The 96th Thesis
“I will rescue my sheep”
This is the most difficult Reformation Day I have ever celebrated. I’m not actually celebrating. I am grieving and confused. Confused, because of the dissonance created by pastors and elders within the reformed tradition who act more like the Catholics who created the need for the Reformation. Grieving, because earlier this year my wife, while serving as the Director of Women’s and Children’s Ministries, was fired for daring to disagree with church leaders who were covering up sexual assault allegations against a ruling elder. On this Reformation Day I am grieving and confused because I thought the tradition of Luther and Calvin was free of wolves. Like many, especially those sequestered from suffering by privilege, I wasn’t willing to see wolves in the church until I myself was bitten.
These experiences—what I recently called signals of descendence—convinced me of the need to pay closer attention to Scripture and to history so that we have eyes to see what is going on around us. If we did, I’m convinced that we would see the need for a new reformation. Jesus and his apostles warned that “fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock” (Acts 20:29; Matthew 7:15, 10:16-18). Wolves have been dressing up as sheep as long as God has had a flock to shepherd in this fallen world. What follows is a sketch of a historical pattern of clergy abuse. Though a sketch, it is a bit longer than my usual posts; please bear with me to the end! At the end is a link to a document called Thesis 96, which is an adaptation of Luther’s 95 Theses for our day. It is not the answer, but it is a call to action and conversation, just like Luther hoped that Christians would read and discuss his concerns about the state of the church. If you are not equally concerned after reading this, just remember that Luther also contended with unconcerned Christians, of whom he said “Away, then, with those prophets who say to Christ’s people, “Peace, peace,” where there is no peace” (Jeremiah 6:14).1
1120 BC: There were wolves in the days of the judges, notoriously exemplified in Eli’s sons who misused the sacrifices of the people and sexually abused women serving under their authority (1 Samuel 2).
722 and 586 BC: There were wolves in the days of the prophets during the divided kingdom, leading up to and during the exiles of Israel and Judah. Prophets, priests and kings alike were “roaring lions” and “evening wolves” (Zephaniah 3:3).
30-90 AD: There were wolves in the New Testament church, for example, Judas Iscariot, perhaps the arch-wolf of the New Testament. Paul and Jude warned about men who “creep” into the sheepfold like stalking wolves (2 Timothy 3:6; Jude 4). And there was Diotrephes, who “put himself first” and cast out those who defied him (3 John 1:9-10).
304 AD: The Council of Elvira was one of the earliest councils to address issues of morality among both clergy and laity. Canon 18 of this council called attention to bishops, presbyters and deacons who were committing sexual offenses, and Canon 71 implies those offenses included sexual abuse of boys.
6th Century AD: Gregory the Great denounced as heretics the “simoniacs”, men who bought ecclesiastical positions for which they were not biblically called and qualified.2 According to Gregory, the source of simony was ambition and pride, core traits of wolves.3
11-12th Centuries AD: During the Gregorian Reform under Pope Gregory VII, Peter Damian wrote a book titled Liber Gomorrhianus. Damian pleaded with the Pope to deal with sexual immorality, sexual abuse and spiritual abuse among the clergy.
1215 AD: The Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 called for widespread reform across all levels of church leadership. Clergy abuses included simony, incontinence (i.e. sexual immorality), gluttony, drunkenness, and other abuses of power.
13th Century AD: In Scotland the presence of wolves can be seen from Statute 54 in the General Statutes of the Scottish Church. Addressing “the penalty for incest of clergy”, the statute states in part,
“A bishop or priest ought not to have connexion [sex] with the women who have confessed their sins to them; but if (which may God avert!) such a case does befall, let him do penance as for [sinning] with his spiritual daughter.”4
1458 AD: In August of 1458 a conference was held to elect the successor to Pope Calixtus III. The Bishop of Torcello preached on that occasion and complained that
“the clergy are universally corrupt. They cause the laity to blaspheme and bring them to eternal perdition. All ecclesiastical discipline has disappeared. Day after day the authority of the Church becomes more despised. Who shall restore it ? The Roman curia is degenerate. Who shall reform it?”5
Reformation and Modern Era
16th Century AD: David Patrick comments on the continuation of clergy sexual abuse in his introduction to the Statutes of the Scottish Church. Note the connection to the sons of Eli with which this sketch began:
“that this abominable vice was still rife amongst the clergy in the sixteenth century seems to be admitted by the compilers of the Catechism and the synod that sanctioned it, when the ‘punishment of God’ that fell deservedly on Hophni and Phinehas for their ‘great wantonness and whoredom, abused the women which came to make sacrifice’ is dwelt on as ‘a special example worthy to be noted by all churchmen.’”6
1549 AD: The Statutes of the Scottish Church of 1549 indicated that the first cause and root of the reformation was
“the corruption of morals and profane lewdness of life in churchmen of almost all rank.”7
1845 AD: Frederick Douglas testified to wolves within the American church in his personal narrative. Consider this appalling description of his experiences with minister slaveholders:
Were I to be again reduced to the chains of slavery, next to that enslavement, I should regard being the slave of a religious master the greatest calamity that could befall me. For of all slaveholders with whom I have ever met, religious slaveholders are the worst. I have ever found them the meanest and basest, the most cruel and cowardly, of all others.8
20th& 21st Century: Signs of the Presence of Wolves in our day
1992: The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America adopted An ELCA Strategy for Responding to Sexual Abuse in the Church which focused on sexual abuse by clergy.
2002: The Boston Globe exposed widespread cover up of clergy sexual abuse within the Catholic church.
2004: The General Synod of the Anglican Church of Australia authorized a report which studied “the nature and extent of reported child sexual abuse by clergy and church workers, including volunteers, since 1990” and which received 191 allegations.
2010: The Presbyterian Church in America (USA) released the report of the Independent Abuse Review Panel which investigated 131 cases of physical and sexual abuse in PCUSA missions spanning 40 years and 10 mission fields.
2010: The Christian Reformed Church released the commissioned report of their Abuse Victims Task Force. This resulted in an additional document, Guidelines for Handling Abuse Allegations against a Church Leader.
2015: The Methodist Church (UK) released the Courage, Cost & Hope report, an independent review of abuse cases going back to 1950 which received 1885 reports. 69% of these were in the context of the church, and 25% of the reported abusers were ministers or lay leaders.
2019: The CRC published a commissioned report which gave recommendations “regarding how the CRCNA can best address the patterns of abuse of power at all levels of the denomination.”
2020: The Protestant Church in Germany (EKD) initiated a third-party investigation into “structures and systemic conditions within the EKD, that facilitate sexual violence." In 2019 the EKD “reported over 700 complaints of sexual abuse at the hands of either clerics or other church employees.”
2022: On May 22, 2022 the Southern Baptist Convention released the independent review of Guidepost Solutions which documented cover up of 703 abusers, of which many if not most were pastors and church leaders/volunteers.
2022: The PCA Study Committee Report on Domestic Abuse and Sexual Assault was released the next day, May 23, 2022. While not an investigation, it was commissioned with the awareness that abuse, including clergy abuse, is a real problem in the denomination.
Here I Stand
Wolves have always been in God’s sheepfold. But they ought not be. When God’s shepherds turn into wolves, he is “against” them (Ezekiel 34:10). But he is adamantly for the sheep, especially when they are being eaten and left unprotected. God’s people should likewise be for the sheep and against the wolves. And that means taking sides. Like Luther took sides. The pope, cardinals, bishops, priests, and monks were all inside the church, but he called them “wolves and devils” and called on Christians to say them,
“We will not walk your way, for you want to lead us away from the only Word taught by Christ, which is life and spirit. You would persuade us of something else, but we refuse to comply. No doctrine but this is to prevail. All others stand condemned, so that we may be directed solely to the one Man Christ and His Doctrine.”9
The one Man Christ is our Shepherd, and he told us to beware of wolves. The Good Shepherd’s promise to rescue the flock is the 96th Thesis, which you’ll find below, as well as a call to continued reformation and renewal in thesis 95.
Shepherds will not stop feeding themselves on the flock until the church of Jesus Christ seeks reform at the deepest levels of its society, including denominations, conventions, networks, coalitions, colleges, seminaries and all training centers where ministers are formed.
“Thus says the Lord GOD, Behold, I am against the shepherds, and I will require my sheep at their hand and put a stop to their feeding the sheep. No longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, that they may not be food for them,” (Ezekiel 34:10).
Thesis 96: Propositions for Church Reform, a call for renewal inspired and shaped by Martin Luther’s 95 Theses and Heidelberg Disputation.
Would you be willing to read through Thesis 96 with a friend?
Martin Luther, 95 Theses, Thesis 92.
Book V, Letter 58, Register of the Letters of Gregory the Great, https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/360205058.htm
Book V, Letter 18, Register of the Letters of Gregory the Great, https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/360205018.htm
David Patrick, Statutes of the Scottish Church, p. 8.
James MacKinnon, The Origins of the Reformation, p. 419.
David Patrick, Statutes of the Scottish Church, p. XC (old English modernized).
David Patrick, Statutes of the Scottish Church, p. 84.
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.
Sermons on the Gospel of St. John, 6-9, in Luther’s Works, 23:193.