What a joy it was for me to find out that another person had posted a set of 95 Theses for church reformation on exactly the same day that I did (October 31, 1999)! This was to commemorate the posting of 95 Theses by Martin Luther in the year 1517. Please read these and be blessed. Let's offer the Lord our prayers, fastings, love, faith, resting, and effort to participate in seeing the Body of Christ become healthy and mature. One way to assist this process is to help remove the hindrance of inappropriate control in the church. This is, in fact, what Dr. Schmidt's primary focus is on in his 95: Control. Be sure to order his book (see the end of this list for ordering details). Robert Lund
Robert Schmidt M.Div., S.T.M., M.A., Ph.D.
Dean of Theological Studies,
Concordia University, Portland, Oregon
ă Copyright, 1998
Unless I am convicted by Scripture or plain reason, I do not accept the authority of Popes and Councils, for they have contradicted themselves. My conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise, God help me. Amen.
The first draft of these theses was written early in the 1970s after returning from Africa as a missionary and seminary professor. In the context of tremendous physical and spiritual needs of that desperately poor continent, the denominational structure of the Christian church seemed out of place. Where Christians should have worked together for the good of the people, they often worked at cross-purposes and witnessed to their divisions rather than to their unity in Christ. Equally disturbing was the inappropriateness of restricting word and sacrament ministry to those who were educated in a western type seminary and would become dependent on professional salaries and subsidy.
Overwhelmed by the power of the denominational structures in the United States and their hold on the hearts and minds of their people, it seemed best to put these theses aside and work toward the empowering of laity for ministry as the best way to carry out Christ’s mission. Because of the efforts of many people in the United States and the world, more lay ministry is taking place and many congregations are beginning to realize the tremendous gifts lay ministers can bring to the churches’ life and work.
But such small beginnings are not nearly enough to meet three crucial challenges facing the churches. The first is how to reach a younger generation impatient with the control structures of traditional congregations and denominations. The second is how to minister to strong ethnic communities in the United States and elsewhere. The third is how to witness to Christ and his kingdom to an exploding world population that every day makes Christians a dwindling minority. To meet these challenges, Christians at the local level need their Gospel freedom to work together to carry out Christ’s mission.
However, instead of giving their members the freedom to make their own decisions, church bodies like the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod are insisting upon more denominational control. In so doing, they are undermining the Gospel and the freedom of its members to carry out the Church’s mission. In the name of Jesus Christ and for the sake of his kingdom it is time to discuss these Ninety-Five Theses on Church Control so that all of Christ’s people realize their freedom in the Gospel and their opportunities to share his love.
For the Church, for the world, another Reformation is needed. Then the Word of God was cited against a single authority; now it must be proclaimed against hundreds of competing authorities. Then the Church was reformed, but divided; now the Church must be transformed to become united. Then the Gospel was rediscovered in the debate over indulgences; now it must be recovered in the struggle over church control.
In her better moments the Church has taken on all institutions, including her own, and has held them up to the searching scrutiny of the Word of God. The Christian Church, harbinger of change, champion of the oppressed, proclaimer of the kingdom, is but a tired image of her former self. Rent with division, each group of Christians finds itself pandering to the comforts and prejudices of its own members. Most traditional denominations face declining memberships, aging adherents, dwindling influence, and unhappy pastors. Living in the light of fading glories, most church bodies are dull, uncreative, and boring. Their children are their worst critics.
The purpose of a Reformation in our day is to transform the present institutional pattern of the organized churches. To do so, it must replace the laws and rules which support its present structure with the Gospel of Christian freedom, leading to new, more appropriate structures. As Christians become once again confident of the liberty they have in the Gospel and use it to unite people in love, then the Church can again become a model for all institutions to work toward bringing the kingdom of God to the whole world.
Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses
The Ninety-Five Theses of Martin Luther have come down to us as a mighty protest igniting the Protestant Reformation against the Medieval Church. Yet to their casual reader, they are little more than an expository thesis on the subject of penance. They do not begin with an elaborate analysis and critique of the Church or the world. Instead, there is just a simple application of the Biblical teaching on repentance. However, as soon as one compared these teachings to what the Church was actually teaching and doing, anyone could see glaring contradictions. This contrast, then, is what provoked the power and fury of what came to be known as the Protestant Reformation.
In our day, another teaching of the Scriptures needs a similar exposition. This is the doctrine of justification by faith alone. As a doctrine, justification by faith has had a hard time of it recently. Lutherans can no longer agree on it. After a tentative agreement on some aspects of justification, Lutherans and the Vatican are still in disagreement on its implications. Some claim simply that times have changed, and our age is no longer asking the question, “How can I find a good and gracious God?”
The current sentiment seems to be that justification by faith alone was great for Luther and his time, but is really not the issue today. It is quite common to hear people say, “If Luther were alive today, he would emphasize something quite different.” Yet in both the writings of Luther and the Lutheran Confessions, justification by faith alone was not looked upon as an emphasis for personality type (such as Luther) or for an age (The Reformation Era). It was rather seen as that which inherently was “the” message of the Scriptures. This was the articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae, the article by which the Church stood or fell. If this article was lost, then all was lost in the Church. If it remained, others things would work out as well.
In the voluminous writings of the era, it was expressed in many ways and was used to expound nearly the entire body of Christian doctrine. Regardless of how it was expressed, justification by faith alone was “the” Christian message. It colored everything about the life of the Christian, the relationship to God, life after death and especially fellowship with other Christians in the Church.
Justification was always viewed, as in Galatians, as being intimately connected with Christian liberty. Being justified by faith alone, the Christian was free from all Church regulations and control. Encapsulated in the doctrine of justification was the explosive force of freedom against the Church as well as against other institutions and estates in the late Middle Ages. Is it possible that the major reason for a lack of emphasis on justification today is not that it is no longer relevant, that it is far too relevant? Have denominations and parishes, both Roman Catholic and Protestant, been so busy building and surviving as institutions that they are uncomfortable with the teaching that challenges rules and regulations of every kind, even their own?
In order to demonstrate the implications of justification by faith alone on institutional churches and groups for our day, and in order to proclaim the Christian liberty of those justified, here are another “Ninety-Five Theses” for purposes of debate and discussion. However, the debate and discussion aspects of these theses need to be underlined. Theses, for Luther, meant “debatable” issues. It is in the same spirit that these Ninety-Five very “debatable” issues are offered. Since they envision a Church and a spirit almost nowhere in existence today, few are likely to agree with them in their entirety. Nevertheless, if they provoke even a little discussion and debate, if people again question some of their assumptions about the nature of the Church, if some find a little hope in a new vision of the Christian mission, these theses will have served their purpose.
The following begin with six theses asserting the freedom of all Christians to be the church, free from the traditions, hierarchy, and denominational control that divide us from one another. The remaining theses spell out the source of this freedom and the reasons why it can to be lived out and acted upon in these times.
NINETY-FIVE THESES ON CHURCH CONTROL
These Theses are being sent to theologians, church officials, interested pastors, lay ministers and assistants, and some students for reading and meditation. If you wish to discuss them further you may do so by letter, email, or at a future conference if that can be arranged.
In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, Amen.
1) In the joy and freedom of the Gospel, Christians can call locally trained ministers of the word and celebrants of the sacraments who have scriptural qualifications for leadership and the willingness to do Christ’s work for little or no remuneration. Acts 14:23; I Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9.
2) In the joy and freedom of the Gospel, Christians at the local level can decide about doctrine. Further, they can converse with Christians of other denominations and determine for themselves, on the basis of Scripture, if there are grounds for fellowship.
3) In the joy and freedom of the Gospel, Christians can join with their fellows of other denominations and together witness, raise social consciousness, carry out projects, and support institutions for the benefit of their common community.
4) In the joy and freedom of the Gospel, Christians at the local level can take the initiative in carrying out the great commission without waiting for denominational action or approval.
5) In the joy and
freedom of the Gospel, Christians may create new institutions at home and abroad
better suited to meeting contemporary needs and may, with clear consciences,
divert funds from denominational coffers to support these new institutions.
6) In the joy and
freedom of the Gospel, Christians will not sorrow overmuch concerning the
problems and frustrations of denominations or groups, knowing that Christ
carried out his mission quite well without them in the past, and can certainly
do so again in the future.
7) Justifying faith is the complete turning of a person from guilt under the law to the forgiveness and new life which comes from the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
8) Since we are
justified by faith alone, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.
by faith alone, a Christian has the certainty of salvation in the hope of the
resurrection. Romans 8:37-39.
10) Being justified by faith alone,
we can rejoice in our sufferings and trials.
by faith alone, people of different races, classes, and sexes all are one in
Christ Jesus. Galatians 3:28.
12) Being justified by faith and not by
works of the law, Christians are ready to count all of their good works as
refuse because of the surpassing knowledge of Jesus as Lord and Savior. Philippians 3:8-10.
been justified by faith alone, we are to stand fast in our freedom from the laws
of God and men and not submit again to the law of slavery.
justified by faith apart from the law, Christians are not to gratify the desires
of the flesh, but are rather to bring forth fruits of the Spirit.
15) Since salvation is a gift of God,
human pride and boasting, especially in religious activities, are finished
(Ephesians 2:9) and excluded (Romans 3:27).
16) For Paul, justification by faith
alone is such an important doctrine that he condemns all those of his day and
ours who add regulations to that teaching.
17) In nearly every denomination or
Christian group, the doctrine of justification alone is confused through the
addition of human regulations, definitions of doctrine, and customs.
18) Even in those churches where
justification by faith alone is publicly taught, it is often obscured by a host
of regulations supposedly needed to keep the church going or to provide a focus
for group identity.
of the overlay of regulations and customs in most churches, too few of the
members actually realize that they cannot save themselves by their own works,
but that salvation is a gift of God through Christ to be received by faith.
Ephesians 2:8, 9; Romans 3:21-28.
20) By obscuring the Gospel, people
are robbed of the certainty of salvation and are filled with the straws and
husks of human works instead.
21) Even in non-denominational
Christian groups, justification by faith alone is slighted and obscured by
emphasizing the time and place of conversion and the willingness of the
individual to accept Christ. This
emphasis makes of faith a human work and glorifies the individual rather than
the Holy Spirit. I Corinthians
22) Also perverting the Gospel are
those who insist upon speaking in tongues and a “spirit-filled” life before
one is fully a Christian.
23) By the imposition of church laws
and regulations upon the consciences of the faithful, churches have encouraged
the trivial works of keeping the organizations running rather than aiding the
poor and unfortunate, the sick and imprisoned.
Matthew 25:35, 36.
24) The perversion of the Gospel
happens whenever people, out of pride, wish to build organizations, traditions,
and institutions in which they can find human security and status.
church people do not consciously set out to pervert the Gospel, they are seduced
into it through their efforts to get people to work together by means of rules
When church regulations are insisted upon for full fellowship in the
church of Christ,
such regulations must be resisted and disobeyed as destroying the Christian
freedom in the Gospel. Galatians
control exercised through obligatory seminary education of church leaders is
contrary to Biblical example (Acts 14:23) and substitutes academic
qualifications for those of personal morality, and aptitude in teaching and
combating error (I Timothy 3:2-7; Titus 1:7-9).
seminary certification deprives Christians in a given place of the right to
select their leaders from their midst on the basis of Scriptural qualifications.
trained and paid leaders too often are separate from the culture of their
congregations by virtue of their professional education and training.
Compulsory education connected with church leadership positions has
Christians in the poor nations of the world of pastoral leadership and ready
access to the sacraments.
31) The shortage of such
seminary-trained leaders has been the chief constraint on the spread of the
church in nations, which can exclude or control such clergy, and in the poor
nations of the world, where they often cannot be paid.
of the compulsory nature of seminary attendance, battles are fought over
seminary control, and men use worldly sanctions rather than God’s Word to
enforce their doctrinal positions. Even so, seminary training has not guaranteed unity in
doctrine and practice even among people who have attended the same seminary.
33) By limiting church leaders to the
professionally trained and paid, the resultant shortage of pastors and money has
led churches in recent years to debate whether the church’s mission is
evangelism or social concern, when in reality, it is both.
training should be made a part of each local group of Christians and should be
an on-going, continuing education.
35) Local churches should again have
various church leaders as they had in apostolic times, some prophets, some
evangelists, some pastors and teachers for the equipment of saints and for the
work of the ministry. Ephesians
36) Full-time seminary training can
be useful for training teachers, scholars, and traveling missionaries, as long
as non-seminary trained people are also eligible for church leadership
positions, as they were in the New Testament.
Church Control through Economic Pressures
congregations about a full-time clergyman has of necessity promoted large
congregations to pay them and has also made necessary a large expensive building
to house such a number for worship.
38) Since congregations and missions
are built around the full-time paid professional, and since the poor cannot
afford such, the poor, by and large, do not have the Gospel preached to them as
much as do the rich.
of the imagined necessity of having a full-time professional and a church
building needed to house large numbers of people, the church has been closely
tied to the moneyed classes and has lost credibility among the very poor.
of the economic pressures of paying for personnel and buildings, Christians in
different denominations, and within the same denomination, compete for members
to the sorrow of Christ and the destruction of Christian unity.
41) Also because of these pressures,
churches must resort to fund raising efforts which are often manipulative,
legalistic, and go against the clear teachings of our Lord not to let one hand
know what the other one gives. Matthew
of the imagined necessity of buildings and professional clergy, churches are not
able to contribute as much proportionately for the poor as were the New
Testament churches. I Corinthians
43) Where the ministry of Paul was
filled with great joy because it operated with church leaders selected on the
spot, the ministry of many contemporary pastors and missionaries is depressing
and burdensome because of the need to keep the organizations running with
44) The ecumenical movement has
failed to bring unity to Christians on the local level largely because of the
economic bases of professional clergy, congregations and denominations.
45) By insisting upon the paid
professional, we impose intolerable financial burdens on the churches of the
third world. By subsidizing their education and support, we make them open
to the charge that they are captive to the churches of the West.
46) The economic basis of the Church, together with the desire to control the organization of the church, has led to the introduction of seamy politics into the house of God, with men vying for positions of high remuneration, status, and power. All this is contrary to our Lord’s teaching that the greatest among us is a child or a slave. Matthew 18:4; Matthew 20:26.
control through paying full-time people or withholding funds for their support
stifles the prophetic voice that condemns the sins of the rich.
control over pastors has largely silenced their public criticism of the
denominational system of which they are a part.
49) The dependence of the clergy upon
their salaries has tended to make them servants of their members’ comforts.
50) The financial vulnerability of
most clergy has led them to become cautious in condemning the real sins and
prejudices of their members.
over pastors and missionaries has diverted their energies from creative
approaches in pastoral care and mission in order to fulfill the institutional
expectations of their paymasters.
mission boards are not necessary to carry out mission work at home and in
foreign fields, as can be seen from faith missionaries who receive support from
individuals and congregations.
53) By using stipendiary missionaries
administered by boards, we have, in effect, discouraged the natural mission work
of traveling Christian lay people, who in New Testament times were able to begin
mission boards have often taken away from single congregations and small groups
the thrill and excitement of doing their own mission work.
and missionaries can accept their salaries as gifts freely offered, but ought
neither to expect them nor be governed by them.
56) The sooner clergy can find other
work to fall back upon, if need be, the happier their ministry will be.
Church Control through Confessional and
are unable to exercise control over doctrine despite confessional,
constitutional, and/or hierarchical provisions.
Instead, we find the greatest disputes over doctrine and practice
precisely in those denominations that seek to enforce such provisions.
58) Even though confessional and
constitutional commitments do not guarantee pure doctrine or even unity within a
denomination, it is certain that they effectively split Christians, who may
share a common faith but belong to different denominations.
59) In a rapidly changing world of
diverse cultures, where concepts and words have different meanings and problems
differ, every few years confessional and constitutional commitments are out of
through enforcement of confessional and constitutional commitments too often
precludes honest and effective dialogue between Christians of different
denominations at a local level.
control over fellowship with other Christians clearly omits Christ’s own
criteria of judging prophets by their lives (Matthew 7:16-20), and neither a
church convention nor a faraway bishop can decide that for us.
62) Costs incurred in propagandizing
councils and conventions are clearly wasted funds much better given to provide
opportunities for the poor.
through the political interpretation of confessional and constitutional
commitments robs the church of the sweetness of the Gospel and replaces it with
bitter battles over human definitions.
through confessional and constitutional commitments clearly takes doctrinal
decisions away from the common people and places them into councils and
conventions where politics are supposed to answer questions that only the Holy
Spirit can resolve. John 14:26.
statements and church decisions can and should be honored as witnesses to the
faith of the dead and the living. Such
confessions, however, become evil when they are appealed to as law and used for
66) New confessional and creedal statements should be continually drawn up by Christians crossing denominational lines as joint testimonies to their common understanding of God’s Word.
church regulations, denominations are more often characterized by their
prohibitions than by the Gospel they attempt to communicate.
68) By working through church
regulations, churches have invariably by-passed the Biblical way of dealing with
sin and error as is specified in Matthew 18:15-21 and Corinthians 5:1-13.
rule making and policy setting procedures, church denominations have taken away
opportunities for decisions, study, and growth by local lay Christians.
70) Since common lay Christians’
beliefs are so often formed through regulations, such Christians are often
apathetic about Bible study and theology.
may have customs and traditions, but they should be agreed upon by all who are
expected to observe them.
72) Such customs and traditions must
neither be insisted upon nor used to divide Christians whom Christ has
reconciled with his blood. Ephesians
control through regulations concerning non-essentials has contributed greatly to
the non-relevance of the church in minority areas in the United States and in
concerning the ministry, liturgies, customs, hymns, and traditions are often
only Western cultural transplants, which grow poorly among people of another
75) When the regulatory control of a
church body disappears, then only will those within and without be able to
appreciate both the beauties and faults of that tradition.
church unity can come about as congregations and denominations die to their own
pride and institutional regulations and let the Spirit lead them into a wider
control is also exercised through the production and censorship of educational
materials with resulting conflicts over the doctrinal content of such materials.
education, to be most effective, should happen in the context of the family
where lessons learned by the mind can be reinforced by the goodly actions of
79) By replacing parents as the chief
source of Christian education, the church, in effect, discourages Christian
education in the home and communication between parents and their children on
subjects of ultimate meaning and morality.
80) By replacing parents as the chief
source of Christian education, large sums are spent on educational plants and
buses, rather than providing opportunities for those in need.
81) By promoting specialized
education suited to nearly every possible age or sex group, churches divide
families for education and fellowship rather than uniting them.
82) Where there is widespread
literacy, the Bible and a simple catechism should again serve as the chief media
of religious education for the whole family, with parents themselves chiefly
responsible for their interpretation and application.
schools, parochial schools, confirmation and instruction classes may be
beneficial to children without Christian parents, or as auxiliary agencies to
parental instruction, but should be neither the pattern for Christian education
nor the vehicle for church control.
educational, evangelism, and stewardship programs are seldom used, are
unnecessary, and at times are harmful when they burden the church with busy
congregations pay good money for materials that have worked well in other
congregations despite denominational differences, thus making most
denominational materials superfluous.
charitable and educational institutions might be better handled by
inter-denominational groups of Christians in the surrounding area.
This would provide a greater base of support, and also make available
these institutions to people whose denomination is not strong enough in the area
to sponsor their own institutions.
control over the spiritual lives of people is also sought through church
pronouncements on social issues.
demonstrates that little if any effect has ever come from a council or
convention resolution without the prior intense commitment of a large majority
commitment to social issues is most likely to come about when Christians see an
intolerable tension between the teachings of Christ and the life of the
unfortunate about them.
90) This commitment can be acted upon
by prophetic individuals, who, at great risk to themselves, call society to
repentance, and, in the name of God, demand a change in values and behavior.
91) This commitment can also be
realized when Christians in responsible positions make God-pleasing decisions.
92) The Church is also influential
when Christians in a given locale advocate and build institutions for charity,
education, and health.
are also influential in creating and sustaining organizations and movements for
raising political consciousness.
teaching Christian morals and values to citizens, churches indirectly support
good government and withhold support from bad government.
95) None of the above actions by
Christians in the political or social realm requires the existence of
denominations, let alone denominational control.
the Reformation, October 31st,
have permission to copy, translate, distribute, quote, and email these theses
freely but are asked not to change them or their contents.
In addition to these
Ninety-Five Theses on Church Control this book contains other “reformation
documents” patterned after those of Martin Luther and applied to the
transformation of the Church in the 21st century.
The Ninety-Five Theses on Church Control cannot go into
the detail for making persuasive arguments on their behalf.
In the Explanations these
Ninety-Five Theses are clarified, supported, and defended with references from
the Scriptures and contemporary church life.
Using Luther’s letter To
the Christian Nobility of the German Nation as a pattern, the author asserts
that the denominational model of the Christian Church is passing away and makes
a case for other ways in which the Christian Church can be structured to better
minister to its members and to help transform society.
Through the “Professionalization” of the clergy and
limiting the use of the sacraments to their administration, denominations and
congregations have institutionalized their divisions, and imprisoned the
spiritual lives of their members. This
article asserts that Baptism and the Lord’s Supper must be freed from
denominational control that they might again unite Christians rather than divide
If church members can exercise their freedom in
bringing the church back to its original purpose, can they do the same with
other institutions in business, government, education, and the social sector of
societies? This paper examines a
contemporary application of Luther’s paradoxical thesis:
“The Christian is a perfectly free Lord, subject to none: The Christian
is a perfectly dutiful servant, subject to all.”
This book is
available from Transformation Media,
Box 16032, Portland, OR 97292-0032. Please
send check or money order plus $2.00 for postage.