by Bob Wheeler

Martin Luther

Martin Luther


Eph. 4:1-16 provides us with the biblical theory behind the church. The church is a mystical body, bound together by the shared presence of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit works through spiritual gifts that are distributed throughout the body. The purpose of these gifts is “the equipping of the saints for the work of the ministry” (v. 12; NKJV). The church is to grow thereby into a state of spiritual maturity, which, in turn, results in “the unity of the faith . . . and the knowledge of the Son of God” (v. 13). Through it all the entire church draws its strength from its union with Christ, who is the Head. The result is that every part does its share, and “causes the growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love” (v. 16).

And yet we don’t often see the church today functioning that way. Why? The story is a long one, and it goes back close to the very beginning. As early as the Second Century we begin to see the emergence of what is sometimes called “Early Catholicism.” This was marked by two innovations: a monarchical episcopate and infant baptism.

In the New Testament the office of bishop and elder were considered the same – the two terms were used interchangeably (e.g., Tit. 1:5 & 7) – and the church was led by a board of elders or “presbytery” (I Tim. 4:14) chosen from within the congregation. But by the Second Century we begin to see the bishop emerging as the single, preeminent leader of the congregation, with the elders below him. Thus Ignatius of Antioch could write to the Church of Ephesus in 108 A.D., and urge them to “be joined together in one subjection, subject to the bishop and to the presbytery . . . “ (Eph. II.2).

Infant baptism apparently came later, but it was attested as early as the time of Tertullian (ca. 200 A.D.). The problem here is that infant baptism shifts the focus away from the faith of the person being baptized to the church’s sacraments as a conduit of grace.

The situation was further complicated when Constantine, who was sympathetic to Christianity, became sole emperor in 323 A.D. Thereafter the Roman government supported the church, but this was a mixed blessing, for it also meant that the government would meddle in the church’s affairs. The emperors were often more interested in political harmony than in doctrinal purity, and the effect on the church was not always salutary.

And thus, gradually, down through the Middle Ages the pure gospel of salvation by grace through faith was buried under layers of tradition, scholastic philosophy and canon law. And this was the situation that faced Martin Luther in 1517 when he published his famous Ninety-five Theses. A gifted biblical scholar, he could see how far the Catholic Church has strayed from the practice of the New Testament Church. His writings caused a sensation and he soon found himself at the center of controversy. The great question of the hour was what to do about all of the abuses that had corrupted and deformed the church.

Luther was by no means alone in this situation. In Switzerland Ulrich Zwingli found himself in pretty much the same position. Both men, however, had the support of their respective local civil magistrates. But, as in the days of Constantine, this was a mixed blessing. Biblical scholars like Luther and Zwingli could see what was taught and practiced in the New Testament church; the civil magistrates, on the other hand, were concerned to maintain public order. Luther, quite plausibly, advocated a cautious approach to reform. Arguing from the New Testament principle of Christian liberty he advocated changing only what was necessary, and leaving the rest alone. Zwingli’s attitude, however, is harder to justify. From the pulpit he had advocated a thorough-going, Bible-based reform. In actual practice, however, he deferred to the City Council of Zurich. It is hard to clear him of the charge of political opportunism.

What both Luther and Zwingli were attempting to do, in effect, was to take existing territorial state churches and “reform” them by introducing certain changes to make them look more biblical. It was hard for them to do otherwise. Were it not for the support of the magistrates they could have literally paid with their lives for the doctrines they were teaching. The whole social order of Western Europe was based on the idea of “Corpus Christianum,” the idea that all of Western society constituted “Christendom.” But an all-inclusive state church can never be anything more than a pale shadow of what a genuine Christian church ought to be. The church is supposed to be a “communion of the saints,” a spiritual fellowship of committed believers who demonstrate the life of Christ in their love toward one another. A state church leads to mere formalism.

Some of Zwingli’s more radical followers saw the nature of the problem, and formed the nucleus of what became the Anabaptist movement, which, among other things, rejected the idea of infant baptism. For Luther and Zwingli, however, this was too much. It threatened to undermine the whole structure of Western society, and they were both patriots at heart!

What we are left with, then, in the cases of the Lutheran and Reformed (and Anglican) churches is an incomplete Reformation. The Reformers recovered the gospel of salvation by grace, but failed to achieve a biblical church life. The Anabaptists attempted a more thorough-going reform, and since that time there have been other attempts to create a more biblical and more spiritual form of church life – everything from the 17th Century Baptists and Quakers to a variety of 19th Century “Restorationist” movements. But these various “Free Church” movements have been marred by divisiveness and sometimes unsound doctrine, and even the ones that started fairly well over time tended to lapse into the same kind of institutionalism and dead formalism that has plagued their state church brethren. Nearly all American churches today have grown accustomed to relying on human means to achieve spiritual ends, and the life of the Spirit is notably absent. Hardly anything existing today can be said to resemble the spiritual life of the First Century church.

We are deeply indebted to Luther and Zwingli, Calvin and Knox, for rediscovering the gospel of salvation by grace through faith, and for making God’s Word, the Bible, available to the common man. If it had not been for them, humanly speaking, we would still be in spiritual darkness. But in our admiration for their achievements we must not overlook the fact that their efforts at reforming the church ultimately fell short of what God requires. And it must be our ever-present task to construct a church that genuinely reflects God’s will – a believers’ church, a spiritual fellowship, a church that shows by deed as well as by word what salvation means in actual practice. We need to look past the highly institutionalized form of church life that we know today to see the true and living God seated upon His throne in heaven. What we need is what some of our forefathers knew as revival – not glib preacher or TV huckster, but a real outpouring of the Holy Spirit that will humble us before the glory and majesty of God, fill our hearts with love, and anoint our verbal testimony with power. May God grant us the grace to live up to His expectations!