Where Do We Hear the Church?

Today, as always, there is confusion as to the voice of the church. What has the church done? What does it stand for and against?

Beware of any claim that the church or even the content of “orthodoxy” is always this or that. The church is always legion because it is composed of people in all of their extraordinary diversity. Orthodoxy, or right teaching, depends for it’s content on who is defining it.

Some of that diversity is a God-given gift. We need difference because life is complex.

But some of that diversity is a curse as well, since we are so used to different claims, we cannot easily discern what the church is or should be.

I, personally, believe myself and all people to be quite fallible in expressing the true essence of Christ’s church; but instinct tells me it should be full of that same expansive love that Jesus Christ embodied. This is a love that is incarnate. That is, it is at peace with the human condition. God in Christ was embracing the cosmos and humanity and thereby signaled that the highest aim of humans should be to be at peace with what it means to be human—with all the limits and imperfections that come along with that status. We are best at being human when we neither try to usurp God’s central, infallible and all controlling position in the middle of things, nor retreat into irresponsibility. We are best when we believe we belong and endeavor to do so in harmony with the will of God.

These kinds of ideas guide my theory of the church as well. The church is to witness and work for the gathering God. This, to me, is the living heart of true orthodoxy.

But, as history is written by the victors, so is our idea of church. We tend to think of church as defined by victory. Those who talk loudest, clear the field of opposition the most completely, and insist most forcefully that they are right—these people must be the church.

And the church does have its victors. But the church also contains the poor in spirit, the meek, the hungry, the merciful, and the peacemakers. The church of Christ contains those types that Jesus of Nazareth was executed for welcoming: the sinners, the despised and the systematically excluded. These people have had different ways of thinking and of acting.

In the present day it could be accurate to say that the church has never approved of homosexuality. Yet, could it not also be true to say that the church has always had homosexuals in the pews, behind the altars and even writing down the rules that exclude homosexuality from accepted ecclesiastical behavior?

The great social theorist, Max Weber, saw two poles that seem to be at work defining religious experience in the world: the priestly and the prophetic. The priestly is official and seeks to conserve. It likes the status quo. The prophetic is unofficial, and often critical of officialdom. Because it comes largely from outside sanctioned channels, it is invested not so much in status quo as in change, and therefore it can be more unpredictable.

The church, in its many voices and expressions, has both priestly officialdom and dogma, and an infinitely more diverse set of prophetic sides. If the Spirit of God is the wind of God and is behind the prophetic urges in the church, then truly we do not know where it is coming from next, or where it is going.

In my retirement I will seek to explore the several ways that the church has acted and spoken on social issues in a fascinating variety of ways. No, there is not one voice of the church! No, there are not two. There are many!

I want to focus first of all on a number of critical social upheavals in history, and on how various voices of the church spoke out concerning them. The first one I will focus on is the English Civil War or Revolution of the 1640’s. I plan then to look at the peasant’s uprisings in England in 1380 and in the German lands in 1525.

As I set out on this exploration I invite readers to respond with their own observations. I invite constructive critique and helpful correction.

As a Lutheran pastor I am very aware of the struggles that Martin Luther himself had with the 1525 uprising of peasants, and certainly that conflict is very instructive. I have heard it said numerous times that it is one of the great embarrassments of the Lutheran denominations that he wrote the scathing critique of the peasants Wider die räuberischen und mörderischen Rotten der Bauern, or, in English translation, “Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants.” In that work Luther calls on the rulers to take up the sword and to defeat and kill the rebelling peasants. In the process he cites Romans 13 a number of times to the point that it is the duty of a Christian to obey governing authorities and that to resist is to bring the judgment of God down upon oneself in the form of forceful official action.

Those who support Luther say the peasants were mere criminals and deserved the slaughter that did come their way from the princes. Others claim that Luther is typical of the dominant church-state alliance in championing the concerns of the establishment over those of the lower classes and the old ways of feudalism over emergent ideals of liberty and human rights. But Luther had been much more sympathetic towards the concerns of the peasants at the beginning of the unrest. Then, just before he penned these condemnations, he had seen up close the violence and random destruction wrought by mobs of peasants which included murders, the destruction of castles, monasteries, convents and churches and the surrender of the rule of whole towns to a kind of mob rule. Luther was convinced, and stated so, that these were among other sure signs of a conflict between good and evil and the impending end of the world. Most of his reasons for opposing the peasants had to do with his reading of Scripture and theology, yet who can claim that he was wrong when he concluded that mob action tended to harm the poorest and most vulnerable in society much more than the rich and powerful?

But all of this should not distract us from noting that some of the peasants themselves were, in their own way, speaking also for the church. One important document of the day that puts forward the argument of the peasants in revolt, is The Twelve Articles. This declaration was reprinted many times during the revolt, in a number of versions that differed in some respects. But the version of the Swabian peasants can be considered representative. The framers obviously were inspired by Luther and the Reformation movement to claim the prophetic prerogative of criticizing authority. From beginning to end it grounds claims and grievances in Scripture.

“The Twelve Articles of the Swabian Peasants” begins by identifying the peasants as yet “subjects of ecclesiastical and secular authorities,” yet at the same time declaring that they are “aggrieved.” It denies the claim of “Antichrists” that the peasants are proclaiming a “new Gospel” of murderous rebellion against all authority by claiming that they are instead rediscovering the true Gospel of “love, peace and concord” and following the one true God who delivered Israel from the hand of Pharaoh.

In the name of that Gospel the articles put forth the following grievances and claims:

First, that whole communities and not members of the nobility should be able to choose and elect their pastors so that the word of God should be preached “purely and clearly” without “human additions to doctrines and commandments.”

Second, since the biblical tithe belongs to God, the church tithe should be collected not by the nobility, but by wardens elected by whole communities, and the money collected should be distributed both to for the maintenance of the pastor and his dependents and the needy of the community, and any surplus be used for the military defense of the country. The tithe should not be usurped by individuals for their own gain.

Third, since “Christ redeemed and bought us all,” serfdom is renounced as all people should be free—not to live to gratify the flesh, but to obey rightful authority and “humble ourselves before everyone, not just authority, so that in this way we will gladly obey our elected and appointed rulers (whom God has ordained over us) in all reasonable and Christian matters.”

Fourth, since God gave dominion over all creatures to mankind in general, it is contrary to God’s will that the nobility claim exclusive use of wild game or fish.

Fifth, since God also made the woods for the use of all, the poor should be allowed to cut wood in wild and open lands.

Sixth, an investigation should be made into improper recent increases in labor services demanded by lords. These should be considered in the light of God’s Word.

Seventh, lords should not be allowed to arbitrarily demand labor services beyond those clearly agreed upon by lord and peasant. Peasants should be able to own and enjoy property and fairly market their labors.

Eighth, “honorable men” should be appointed to see to it that rents are fair and not raised to such a point that peasants wind up working for nothing, “for every laborer is worthy of his hire.”

Ninth, since peasants are often victimized by laws and punishments not administered fairly, but out of “ill will,” the old written penalties should be administered impartially.

Tenth, lands that were once common lands for planting and grazing, unless properly purchased, should be returned for common use.

Eleventh, the “heriot” (tribute or service rendered to a feudal lord on the death of a tenant) should be abolished since it “shamefully deprive(s) widows and orphans of their property, contrary to the God…”

Twelfth, all of the peasant’s demands should be tested by reference to Scripture and acknowledged and complied with only insofar as they are in adherence to God’s will.

So, where is the church in all of this? In the fog of the war-like circumstances around the revolt the authorship of the articles cannot be exactly determined, but surely the articles express the cry of Christians for justice. Luther himself has been called “magisterial” in his approach since he appealed to the princes to forward his cause for reform of the church. Yet even he pointed out that many of the concerns of the peasants were legitimate and the abuses of the nobility real and grievous. He too was a voice of the church. And we need not be surprised that “priestly” voices abounded that did not want to see the boat rocked in which they were speaking from the seats of power. There are many faces, and many voices of the church.

I will return to the German Peasants’ Rebellion of 1525 in greater detail in the future, but I wish in the weeks and months immediately ahead to turn my attention to England in the 1640s, the English Civil War and the Leveler and Digger Movements.

I am very open to constructive comments from any and all as this project unfolds.

About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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