood on the shoulders of Martin Luther and others like him — even if we don’t always acknowledge that. Yes, our intent is just to be the church of the New Testament; Luther's intent was the same. Don’t put on him the frailties of those who came later. And don't pretend we aren’t subject to those same frailties. And don’t for a moment imagine that any of us have the authority or responsibility to evaluate Luther’s work. To his own Master he will stand or fall.
I know it goes against our impulses to nail down and control everything, but let’s just allow Jesus’ word to his disciples to be enough for us: “Don’t stop him.” Don’t consider anyone doing great things in the name of Jesus to be an antagonist who must be prevented from serving the Lord until they have “our" imprimatur. There’s a time to discuss theology and debate best practice, but that time is not when we see someone honoring the name of Jesus. When we see that, we need to welcome a friend and acknowledge his ministry. To do so is not necessarily to embrace everything that friend believes or practices. It’s simply to take seriously what Jesus himself said: there’s no “us” to safeguard. If we truly believe in the “one body” of the New Testament, then we should also believe that it’s loved by Christ, that he gave himself up for it, and that he is cleansing it through water and the word. And more, that through his sacrifice he will present that body to himself radiant, unstained, and blameless.
If we believe in that one body, we believe it’s his, and so we’ll let him evaluate who’s a part of it and who isn’t. And we’ll bend over backward to safeguard its unity.
No one needs to be one of us. Not if they’re already one of his.
One day, when the new creation is all that exists, maybe I’ll get a chance to argue with Martin Luther about baptism or something, though I suspect by then I won’t want to. If I do, my guess is he’ll be there.
Even if he wasn’t one of us.