Skip to main content

Mere Orthodoxy exists to create media for Christian renewal. Support this mission today.

Reformation Day and the Waning of the Western Church

October 28th, 2019 | 8 min read

By Jake Meador

Reformation Day is a contested event in the church year. That this is so for Roman Christians is to be expected. That it is increasingly so for Protestants as well is lamentable.

Part of the reason for that Protestant reluctance is, no doubt, a failure to truly understand what was at stake in the Reformation and what is still at stake even today in the divide between Rome and Protestantism. Yet I also wonder if part of the problem is a failure to recognize what the Reformation meant in its own day.

Often we speak of the Reformation as if it was a moment in history when commoners all over Germany and Switzerland and England suddenly discovered a keen interest in questions of ecclesial authority, justification, and sacramental theology. The Reformation itself was accomplished, we think, because these commoners came to agree with Luther and the rest on the matters at hand.

While there is an admirable populist instinct in aspects of the Reformation, much of the popular support for the movement did not come from mass support for Lutheran ideas about justification. Rather, they were the result of a reasonable belief that the Protestants were the ones who actually recognized the degraded state of the late medieval church and were taking steps to restore piety amongst the clergy and correct egregious abuses of the laity.

Embed from Getty Images

This was a particularly keen need in Germany, where for centuries the German peasants had been exploited by Italian popes. If a pope wished to build a new church or wage a war or simply acquire new art for his collection, in all cases he could turn to the people of Germany, treating them as his personal ATM.

An excerpt from this sermon, given by the infamous seller of indulgences John Tetzel, perhaps says all that needs saying about the ways in which the late medieval church exploited the German poor:

Don’t you hear the voices of your wailing dead parents and others who say, ‘Have mercy upon me, have mercy upon me, because we are in severe punishment and pain. From this you could redeem us with a small alms and yet you do not want to do so.’ Open your ears as the father says to the son and the mother to the daughter, ‘We have created you, fed you, cared for you, and left you our temporal goods. Why then are you so cruel and harsh that you do not want to save us, though it only takes a little? You let us lie in flames so that we only slowly come to the promised glory.’

One struggles to imagine how a modern-day prosperity preacher could beat that.

And yet that is, perhaps, what is so tragic. They are trying:

Here is the key quote:

Every treasure you give here on earth is being stored up in heaven. There is a department of treasury in heaven that God is watching over. Everything you do, you are storing up eternal treasure that will go so far beyond what we can even begin to imagine. You are mandated by God, I feel a mandate, to help you build this.

(This, of course, is Paula White, the heretical prosperity teacher whose book was recently endorsed by several prominent SBC pastors.)

There is, as Solomon said, nothing new under the sun. This is what indulgences look like when adopted by the prosperity crowd. In both instances the outcome remains the same: Wealthy people claiming to be ministers of the Gospel manipulate the poor through emotionally and spiritually abusive techniques that leave the poor penniless and the preachers fat.

Embed from Getty Images

The issues are not exclusively financial, however. Over the weekend we learned that Andy Savage, a pastor who once raped an under-age girl in his youth group and who was applauded by his church when he acknowledged his sin after being publicly accused, is back in ministry.

In this respect he merely follows in the steps of other zombie pastors that have gone before him. This too has echoes of both the contemporary Roman abuse crisis as well as the reformation era, a time when one Roman church official claimed that it was less shameful for priests to visit a brothel than it was for them to marry because if the priest visited a brothel he was at least more likely to feel shame afterwards.

It is true that Reformation Day is a day for rejoicing in the recovery of the right preaching of the Gospel and the correct view of the authority of Scripture relative to the authority of the church. Both of those are great recoveries. Yet if this is all that we think Reformation Day is we will have missed much of what the Reformation was about. The Reformation was deeply concerned with calling a decadent and morally corrupt church that was choking on its own wealth and power to repentance.

Embed from Getty Images

Luther himself called the pope to repentance for having built his churches with “the skin, flesh, and bones of his sheep.” When you imagine the ‘ministries’ of these zombie pastors that is a good image: the rotting remains of dead sheep, bloodied and broken, slaughtered by the ambition of their shepherds who lusted after something different than the ordinary calling they had been given.

Thus Reformation Day is not a triumphalistic occasion, but a sober one. It reminds us of the truth, one we see repeatedly in Scripture, that when God’s people become comfortable they can easily forget him. And once they do this they will begin to look precisely like the world that God called them to love and disciple.

We celebrate Reformation Day not only because it marks a recovery of right teaching, but also because it marks an act of Christian repentance at a time when the church had forgotten the simplicity of Christian piety, when she had become so affluent that she thought, wrongly, that she could look after herself, that she no longer needed Jesus.

Enjoy the article? Pay the writer.

Personal Info

Donation Total: $0

Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).