What about a novelty bracelet with the letters ‘WWLS’ – standing for ‘What Would Luther Say?’
With nearly 500 years under the bridge since Luther hammered his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenburg, what would he say about Christ’s Church in Europe now?
According to some, he’d say the Reformation is over. Indeed, that is the theme of an international ecumenical conference that’s due to take place shortly. Whatever the Reformation had to say is now firmly in the past. We have, so to speak, been there and done that.
But would Luther say that? Would he say the Reformation is over? What would he ask to test whether the Reformation is over? I suspect one question he would have is whether the Church of Jesus Christ is still captive. After all, one of Luther’s key writings of 1520 was called On The Babylonian Captivity Of The Church. And if I am to take seriously today the WWLS on my bracelet, I need to look at what he said back then.
For Luther, the church of his day was in a ‘Babylonian’ captivity because of the way that she had been covertly disinherited from her true position as the bride of Christ and had been alienated from her true identity. The resonance is with the captivity of God’s people in Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon, as in the book of Daniel. It carries associations of being in a place where one does not belong, where one cannot be truly oneself and where one has been disinherited. A ‘Babylonian’ captivity is more than just being a conquered people. ‘They’ won’t let you be you.
The Church of England
This is the first of several articles this year looking at how Luther saw the Babylonian captivity of his day and how his analysis helps us decode our captivity today. After reading Luther, I want to talk of a ‘Babylonian captivity’ of the UK church and in particular of my own denomination, the Church of England . Luther identified several dimensions in which the church of his day was captive and some of these have great significance for us now. Obviously the details between now and then are different, but some of the principles remain the same.
The idea that we are in a Babylonian captivity is, of course, deeply offensive. In our Western culture the UK church is strongly disposed to think itself free and, like the pseudo-believers of John 8.33, we are inclined to say that we have never been slaves of anyone. Instead our self-image is one of enlightenment and spiritual liberty.
So let me unpack why we are captive. In this article I want to discuss the imprisoning role of what we might broadly call political correctness.
Naturally we want to say that in some areas our culture is deeply anti-authoritarian: think of the cry that says a woman’s body is her own and therefore she is entitled to kill the unborn child she bears. People who wish to stop her are infringing her rights over herself – so it is said.
But we also have a deeply authoritarian tendency, which notably revolves around the areas of what we call justice and equality. The two are very tightly entwined in today’s thinking. We have a sense we must impose ‘justice’ and very often that means imposing ‘equality’. Thus the argument runs that if someone identifies as male, despite being female from a chromosomal point of view, then ‘as a matter of justice’ the rest of us are bound to endorse that person in that gender identification.
Rooted in morality
Now what we have here is not an open embrace of what everyone thinks of as immorality. Rather, the appeal to justice is precisely meant to root our behaviour in ‘morality’. For moral reasons, we in our culture impose ‘justice and equality’.
And this finds an echo in the current UK church. We are very close to the culture in which we are set at this point. The vocabulary is very much that of justice: thus, on the same sex ‘marriage’ question, this is often put both inside and outside the church as a question of ‘equal marriage’ – in other words applying the justice idea of equality to the issue of marriage. The current chic terminology in the UK church tends to be that of ‘kingdom values’ – that by adopting these rules of justice, by arguing for them and by imposing them where possible, we are furthering the Kingdom of God, which increasingly looks like a kingdom built by us in our strength in this world. And the obvious question is: ‘What’s wrong with that? Don’t you want a just society?’
What would Luther say?
He might well dust off his copy of The Babylonian Captivity and start to explain. Why was the church of his day captive? Amongst other things, Luther wants to explain how something great and glorious, the sacraments, have been taken from their true purpose and twisted into something else. Thus, with regard to the Lord’s Supper, a sacrament which should speak of the sufficiency of what Christ had done, had been converted into a sign of what we do: faith in what Christ did then relies on something that we do now.
The problem here is at least two-fold: ﬁrst, fundamentally, faith has become works. This alone is a devastating observation, because it robs the church of her true identity as the one for whom Christ the bridegroom gave his life. This is a bride who thinks she saves herself and therefore does not know herself.
Secondly, those works look very attractive and plausible. After all, think of the people celebrating a late-mediaeval mass in Luther’s day: it looks a good deal more humble, godly and pious than the local ne’er-do-wells hanging around the local tavern getting drunk and making lewd comments. It looks good: lots of kneeling, lots of prayer, lots of awe. And that is a key feature of Luther’s Reformation insights: our problem is not just the obvious bad things we do and know we should not; our problem is, even more deeply, that we think our good works are really good.
Hence the snare of political correctness in the UK church. It is not that it is wrong to contend against people-trafficking in the name of justice. Where we go wrong is that we are inclined, as we oppose people-trafficking, to see ourselves as righteous because of what we do, because of our ‘works’.
That ‘works’ mindset is spiritually fatal. It inclines us to think we do not need to repent and seek forgiveness (because our works show we are righteous, not sinners) and it inclines us to glorify ourselves, because we think that we are saviours rather than saved (‘look at wonderful us who liberate the people caught in people trafficking’).
Why is this ‘Babylonian captivity’ of political correctness so captivating? Because the image of righteousness it brings is so attractive. We are captivated by our talk of the ‘kingdom values’ we will achieve by our works because the UK church has – tragically and evilly – a Babylonian heart.
The seductiveness of a ‘Babylon’ is precisely its apparent achievements – whether they are achievements of visible wealth and splendour, like Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon, or the achievements of a mass wealth democracy, like a modern Western state. In fact our achievements are all the more seductive because they are so much more plausibly ‘good’. Like Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 4.30, we are inclined to look on our ‘Babylon’ of political correctness and say: ‘Is this not the great Babylon I have built… ?’ What would Luther say? It’s quite simple. The Church of England, amongst others, is still captive – so the Reformation is not yet over.
Mike Ovey is Principal of Oak Hill College