This series is based on the work of Dr. Martin Luther in a 1520 Letter to the Christian nobility. In that pamphlet, Luther warns of dangers of church leadership that has so much power and influence it is above reproach and reform. You may have seen this in your church or your church body. A charismatic leader rises to power, or a small group of leaders reaches a point where they have gained influence of the masses and then claim supreme authority. The Roman Catholic church in Luther’s time had achieved this point. In 1500 the Roman Catholic Church was all powerful in western Europe. There was no legal alternative. Having reached this point, the Catholic Church oppressively guarded its position and anybody who they deemed a threat to the Church was labeled a heretic and burnt at stake. The Catholic Church did not tolerate any deviance from its teachings as any appearance of ‘compromise’ might have been interpreted as a sign of weakness which would be exploited.
To address this dangerous culture Luther attack the church on three fronts. In this post, we will study the first one.
Luther’s First Attack: The secular authorities have made decrees saying that the temporal power has no jurisdiction over the church, but, nor is the spiritual above the temporal power.
Luther’s argument: It is pure invention that pope, bishops, priests, and monks are to be called the “spiritual estate”; princes, lords, artisans, and farmers the “temporal estate.” That is indeed a fine bit of lying and hypocrisy. To make it still clearer. If a little group of pious Christian laymen were taken captive and set down in a wilderness, and had among them no priest consecrated by a bishop, and if there in the wilderness they were to agree in choosing one of themselves, married or unmarried, and were to charge him with the office of baptizing, saying mass, absolving and preaching, such a man would be as truly a priest as though all bishops and popes had consecrated him. That is why in cases of necessity anyone can baptize and give absolution, which would be impossible unless we were all priests.
Luther’s point was that the Pope, priests, and bishops who called themselves “spiritual” as a way to place themselves above the ordinary people in the pews did not differ from other Christians. Their calling, their vocation did not make them superior to the people they were called to serve. The only distinction is they were charged with the administration of the Word of God and the sacraments, which is their work and office. Their work while vital is not a higher work than the farmer, or the banker, or the school teacher, or the mechanic. Each person has a vocation, a mission, that must benefit and serve the bodily and spiritual welfare of the community.
Luther quotes these verses from Paul and Peter. Roman 13:1, 4 “Let every soul (I take that to mean the pope’s soul also) be subject unto the higher powers; for they bear not the sword in vain, but are the ministers of God for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well.” 1 Peter 2:13, 15 “Submit yourselves unto every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, for so is the will of God.”
Each of us is called, as members of one body, to serve one another, none is above the other, but we all have an important role in the body of Christ.
Other posts in this series: