If we believe this thing, we need to put our money, our talent, and our time where our faith is. Our churches are rigged: they cannot be reformed from within unless a new generation elbows its way into leadership, but even that could take generations. But you can open your home to a bible study. You can partner with several other couples or individuals and plan monthly gatherings for worship and sharing. You don’t have to stay home. You don’t have to give up being who you are.

Church Folk love to call meetings.

In 1517, Pope Leo X launched a fundraising campaign for construction of a grand basilica of St. Peter's in Rome. The practice of the time was to grant the privilege of selling indulgences to various bishops, who would retain for themselves and their purposes a portion of the raised funds. An indulgence was a kind of get-out-of-hell-free card: you paid off the church and the cardinal or bishop would issue a document forgiving sin of your friend or loved one granting a pardon from Purgatory. Indulgences were the Catholic Church’s chief means of major revenue as the very rich lavished the Church with gifts in order to guarantee themselves or their loved ones a place in Heaven. Bishop Albert of Brandenburg, having been granted an indulgence franchise in his territory for eight years, told his indulgence vendors that they could promise purchasers a perfect remission of all sins and that those seeking indulgences for dead relatives need not be contrite themselves, nor confess their sins. Proclamation of the indulgence fell to an experienced Dominican vendor named John Tetzel, who journeyed from town to town around Albert's territories. Tetzel would follow a cross bearing the papal arms into a town's marketplace and launch into a sermon, or sales pitch, that included a jingle that Martin Luther found especially objectionable:

As soon as the coin in the coffer rings,
The soul from purgatory springs.

Luther, an Augustinian priest and Doctor in Bible of the Senate of Theological Faculty of the University of Wittenberg, had long been disturbed and angered by the church’s cash-for-salvation hustle. In an angry response to Bishop Albert’s indulgence sales campaign, Martin Luther prepared in Latin a placard consisting of ninety-five theses for debate. The placard, in accordance with the custom of the time, was placed upon the door of Wittenberg's Castle Church. The power of pardon, Luther contended in his Ninety-Five Theses, was God's alone. If, indeed, the pope had the power he claimed, Luther asked why he didn't simply exercise it: “If the pope does have the power to release anyone from purgatory, why in the name of love does he not abolish purgatory by letting everyone out?” Luther's complaints also went to the Church's justification for promoting contributions. He complained about “the revenues of all Christendom being sucked into this insatiable basilica” when there were much greater needs, including “living temples” and local churches.

Luther’s proclamations enraged (and likely threatened) the church leadership so much that, in 1521, they called a meeting. Church Folk love to call meetings. This was a general assembly of the Imperial Estates of the Holy Roman Empire, called an “Imperial Diet,” set in a city in Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany called Worms. Yes, literally, The Diet of Worms. You can’t make this stuff up. There, Martin Luther declared, as do I:

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the [pastor] or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.  [transcripts of the Diet of Worms]

I, of course, substitute “pastors” for “pope,” but you get the point. It is a position every one of us who think of ourselves as Christian should take, but only if we are prepared to invest ourselves in actually knowing God and knowing scripture. You can’t just kind of wing it; hang out in church on Sunday taking all of your biblical queues from scriptural excerpts up on the JumboTron. That mess is the worst and most stupid idea any church—black or white—has come up with, indulging seekers too lazy to bring a bible or to open the free bibles made available in the pews. Many if not most of our modern worship services would be crippled if the light bulb in the overhead projector went out. We don’t know our own songs anymore. We don’t know where to find scripture in the bible because we haven’t actually cracked open a book version of the bible in years. And, even if we do know how to find the scripture, many of our churches no longer supply bibles for the sanctuary and we’ve lost the habit of bringing ours with us.

As I wrote here:

There will come a time—and I realize almost no one reading these words believes this—when you won’t have an iPad. You won’t have a smartphone. You won’t have a PC or laptop or digital anything. It will just be you. You and a prison cell. You and a heart monitor. You holding a loved one's hand as they transition to meet God or meet judgment. What will you say? What song will you sing?

Ironically, more and more I’m being persuaded that people who actually do believe are leaving the black church. Their belief fosters questions that go unanswered and needs that go unaddressed. The church continues to be dominated by Church Folk. Who die off. Leaving fewer Church Folk. More gaps in the pews. More struggle to keep the lights on. The problem quickly become chronic. Your church is emptying out, but you remain unwilling to even consider the possibility you yourself are the cause of it. Actual Belief is alive, while Play Church is dead. And death feels threatened by life. Actual belief changes you. Death causes rigor mortis to set in.

Pay To Play

Martin Luther challenged five centuries of the Catholic Church’s distortion of scripture, just as this ministry challenges the black church’s distortion of scripture. I am certainly no Martin Luther, but like him I am often regarded as a lunatic, usually by people who don’t know what they’re talking about, who don’t know scripture, and who have absolutely nothing going on in their ministry: no vision beyond sitting on the corner their church is located upon and counting their money. Like the old Catholics church, far too much of our modern African American church experience is simply a racket. It’s the family business: weddings, baby dedications, baptisms and burials. All of which is fine, the church indeed exists to support family life. As Christians, our main reason for existing is to tell people about Jesus, which we routinely fail to do. We’ll spend a half hour begging for money, browbeating and guilt-tripping folk, but will drown out the invitation to discipleship with loud celebratory music followed by interminable grandstanding on the part of people seeking “prayer requests,” most of whom simply want to hold the mic and blather on indefinitely about nothing.

Not unlike the Catholic Church's indulgences hustle, we use tithing as blackmail to guilt-trip the faithful into supporting the church or, more specifically, the church’s pastor whose salary is typically among the church’s largest line items. Churches in financial straits could always benefit by the pastor taking less money from it, by cutting or, better, foregoing his own salary. A pastor willing to do that usually makes such arrangements known, as that sets the example and model for the church faithful: equal sacrifice, which is biblical. Chances are good that, if your pastor has not made any such declaration, he is browbeating his membership over money while making no perceptible sacrifice himself beyond the falsely-constructed ten-percent “mandate.” No such mandate actually exists in the Gospels or in Pauline doctrine. It is false and invented teaching evolved from a convolution of scripture. Which doesn’t let us off the hook because, actual scripture teaches us to give everything, all we have, to the poor [per Jesus: Matthew 19:21, Luke 10:21, Mark 10:21, Luke 12:33, 18:22], to sell everything we own and pool the money together for the church [Acts 2]. Paul's actual instructions did not include a specific amount or percentage, but giving is biblically mandated [I Corinthians 16:2]. I am not anti-tithe so much as I am anti-percentage. Those who can give more have a biblical obligation to do so, rather than standing on some legalistic standard.

Ironically, the ten-percent tithe (equal giving) is quite a bargain as compared to what scripture actually teaches (equal sacrifice). Your pastor giving ten percent of his six-figure salary doesn’t hurt him anywhere near the way a ten-percent mandate harms the family of a single mom making minimum wage. The church literally taking food off of the tables of struggling families so that her pastor can drive a new Lexus every year is a heinous lie comparable to this foolishness of the Catholic indulgence. And, like the old indulgences, this “doctrine’ only works because we don’t know our bible.

The Diet of Worms was the culmination of an ongoing struggle between Martin Luther and the Catholic Church over reform, especially in practice of donations for indulgences. However, there were other deeper issues that revolved around both theological concerns:

On a theological level, Luther had challenged the absolute authority of the Pope over the Church by maintaining that the doctrine of indulgences, as authorized and taught by the Pope, was wrong.

Luther maintained that salvation was by faith alone (sola fide) without reference to good works, alms, penance, or the Church's sacraments. Luther maintained that the sacraments were a "means of grace," meaning that while grace was imparted through the Sacraments, the credit for the action belonged to God and not to the individual.

He had also challenged the authority of the Church by maintaining that all doctrines and dogmata of the Church not found in Scripture should be discarded (sola scriptura).

To protect the authority of the Pope and the Church, as well as to maintain the doctrine of indulgences, ecclesiastical officials convinced Charles V that Luther was a threat and persuaded him to authorize his condemnation by the Holy Roman Empire. Luther escaped arrest and remained in seclusion at Wartburg castle for several years where he continued to write and translate the New Testament into German.

While the Edict was harsh, Charles was so preoccupied with political and military concerns elsewhere that it was never enforced. Eventually Luther was allowed to return to public life and became instrumental in laying the groundwork for the Protestant Reformation.

Reforming The Black Church

We are, this month, looking at the growing phenomena of black Christians migrating to white churches and what that means to our culture and tradition. My suspicion in the matter is the black church, here at least, is simply not getting it done. As a result, the black church experience is no longer at the center but is being increasingly pushed to the periphery of our lives. We no longer believe the pastor to be some magical, infallible demigod to be served unquestionably and worshipped as we worship God. Many of us still practice that kind of ignorance, but, increasingly, mass media and the changing tide of public perception is emerging a more thoughtful if not more cynical and more questioning public grown skeptical of our traditional model of the black pastor as an ersatz Santa Claus. We now know he’s just a guy, and we now are increasingly less willing to turn a blind eye to heinous moral failure on our pastor’s part or to stand for his bullying.

The white MegaChurch offers a great relief from the oppression of the ever-struggling black church. Teaching on giving in many of these more affluent churches falls much more clearly in line with scripture and we eventually learn to trust and, therefore, to give willingly rather than under the relentless duress of a place we dearly love yet nevertheless understand we will be threatened and browbeaten into supporting sacrificially. Our culture is not as obviously represented in white churches, so the imperative to involve ourselves in tedious busywork (which we lyingly label “ministry”) is practically nonexistent; the large church usually has adequate volunteers. Little is expected of us, little is needed from us, little is offered to us, so we can simply relax and be entertained (and, ideally, spiritually fed). This contrasts sharply to the bondage blacks often experience at their own traditional houses of worship. Rather than seeing them as seekers, white pastors must understand that many blacks attending white churches are more like refugees from some African dictatorship. It is an indescribable, enormous relief to be able to just come to church and worship. It feels almost indulgent, a real privilege.

I don’t believe leaving our churches is the answer. Like Martin Luther, I believe our churches need a major reformation. Some black churches are prospering greatly by taking cues from the white entertainment churches, but that’s not it either. Ours is a rich heritage that has meaning and value and deserves to be protected. Our goal should be the surgical removal of dead weight and clutter. Things not of God, most especially our bad attitudes and diva fits, need to be called out, shamed and publicly embarrassed.

The major impediment to reform in our church is we ourselves. The congregation calls the pastor, and our congregations suffer from being dominated by the Old Hats, rampant egos and divas whose leadership role in the church constitutes their only real sense of self-worth. Most mainstream churchgoers are busy families and many under-50 congregants lack the interest in heading some committee or running some board. These tasks are routinely left to those least anointed, least Christ like and, therefore, least qualified to perform them. A reformist pastor is rarely called because the people presenting candidates to the church are the same old, backward, agenda-ridden, set-on-their-ways obstructionist types who find change threatening. Reform cannot come on its own from the outside because too many of our churches simply do not report to any governing body and therefore, no one can tell them what to do. Our churches have little or no accountability.

Therefore, after perhaps decades of futile struggle, many of us, exhausted and fed up, head out of the door. The congregation shrinks by five, seven, twelve, fifty percent, but the old Hats don’t notice or care. Good riddance, they say, as they continue to sing the same five songs and run in circles, not progressing, not serving the community, just kind of orbiting the planet as a quaint anachronism while calling itself a church. The greater tragedy is untold numbers of us are simply staying home. I know far too many black Christians who do not attend church at all, finding the white church to be too much in denial of our heritage and identity, and finding the black church too oppressive and out of touch. This ministry exists, in large measure, for that demographic: for those either not attending, reluctantly attending, or questioning issues related to the African American church; a church in desperate need of reform but, ultimately, unlikely to get it.

What’s the answer? The answer is for good men and women of faith to act on that faith. This involves risk: to their families, to their careers. But, if we believe this thing, we need to put our money, our talent, and our time where our faith is. Our churches are rigged: they cannot be reformed from within unless a new generation elbows its way into leadership, but even that could take generations. But you can open your home to a bible study. You can partner with several other couples or individuals and plan monthly gatherings for worship and sharing. You don’t have to actually call any of this “church,” but you don’t have to stay home; you don’t have to give up being who you are or celebrating The Gospel as you love to do.

Pick up the phone. Make a start. Don’t worry about pastors badmouthing you or trying to haul you before some board or committee. Don’t worry about people calling you crazy. Reform can only happen when you, yes you, put yourself on the line. When you love the Lord more than you love your church or your magical pastor. Reform begins with conviction followed by investment. In far too large a measure, the church—our church—simply isn’t getting it done. Be Martin Luther. Take a chance.

With excerpts freely adapted from The Trial of Martin Luther: An Account
by Douglas O. Linder (2010) and Wikipedia

Christopher J. Priest
26 May 2014

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