500 years after Martin Luther’s bold act, Utah clergy explores whether Christian church will ever be one again

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) People gather at Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church in Salt Lake City recently for a ecumenical prayer service as part of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. From conflict to communion Roman Catholics and Lutherans came together for a celebration of dialogue and relationship.

Martin Luther didn’t mean to set 16th-century Europe ablaze, spark a bloody peasants’ revolt or shatter western Christianity into thousands of competing sects.

Yet despite ongoing efforts to draw the plethora of Lutheran and other Protestant denominations toward unity — let alone a return to one truly “catholic,” or universal, global church — the Body of Christ today remains divided, lament clerics and scholars both abroad and in Utah, with few signs of that ever changing.

Seeds of the schism took root five centuries ago this week when Luther, an obscure Augustinian German monk and theology professor, decided there should be a scholarly debate about the Roman Catholic Church’s latest spate of indulgences — essentially get-out-of-Purgatory passes for those willing to part with the required coinage — and whether they were truly worth the pretty paper upon which they were printed.

So, on Oct. 31, 1517, he nailed “The 95 Theses” — a document listing his arguments — on the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church. But the theses went much further than that heavy wooden door in a tiny town in German Saxony. Friends had it translated from Latin into common German, printed and spread throughout Western Europe.

(Courtesy of Library of Congress) A lithograph depicting a small crowd gathered to watch as Martin Luther directs the posting of his 95 theses, protesting the practice of the sale of indulgences, to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg.

Pope Leo X was not pleased with a challenge to his right to print off indulgences for sale by the thousands. After all, how was the rebuilding of the dilapidated St. Peter’s Basilica to be funded?

But what enraged the mercurial pontiff most about the equally combative Luther was the upstart monk’s underlying arguments for the theses. First, Luther proclaimed that, the Bible, not popes or priests, should be the supreme authority in spiritual matters; second, salvation from sin came solely from God’s grace and man’s faith in it, not works, and certainly not from indulgences.

Leo X eventually excommunicated Luther, who went into hiding for years to avoid the threat of being burned at the stake as a heretic. He would disguise himself as a knight for the occasional excursion, but spent much of that time secreted in one of the remote castles of a supportive Prince Frederick.

When he wasn’t, as legend has it, throwing ink bottles at the devil or tossing a demonic black dog out the castle window, Luther would write, resulting in not only a multitude of books and pamphlets increasingly critical of the Vatican and its teachings, but also his own translation of the Bible, liturgy and hymns.

Luther, who initially asserted himself to be an ardent, loyal papist, had sparked the Protestant Reformation. Its 500th anniversary is being celebrated by modern Lutherans, of course, and, to varying degrees, by the tens of thousands of other Christian denominations that split from the original reformers and their spiritual progeny since.

Indeed, not even Lutherans seem to fully agree about exactly how to implement what their namesake taught. They, too, are splintered into at least four major denominations over issues ranging from the inerrancy of the scriptures, abortion and homosexuality to how best to parse Christ’s “presence” in the Eucharist, or “Lord’s Supper.”

Detente meets doctrinal divisions

These divisions are “ludicrous and tragic,” says the Rev. Steve Klemz, whose 150-strong congregation at Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church in east Salt Lake City is affiliated with the socially, and some say more doctrinally liberal, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).

It is the ELCA — at 3.5 million members, the nation’s largest Lutheran denomination — that has sought ecumenical ties with today’s Roman Catholics. Locally, that took the form of a Common Prayer service held at Klemz’s church Oct. 8.

Utah’s Catholic bishop, the Rev. Oscar Solis, and Bishop Jim Gonia, of the ELCA’s Rocky Mountain Synod, each offered sermons, encouraging greater efforts to reach Christian rapprochement.

“In terms of history, we need to be a church that is always reforming, emphasizing ongoing repentance and renewal,” Klemz says. “Service of [those principles] comes in finding that which unifies us as Lutherans and Roman Catholics.”

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Rev. Steve Klemz offers a prayer at an Inauguration Interfaith Prayer Service at the First Unitarian Church in Salt Lake City Friday Jan. 20 as Donald Trump takes the oath of office to become the next president.

The Rev. Al Borcher, pastor of the Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Riverton, agrees that Luther, at first, “had no idea about splitting away or dividing the Christian Church.”

Still, as a pastor of a church affiliated with the the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS) — about 2.1 million members and the nation’s second-largest and more socially and theologically conservative Lutheran body — Borcher is more cautious about any headlong rush to ecumenism.

“Some proclaim ‘unity’ with other denominations, citing perhaps warm feelings or a desire for unity or a few shared points of agreement as a pretense,” he says. “[They are not] really dealing with doctrinal divisions that actually separate denominations.”

While it is unlikely the ELCA, let alone the Catholic Church, will be targets for LCMS rapport anytime soon, Borcher is optimistic about his denomination’s ongoing negotiations with other Lutheran movements that share stricter interpretations of scripture and doctrines, such as the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS) and Evangelical Lutheran Synod (ELS).

The Rev. Paul Webber, pastor of Hope Lutheran Church in West Jordan, sees any wider ecumenical effort as worrisome if the price of unity is compromising the doctrinal truths of scripture. His church is affiliated with the 19,000-member ELS.

“Christians should be willing to talk doctrine with anyone,” he says. “But they shouldn’t pretend there is unity of faith where there really isn’t.”

If there is common ground left by the Reformation five centuries hence, it is that Luther never intended to split Christendom into the myriad expressions that form the faith today. A resolutely nonviolent man, he certainly did not relish the 1524-25 German peasants’ uprising that ransacked churches, demanded land and freedom from nobles, and ultimately left 100,000 poor folk dead.

Catholics and Protestants later sought to settle the matter of faith in seemingly endless, devastating battles. The Thirty Years War, raging from 1618 until ended by the Peace of Westphalia, left millions more dead before the less-restrictive religious and political practices were institutionalized.

“Remember, Luther sought to reform the existing church,” explains the Rev. Anthony Masinelli, pastor of Grace Lutheran Church (LCMS) in Sandy. “Radical sectarians [then] sought to break away ... and introduced theological novelties” that in turn birthed an abundance of competing Protestant brands.

However, while the major brands of Lutheranism, along with other mainline American Protestant denominations, have been losing membership in the past decades (ELCA boasted nearly 5.3 million members in 1987, LCMS had nearly 2.8 million in 1971, for example) evangelical, nondenominational, charismatic and pentecostal churches have enjoyed steady growth.

Several such denominations are part of Utah’s Standing Together organization, started by former Mormon and now Baptist minister Gregory Johnson.

“I’m an evangelical unity guy,” says Johnson, whose participating churches range from Baptist, Presbyterian, Lutheran and Pentecostal congregations to nondenominational Protestant churches.

Johnson believes most evangelical churches are “a thriving expression of Protestant Christianity” and legitimate players in a Reformation tradition that “was not only necessary but resulted in a greater good, notwithstanding its many failures and pain.”

Where, then, is today’s Christian unity?

What would Luther think?

To Johnson, it is found in sharing the good news of “God’s grace through Jesus Christ,” and living it through works of compassion, social justice and theological dialogue.

If Luther could visit the 21st century and see what he set in motion, what would he think?

Thomas Kaufmann, a professor of church history at the University of Göttingen, about 160 miles west of Luther’s stomping grounds, is optimistic.

“Luther would be happy that the church bearing his name has preserved many elements of his liturgy, still sings his psalms ... and still uses his translation of the Bible,” Kaufmann says.

When it comes to the wider “understanding of Christ,” the professor adds, Luther “might see that there are Catholic Christians as well as Lutherans and people from other denominations who ask, ‘What does the person of Christ mean to us today.’”

Klemz takes that idea further. “Martin Luther today? I believe he’d say, ’You’re lazy in attending to grace and scripture and faith, and especially what it means to be a Lutheran in your community.”

Says Webber: “I chuckle when I see this question; people ask it all the time. I think Luther would recognize some of the churches that today bear his name [but] he wouldn’t be especially fond of churches that have denied the authority of the scriptures.”

Masinelli, meanwhile, does not believe a time-traveling Luther — having witnessed the beginnings of Christian divisions — would be “surprised by the fractured state of the visible church today.”

“He would share the hope that this anniversary celebration would draw attention to the pure gospel of Jesus Christ,” Masinelli says, “to justification by faith alone, and to the freedom to do good works because of salvation and new life in Christ.”

To that, Johnson says “amen,” with an addendum.

(Photo courtesy of Greg Johnson) The Rev. Gregory Johnson, president of Standing Together, a group of evangelical Christian churches.

“[Luther] would rebuke a lot of modern evangelicalism as far too irreverent and unstructured, and, as for mainline Protestantism, I think he would denounce liberal theological heresy and moral relativism,” the Standing Together founder explains. “On the other hand, I believe he would talk with individual Christians, would hear their testimonies, experience their worship, see their faithful living, and declare that it was worth it all, 500 years later.”

Finally, one might just skip the speculation and check Luther’s own comments. After all, past is often prologue, and the Wittenberg monk might just settle for saying this again:

“We are not yet what we shall be, but we are growing toward it; the process is not finished, but it is going on; this not the end, but it is the road.”