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Propositions for Church Reform in the 21st Century
Acts 29 chose its name to signal the next chapter of evangelism and church planting after the last chapter in the book of Acts, ch. 28. Likewise—and with some intentional irony vis-à-vis Acts 29—Thesis 96 is a call to continue the work of reformation inspired by Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses (later titled Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences).
I have hesitated sharing this document via Substack because I already have it available at its own website. But in the spirit of Martin Luther, who in his preface to the Ninety-Five Theses expressed desire for public discussion and debate, I thought Substack might be a good medium for discussion. No one actually showed up to Wittenberg to debate Luther on October 31, 1517, and even if no one debates Thesis 96 here, my real hope is that Christians and church leaders would seriously wrestle with these ideas in their own local contexts. So, “out of love and zeal for truth and the desire to bring it to light”1, I offer 96 theses—many of them taken directly from Luther but adapted for the problem of spiritual abuse—for the good of Christ’s church and the healing of his sheep.
I plan to share additional commentary in the near future on connections between Thesis 96 and the Ninety-Five Theses, but there is one important observation to note before reading further. According to Timothy Wengert, thesis #5 is the central thesis of the Ninety-Five Theses: “The pope neither desires nor is able to remit any penalties except those imposed by his own authority or that of the canons.”2 I have imitated this structural design with #5 below being the central thesis: “No one among the faithful is exempt from the possibility of metamorphosis into a wolf, but Scripture retains that image first and foremost for leaders.” This should be noncontroversial, as the proof texts clearly show, and one implication follows: leaders should be more worried about wolves among their own leadership ranks than among the rank and file sheep in their flock.
*Quoted and adapted from Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses and Heidelberg Disputation
When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” (Matt. 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.*
This word cannot be understood as referring to external processes of ecclesiastical discipline as administered by the clergy.*
Nor does it not mean solely inner repentance; such inner repentance is worthless unless it produces various outward mortifications of the flesh.*
Yet evangelical repentance is not content with external processes, nor only with internal change, but also strives to mend what was broken.*
No one among the faithful is exempt from the possibility of metamorphosis into a wolf, but Scripture retains that image first and foremost for leaders (Ezek. 22:27-31, 34:1-10; Zeph. 3:1-5; Matt. 7:15-20, 10:16-18; Acts 20:30).
Therefore, every pastor, elder, deacon, director, missionary and teacher should practice regular self-examination, as well as submit to examination by others, for signs of wolf-like characteristics (Ezek. 22:27-31, 34:1-10).
Failure to engage in humble, reflective accountability is disobedience to God’s command to “examine yourselves,” “test yourselves,” and “pay careful attention to yourselves”(2 Cor. 13:5; (Acts 20:28).
Good shepherds model self-examination on the example of the apostle Paul who regularly reflected on his own story and the impact it had on him later in life (Acts 26:1-23; Rom. 7:7-25; 2 Cor. 11:22; Gal. 1:13-17; Phil. 3:5-7; 1 Tim. 12-16).
It is more detrimental to the flock of God to have a wolf in sheep’s clothing than to have a shepherd falsely accused of being a wolf.
Therefore, good shepherds lay down their life for the sheep by paying careful attention to their bleating complaints.
When Jesus said his disciples would recognize ravenous wolves by their fruit, he did not only refer to the fruit of doctrine, but also the fruit of oppression, extortion, robbery, injustice, idolatry, contempt for elders, disregard for the vulnerable - the sojourner, orphan and widow - sexual immorality, sexual assault, taking bribes, conspiracy, abusing power for selfish gain, propagandizing such abuses of power, and violating the holiness of worship required by the gospel (Ezekiel 22).
Martin Luther wrote that a theologian is one who says what a thing is; when a sheep sees a shepherd acting like a wolf and says so, she is being a theologian.
When a shepherd says he is loving the sheep when he is really feeding on them, he is a wolf and not a theologian.
A shepherd is most likely a wolf who does not and cannot receive negative feedback.
When a pastor says, “Get on the bus, or get run over by the bus,” you can be sure that Christ is not driving the bus.
It is always in the interest of those in power to deny the reality of things like power imbalance, privilege, bias and systemic power.
Such denials and deflections prove the reality they seek to deny.
Shepherds have a voice while sheep do not; by analogy, pastors are entrusted with speaking powers that the flock does not possess (1 Tim. 5:17).
Good shepherds listen attentively and with belief at the outcry of the sheep against danger from wolves, even if the concern is not immediately understood (Neh. 5:6).
Good shepherds recognize the power that resides in the voice, power to bless, but also power to curse (Prov. 18:21).
Good shepherds recognize that the voice can cause just as much if not more harm than the body (Prov. 12:18).
Furthermore, good shepherds use their voice to guide, care, feed, protect, and compassionately correct.
Good shepherds, as those with greater power than sheep, always take full responsibility for the health and safety of their relationship with the sheep.
Good shepherds never use their voice in such a way that it overpowers the quieter, less articulate, and less privileged voice of the sheep.
For example, good shepherds recognize the imbalance of power, real and represented, in their access to pulpits, publishing houses, pastor-run websites and blogs, and parliamentary process.
Good shepherds do not use their pulpits and platforms to push their opinions about abuse and trauma while they or other leaders in their churches and associations are under scrutiny.
When pastors use the pulpit to say things like, “If you see your leaders exercising authority, never confuse that with abuse of power,” they are pulling wool over the sheep’s eyes and abusing power by trying to control what the sheep see and think and feel.
Good shepherds see that defining or redefining harm that has been done to sheep does nothing to heal the sheep or protect them from further harm.
It has been said that there are two sides to every story and that the truth is somewhere in between (Prov. 18:17); as a proverb, there are some cases where that is sometimes applicable.
However, in some cases, one party is telling the complete truth, while the other party is only using deceit and manipulation (1 Kings 3).
Good shepherds know that testimony and witness character ought to be assessed for truthfulness.
In humility, good shepherds recognize that the means of assessing truthfulness does not reside in themselves.
In humility, good shepherds recognize and admit when it is possible that their own interests, and/or the interests of their fellow leaders, will prove a hindrance to truth, justice and mercy.
Just as it is possible for shepherds to have clouded vision, it is possible for sheep to be startled by perceived danger that is not really there.
However, it is more likely that sheep can see danger that shepherds do not see, precisely because they are sheep and have sharper senses, different vantage points, and different experiences.
Good shepherds do not harm their sheep by attributing sheep’s concerns to previous harm or clouded judgment due to trauma, recognizing that they are not qualified to make that assessment.
It is godly and Christlike to raise concerns about shepherds acting like and becoming wolves.
Those sheep are complicit and culpable who disbelieve, dismiss, deny, discount, deflect, and discard such concerns on the basis of their own perception.
Those are not sheep but wolves who stand idly by while other sheep are being attacked, captured and eaten.
The church needs humble sheep who are willing to believe that other sheep sense danger that they themselves are unable to see.
Wise sheep admit the possibility of the entire flock being attracted to abusive leaders and foolishly “bear it if someone makes slaves of you, or devours you, or takes advantage of you, or puts on airs, or strikes you in the face” (2 Cor. 11:20).
Doctrinal purity must be debated with caution, lest people erroneously think that shepherds have more concern for truthful teaching than they do for truthful living, ecclesial purity, healing and pastoral care.*
Christians are to be taught that Jesus did not presume to use his place of privilege and power to know what human suffering is like (Phil. 2:5-8).
Christians are to be taught that empathy is good and gracious and not evil or sinful.
Christians are to be taught that those who say empathy is a sin are themselves disobeying the example of their Lord who gave up all to know their lives from the inside (Heb. 2:10-18, 4:15).
Christians are to be taught that intuition is a valid form of knowing, able to perceive and apprehend that for which rationality alone is blind.
The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God.*
But this treasure is naturally odious, for it makes the first to be last (Matt. 20:16).*
On the other hand, the treasure of preaching is naturally most acceptable, for it makes the last to be first.*
Therefore, the treasures of the gospel are nets with which one formerly fished for men of renown.*
The treasures of preaching are nets with which one now fishes for the renown of men (Phil. 1:17).*
The preaching which the demagogues acclaim as the greatest of graces are actually understood to be such only insofar as they promote gain (2 Pet. 2:3).*
Preaching is nevertheless in truth the most insignificant of graces when compared with the grace of God and the piety of the cross (1 Cor. 2:1-5, 13:1-2).*
Let him who speaks against the truth concerning ecclesial abuse of power be anathema and accursed;*
But let him who guards against the lust and license of abusive preachers be blessed;*
Just as preachers justly thunder against those who by any means whatsoever contrive harm to the message of the gospel;*
But much more do they intend to thunder against those who use preaching as a pretext to contrive harm to the people of God.*
To consider preaching so great that it can heal all wounds even though the preacher is wounding the flock is madness (Matt. 7:15-20).
We say on the contrary that preaching alone cannot heal the wounds of sinners, saints and sufferers (Matt. 4:23).*
To say that the preaching and leading of abusive leaders is good and godly shepherding is blasphemy.*
The pastors, elders, deacons, theologians and leaders who permit such talk to be spread among the people will have to answer for this.*
This unbridled abusive leadership makes it difficult even for learned men to rescue the reverence which is due overseers from slander or from the shrewd questions of the laity,*
Such as, “How can pastors say the mission of the gospel is more important than calling fellow pastors and elders to repentance?”
Again, “How do shepherds find biblical warrant for reinterpreting the experience of abuse as a call to suffer like Christ?”
Again, “Why do those with positions of greatest privilege and power preach the gospel for sinners but do not open their mouths for the rights of the poor, needy and oppressed?”
Again, “Is it just to say, ‘These complaints are being made only because of this or that situation’?”
Again, “Is it just to say, ‘If this was really abuse, why did they wait so long to come forward’?”
Again, “Is it just to say, ‘Why didn’t they go to the police if they are really telling the truth’?”
Again, “Is it just to say, ‘The woman is responsible because she didn’t leave’?”
Again, “How can a Christian who believes in the power of sin to deceive also believe they can know what someone is and isn’t capable of simply because they see them in public settings where heinous sin is rarely committed?”
Again, “When did God say he hates divorce more than he hates violence and oppression?”
Again, “Why was she put under church discipline for the sins of gossip and divisiveness while the accused was in no way sanctioned, shamed, or disciplined?”
Again, “Are shepherds justly concerned about coddle culture turning all harm into trauma, or are they just selfishly unwilling to care for their hurting flock?”
To repress these very sharp arguments of the laity by force alone, and not to resolve them by giving reasons, is to expose the church and its leaders to the ridicule of their enemies and to make Christians unhappy.*
If, therefore, the gospel were preached according to the spirit and intention of Christ, all these doubts would be readily resolved. Indeed, they would not exist. Away then with all those prophets who say to the people of Christ, “Peace, peace,” and there is no peace! (Jer. 6:14).*
Christians should be exhorted to be diligent in following Christ, their head, through trauma, abuse, grief, scandal, death, and hell;*
And thus be confident of entering into heaven through many tribulations rather than through the false security of peace (Acts 14:22).*
The kingdom of heaven is for those who become like children and place themselves last and least rather than seek to be first and greatest (Matt. 18:1-4).
As the kingdom of God is for the weak and vulnerable, Jesus warns shepherds who fail to protect the weak that “it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.” (Matt. 18:6).
The theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil.*
The theologian of the cross says what a thing is.*
The theologian of glory calls shame evil, and so expunges it at any cost.
The theologian of the cross says shame is good where it is the result of sin.
The theologian of glory flees when no one pursues;
The theologian of the cross is as bold as a lion (Prov. 28:1).
The theologian of glory does not understand justice, because self reigns supreme;
The theologian of the cross understands justice completely because the Lord is sought rather than self (Prov. 28:5).
Theologians of glory are wise in their own eyes;
Theologians of the cross see how deluded they are (Prov. 28:11).
Theologians of glory conceal their transgression and will not prosper;
Theologians of the cross confess and forsake their transgressions and will obtain mercy (Prov. 28:13).
The theologian of glory floats above others’ problems and does not enter their suffering because no glory is to be found there.
The theologian of the cross bends down to suffer with the traumatized, knowing that is where Jesus is found (Matt. 25:34-40).
Christians can “aim for restoration, comfort one another, agree with one another, [and] live in peace” (2 Cor. 13:11) only when it is possible to disagree without being accused of divisiveness, when we require repentance before restoration, and when we encourage peaceful protest against leaders of the church who are out of step with the gospel (Gal. 2:14).
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,” (Ezek. 34:10).
Quote From Michael Kruger
Luther's experience in Rome [as a “den of iniquity”] played a significant role in his passion to see the church reformed. It was not just the church's doctrinal problems that concerned Luther but also its moral problems—especially among the clergy. The church's biggest challenge wasn't a secular world attacking it from the outside, but rather moral corruption arising from the inside. Thankfully, Luther had the courage to stand up and call out the church's wayward leadership. Though he was accused of being divisive and disruptive, he was doing what prophets have done throughout the ages: calling God's people to repentance.
Luther’s was just one voice among many before and after him; if others hadn’t joined him in protesting clergy corruptions, the Protestant reformation would have ended before it started. Are you willing to be accused of being divisive and disruptive? Do you have the courage to stand up and call out the church’s wayward leadership?
Luther’s Works, Vol. 31, Career of the Reformer I, p. 25.
The Annotated Luther, Volume 1: The Roots of Reform, ed. Timothy Wengert (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), p. 28; “The Ninety-Five Theses as a Literary and Theological Event,” Lutherjahrbuch vol. 85 (2018), p. 52-53.