Liberty of Conscience for All?
Nearly five hundred years ago, a brilliant but troubled young Augustinian monk named Martin Luther posted ninety-five theses on the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany. No one could know then what stupendous forces he had let loose — that he had in fact just launched a revolution in world affairs religiously, politically, and even socially. Wars of religion would still be darkening the lands of Europe more than a century later, with the profoundly disturbing and destructive Thirty Years War not winding up until 1648.
Within the brief span of four years — as the magnitude of the revolution was beginning to take shape — Luther had come to the attention of the greatest spiritual and secular powers on earth: the pope and the emperor! Here Martin Luther stands before the Diet of Worms in April 1521. The princes of the Holy Roman Empire gathered in council there. They held the power of life and death in their hands over their subjects.
Before them stood a monk whom the pope wanted killed! Pope Leo X waits for news in Rome. He has already excommunicated Luther — commonly a death sentence itself. The pope hoped the Catholic emperor, Charles V, would carry it out for him. That was the way it usually worked. When called to renounce all his errors, legend has it he stood alone. It wasn’t quite that way. Powerful princes were there as well, men who saw him as a useful tool in their struggles with both the emperor and the pope. They had already secured him safe passage to and from the Diet.
Yet his courage that day was undeniable, and he defied all the powers of the world to stand for his convictions.
Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason — I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other — my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe.
Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen.
If only Luther had kept the good conscience he claimed to have that day, human history would have taken a far less bloody course! Within a few years he was urging the princes to “stab, beat, kill, whoever can” the oppressed German peasants. Six years after this he called for the death of Germans who wanted to baptize adults and not baptize infants. He strongly pushed for compulsory education, mandatory churchgoing, and forced military service. The state could compel citizens in this manner because to Luther the citizen was the property of the state. Above all, he taught unhesitating obedience to the state. According to Luther, no individual citizen ever had the right to disobey the state — no matter what it did. So having won it for himself, he zealously sought to deny freedom of conscience for everyone else.
His teachings have been the cause of the worst, most oppressive aspects of German history and culture. Luther’s influence worked to crush the German soul, which like any people’s, requires freedom to prosper. Luther’s victory at the Diet of Worms actually led to a radical decrease of freedom in Germany. The triumph of Luther was the triumph of the state and church over the individual’s conscience. Luther reproduced in Protestantism the same system that already existed in Catholicism.
Before turning to a modern-day example of Luther’s courage, let us consider the curious fate of another man who did just what Luther had done, and the fate of the movement he began. This man is not so well known. There is no painting of him, and the existing artwork of his spiritual movement was done, literally, by their tormentors.
Just ten years after Luther’s ninety-five theses shook the world, Jacob Kautz, another young priest, posted seven theses on the door of the cathedral in Worms — the exact place Luther had been called to account by the Imperial Diet! Posting in the same style and for exactly the same purpose as Luther’s ninety-five theses — to stimulate discussion and debate — Kautz and his movement, the Anabaptists, found a far different reception than Luther’s. Indeed, they met the fate which the pope desired for Luther’s Reformation also — violent persecution by the fire and sword.
They achieved the dubious and dangerous distinction of being labeled heretics by both Catholics and Protestants. And why? Why did those who protested not allow others to protest?
This was because their radical theology was a threat to the existing social order in which church and state were collaborators. This radical criticism of the very structure of society resulted in the unrelenting attempts of Catholics and Protestants to stamp it out.*
The Anabaptists objected to the Constantinian pattern of church and state working together intimately to accomplish mutual worldly aims. The Roman emperor Constantine had begun this pattern twelve centuries before when he converted Christianity, as the historian Paul Johnson said, into the Roman state religion.
But the empire, as the earlier institution, had changed the less of the two; in some ways it had barely changed at all — it had replaced one state religion by another. The Church, by contrast, had changed a great deal. (A History of Christianity, p. 126)
And as history tells the grim tale, both Catholics and Protestants upheld the power of their state churches by coercion. They believed themselves clothed with the power from on high to determine what true belief was, and to have the right to enforce their views on everyone in their states.
The essence of what the Anabaptists said, which got them in so much trouble, was that the life of believers had to be different or else the Reformation was just a farce. People had to live out their convictions. Their challenge to the Reformers in these Seven Articles was simple: “How can you say all these things and not live them?”
The sixth thesis of Worms said that if they weren’t living them out, then all that Christ had done for them was of no value. In other words, the Anabaptists taught that whoever did not follow Christ and obey His commands did not believe in Him. For them, Christ may as well not have come! To think that faith must display itself in a radical life of obedience to Christ’s words was the true heresy of the Anabaptists. For this they were fearsomely persecuted because no one, absolutely no one, must be allowed to proclaim that the “Emperor has no clothes on” — that faith without works is dead. This is why Luther proclaimed in his Preface to the New Testament that James was an “epistle of straw.”**
Not Long Ago
To this day, hiding behind other laws than those supporting religious doctrine, but carried out again with the intimate, behind-the-scenes collaboration of church and state, coercion of conscience continues. “Not allowing parallel societies” is such a curious euphemism for regimentation and state control of society. It sounds better, doesn’t it, than telling men that they cannot be free, that they cannot raise and educate their children as they see fit, as they believe God mandates them to do as the spiritual seed of Abraham.
In our Community in Bavaria, Germany, in October 2002, police forcibly hauled off the children of Klosterzimmern to the public school… for one day, with their parents! That afternoon they returned home. But it was not the end of the matter. In the short term, the net result of coming and going to school that day was for many Germans to see the Community there in a very positive light. As one newspaper article put it, “All the raid did was to show the unquenchable faith of the Twelve Tribes!”
Later, shortly before the imprisonment of seven fathers in October 2004, they held a well-attended press conference. There, brothers and sisters stood as new champions for the freedom of conscience and the rights of parents. How many in the nation or the world heard the echo of Martin Luther before the Diet in the words of one brave father, Holger Rohrs?
You cannot change a true conviction with fines and imprisonment… It is not about an opinion we have, or about obtaining a privileged status, or about what we might prefer. It is a matter of conscience. We cannot act any other way. (October 15, 2004)
To this day the struggle continues, but we believe our struggle will have the opposite effect on Germany and the world than Martin Luther’s did. Instead of oppression, freedom; instead of coercion of conscience, soul liberty. One day how much his evil teachings have affected the whole world will be exposed.
So we press on, as Paul said, praying for all men, but especially those in authority, that we could lead peaceful, quiet, and godly lives. (1 Timothy 2:1-2)
For the Communities of the Twelve Tribes, the Body of Messiah on earth,
P.S. For more on the Anabaptists, read “The Seven Theses of the Anabaptists”. It (and the following article) has quotes and citations of Luther about the peasants, the Anabaptists, compulsory education and military service. Both the Catholics and Reformers compelled church attendance.
There are companion articles, too, such as “The Legacy of Martin Luther”.
* F.F. Hiebert, “The Atonement in Anabaptist Theology,” Direction Journal, Vol. 30, #2, p. 122-138.
** Martin Luther writes: “In a word, St. John’s Gospel and his first Epistle, St. Paul’s Epistles, especially Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians, and St. Peter’s first Epistle are the books that show you Christ and teach you all that is necessary and good for you to know, even though you were never to see or hear any other book or doctrine. Therefore St. James’ Epistle is really an epistle of straw, compared to them; for it has nothing of the nature of the Gospel about it.” (In “Luther’s Preface to the New Testament,” published in 1522, revised in 1545, in The Works of Martin Luther, Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1932, copyrighted by the United Lutheran Church in America, vol. 6. pp. 443-444., translated by C.M. Jacobs)