Are you Erasmus or are you Luther?
“I put up with this church, in the hope that one day it will become better, just as it is constrained to put up with me in the hope that I will become better.”—Desiderius Erasmus
Reflections by Matt Oser, Vice President of marketing, Christian History Institute
Like many fellow millennials, I have often heard myself say, “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 a problem with corruption. The early church is born in Acts 2 and by Acts 6 is dealing with a scandal, as those dispensing food to widows are using race/ethnicity as the determining factor for who receives care. All churches for all time will have corruption issues because God has entrusted the care of the church to sinful men, who have a tendency to bite and devour one another (Gal 5:15). Therefore, corruption is inevitable … and also disgraceful.
If we cry out about corruption and do nothing are we any different than a noisy gong and a clanging symbol?
I often find myself looking at corruption in the church and asking, “Am I a Martin Luther, or am I an 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 corruption within the church. Erasmus wrote “The corruption… [and] the degeneracy of the Holy See are universally admitted.…” Erasmus’s critique of Rome was such that Pope Paul IV had many of his books added to Rome’s index of forbidden works. Luther famously served the Catholic church its notice of corruption in the form of 95 Theses nailed to the door of Wittenburg Castle Church on October 31, 1517. Neither man turned a blind eye to corruption, however, their methods for addressing the problem were very different.
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 became the lightning rod that sparked the Protestant Reformation after his famous, or infamous, speech at the Diet of Worms. But Erasmus chose to stay in the Catholic church and work to reform it from within. It is truly hard to say that Luther was wrong to split from the church and start over. But, I would say it is equally hard to say that Erasmus’ choice to reform the church from within was wrong, either. They simply choose different methods to reach a satisfactory outcome.
I have noticed that people tend to be either starters or fixers. Starters see problems for what they are: huge, difficult, and imposing monsters. When faced with these monsters they begin to look for ways to circumvent the problem by breaking with the old and starting over. Fixers see the problems for what they are: huge, difficult, and imposing monsters. But, when they face these monsters they tend to look for ways to tame them; their hope is to restore them to their rightful state.
What I find especially striking is that neither Luther nor Erasmus was content to see the corruption, call out the corruption, and then do nothing. They both fought for change, working hard to bring it about. 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 brothers and sisters and endeavor to “Explain to [them] the way of God more accurately” (Acts 18:26).
So, for 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. For if we cry out about 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 to work hard if we want to restore the broken church of our day.
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