Did Martin Luther Destroy the Church's Unity?

I told the instructor that I disagreed with his assumption that the church had "unity" at the time of Luther. (Max Pixel/Public Domain)

I sat in a seminary class and listened as a guest lecturer bashed Martin Luther, accusing him of "destroying the unity of the church." I decided I could not keep silent and so raised my hand.

I told the instructor that I disagreed with his assumption that the church had "unity" at the time of Luther. What the church had, I said, was a "uniformity" that was imposed by force. With the merger of church and state by Constantine in the fourth century, church officials, particularly the bishop of Rome, gained more and more power and the papal office became the most powerful force in the Empire.

This Is Not Unity

Believing the wrong thing became a civil crime known as heresy, and heretics were imprisoned, tortured, beheaded and burned at the stake, all in the name of unity. One hundred years before Luther, the Czech priest and pastor, John Huss, was found guilty of heresy for preaching the authority of Scripture and saying that Christ, not the pope, is the head of the church. He was publicly burned at the stake. That is not unity!

Luther would have suffered the same fate if it had not been for the protection of the powerful German prince, Frederick the Wise. Nonetheless, because he too preached the authority of Scripture and that Christ, not the pope, is the head of the church, he was excommunicated. A warrant was issued for his arrest, and Christians were ordered not to read his books, but instead to burn them. That is not unity!

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Should Truth Be Sacrificed for Unity?

For those who think Luther destroyed the unity of the church, my question to you is this, "Should Luther have recanted at his heresy trial?" Should he have renounced his teachings on the authority of Scripture, the priesthood of all believers and justification by faith? Should he have sacrificed truth for an artificial show of unity? Is unity our goal even at the expense of truth?

By refusing to sacrifice truth for an artificial unity, Luther showed himself to be a true disciple of Jesus Christ. Jesus said in John 8:31-32, "If you remain in My word, then you are truly my disciples. You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free." Those who sacrifice truth for a superficial unity are not true disciples of Jesus Christ.

The Real Cause of the Division

No, Luther was not the cause of the division that took place at the time of the Reformation. The cause is to be found in the rigid authoritarianism of the Roman church at the time. Hans Kung, the most widely read Catholic theologian in the world today, recognizes this. Referring to the claim of Catholic bishops to be the successors of the apostles, he wrote, "The decade long, indeed century long, predominately unapostolic behavior of the bishops was a major cause of the Lutheran Reformation."

What Luther destroyed was not unity, but a uniformity that was imposed on the masses by force. Yet, he did not set out to do even this. He wanted to see the Roman Church reformed according to the Scriptures and the glaring abuses, such as the selling of indulgences, addressed. However, the "unapostolic behavior" of the Roman bishops, particularly the bishop of Rome, made this impossible.

Here Is Real Unity

Instead of destroying unity, Luther made biblical unity possible, for there can be no real unity without diversity. The existence of thousands of Protestant churches should not be looked upon as a problem, but a possibility. Just as a symphony orchestra is made up of many different instruments that make many different sounds, so the true church is made up of a rich diversity of individuals and churches.

What brings unity in the symphony orchestra is when all the instruments respond to the maestro and begin playing the same song in the same key and melody. The sound that comes forth is beautiful and rich because of the blend and harmony of the different instruments with their different sounds.

In a similar way, when the many different churches, Catholic and Protestant, stop doing their own thing and seeking their own status and power, and begin to respond to the true head of the church—Jesus Christ—and flowing with His Holy Spirit, something beautiful will emerge. God's power will flow, and the world will see Jesus as they have never seen Him before.

Thank you, Martin Luther, for making Christ-centered, biblical unity a possibility once again in the church of Jesus Christ.

This article was derived from Dr. Eddie Hyatt's latest book, The Charismatic Luther, with the subtitle, Healings, Miracles & Spiritual Gifts in the Life of the Great Reformer, now available from Amazon in Kindle and soon to be available in paperback. Check out his website at eddiehyatt.com.

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