Charles Swindoll shares this story in his book, “Living Above the Level of Mediocrity.” Several years ago, I met a gentleman who served on one of Walt Disney’s original advisory boards. What amazing stories he told! Those early days were tough; but that remarkable, creative visionary refused to give up. I especially appreciated the man’s sharing with me how Disney responded to disagreement. He said that Walt would occasionally present some unbelievable, extensive dream he was entertaining. Almost without exception, the members of his board would gulp, blink, and stare back at him in disbelief, resisting even the thought of such a thing. But unless every member resisted the idea, Disney usually didn’t pursue it. Yes, you read that correctly. The challenge wasn’t big enough to merit his time and creative energy unless they were unanimously in disagreement!
Now while that works for Walt Disney because his creativity was far ahead of his peers, that does not work with the truth of God’s Word. We as pastors and church leaders are not called to create some new creative truths that are not grounded in what is already written in Scripture. The apostle John gives a stern warning against such theological creativity at the end of the Book of Revelations. “18 I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, 19 and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.” In an attempt to create a theological checks and balances Luther describes the danger of any church leader, even the Pope, claiming to have supreme authority. In an earlier post I review the three walls Luther challenged, because they were ignoring warning signs that have led to doctrinal impurity in the church. And now that these errors were in the church’s teaching, the walls were preventing the church from correcting the false teaching. These walls are easy to build but even harder to tear down once they are erected. In this final post we examine the final wall.
In his 1520 Letter to the Christian Nobility. Luther’s attacks the premise that only the Pope can call an Ecumenical council to deal with errors in church doctrine.
It is important here to define what an Ecumenical council is: ecumenical councils are assemblies of Patriarchs, Cardinals, residing Bishops, Abbots, male heads of religious orders, and other juridical persons, nominated by the Pope. The purpose of an ecumenical council is to define doctrine, reaffirm truths of the Faith, and extirpate heresy. Council decisions, to be valid, are approved by the popes. Participation is limited to these persons, who cannot delegate their voting rights.
Luther’s argument: For when the pope acts contrary to the Scriptures, it is our duty to stand by the Scriptures, to reprove him, and to constrain him, according to the word of Christ in Matthew 18:15: “If thy brother sin against thee, go and tell it him between thee and him alone; if he hear thee not, then take with thee one or two more; if he hear them not, tell it to the Church; if he hear not the Church, consider him a heathen.” Here every member is commanded to care for every other. How much rather should we do this when the member that does evil is a ruling member, and by his evil-doing is the cause of much harm and offense to the rest! But if I am to accuse him before the Church, I must bring the Church together.
They have no basis in Scripture for their contention that it belongs to the pope alone to call a council or confirm its actions; for this is based merely upon their own laws, which are valid only in so far as they are not injurious to Christendom or contrary to the laws of God. When the pope deserves punishment, such laws go out of force, since it is injurious to Christendom not to punish him by means of a council.
Summary; no person regardless of their place, position, or education level can be considered errorless. That position is reserved only for the Word of God. We need to have in our congregations, our churches and church bodies a way to regularly have a healthy check and balance on our theology. It is easy to get sloppy and allow all kinds of false teaching and practices to creep into churches. We need to regularly be in God’s Word and not be tempted to have reached a level where continued growth is not needed.
As Luther points out in this letter, Let us, therefore, hold fast to this: No Christian authority can do anything against Christ; as St. Paul says, II Corinthians 13:8: “We can do nothing against Christ, but for Christ.” Paul says to the Corinthians, II Corinthians 10:8, “God has given us authority not for the destruction, but for the edification of Christendom.” Who is ready to overleap this text? It is only the power of the devil and the Antichrist which resists the things that serve for the edification of Christendom; it is, therefore, in no wise to be obeyed, but is to be opposed with life and goods and all our strength.