This is a sponsored post from The Christian History Institute
I, like many fellow Millennials, have heard myself say more times than I wish to admit: “All institutions are corrupt, including the church. It just comes down to how much corruption can be tolerated.”
It should not come as a shock that churches have corruption problems. The Early Church is born in Acts 2 and by Acts 6 it is already dealing with a scandal—those dispensing food to widows are using race/ethnicity as the determining factor of who receives care. All churches for all time will have corruption issues because God has entrusted the care of the church to sinful men, and sinful men have a tendency bite and devour one another (Gal 5:15). As disgraceful as it is, corruption is inevitable.
I often find myself looking at corruption in the church and asking “Do I push for change like Luther or like Erasmus?” Both men were part of the Catholic church in the early 1500’s – Luther as a very devout monk and Erasmus as a priest. Both men were sharply aware of the corruption. Erasmus wrote “The corruption… [and] the degeneracy of the Holy See are universally admitted…”. Erasmus’ critique of Rome was such that Pope Paul IV had many of his books added to Rome’s index of forbidden books. Luther famously served the Catholic church its notice of corruption to the door of the Wittenburg Castle Church on October 31, 1517. Neither man turned a blind eye to the corruption but called it out as a disgrace to our loving, merciful Savior. However, their methodology for fixing the problem was very different.
Luther broke with the Catholic church and became the lightning rod that sparked the Protestant Reformation after his famous, or infamous, speech at the Diet of Worms. Erasmus chose to stay in the Catholic church and endeavored to reform the church from within. It is truly hard to say that Luther was wrong by splitting from the church (or the pope splitting from him) and starting over. But, I would say it is equally hard to say that Erasmus’ motive to reform the church from within was wrong, either. They simply chose different methods to reach the same outcome.
What I find especially striking is that neither Luther or Erasmus was content to witness corruption, call it out, and then sit on their hands. Both fought for change, faced the corruption head on, and did the hard work that was required to change the church. I know I would rather accuse others of corruption from the safety of my laptop, tablet, or cell phone than to lovingly confront them as a brother and endeavor to “Explain to him the way of God more accurately” (Acts 18:26).
So, when do we employ the scorched earth approach to handling corruption like Luther and when do we attempt to circumnavigate around the corruption like Erasmus? I have found that the answer is found in your gifting, abilities, calling, and circumstances. Martin Luther was gifted with a bombastic, brash, bold personality and was extremely well-suited to be the leader of a new enterprise. People followed him. Not only because of his theology but also because of his personality, which fueled his leadership and instilled confidence in his followers. Let’s also not forget that Luther was not given the opportunity to stay in the Catholic church without recanting his criticism. So gifted by God and not given a legitimate shot to reform the church from within, he decided to burn the bridge and not look back.
Erasmus was more of a scholar than a revolutionary leader. He chose to use his clear mind and cunning words to point out corruption hoping that a more informed opinion would lead to change. Due to this approach, he was given the ability to stay in the church and plant seeds of change.
Maybe better questions to start with are “Do I have the gifts, ability, desire, and calling to be a leader like Luther? Do I still have a legitimate shot at being heard by leadership when I point out corruption like Erasmus?” If the answer to either is “yes” then you know what to do. If the answer is “No” to both then my suggestion is to move on to another established work where you may be heard but not the leader.
For those of us Millennials who decry the corruption of the church: Are we going to be a Martin Luther or an Erasmus? To cry out for change and do nothing was not an option for either of them and should not be one for us. If we highlight corruption and do nothing, are we any different than a noisy gong and a clanging symbol? It will take love, a heart for the truth, and the courage of one prepared for battle to reform a church whether it be the church universal or the church local—just as it did during the Reformation.
Matthew Oser has a M.Div and is heavily involved in the teaching ministry of his local church; proud father to 4 children and married to the most wonderful woman in the world. He is the Vice President of Sales and Marketing for Christian History Institute – the producers of The Reformation: This Changed Everything airing on select PBS stations.