Letter to the Christian Nobility of the World
Editorial Note: Robert Schmidt was a seminary professor in Nigeria from 1960 to 1963. The first draft of the following paper was written in the late ’60s after he returned to the United States. It probably will not be helpful for those pastors struggling to keep their congregations and their careers afloat in these difficult times. Its relevance might be more for their children and grandchildren who have left the institutional church. It might also speak to congregations now and in the future who will have to close their doors because they cannot afford to pay a pastor.
Clericalism, if it’s not finished yet, should be finished in a generation or so. It just cannot continue. Of course, there will continue to be clerics of various sorts and that’s fine—you need institutional forms like that, but clericalism has crashed . . . there is a real need for new institutional forms in the Christian Church. The traditional ones will continue to be fruitful, but they are clearly not enough, and they have problems that disallow their performing the kind of function they may once have been able to do. ——David Tracy
Luther despaired that the hierarchy or the clergy of the church might reform the church in his day. As a result, he turned to the nobles of Germany, the leaders among the laity. He wrote an open letter to the Christian nobility of the German nation in order that they might press for a general church council to reform the church. In this tract Luther attacked the financial and spiritual robbery of the German nation by the Papists. Though the council for reform never came about in his lifetime, the German people themselves did much to abolish the abuses Luther spoke against.
We address a similar letter to the “nobility” of the world. The “nobles” addressed, of course, are not a landed aristocracy. Instead, they are Christian laity, “noble of spirit,” of wide-ranging interests and righteous concern. “Nobles” such as these are leaders in the academic communities, in the professions, in business and government. If there is to be a transformation of the church in our day, it is not likely to come from those who gain status, prestige and support from the institutional churches. Rather, it will come from those who are free from the control of the church but continue to be moved by her teachings.
“But why reform the church?” people ask. Though many churches are declining in strength, there are many notable exceptions, churches that attract thousands of worshipers on a Sunday morning. Everywhere the Word of God is still being preached from pulpits across the land; evangelists are still confronting people with the claims of Jesus; colleges and seminaries are still producing church leaders for future generations; churches have their own pastors, priests and leaders, and most manage to pay them a living wage. Why, indeed, reform the church?
The church needs a reformation or transformation that it might live for the world rather than for itself. Christians again need to understand God’s free grace and favor, that they are saved by God’s grace through faith and not because they are faithful members of a congregation or denomination. This can free them from the church traditions and regulations that absorb so many resources of talent and treasure. Christians again can realize that God gave his Word and sacraments to all Christians. All Christians have been empowered to speak the Word of God to each other and are priests capable of being chosen to baptize and celebrate the Lord’s Supper. As a result, they can call a wide variety of ministers to serve in the church and in the community, as was done in the New Testament as we read in Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12 and Ephesians 4.
As Christians again realize the glorious liberty they have from church rules and institutions, they can come together from different denominational traditions and participate in God’s work of bringing his Kingdom to our world. In this freedom of the Gospel, they can be released from their preoccupation with either their church’s success or survival. Instead, they will be able to focus their attention on the nurture of children, improved educational opportunities for all, adequate health care for the poorest among us, help for the disabled, jobs for the unemployed, good housing, harmony in families and peace in our neighborhoods. Finally, if Christians realize that they are able to minister to each other as volunteers with very little cost, they can use the majority of their talents and money to provide help and opportunities for those in need.
The institutional churches need reform today precisely because they are still flourishing. Flourishing churches in a sick world cannot be beneficial. In fact, they are almost like cancer cells, healthy tumors growing on a victim who is about to die because the tumors are sapping his strength. The United States and other industrialized nations are spiritually sick. Even though the cancer masquerades as health, the sickness is still there. The pathology is that of a people of affluence and luxuries, who care not for their brothers and sisters in ghettos and impoverished farms. It is the selfishness of a people of gluttony, who eat the food God meant for starving children. We are nations squandering the earth’s energy resources, leaving the poor of the world to accomplish Herculean tasks with but the human strength of emaciated limbs. Corruption, waste and greed are all around. Injustices are heaped on top of one another, leaving poor and rich alike crushed and apathetic. This is part of our world’s malaise. We are disturbed nations and troubled peoples.
Briefly stated, the institutional churches need to be reformed because they are part of the problem rather than the solution. For too long the churches have absorbed to themselves resources of time and money that are needed for the poor and oppressed. Even worse, the churches have remained largely silent against the injustices perpetrated by her members and our nations. Why has this happened? What can be done about it? In this little essay we propose to analyze why the churches behave as they do and what we might do to free fellow Christians to be the real church of Christ on this earth.
I. The Three Walls of the Church
At Luther’s time, the Papists hid behind three walls erected to defend the church from reform. Institutional churches today have three walls as well. The first wall is that the interpretation and application of Scripture rests in the hands of professionals. These people are in turn controlled by their training, status and support. The second wall is that parish structures are geared for the comfort and spiritual security of their members. The third wall is the denominational system, which causes competition among churches and effectively splits Christians, who should be working together. Let us look at these walls more carefully so that we, like Joshua, can shout and sing them down.
A. The First Wall: Professional Clergy
The first wall of defense against reform is that institutional churches claim that a professionally trained and paid person is needed to interpret the Scriptures and protect the church from error. This guards against reform in two ways. First, it means that only those who are controlled by training and support are in a position to say what the church should be doing in the world. Second, since these same people receive all of their financial (and moral) support from the churches as they exist now, they are the last ones to demand a change. (The few who are in the clergy ranks and still protest should be commended for their great courage.)
At first glance the wall looks quite formidable. Ask most laity about the Bible and moral decisions based on the Bible, and they are likely to defer to their pastor and priest. Ask most clergy about technical points of doctrine or broad ethical concerns, and they are likely to defer to theologians or commissions that have been appointed to study a certain matter.
This common refusal to make moral decisions for oneself on the basis of the Scriptures, traditions, community values or whatever is a very convenient out. It lets the laity (and sometimes the lower clergy) off the hook and passes the responsibility to people who are untouchable either because of their position or because of their isolation from the results of the decision. However, not only is the refusal to make a decision convenient; it also can appeal to recent church history for support.
Two events in Christianity have heightened the appeal to ecclesiastical authority in matters of faith and life. The first is the denominational system, whereby one’s “faith identity” was made in terms of a denomination. Once this “faith-identity” took place, it was necessary to define what that faith was and was not. As we look at the study of dogmatics after the Reformation, we see that the chief function of dogmatics had changed from a confrontation with the world and philosophy (Aquinas) to a confrontation with other denominations (Chemnitz, Bellarmine, Calvin and others). To be a defender of the faith, one not only needed to know the Scriptures but also the categories of theology, the teachings of the other denominations and the skills to communicate various interpretations and applications to the faithful. Put together, this created the need for an educated cleric.
The second event has been the advent of the historical-critical method of biblical interpretation. While the historical-critical methodology, by itself, is a relatively recent phenomenon, it has some of its roots back in the Reformation and Renaissance. The whole emphasis of Luther, Erasmus and others on learning the original biblical languages had much to do with the “criticism” of traditional interpretations of the Scriptures. More recently, form criticism, source criticism and redaction criticism have forced people of all persuasions to look anew at the Scriptures and re-examine much of what they have believed and accepted. Both the proponents and the opponents of the historical-critical methodology have found themselves to be advocates for the necessity of a professional theological education. Even though new perspectives on the Scriptures from post-modernist perspectives have moved beyond the rigid understandings of those for and against historical-critical methodologies, it has not changed seminaries’ insistence on their type of education. Indeed, the curriculum of most seminaries is dominated by studies in the Scriptures taught by those who are either for or against the outdated historical-critical methodology. As a result, denominational theologies and the supposed difficulties of Scriptural interpretation have conspired to saddle the faithful with professionally trained ministers.
However, in the New Testament we see that the early Christian church did not need such people, even though different theologies and the problems of interpretation also confronted it. At the time of Christ there were also “denominational” differences among the Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, Zealots and the various followers of current messiahs. It is foolish to think that these strands did not cross over into the early church. Each had its set of leaders and probably some favorite interpretations of the Old Testament. Nevertheless, none of the groups were able to survive intact once they became Christian. Perhaps this happened because of their conversion, but it might also have had to do with the fact that the early church did not carry over from Judaism the notion of requiring “professionals” to be the leaders of the community.
Likewise, in the matter of scriptural interpretation there was a major break with the necessity of having scribes and lawyers do the interpreting for the people. The first apostles were not scribes, learned in the methodologies of interpretation. However, once the apostles had found Christ, the Scriptures were opened up to them. It was so revolutionary that they turned over the Scriptures to all. The people responded and diligently searched them (Acts 17:11). In the early church there seems to have been no necessity for Scriptural scribes and lawyers even though, as we can tell from the pages of the New Testament, there was abundant controversy.
We need not only look into the Scriptures, however, to see this freedom from the professional clergy. This is also becoming very apparent in our own day. Through the lay movements connected with “evangelicals” and “charismatics,” the study of the Scriptures by laymen is growing by leaps and bounds. While in most cases this study is not very sophisticated and is open to a number of errors in interpretation, there is a life and vitality present that is truly commendable. Young people in college campuses no longer seek out a professionally trained clergyman in order to study the Scripture. No longer do they feel that this study has to have denominational boundaries. There is a new wind blowing, and it will cause many in the churches to readjust their sails.
The structures are still there. Congregations still have paid pastors or priests, seminaries and denominations. However, such people are sitting more lightly on their thrones. Every day events come that undermine the perceptions in people’s consciousness that the churches and their structures are that necessary. The Bible can be read without churches; worship can take place without clergy; and people can do good works without belonging to a congregation. Yes, people can even be pastors and priests without being paid and controlled by churches. The first wall erected against reform is crumbling. The mortar is rotten. The erosion of people’s loyalties will bring it down all by itself. Though the clergy and hierarchies may well scream and breathe anathemas, this wall will fall.
B. The Second Wall: The Parish Structure
Ah! But there is a second wall. This is the present nature of the parish structure. In recent years the parish structure has come under attack and countless efforts at renewal. However, little if any reform has taken place. Why do not some parishes simply live according to the teachings of Christ? Why do they not give of themselves for the poor and the oppressed? Why do they not stop many of their nonproductive functions, which are chiefly for the comfort of their own members? Why do they not devote the majority of their efforts to the world? The reason is quite clear. They will lose the parish structure. First, they will lose the members who are interested in spiritual and social comfort. Next they will have difficulties in keeping up the building and paying the pastor.
Last of all, they will need to disband. Thus, to keep the parish structure, church members involve themselves in ceaseless activities, rounds of services and programs, all to keep that form of the church going.
Nearly every program in education, evangelism and stewardship advertises itself as a way to bring new life to the congregation. Predictably, only those efforts of renewal work that have more “spiritual comfort” to offer to the members. If the parish can reinforce the members’ pride in the building, it can provide ammunition to the members’ prejudices; if it can babysit the children or give a frustrated worker the opportunity for leadership, then the parish will prosper. If a parish instead seeks to change deep-seated prejudices or urges spiritual self-reliance, its efforts are doomed. Most parishes believe themselves to be charting middle courses between their members’ needs and the challenges of the world. Yet to most outsiders the ship is not going down the middle of the channel. Instead it sails far more closely to the demands of its members than it does to the real needs of society.
Some will ask: Are not the Gospel and the church for the spiritual comfort of people? Is it not praiseworthy to visit the sick in hospitals, to have societies and groups where people can learn to know each other and satisfy the deep longings of people for community and identity? Of course, people have these needs, but they might all be fulfilled in far more productive ways than at present. If the church were a people on the move to accomplish God’s will on earth to help bring about the Kingdom of God, the fellowship would be stronger than it is now. The forces of persecution would make the groups more coherent. The concern for those sick in body and mind would be heightened and intensified. The real problem of the parishes is not that they have been set up for the spiritual comfort of their members. It is rather that they have been doing such a bad job of it. Instead of meeting the deep-seated needs of all for real comfort, they have contented themselves with an unworthy superficial comfort that ultimately does people little good at all.
Can parishes be renewed and actually carry out Christ’s mission without being prepared to die? Will they not have to be prepared to let their pastor sell the church building and suffer all the shame and scorn that this will bring? Few parishes will let this happen. The feelings for maintaining existing institutional patterns are far too strong. The parish structures as we know them will continue. In the eyes of Christ most parishes will continue to be bad, some less so. Renewal, however, will not come from the parishes; it will scarcely come to them.
Instead, renewal and reform will come from people who in spirit, and sometimes bodily, leave the parishes for the church in other forms. People such as these may indeed still keep their names on membership rolls and attend worship as they see fit. Their hearts and their resources, however, will be committed to greater tasks than helping parishes survive. Once this process of being in the parishes but not of them catches on, the parishes will change or die. Death confronts the present form of the parishes either way. It will be a slow death if they continue as at present. It will be more rapid but infinitely more God pleasing should they simply sacrifice their present structure and activities for the sake of Christ’s mission. Though it crumbles more slowly than the first wall, the second wall against reform will crumble as well.
C. The Third Wall: The Denominational System
The third wall erected against reform of the Christian church is the denominational system. The denominational system is the most pervasive aspect of Christianity throughout much of the world. Many of the faithful receive more of their spiritual identity from denominations than they do from their Lord. Their denominational source rather than their quality characterize whole categories of literature. Vast institutional networks exist knitting together the various outposts of any given denomination. People at one spot in the world know more of what happens to the denomination’s brothers and sisters on the other side of the globe than they do of Christians of other denominations on the other side of their own town.
Furthermore, the denominations are as powerful as they are pervasive. While seldom rich in liquid assets, denominations are vast property holders. Even discounting the property of parishes, many of which are owned locally, denominations still have vast holdings. Colleges, seminaries and institutions of charity multiplied by all denominations constitute a vast amount of wealth. However, even this financial power is puny compared to the ideological power and control exercised by the denominations. Their colleges and seminaries are significant institutions for the thought and character formation of leaders. Their periodicals, for the most part, carry only the denominational line. Most denominations publish the worship and educational materials needed to instill a denominational loyalty as well as more beneficial attitudes. They have the discretion to spend moneys, given by the faithful, for education, charity and missions. When offerings are channeled into unified budgets, as they still are in many mainline denominations, the door is wide open to increasing administrative costs. This expands the number of administrators, burdens the denominations with overhead and increases the power of the denominations. It also contributes to the theft of moneys intended for the preaching of the Gospel and helping the poor.
Another type of power is exercised through personnel control. The threat of moving a pastor or priest, cutting off income, ruining a chance for advancement and trifling with retirement benefits often controls the voices of dissent and reform. With such power at their disposal, one wonders why denomination officials and hierarchy have not taken more heroic stands than they have for morality and social concerns. Some indeed attempted to do this and have spoken frankly and clearly for the sake of the Kingdom of God. At times they have also suffered for it; for example, many people stopped contributing to those denominations that spoke out strongly against the Vietnam War or those supporting liberation movements in the third world. In more recent years, however, the public statements of most denominations have not gone beyond the positions of the majority of their members. Thus, speaking out against abortion by Catholics is to be expected, as are statements by others to give more food to the hungry. Most of the time statements are broad and general, and the sins confessed are mostly those of someone else.
As powerful as the denominations are, they are imprisoned by their own size. It is difficult, if not impossible, to make the changes that need to be done if they are to speak to a moving world. Roman Catholics are still trying to digest Vatican II. Lutherans and other Protestants have agonized over biblical interpretation. Anglicans and others still struggle about the ordination of gays and lesbians and the styles of Christian worship. Not one denomination has been able keep up with change gracefully.
If change is hard to digest, reform in the present denominational system is well nigh impossible. Most movements toward church union have floundered precisely at the point when the jobs and status of office holders was threatened. The same will undoubtedly hold true if serious proposals for reform are demanded. In the mindset of church officials it is not only jobs that are threatened. Enough of these people are capable of getting employment elsewhere. Rather it is that their whole identity will be undermined. When a person has thought of himself as being a vitally necessary cog in God’s machine for thirty or forty years, only a major conversion will convince him otherwise. Denominations will use all their power to resist reform. This is not because they are evil, but because they have created structural patterns that resist change.
If the denominations are that resistant to reform, why bother with them? They undoubtedly have done a lot of good. Why even suggest reform to them? Denominations have to be considered in efforts for reform because their very existence nullifies any major reform. Thus, if one denomination would throw its self-interest to the winds, sell its goods and give the proceeds to the poor, the people of the denomination would quickly join another denomination. The inherent competitiveness in the system keeps the voice of the churches united and circumspect. The same holds true at the local level. If in the name of Christ the pastor of one local church would seek to devote the majority of his time to his community rather than to his members, they would soon look for another church, pastor and if necessary another denomination where someone “really cared” about them.
The other problem with the denominational system is that it splits up people who need to be united and to work together in carrying out Christ’s mission. One is simply amazed at the ignorance most Roman Catholics have of Protestant theology, and vice versa. In about eighty percent of issues between main-line Christian denominations the theology is the same. Why then is there not more sharing of insights and resources? In every urban community there could be social action committees numbering in the hundreds and thousands.
Instead, if they exist at all, they are severely drained by the primary loyalties people have to their own parishes. It is the parishes and the denominations that sap the strength and resources of many ecumenical groups dedicated to the improvement of the community and society. Once again the churches divide those whom Christ suffered to unite in his blood.
Though the denominational system is perhaps the strongest of the three walls against reform, it is not invulnerable. Among the young and others who are part of the current revival of the faith, denominations are almost universally scorned. In order to grow, many churches want to be non-denominational. The skepticism people have against all institutions hits the denominational system with special force.
Problems have also arisen among the faithful. The fact that many of the mainline denominations are annually losing more members than they gain makes people ask awkward questions. Self-doubt has been planted in the minds not only of the rank and file but also of the officials themselves. It’s tough to keep one’s chin up as well as one’s status in the face of carping criticism. A crisis of confidence is there for all to see.
Growing divisions within the denominations themselves magnifies this crisis in turn. When Lutherans fight over the Bible and women’s ordination and Anglicans over gay and lesbian priests and Presbyterians over pronouncements on social issues, who wants to win that much? Usually it is only the involved few and their supporters who do the fighting. The masses of the faithful want to be left alone. Most wish the fight would soon be over so as not to disturb their faith or their rest.
The third wall crumbles also. People are finding alternatives to denominational Christianity. Many of these alternatives are admittedly narrow and lack the fullness of the church as the body of Christ. Yet they are experiencing an increasing vitality. New ways need to be found to broaden the focus of these groups, create even better ones and provide people with options for a more vital framework of the church than the denominational system.
II. Abuses That Need to Be Discussed
In Luther’s open letter to the German nobility, the greatest amount of energy was spent in condemning the Romanists for their worldliness, for the size of the curia and for the myriad ways they had for stealing money from the German people. In discussing the present abuses of the Christian churches we must also begin at that point. Avarice and robbery are not the special property of any age. Though more sophisticated now, it still goes on and is always cleverly disguised as “doing the Lord’s work.” To train and pay the clergy, to build and maintain hundreds of thousands of church buildings, to support denominational officials money is needed and a lot of it. Let us see for a moment how that money is used and then see how it is gathered.
A. Use of Funds
Tragically, the life style of religious leaders has not changed appreciatively since the time of the Reformation. The pope still wears his Triple Crown as if he had two up on every king and ruler of the world. Roman Catholic bishops, with a few exceptions, live in mansions with far too much pretense and expense. Among Protestants, the model of organization has not been the monarchy. Instead, especially in America, it has been the corporation. In most Protestant bodies there is a “corporate structure.” Some heads are called presidents, chairmen and other such titles derived from profit-making bodies. Under them are administrators who work with and under boards and commissions. To find one’s way around a denominational headquarters or a typical chancery of a Roman Catholic diocese, one needs an administrative chart.
In such headquarters the salaries paid to denominational heads and the upper bureaucracy are a great deal more than that given to the lowly pastor or even a seminary professor. Higher pay is rationalized as being necessary because of the tremendous administrative responsibilities of the position. Laymen on boards and commissions, often rich with their roots in corporation life, continue to press for higher salaries for the “poor” men of the cloth, now weighted down with position and prestige.
Millions of dollars are spent every year in travel. It is considered necessary to get a wide representation for commissions and boards. As a result people fly across the nation to spend a few hours approving decisions often already made by an administrative staff. In some denominations huge conventions are held every year or so, eating up millions of dollars. The conventioneers, supposedly on business, eat at the fanciest restaurants and stay at the best hotels, all in the name of the Lord’s work. No one dares to raise an objection because everyone benefits from it. Everyone rationalizes it by saying this is what corporations do, this is how politics works, etc. While the word CHRIST is sometimes spelled out in fifty-foot letters at huge conventions, how far people have come from that humble one who had no place to lay his head!
And the system goes on. Even though denominational allegiance annually grows thinner, the salaries for executives continue to rise. Meetings are held even more frequently. Whenever possible, more administrators are hired. How can this be? For the most part, church executives are not bad people. Indeed, some must be saints to put up with all their meetings and travel. But they are caught up in a system that permits and even encourages them to increase “administrative costs.” Who would think of endangering the institution by weakening the structure at the top?
While not as bad at the local level, there are still far too many abuses. The whole “status ladder” of the clergy is built around the concept of prosperous parishes. A parish does not need to be rich as long as “they treat their pastor well.” As a result, the movement of the clergy is from poor (often country parishes) to the city, from serving the poor to serving the rich. In affluent circles the clergy pride themselves on dining in the finest restaurants and wearing the best fashions.
On the local level churches still spend far too much on their buildings. Although people have been decrying the waste of money on buildings that are seldom used and imprison so much of the church’s resources, the building boom continues. On one hand churches are torn down in the inner cities to make way for parking lots. At the same time in the suburbs churches are erected with the finest luxuries and the best architects in order to attract people to the church. Once again, the institution becomes more important than the faith it seeks to communicate.
B. Raising Funds
The examples above are but a few abuses in the way the money is spent by churches today. Just as bad is the way the money is raised. For the most part church officials are well taken care of by the regular contributions of the faithful. This is commonly explained as “giving money to the Lord.” With good faith and bad the money is given, and it ends up in the front of the church. Then it is as if Christ himself mysteriously comes and takes it away, for it is seldom heard of again. Church officials, administrators and church councils have far too much discretion over how church moneys are spent. While the faithful think they are giving to missions or charity, little do they realize how little money actually gets there when layer after layer of administration peels off its percentage. By dressing up administrative costs as giving to the poor, churches not only lie to the givers but steal from the poor.
When money is not forthcoming using these methods, churches use fund-raising methods. There are often cleverly devised ways of using pressure tactics to convince people they should give money. At times wealthy people are convinced to give a large amount. They are then talked into telling what they gave in order to create a sense of shame in the person who is less well off. From then on it is like the game of dominoes, with all falling in line and giving more money than they had intended to give.
Voices are raised in objection. Should we not simply let the love of Christ move people to give? It is quickly put down by the practical realists who say, yes, that would be nice, but you cannot keep a church running like that. Without funds we will have to start bringing home missionaries. Of course, not a word is said about the president of a church body taking a cut or canceling the next convention.
The present practices of the churches in spending and raising money are always defended by saying, in effect, businesses and government do things this way. Being in the world simply means that the church adopts the world’s way of doing things. If the church adopts the world’s way of doing things, what does it have to say to the world? The question becomes more bothersome all the time: “How are Christians really any different from their non-Christian contemporaries?” If we adopt the world’s ways, we are indeed no different. It should not have to take a theologian three hours to explain the church’s uniqueness. It should be there for all to see. Were the churches poor, that indeed might be noticed and praised by all people on earth. We do not have that spiritual power because we are too busy copying the world.
Contemporary churches do not steal only money from the poor. They also steal the valuable resources of people’s time. The energies of people expended to keep the institutional churches going are almost enough to do away with the whole world’s starvation and poverty. The efforts expended in keeping the buildings up, paying staff, promoting fellowship, planning dinners and recreation, recruiting for Sunday school, etc., when multiplied by the number of congregations in the nation, is simply staggering. The free volunteer time given to these efforts is worth again as much as all the money collected by the churches. The organizational efforts, the excellent planning, the passion of people doing church work is worth a king’s ransom. But to what end? How much of the effort really ends up helping the single mother or providing scholarships for the indigent? How much helps the unemployed or wipes the tears from the eyes of the child dying of protein deficiency?
Because of the terrible waste of moneys and time by the institutional churches, is it any wonder that in the last century the church by and large has lost the allegiance of the very poor? The poor do not have gigantic intellectual problems with the church. They just see with simple clarity that the churches do not practice what they preach. Were the churches to change and be radically reformed, one would see a great change in the attitude of the poor toward the churches. So little of the money and the time get to where Christ would want it to go. We need to speak openly of these abuses and change them.
C. The Theft of Freedom and Responsibility
Denominations have also stolen from people the freedom and responsibility for carrying out the mission of Christ. A commission and its professional staff are responsible for ordering priorities in missions. These people may or may not be knowledgeable about the needs of the world and the Scriptural priorities of mission. Whether knowledgeable about the priorities of mission or not, such a small group of people cannot begin to know what really needs to be done in mission. How can they know those special places that need the Spirit of Christ, the folks who long for the comfort of salvation or the injustices that cry out for remedy? Because of their limited horizons the mission committees have had a narrow institutional vision of the church’s mission. If there is a new area without a church of their denomination, moneys and people are allocated to go there. The larger questions of national and international justice are slighted. The people in the slums, ghettos and reservations just get a few spiritual and physical hand-me-downs. All the while this is going on, the tremendous insights, passion and intellectual power of church members is wasted.
Were we to involve the majority of laymen in the definitions of what is the mission of Christ in the world they live in, we might be astounded at the answers. Once they had been freed from the notion that the church should do what it has always done, we might hear about the need for better jobs, about an environmental ethic, about the high cost of medical care. Were we to ask our poorer people, we would find out about the need for a meaningful work, a real vacation, a safe playground, some decent kids with which their children can play. Ah! But none of these are really Christ’s mission, or are they? Who is Christ today? Is Christ not his body? Are not these people also part and parcel of the body of Christ? Naturally the Scriptures and the history of the church’s mission can better inform everyone. There is also a need to set priorities together and discuss how to use our resources most efficiently. However, far more people need to be involved in the process.
The officials of the churches have not only told the faithful what the mission of the church for too long was; they also have told them what to study. One is absolutely amazed at the ignorance of most church people, even though some have been attending Sunday schools and Bible class their entire lives. Why is it that Paul could leave a church on its own after a year or two of education, and we would not dare to do so after hundreds of years? In the entire education system of the churches there is an education for dependence. People are taught to be dependent on the teachers, dependent on the clergy, dependent on the denomination, dependent on just about everyone except God. Spiritual self-reliance is unheard of. Usually when people get the faintest feeling of it, church people see them as lost to the organized church.
Why is it that in all the educational materials put out by denominations there is such a dearth of materials on how parents can educate their own children in the ways of God instead of sending them to parochial school, Sunday school or confirmation class? Is it because the professionals in the church might feel useless if people did this for themselves? How blind we have been! Parents educating their own children in God’s ways has been God’s plan from the beginning.
Why is it that in all the educational materials put out for laymen there is virtually nothing on homiletics? If laymen can teach the word of God to impressionable children in Sunday school, why could they not learn to preach it on a Sunday morning in church to a more discriminating audience? The reason is not hard to find. This too would begin to give people the idea that they are not so totally dependent on the clergy and the denominations.
If this is true in regard to the education of children and preaching simple homilies, it is also true in regard to matters of social justice. When matters of social justice are spoken of in church buildings, people seldom get beyond ideological positions. The liberals argue against the conservatives and vice versa until equilibrium is established. Then the conversation moves on to the next problem. Action is too often left to a small ineffectual committee that does not have the savvy, clout or money to do anything. Charity, and not too much of that, is likely the only outcome of both the study and the action by congregations today. Happily, there are some wonderful exceptions to this generalization, but there are not enough of them to be significant.
Church officials have stolen from the faithful the freedom to carry out Christ’s mission and the liberty to become spiritually more self-sufficient. As a result, people who think deeply about such matters have been terribly alienated from the church. At secular universities and even at church colleges there has been a mass exodus of the intelligentsia from the churches. While professors are occasionally paraded before the faithful for prestige purposes, few congregations will permit them to lead the people into new insights and understandings. Most likely, the academics in the congregations keep the financial books or teach a Sunday school class. Where is the congregation that commissions intellectuals to do research in moral issues? It is only due to the forbearance of many Christian professors that far more have not left the institutional churches and maybe Christianity as well.
With the loss of the poor, a good part of the working class and the intellectuals, the churches have lost the universality of their calling. Though commissioned by Christ to make disciples of all people, the churches pretty well stick to the upper and middle classes. This is not only true of the United States but is increasingly true of other nations as well. When the middle class imprisonment is added to self-concern of the church institutions, we see the church ever more isolated from the problems of the world. We hear constant admonitions to the churches to be concerned with “religious” problems. Interpreted, all this means is that the church should only care for its institutional concerns or the concerns of its middle class patrons. More and more, the churches do not exist to save the world or even serve it. They are the tumors growing on the body of society sucking excess resources from real wounds. Though the cancerous tissues look healthy, they are but a sign of death for the churches and for the society itself. If there is to be any remedy, people must again talk about these abuses, recognize them and repent of them. But even more must be done, and now we shall discuss some concrete proposals for reform.
III. Proposals for Reform
In his letter to the German nobility, Luther called for a general church council. None was forthcoming, at least to accomplish the reforms he had in mind. Nevertheless, a number of reforms Luther called for were acted on, not by church officials but by the nobles he addressed. This is also our hope for reform. Only when laity “noble of spirit” take the matters of Christ and the church into their own hands will there be reform among God’s people as individuals and in the churches themselves.
A. A New Strategy of Reform
The strategy of reform is not one of confrontation or building countervailing power groups to seize power. The strategy of reform for our day must rather be that of “stealing power” by becoming more self-sufficient. This does not involve us in being mean or vindictive; it does not even allow us to be corrupted by the power we would gain by questionable means. As a result, it allows us to stand directly within the Christian tradition of loving one’s enemies, turning the other cheek and refusing to build our security on earth. Spiritual self-sufficiency actually comes not from “self” but from God. It is what justification by grace through faith is all about. It again underlines the truth that the justified person is a perfectly free person subject to no one. Yet at the same time the Lord calls him or her to be a slave and servant of all.
B. Congregations Uniting in Mission
One place to begin the process of church reform is for existing congregations to exercise the freedom they have in Christ and unite with other congregations for the sake of their common mission. Congregations that wish to reach out to their communities with spiritual and material help can join with other congregations of different denominations to work for their community’s welfare. Working together, congregations can also discuss issues of doctrine and practice and, if appropriate, express their newfound unity in a mutual confession of faith.
Such congregations can also exercise their freedom to utilize the ministries of many if not all of their members. They can call members to various ministries now reserved for those with a seminary education. Others in the congregation can be equipped to preach, celebrate the Lord’s Supper, teach classes and call on the sick. All of this may free existing pastors to work in an area of ministry for which they are especially well equipped and find their greatest fulfillment.
Pastors and congregations that practice this type of freedom may quickly find themselves chastised and maybe even disciplined and shunned by their denominations. In situations like these congregations can learn from St. Paul, who sent offerings of money to the church in Jerusalem for their poor (1 Cor. 16:1). In a similar spirit congregations exercising their Christian liberty can demonstrate the fruits of their faith in gifts of love. If they are still shunned and rejected, the burden of schism must rest on the heads of the denominational officials. Will there be many congregations who will exercise such freedom in Christ? Perhaps there will be some. However, for some “Christian nobility” it will be difficult to find such congregations. For them we propose “primary communities.”
C. Primary Communities
We propose that the Christian nobility of the world give serious thought to forming primary Christian communities in which they can find opportunities for study, action, worship, witness and fellowship. By primary communities we mean small, somewhat natural groupings of people. The communities might be as small as an extended family and as large as a small congregation. One would hope that the group might always remain small enough so that people would have an opportunity to know each other so well they might confess their faults one to another, encourage and forgive one another (James 5:16). The group should also remain small enough to meet in people’s homes or in a borrowed or rented room.
From the outset the primary groups should have an ecumenical breadth. This will guard against excessive parochialism and will also serve as a needed corrective to one-sided Scriptural interpretation. Nevertheless, it would probably be impossible in any one group for an entire range of denominations to be represented. No doubt some groups will be primarily evangelical, others traditional, others geared to addressing social problems and so forth. Hopefully all would remain open to the influence of other groups and their representatives.
The most important part of each primary community, indeed its reason for being, should be a study-action focus. Some might meet to address community concerns such as crime, gangs and educational standards. Another group involved in health care might study ways in which excellent care might be extended to all. Those interested in evangelism might plan a major effort to reach the hopeless and downhearted. A group of business leaders might address how their corporations should promote better ethical standards. The list of possibilities is endless, as are the tasks Christ would have us take on. In the beginning worship, education and other “religious” functions might remain connected with traditional congregations. However, as people realized that such primary communities might well become “the” church, some fundamental value shifts might be expected. Why support our congregation with our money, when it might be used better to work on the problems the group has been studying?
These primary communities should include single people and whole families. Even though the studies and actions of the group may not be appropriate for all involved, the community should feel a responsibility for all. The nurture of children should be the special responsibility of the parents and friends. The spiritual leadership of the group should come from the group itself. The community should select a number from their midst for various leadership positions; some will have a responsibility as study leaders, others may take on action tasks. Still others may have responsibility for group worship. Soon the group might worship together. This could be as simple as an opening prayer and as complete as a small worship service culminating with the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. What a satisfying evening it would be to meet for supper with one’s closest friends and associates to discuss some new alternatives to helping our more unfortunate sisters and brothers. Here all share the Lord’s Supper around the table. Later they collect moneys and offers of time to be used for a worthwhile task. All the while they encourage one another with songs and hymns and spiritual songs and look forward to the next week when they might meet again. Already there are in existence a number of liturgies for home worship. These can easily be adapted to a particular group and any primary group can be equipped for a meaningful worship experience.
Though this idea might seem radical and unwarranted for contemporary churches, one only has to go back to the liturgical writings of Martin Luther to see that this was part of Luther’s plan for worshiping communities from the start. After speaking of the reformed Latin Mass, the Formula Missae, and the German Mass, Die Deutsche Messe, he writes of a third service:
The third kind of service which a truly Evangelical Church Order should have would not be held in a public place for all sorts of people, but for those who mean to be real Christians and profess the Gospel hand and mouth. They would record their names on a list and meet by themselves in some house in order to pray, read, baptize, receive the sacrament and do other Christian works. In this manner those who do not lead Christian lives could be known, reproved, reclaimed, cast out, excommunicated, according to the rule of Christ in Matthew XVIII. Here one could also establish a common benevolent fund among the Christians, which should be willingly given and distributed among the poor, according to the example of St. Paul, II Corinthians IX. The many and elaborate chants would be unnecessary. There could be a short, appropriate Order for Baptism and the Sacrament and everything centered on the Word and Prayer and Love. There would be need of a good brief catechism on the Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Our Father.1
Do members know of others interested in working on the same problems? They can be invited to the next meeting. One of the regulars can orient the new members to the convictions and the intentions of the small assembly. In a small but special part of a meeting, the new members can be baptized into the group and take on their responsibilities for work. Another function of the primary communities is Christian fellowship. We have placed it last, not because it is the least important, but because it is a by-product of the others. Too often when congregations set out to have fellowship they made everything else subservient. Then even fellowship becomes corrupted and self-serving. When fellowship is the glad response of people engaged in other tasks, it is truly God pleasing as well as being most enjoyable.
D. The Larger Fellowship
The primary communities we envision are not ends in themselves. In the beginning they will have strong ties with existing congregations. Should they wish to accomplish for themselves all the functions now exercised by parishes, they will still be but a part of the larger body of Christ. Hopefully one day we will see in every community huge worship gatherings, perhaps in a cathedral or stadium where all Christians in the community can gather together for a day of praise and thanksgiving to God. Here then mass choirs, orchestras and great festivities can accompany grateful hearts and witness to the entire community the oneness of the faithful. To arrange such gatherings might even be the study-action focus of one primary group.
But there must be other forms of communication between the various primary groups and also with other Christians. Perhaps the best way to facilitate this is once again to establish the role of traveling teachers. Like the apostles and prophets and teachers of the first century, they would be invited by and sent to the various primary groups to share their insights into the faith and its application to our time. For pastors and professors who warm to the vision of these new forms of the church, this would be an excellent way to use their knowledge and skills in teaching the faith. In their travels and visits they could reinforce people’s understanding of the unity of all of God’s people in the Body of Christ. As they reported on the successes, challenges and struggles of the various primary groups, they would weave something of the human web binding together the wondrous variety of God’s people and their gifts.
A Christian community paper and email network might be also be started (the task of another group?). Announcements of meetings and reports of discussions and conclusions should be widely shared. The primary community should never be an end in itself. Instead it should see itself as but one building block in the Kingdom of God. Communications are not only important between the communities of Christians, they are also important between the Christian community and the whole society. Once we need not be concerned with the survival of the church as an institution, Christian imagination, inventiveness and righteous concern can fill the media with a more intelligent and compassionate focus.
E. New Forms of Leadership
The leaders of the primary communities might be chosen on the basis of their commitment and leadership abilities. Even though the groups may be small, there should be a number of different leaders. One might be good at organization, while another has skills in teaching or encouragement. Others may be good at bringing in new members or facilitating friendships and fellowship. To reemphasize the priesthood of all believers, various members of the community should be called to lead the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. At the primary level all of the leaders should share tasks so that none is unduly burdened. Furthermore, none should be paid. This will emphasize the freedom of the Gospel, liberate the primary communities from church control and release funds for other purposes.
In such a “transformed” church is there a place for professional leadership? Yes, but it will be somewhat different than it has been in the past 1,700 years. Primary communities will need encouragement and instruction in the faith and the tasks of the Kingdom. Together with the traveling teachers mentioned above, this might also be the task of an “Apostolic Minister.” An “Apostolic Minister” would start and serve the primary communities much as St. Paul began and ministered to the small churches in the New Testament. As Paul was well educated to minister to a wide variety of people, so these missionary teachers would be professionally educated in universities or theological seminaries. They might either support themselves, as Paul did on occasion, or receive their income from the offerings gathered by the primary communities. Since “Apostolic Ministers” could serve fifteen or twenty primary groups, their support need not be as much of a burden as is now borne by congregations that must pay their own pastor.
Another type of professional leadership is that of one who is educated to coordinate and administer various social programs. For this type of leadership the “Diaconate” of the Evangelishe Kirche of Germany might serve as an excellent model. There professionally educated deacons and deaconesses administer institutions for the disabled, the elderly, abused women, released prisoners and the homeless. The German Landeskirchen have been able to support such programs because the State pays their pastors and most of the people belong to only two denominations. If the leaders of primary groups need not be paid and Christians come together to form a larger fellowship, the church in the United States and elsewhere might also be able to support such a diaconate and the excellent work it can perform.
A third type of leadership might be called “prophetic.” To help the primary communities address significant moral and social ills, speakers, writers, broadcasters and publishers are needed to share Christian insights and concerns with one another and the wider society. Such “prophets” would need similar spiritual stamina and insights to those of the Biblical prophets. They too would receive their education from universities or seminaries. Their spiritual formation would need to come from those who have suffered in the past from speaking unpopular truths. While such leaders might get their financial start from the primary communities, hopefully their publications and broadcasts could supply the resources needed to spread their message.
To the casual reader our proposals for reform must sound terribly naïve and idealistic. People may agree with our analysis of the institutional churches and their present abuses of power. Yet they will ask, who even believes in the faith to the extent that they are willing to be the Church? At the outset we see very few who will be interested. The vast majority of “congregational” people will remain loyal to their parishes. Those who have been “turned off” by their churches may also have been alienated by the faith as well. There will only be a few, an elite, a Christian aristocracy that will give heed. It is these people I address; it is to them that I have written this open letter.
The beautiful thing about the small primary Christian community is that it need not be large to accomplish something. It can exist, survive and prevail as a very small group. In this sense it is almost identical to the first Christian communities in the New Testament. Indeed, the New Testament church has been their model. But from such a tiny beginning the church of Christ can grow and God’s Kingdom will come. Even though they begin as a tiny mustard seed, there will be both growth and harvest. As people see the implications of such primary communities for the Kingdom of God, they will indeed sell what they have to possess it as they might a pearl of great price or treasure hidden in the field. Though the primary Christian communities are not to be identified with the Kingdom of God, at least they give promise that the Kingdom can grow better and faster because of them.
We pray that our nobility will hear and heed the plea that goes out to them. The church of Jesus Christ is badly in need of reform. You have it in your power to begin the transformation of the church with no more effort than it takes to be the church of Jesus Christ yourselves. May God grant you his strength and courage.
1 Martin Luther, Luther’s Works (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1965), 53:63–64.