Christian unity and the scandal of division
Over two thousand years ago, Jesus Christ uttered his last prayer before his passion and crucifixion. He prayed for unity among his followers. That prayer, dutifully recorded by John the Evangelist, is contained in chapter 17 of John’s Seraphic gospel. The entire chapter. The apostle, whose knowledge and grasp of the divine essence places him and the gospel he authored on a different sphere of theological depth and understanding, took his time to record that final prayer of Jesus, word for word.
The prayer reads: “I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be ONE; even as thou, father, art in me, and I in thee, they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. The glory which thou hast given me I have given to them, that they MAY BE ONE even as WE ARE ONE. I in them and thou in me, that THEY may BECOME PERFECTLY ONE, so that the world may know that thou hast sent me and hast loved them even as thou hast loved me” (John 17: 20-23).
Except for the 1054 East-West schism, the Church largely held together for 1500. But 500 years ago, that unity began to come apart with the release of “95 Theses”, authored by little known Augustinian monk, Fr Martin Luther, on October 31, 1517. A tradition, popularized centuries later, by a nineteenth-century painting, had it that Luther marched to the Castle Church of Wittengberg and nailed the 95 theses to the door. This tradition, however, is now discredited as a myth. Though, myth or not, the 95 theses started a shattering breakup of Christendom from which it has not been able to recover.
It is believed that Martin Luther wrote a letter to the Archbishop of Mainz, Archbishop Albrecht, the most powerful Churchman in Germany at the time, in which he included the 95 theses. These are statements concerning issues he had been struggling with as a university professor of theology. But also struggles in his personal spiritual life. He was believed to have had a troubled spirit. A biographer, Roland Bainton described him as one who “would have been a troubled spirit in a tranquil age”. The 95 theses contained statements on contrition, repentance, divine forgiveness, indulgences, and the authority of the pope concerning these matters. But the letter was mostly about the abuses he saw taking place in the Church concerning the “selling” of indulgences. “I do not so much find fault with the cries of the preachers, which I have not heard…but I do bewail the peoples’ completely false understanding, gleaned from these fellows, which they spread everywhere among the common folk,” lamented Luther to the archbishop. It was a cry of a concerned pastor of souls.
The Christian Church vastly permeated the sixteenth century life of Central Europe. On this point, an American historian, Brad Gregory, says, “Christianity in the sixteenth century was not just “religion” as we usually think of it…Because sixteenth-century Christianity was more than religion in this sense: shaping and intended to shape politics, morality, education, economic practices, social relationships, and the culture at large, the reformation affected virtually everything”. Though aware of the abuses in the Church and the shortcomings of the Church leaders, the people were loyal to the Church. St Peter’s Basilica was under construction and much money was flowing to Rome for the purpose. It was within this ambience that Luther’s challenge came. It set off a centrifugal force that went to the heart of the social, religious, and political life of the people, causing enormous dislocations, pain, and death in its wake.
Though it is to be admitted that there were some abuses in the Church at time because of the “selling” of indulgences, largely promoted by a certain Dominican German friar and preacher named Johann Tetzel. These matters were debated among theologians and in academic circles. There were many prominent figures, like St Thomas More, Desiderius Erasmus, Cardinal Francisco Ximenes, and many others who were making attempts at reforms within the Church. What made Luther’s positions ominous was the fact that he extended his criticism of the Church by questioning the authority of the Pope, and challenging the fundamental doctrines of the Church. He did not seek to correct the abuses. He wanted to replace the stated doctrines of the Church with his own understanding of the faith and experience. He incited the people against the pope, calling the pope an “Antichrist”, and the Church as the “whore of Babylon”. One of his major works was titled, “Against the Pontificate of Rome, Founded by the Devil”. In a landmark debate with theologian Johann Eck in 1519, Luther finally admitted that he believed that “only Scripture” (Sola Scriptura) was authoritative, and “Faith alone” (Sola Fide), without works, was sufficient for salvation. In 1520, Luther published his work, “On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church”, in which he questioned the traditional understanding of the seven sacraments. Urged to recant his heretical positions after Pope Leo X sent Cardinal Cajetan to debate him. He still refused. The pope excommunicated him. He responded by calling the bull, an “Execrable bull of Antichrist”, written, “to compel men to deny God and worship the devil”. Now the separation was complete.
The seamless robe of Christ was torn. And the centrifugal forces set in motion by Martin Luther had begun its ominous journey.
Ironically, what Catholic Tetzel was accused of and condemned of doing in his day by selling indulgences, has become a veritable and lucrative part of the ministry of many world-famous Protestant Pastors and prosperity gospel preacher of today. They are getting fabulously rich selling anointed water, oils and handkerchiefs, wristbands, stickers, aprons, and even charging for prayer sessions. Members of a certain popular Church in Nigeria believe that by depositing money into their GO’s bank account, they “tap” a blessing. You see peasants depositing N100, N200, N500, etc. into Daddy’s bank account, to tap “Papa’s blessing”.
Martin Luther’s revolt obviously had its consequences. By 1526, just a few short years afterwards, Germany had broken up into Catholic and Lutheran territories. Brad Gregory, said, “In unprecedented ways, Reformation inadvertently made Western Christianity into an intractable intellectual and socio-political problem. Instead of sustaining solidarity…as religion was supposed to do, Christianity provoked decades of disagreement and discord”.
Another historian, Matthew Bunson, asserted that, “Tensions were high, and the sudden dislocating nature of the Reformation’s onset brought violence, unrest and finally protracted bloodshed”.
In 1521, Luther wrote a pamphlet “On Monastic Vows” in which he attacked the monastic life. This led to the destruction of many monasteries and convents, and Churches. Many monks and nuns also abandoned their vows. One of the nuns who abandoned the convent was Katherine von Bora, who became Luther’s wife a few years later.
Luther’s writings also tapped into the resentment of the political class against the Church. In Germany, a devastating war of religion that lasted for thirty ugly years (1618-1648) broke out, destroying most of Europe. In 1525 there was a rebellion of the peasants. Luther wrote a pamphlet titled, “Against the Murderous, thieving Hordes of Peasant” in which he urged the nobles (who were his protectors) to kill the Peasants. The nobles heeded his call. By the end of 1525, 130,000 lay dead. Victims of the vicious pogrom.
In 1543, three years before his death in 1546 at age 66, Luther wrote a vitriolic anti-Semitic treatise that many believe, may have contributed to the tragedy of the holocaust. It was titled, “On Jews and Their Lies”. This was Martin Luther in his elements. Luther denounced the Jews, and urged that they be uprooted root and branch, their synagogues and schools burnt, their prayer books destroyed, and their rabbis denied any form of livelihood through forfeiture of their goods and property, and money. He called the Jews, a “poisonous envenomed worms” who deserved no mercy or kindness. And then this, “We are at fault in not slaying them”. 400 hundred years later, some scholars believe that the anti-Semitic German Workers’ Party formed in 1919 that later gave rise to Nazi Party that exterminated 6 million Jews, between 1941-1945, in Germany received its imprimatur from Luther’s anti-Semitic treatise.
Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia wrote a piece on Luther which appeared in October 12, 2017 edition of First Things magazine. Among other things he said of Luther, “His genius was obvious, so was his flaws…Luther’s intellect, energy, courage, and zeal for the gospel were immense. So was his ego”. Can we also say he was proud? And had a weakness for questioning everything and anything. What St Paul predicted in 1Timothy 6: 4 happened. His weakness gave rise to powerful forces of jealousy, contentions, abuse, evil mistrust, and unending disputes, and even bloodshed. This has continued to this day. Religion has become a means of making profit (something bewailed by St Paul). Even Forbes magazine now includes ratings of mega pastors among members of the exclusive club of the rich and powerful, giving us periodic review of their annual net worth, which is usually in millions and billions of dollars. Perching on top of this exclusive club of pastors is Brazil’s Edir Macedo, founder of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, which is ranked number one with a net worth of $1.1 billion. Seven Nigerian mega pastors made the list for 2017. Heresies now abound, and heretical lines are blurred. True doctrine becomes whatever anybody chose and considers being “true”. Is Christianity stronger for it? Obviously not. Rather it has been weakened beyond words. Sunday has become the most segregated day in the Christian world. Just as metastasis is not good for a cancer patient, it is not good for the Church either.
With so much confusion swirling around after 500 years (of experimentation?), many are now asking; was Martin Luther a reformer or a revolutionary? At the last count, with about 47,000 established Protestant denominations in the world today, according Christian Encyclopedia, the prayer of Jesus 2000 years ago for the unity of His believers seems so far from being realized.
As the world marks 500 years of Protestant Reformation, this must provide an occasion for sober reflection and repentance, on the part of all Christians all over the world, on how far we have fallen from the standard of love and unity set for us by Jesus. The Christian world must heed the call of Saint Pope John Paul II, “to break down the walls of division and distrust, to overcome obstacles and prejudices which thwart the proclamation of the Gospel of salvation in the Cross of Jesus, the one Redeemer of man, of every individual”.
Rev Fr Ralph Asika, is a Catholic Priest, he lectures at National Missionary Seminary of St Paul, Gwagwalada, Abuja.
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