28. To repress our common need for the sake of personal piety is no lesser a sin of power when reformed.
It is impossible to pin all of the Great Reformation on a moment. Martin Luther’s 95 Theses did not start or embody the Reformation in its totality. But they named a need unaddressed by the Roman Catholic hierarchy: the connection between the crumbling authority of the pope and the grace of God in salvation.
A need that would only get addressed if the church was forced to address it.
I’ve come to see the Reformation as a course-correction for the church that had gotten lost. The church would have remained lost without someone to say Stop driving! We’re going in the wrong direction!
Of course, this is only true of the so-called Western church. This wasn’t the whole church.
And what I’ve argued recently is that course-correction has pulled the churches born of the Reformation down another path which leads away from the main.
The focus on personal piety has come at the expense of the whole. We’ve too bought into individualism and ventured away from our mission of reconciling the world and bringing he kin-dom closer.
Perhaps we can agree in the abstract, but not on the principle. Maybe we’re too invested in our tribe to recognize how we’re undermining it by undermining its faith with cheap grace.
A Tale of Two Sins
At the root of Luther’s conflict with Roman authority was its use indulgences, which were the means of purchasing grace from God. Luther objected so strongly to indulgences because they were theologically objectionable. This drove him crazy.
But what made him go ballistic was the human practice of them. For one, the wealthy could buy their way out of purgatory while the poor could not. And for another, the distribution of money from the purchase went to the church to buy pretty things. It seemed like a money-making scheme.
It became easy to unseat the theology behind indulgences and name the sin of their practice. That wasn’t hard at all.
Harder was figuring out what shifting focus from human authority to divine authority would do to our behavior. And this is where the slippery slope becomes too tantalizing for the Calvinist.
Some respond with a rite of initiation which no less resembles an indulgence. Making a public claim of faith to get into heaven is virtually indistinguishable from buying a piece of paper to get out of purgatory (and into heaven).
Others respond with a faith rooted in purity, developing a culture of adherence to laws based out of their reading of Scripture. This, again, roots salvation in transactional behavior.
Much of what became Protestant orthodoxy is practically indecipherable in premise from the orthodoxy it protests.
The Greater Sin
The greater sin of Reformation theology is when it places the piety of the individual above our common need.
Protestantism’s great innovation matched the time of its birth. It based its reform of the church around the family unit. A unit of small, individual participation which was becoming literate. Bibles were being printed by the printing press and were translated into the languages of the people including English, German, Dutch, and Swedish.
But most importantly, it put the locus of faith and salvation on the relationship between a person and God without the church.
And without the church, that relationship seems even more transactional than ever.
Theologies intended to put all the weight in God’s hands have naturally led people to see God’s fingerprints on our world. The wealthy are now seen as blessed by God. Yes, the same ones Jesus said would have a harder time getting into heaven than a camel would through the eye of a needle.
God did that. Apparently. Just like God did poverty, famine, and war.
The only antidote is getting right with God. Instead of paying for your indulgence, you work your butt off and hope God will accept that as payment.
The Protestant Work Ethic came to distort our sense of personal worth, common need, and impose a rugged individualism on people starving for grace. Ultimately, it makes us both more industrious and more nasty to each other.
But the one thing it doesn’t do is give weight to the light rhetoric of righteousness by faith in Christ. Because there is no connection to faith and grace if God’s providence is the whole point.
Our Common Need
Much of Protestant reform seems good on paper and the Counter Reformation has made the Roman Catholic Church better. But it seems like we traded one sin of power for a different one.
A power still based in hierarchies and individuals. The focus is still on personal piety and away from the grace of God. While we mind one another’s behaviors and manage our own sin, we aren’t inviting grace into our lives.
The old sin of separation from God remains. Even as we tunnel down to work on our personal relationship with God, grow in faith, and try to please God with our personal piety, we fail to see what God always wanted from us. Building the kin-dom. Practicing Jubilee. Welcoming the stranger and forgiving debts.
Virtually the entirety of the debates born out of the Reformation come out of the Epistles in the New Testament. We’re fighting over Paul and Pseudo-Paul and Timothy. But the great stories of the Penteteuch, Ruth and Jonah, the major prophets, and the gospels focus on community. They focus on our withness.
When we read beyond questions of personal righteousness, we see the Scripture full of another focus.
We read about leaving some crops in our fields so the poor can eat. Or we read about Jesus raising a woman’s son from the dead to restore her to community. We read about Jubilee and we read the Sermon on the Mount.
Throughout the Scriptures we realize our eyes are made for seeing. But not seeing for the sake of judgment, but for connection. Not just to reprove the wrong, but to enter a relationship of love and compassion with them. In their need, we see our common need.
Our eyes, ears, hands, feet, hearts, and minds are given for the giving and receiving of grace. Which is never really about us as individuals. But it is always our greatest common need.
[This is Thesis #28 of my 31 Theses. To read them all, visit the 31 Theses introduction page.]