On all Saints Day 1517 a young German Augustinian monk nailed a set of 95 theses on the wall the Wittenberg Cathedral door which outlined the theological errors and abuses of the church against the common people such as the selling of indulgences. Martin Luther would go on to declare that the people of God were being held captive in a proverbial Babylon not unlike the children of Israel had been in ancient times.
I would posit that Evangelical Christianity has taken the church captive, holding the people of God hostage; Martin Luther posited that the institutional had become corrupt caring more about wealth and power than caring for the people of God. I posit the Evangelical church is acting in a way comparable to the medieval institutional Church, namely by exploiting the faithful for the economic and political aggrandizement of the clerical hierarchies and their feudalistic capitalist overlords.
One of the chief complaints that Martin Luther waged against the institutional church of his day was the issuance of indulgences for the remission of sin. The church leaders stated that for a certain fee a penitent’s sin could be absolved, in reality this was done to exploit the poor and needy and to pad the pockets of the church and clergy. Martin Luther condemned this practice by pointing to the scriptures which states in Ephesians 2:8-9 “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.” Luther went on to state that “Christ is no Moses, no exactor, no giver of laws, but a giver of grace, a Savior; he is infinite mercy and goodness, freely and bountifully given to us”. The institutional western Church tried to replace free grace given in love with a mountain of works rigorousness which kept people trapped in mental and spiritual anguish.
Now in our day we have televangelist who preach the prosperity gospel, which states God rewards those who tithe and give generously to the church (i.e the preachers) with material blessings and healing. Many of these preachers and televangelist live opulent lives from the funds they have collected often times from people who are poor, sick, and desperate for some relief from their daily woes. One such Televangelist Benny Hinn, who according to a April 6th 2016 article in the Washington Times has a Net worth of $42 Million Dollars. Hinn has often stated to his followers that if they plant a seed of faith by making a monetary donation to his ministry God will bestow his grace upon them and deliver them from their suffering. He states this even as he lives in luxury and so many of his followers live in utter poverty and desperation. Hinn is not alone in the commodification of God’s Grace for earthly profit; Televangelist Jesse Duplantis raised an uproar when he asked for 54 million dollars in donations to buy a luxury private jet as reported in the June 1st edition of the Guardian, he to promises blessings and healings to those of his followers plant monetary seeds in his ministry.
These evangelical televangelists have become the modern equivalent of the Borgia papacies living in extreme opulence and wealth off the backs of the exploited poor. Not only do they deprive the faithful of their cold hard cash but they obscure God’s Grace because often times when these individuals who are often desperate give until it hurts and yet receive no healing, no respite from grinding poverty they assume they have not worked hard enough for God’s grace or God is displeased with them, thus wounding their souls.
The church has also fallen prey to a type of political captivity where they have substitute the Gospel of Christ in which we are instructed to care for the poor with a gospel of greed and power that has become subsumed in a lassie-faire capitalist ethos. In the Holy Roman Empire of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance you had prince-bishops who blended temporal and spiritual authority, often caring more about the trappings of power to the detriment of the physical and spiritual welfare of their charges. Many Clerics and Nobles would engage in simony where they would buy high religio-political offices. Such was Albert of Brandenburg, elector and Archbishop of Mainz who had bought three bishoprics. Luther opposed him due to his corruption and spiritual neglect and abuse of the children of God.
Likewise, today we have evangelical pastors who build mega churches with vast networks of satellite congregations; many of these said pastors than use their influence to affect rightwing public policy such as laws that discriminate against LGBTQI people, women or people of color. One such example is Pastor Robert Jeffress, Pastor of the 12,000 member strong Dallas First Baptist Church, Pastor Jeffress has endorsed and shilled for President Trump even in the face of multiple accusations of sexual misconduct and engaging in immigration policies that are counter to scriptures admonishment to care for the alien among us (Leviticus 19:34). The evangelical right has created a false idol of political power and the riches it brings for its leaders not unlike those in the Church in Martin Luther’s day, to the detriment of the poor and the oppressed.
This is the opposite of what true Christianity should be for we are told in James 1:27 “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” It is up to Evangelicals to take decisive action to reform their church and deliver themselves from their Babylonian captivity. They must stop aligning themselves with people or groups solely for political power and they must hold their leaders accountable for the unbiblical abuse and exploitation of the poor and down trodden. This will probably have to be a movement from the pew and not the pulpit as a recent in Lifeways poll found that 51% of white evangelical pastors support trump.
No doubt such a reformation will bring pain but if the evangelical church refuses to reform itself and break loose from Babylon it will die. Two paraphrases Nadia Boltz-Weber God can raise a church from the stones of the ground. If the current church cares more for power then the poor or the oppressed perhaps God will spit it from his mouth and raise a new church that will care for God’s people and not just the privileged and the powerful.
Antonio Miguel Spinoza, a future member in discernment, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)