500 years ago, Martin Luther nailed a list of 95 things he wanted to see changed about the way the church handled things, mostly the selling of indulgences. I won’t go into exactly what all that meant; a quick Google search will land you a thousand explanations of his grievances.
I am fascinated by this event for another reason today. When Luther nailed his theses to the door of the chapel, he wasn’t trying to start a new church. Quite to the contrary, that would have been something only a heretic would do, so it was the furthest thing from his mind. October 31, 1517 was not Martin Luther’s attempt to start the Protestant Reformation. It was his attempt to begin a Catholic Reformation.
Unfortunately for Luther, the Pope was a deeply flawed human being. I’m sure that Luther knew he was being a bit of a troublemaker with his actions, but he could not have perceived just how much trouble he was going to start. I encourage you to read the text of his theses as a whole and I believe you will agree with me that what he ended with is not what he started with those 95 theses. Because Luther was ultimately dealing with a flawed human being, things went very differently than he had intended. It was only years and decades later that those 95 theses nailed to the door in Wittenberg became what is known as the Protestant Reformation.
Those two words are a paradox. Reformation generally comes over time from within. Rebellion is what generally results from protest. How then can we view what Luther did 500 years ago as a reformation?
Unfortunately for the Pope, Martin Luther was a deeply flawed human being. In the same way that Rehoboam gave a harsh answer to his subjects, and thereby lost his kingdom, the Pope dealt harshly with a man he had underestimated. The disagreement that ensued was not between to meek and mild mannered men. No, the Protestant Reformation was birthed out of the lesser parts of the nature of two very political, driven and flawed men.
Years later, after Luther had begun what would eventually become the Lutheran church, other reformers began raising up proclaiming that Luther had not gone far enough in his reformation of the church. John Calvin, John Huss and many more like then would begin new movements, further fracturing what had been known up to that point as the Holy Unified (Catholic) Church. Martin Luther and the Pope had unwittingly opened a can of worms that we still feel the effects of today.
Emmanuel, God With Us
What fascinates me about all this is that God was in the midst of all of this. Flawed men, making flawed decisions fractured the church to pieces and God stood watching, smiling as they went. How is it that God smiles upon and actually blesses the flawed actions of flawed men? It’s because that’s the only type of people He has to work with.
It was the Pope’s and Luther’s big personalities that conflicted that eventually led to the separation. It was almost every other leader’s big personality and ego that led to further fractures, yet the Lord has blessed almost every new factions’ actions abundantly.
Before, during and since the protestor’s reformation, God has blessed both the Catholics and the Protestants. Both churches have grown immensely since that day. Miracles, signs and wonders have taken place within the Catholic and Protestant churches. How could God so richly bless all these flawed people?
Like I said, God can only use flawed people, because there isn’t any other kind of person. In His grace and mercy, God chooses partnership with us, mere humans, to carry out His plans on earth. He uses men to lead His church. Flawed men and women. That is how He began and it is how He ordains things today. He uses our strengths and weaknesses together to administer His church. He works through the personal and corporate failings of people to bring about amazing results.
In the same way that the Lord was not intimidated to split His chosen people into two kingdoms, Israel and Judah, the Lord was not intimidated to split His church into two factions: Catholic and Protestant. It is not the Pope or anyone else who actually runs the church. The Holy Spirit conducts the affairs of the church. There are many men and women He uses to accomplish what is on His heart as He has done from the beginning.
The True Leader
The Holy Spirit is the true leader of the church. He is the one common factor through nearly two thousand years of a church, that despite wicked men’s best efforts, still exists. Somehow the Lord has carried His holy church through the failings of flawed men and women and come out ahead. Today, Protestants and Catholics have reached more people with the gospel of Jesus than anyone in 1517 could have imagined. There are still many, many deeply flawed people on both sides, and the Lord still continues to use them mightily.
The Protestant Reformation began five hundred years ago because two men, Martin Luther and Pope Leo X, could not come to an agreement because of their own egos and hubris, and the Lord loved it and blessed it. He blessed it not because He loves men’s egos and hubris, but because He loves His church.
And that is what it is to this day: His church. Protestant or Catholic, Lutheran or Pentecostal, Anglican or Orthodox, they are all God’s one holy unified church. Our true leader is not a Pope or an Archbishop of Canterbury, but a Holy Spirit who still moves and acts today like He did in the days of the early church.
That’s why I am here and it’s probably why you are reading this today, because God loves us despite and because of the actions of flawed mankind. There is no greater evidence of His love and grace today than the fact that all these churches still exist five hundred years after that famous act of protest.