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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Posted by Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy and author of "In Search of the Common Good: Christian Fidelity in a Fractured World." 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 and Austin. Jake's writing has appeared in Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play.

  • Greg Herr

    Our Catholic parish (Anglican Ordinariate) is comprised of nearly all former Protestants.

    That includes a Lutheran Reformation theologian (confirmed and moved elsewhere in the country), a Lutheran pastor (LCMS), a Presbyterian pastor (now a Catholic priest), several former Anglican priests, Calvinists, Evangelicals, Brethren, Baptist (like me!), Anglican/Episco (like my wife), Methodist, and Orthodox; likely others I’ve overlooked.

    They walked across Benedict’s Bridge, and away from Reformation Day.

    • hoosier_bob

      To what extent is your experience a reliable indicator of what it means to cross the Tiber? More people attend my local Catholic parish in New Jersey on Saturday evening and Sunday than attend Anglican Ordinariate parishes across the US. In fact, there isn’t even such a parish in any of the five boroughs of New York. A Manhattanite would need to take a $500 round trip Lyft ride to attend the closest Anglican Ordinariate parish in the far-flung western suburbs of Philly. And I suspect that most cradle Catholics would view your parish life as looking more like Protestants who’d dressed up as Catholics for Halloween.

      I don’t say that to devalue your religious experience. I just question the extent to which it’s truly “Roman Catholic” in any functional sense. Sure, the parish may be Catholic on paper, but, from your description, it sounds like it’s functionally Protestant. After all, most practicing Catholics I know merely go to the parish that’s closest to their house. To do anything else would likely seem very un-Catholic to them. Heck, in Chicago, natives of the south side describe their old neighborhoods by the name of the Catholic parish that sat at its center: “My parents grew up in St. Rita’s, but moved to LaGrange after they got married.”

      • Greg Herr

        Much of what you say is right, Bob. It is not a reliable indicator. ‘Your mileage may differ.’

        Having been catechized and confirmed Catholic back in the 80s, I attended a ‘standard issue’ Catholic parish, much like what you describe, for 20 years or so. But the reality of living as a Catholic (‘truly’) is quite varied, even in this country—recall that we’re 23 churches, all in communion with each other, and the Pope. The variety is vast.

        I suspect what you are describing is what most people are, indeed, familiar with: Latin rite American Catholic parishes. But what you suggest of our Catholic life would apply similarly to 22 other churches (and in fact, we tend to have more in common with them in many respects than the typical American Catholic parish). They’re all functionally Catholic–your comment did bring a smile: You’d get an uproarious laugh from our parishioners who are *horrifyingly* Roman Catholic :>.

        In terms of how cradle Catholics perceive the Ordinariate, here again, what you say is true for many just not all. A lot depends on where they were raised or had been attracted to in terms of ethos and liturgy. We tend to attract some folks who were TLM/Latin Mass Catholics—so some of them would not be considered converts in the same sense (unless, like me, they converted a long time ago, spent time in TLM, then wanted to experience some of their heritage if previously Anglican). And if you know anything about TLM-loving Catholics, they are *not* Protestant.

        Storytime: As our fledgling parish began we borrowed space from gracious Catholic parishes. At one, with a largely Latino community, I would have these elderly Latino ladies come up to me, and in limited English, say, ‘It’s just like Mass when I was a little girl in Mexico!’ So if you want to know our Catholic character and ethos, there’s no better witness than that. They recognized us as ‘functionally Catholic’ even though we use Elizabethan English and celebrate the ‘Cranmer Mass!’

        Yes, geography is a huge challenge, but recall the Ordinariate’s only been around for ten years. So there isn’t one in every locale. Time will tell, of course, but our pastor started three parishes in 6 years. While ours started with less than two dozen (now ~200), another was to launch with about 35, and over 300 showed up. Give us time. :)

        (Oh, and get an Uber and come visit!!)

        • hoosier_bob

          Thanks for the explanation. I honestly didn’t know much about the movement. When I decided that I couldn’t deal with evangelicalism (the PCA, to be specific), I attended RCIA at a local parish for a few weeks. When it became clear that the person teaching the class didn’t even believe substantive affirmations of the Nicene Creed, I felt like I’d be better off back in a mainline church. These days I typically go with the best church within 30 minutes’ walking distance.

          • Greg Herr

            Totally understood. My RCIA experience wasn’t very good either, but by the time I went, I had moved significantly from reading and knowing Catholics. It wouldn’t’a mattered (sad to say) what they said–wild horses couldn’t’ve dragged me away. My (catechized) Catholic friends said, ‘You’re already Catholic.’

            If you ever consider it again, there are usually options. One of the advantages of Ordinariate communities being smaller means the pastor can be more hands-on. Ours has gone to homes to catechize, as well as ‘Skype-based’ when distance is a challenge.

            The Ordinariate uses Evangelium for catechesis. Way different than typical RCIA (although, I confess I don’t know what is commonly used now). Here’s a good piece in the Register:
            http://www.ncregister.com/daily-news/evangelium-a-new-way-for-rcia

            All the best in Christ the Lord.

    • CPT

      Ok?