It is well-nigh impossible to overstate the enormous spiritual, social, and cultural significance of Martin Luther’s recovery of the biblical principle of the priesthood of all believers a half millennium ago. Luther’s genius was, however, in the best sense derivative. A mind increasingly shaped by the Scriptures explored the long-obscured doctrine of reconciliation between a holy God and broken sinners through the singular ministry of Jesus: “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (I Tim 2:5, RSV).*
Luther’s insight also propelled a social and cultural focus on the value of the individual in human society obscured by the hierarchical stratification of culture in the previous 1,500 years. If no pope, bishop, or patriarch could affect the relationship between the individual and God through masses said or anathemas declared, then individual human beings were, in fact, creatures to whom God had given both dignity and at least limited authority. “You have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor” (Ps. 8:5, NRSV).
Individuals so endowed by God might appropriately question and even challenge the received orthodoxies of their era—in government, science, social organization, and religion. It’s no accident that the centuries following Luther witnessed repeated explosions of new theories and new structures in almost every discipline of human life. Revolutions in politics, technology, philosophy, the arts, and medicine drove out the despotic consensus that had for centuries invested moral and social authority in a few men deemed wise.
That mobile phone in your hand is, in this sense, the latest iteration of the hammer with which Luther drove the nails into the chapel door at Wittenberg. Cultures of innovation, built on the curiosity and scientific prowess of gifted individuals, successively refined both the concept and the means of human communication—democratizing speech, insisting on the right to believe differently from others, and adapting technology to personal preference. Will that be iPhone or Android?
Five hundred years after Luther’s pamphlets were mass-produced and disrupted the social order of medieval Europe, we can scarcely imagine a time when human beings didn’t believe they had the intellectual freedom to question the dictates of church or king. It is our right, we firmly believe, to question every so-called authority, to challenge every institution, and to doubt the received wisdom of previous generations. This foundational belief of Western culture places modern Adventist Christians in a state of ongoing tension with a religion whose founding documents are as many as 3,500 years old and with a “faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3, RSV). Does my perceived right, unleashed by the Reformation, to challenge ideas with which I disagree militate against the formation of congregations characterized by love, mutual submission, and unity—as described in the Word of God? Has the Reformation principle of “every man his own priest” now morphed into an unbiblical counterpart: “every man his own pope”?
A hundred blog posts every week underscore the dangerous environment in which the contemporary church must now live and move. Pastors, theologians, church leaders and ministry directors are routinely lambasted with a vehemence Luther once reserved for popes. Outrageous slanders of the character, motives, and teachings of those once trusted to edify the body of Christ are now so commonplace as to excite little attention. The ongoing atomization seen in Western Christianity is now proceeding apace within what Adventists have long called “God’s end-time remnant.”
The same Word that enlightened Luther and comforted the millions who came to ardently believe in righteousness by faith will again enlighten and comfort us today: “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (Col. 3:12, 13, NRSV).
This, fellow believers, must be our new manifesto—posted on the door of every heart to which Jesus gains entrance and wherever He builds His church.
* Bible texts credited to RSV are from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1946, 1952, 1971, by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission.