What have the protests of a 16th century monk got to do with the child sexual abuse scandals of recent years?
In 1517, Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk and priest, nailed 95 theses (points for discussion) to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. His goal was simply to raise awareness among the educated and those with influence of distortions of the Christian faith and truth at the time. A very gifted scholar, Luther and others came to questions some of the then teachings and practices of the Church, based on their study of the Scriptures and Church history. Among the greatest perversions were the selling of forgiveness and keeping people, most of whom were very poor, in ignorance and fear. Much of the proceeds went back to Rome for great building projects such as St Peter’s Basilica with the aim of reviving and promoting the Western Catholic Church and Empire.
Little did Luther realise the lid he was removing and what world changing forces he was unleashing. The gripping story and some of its implications can be discovered through the various movies, documentaries, YouTube presentations, books and articles on this figure and the Protestant Reformation he helped to spawn. It has been suggested that I write something on the Reformation. I will simply focus on one very interesting aspect relevant to contemporary life, that being Luther’s marriage to the nun Katharina von Bora.
Late in 1510, Luther and another monk travelled to Rome. The trip helped foster Luther’s questioning of the institution to which he belonged due to the corruption and hypocrisy he observed. Among the wrongs and excesses troubling him were religious figures who took vows of celibacy and rejected marriage, teaching that singleness was a spiritually superior estate that would merit them extra favour and reward from God, yet at the same time visiting prostitutes and keeping mistresses.
Luther himself was single and had taken vows of celibacy. He was quite content in that state and affirmed singleness as a good and God pleasing estate for those capable of celibacy. As St Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 7, singleness can allow for a less distracted focus on and service to God and spare us from many troubles. Yet this should never be mandated, and the Bible very much affirms marriage and our service to God through it by providing and caring for spouse and family.
At the age of 41, several years after Luther was excommunicated or ousted from the Roman Catholic Church, he married Katharina, a nun who had been smuggled out of a convent. She had come to agree with the rediscovery of the Gospel or New Testament faith, which was at the heart of the Reformation. This rediscovery of the Gospel was nothing other than God’s own declaration through the Bible that we do not earn God’s salvation, but that God has won it for us through the gift of the eternal Son Jesus Christ, the second person of the Trinity. He took on human flesh, lived a holy life for us, took our sin upon himself, died a sacrificial death for us on the cross and rose triumphant over sin, death and the powers of darkness. Receiving this beautiful gift by faith is what gives us peace with God and provides us with the urgently needed pardon from his just judgments. God reconciles us to himself through the grace he freely gives in and through Christ to all who believe. Salvation is gifted, not earned! It is by grace through faith.
Luther knew from his study of the Scriptures that marriage was a good and natural gift from God and that many of the apostles and early Church fathers were married. He could see from his studies how rejecting this had become a man-made law and he observed the hurt, hypocrisy, lusts, disorder and exploitation that resulted. If his enemies did not hate him enough already and wanted him dead, his marriage to the nun Katharina von Bora sealed his fate. In many ways Luther was protesting an unjust and dehumanising system built on human power and control that would not affirm God’s good gifts as revealed in God’s word.
What is the relevance for today? Institutional child sexual abuse is evil and always needs to be addressed, yet the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse established in Australia in 2013 found that the rate of offending was exponentially higher among Roman Catholics and that the majority of these were committed by those who had taken vows of celibacy (eg priests or those who belonged to religious orders). While we do need to affirm the many faithful priests, so much of today’s destructive scandal could have been avoided simply by staying true to God’s word. In many ways Luther's radical stance and daring protest has been vindicated.
This raises further important questions for us. Where today is the Church rejecting God’s word in favour of human constructs or practices? Where is money, power and politics, rather than the word of God, currently dictating the Church and her institutions? Where are we too conformed to the prestige and money worship of our culture and time rather than listening to and following our Lord who is at the centre of Scripture? The Church, and each one of us, are always in need of reforming. This is to be an ongoing, lifelong task.
Luther never intended to start a new Church (Lutheran), or movement (Protestant). His aim was always reform and to call people to trust in Jesus Christ and to be faithful to God’s word, the Bible. That should still be the call of the Church today. It is all about God and his gift of Jesus Christ who is at the heart of the Scriptures. His forgiveness is the greatest good news for undeserving sinners like us, the answer to our deepest need as Christ lifts the curse of death that our sin has brought. Through his resurrection he is making all things new and even now lives in and brings his renewing love, warmth and peace into the hearts of believers.
The aim of this Page is to be a safe place to explore the ultimate questions of meaning and purpose and to enquire about and discuss the Christian faith from a Lutheran perspective.
A Little About Me
I am Pastor Michael Steicke, often referred to as Pastor Mike. I have been a Lutheran Pastor for over 30 years, having served Parishes in New South Wales, Queensland and South Australia, before moving to Tasmania to be the Pastor of St Peters Lutheran Parish in Hobart at the beginning of 2016.