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A Slow Creep

Captivity comes by degrees, not suddenly.

The Church Captive (6)

See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ. 
Colossians 2.8 (ESV)

“Ungodly men are very facile in the use of language, employing their own inventions to deck out man-made views and works, and to draw the unthinking masses on. These can usually be led on by the outer show of works, to the great detriment of faith, the oblivion of baptism, and the hurt of Christian freedom.”

  - Martin Luther, The Pagan Servitude of the Church[1]

Slow creep
As the apostle Paul warned the Galatians, there will always be people who, for what they may consider to be very good reasons, will rob believers of the liberty they have in Jesus Christ, and take them captive to ideas and practices that are foreign to true Christian faith. They preach “another” gospel and not the Gospel of the Kingdom (Gal. 1.6-9), because they add emphases and practices that derive not from the teaching of Christ and the apostles, but from traditions of men; and, in the process, they set aside the true teachings of faith and lead people to false assurances of salvation.

The process whereby human traditions supplant Biblical teaching does not happen suddenly. The Church falls into a season of captivity not by revolution, but by a slow creep. Ideas and practices, foreign to the Gospel and the ancient faith and practice, are gradually introduced, until a form of Christianity becomes set in place that is far removed from what the Scriptures teach. It continues to use words, forms, and practices that belong to the faith of Christ, but the overall framework of faith becomes corrupted, and the freedom of the Christian is compromised; and there comes about a general captivity of the Church – to traditions and the men who teach and uphold them.

This was the situation Martin Luther faced early in the 16thcentury. As a monk, Luther had devoted himself to the teachings and practices of the Church, only to sink ever deeper into an experience of faith that left him overwhelmed with guilt and doubting his own salvation. He claimed that no one was ever more assiduous in observing the practices and protocols of faith, but that no one was ever more without hope of salvation than he.

But in addition to his assiduous observance of church traditions, Luther was also a most diligent student of the Word of God. He determined to break free of the captivity of human traditions and to practice only what the Scriptures taught, and he published his resolution in two short books in 1520, The Freedom of a Christian and The Pagan Servitude of the Church.

For his bold and unbending stand, he was excommunicated from the Church, and a bounty was placed on his life. The slow creep of pagan servitude is not easily overcome. Sometimes there is a price to pay.

The captivity of the Church
Luther had come to believe that true Christian faith had been taken captive by Church leaders, who had learned over the years to make certain forms of faith work to their advantage in controlling people of faith. Christians had been “robbed of their liberty” by church leaders who were committed to managing programs and practices rather than shepherding the flocks of the Lord. Whenever any church leader was challenged at the local level, he simply appealed to the status quo – he was only doing what everyone else was doing, and what acknowledged leaders had long prescribed. “Yet,” Luther insisted, “no such appeal abolishes either the Word of God or the testimony of the truth.”

Luther challenged beliefs and practices which he insisted were “without a basis of Scripture” and were nothing more than “the doctrines of men,” imported and adapted from worldly philosophies. The teachings and forms of faith to which Luther objected had become established practices for worship and Christian life, and it was no surprise that Church leaders took umbrage at his protests. He accused them of turning the faith “into mere merchandise, a market, and a business run for profit.” Church leaders expected the faithful to toe the line with their systems and programs, without regard for whether or not the people were actually growing in their relationship with and love for God. Luther insisted that true faith leads not just to outward conformity to religious forms, but to a new person: “Given this faith, there immediately follows the most precious affection of the heart, enlarging and deepening the human soul, i.e., love as given by the Holy Spirit through faith in Christ. Thus the believer draws near to Christ, that loving and bounteous testator, and becomes a new and different man through and through.” But Luther saw precious little of this happening in his day, although everyone went to church and observed the prescribed teachings and practices. But without faith, true transforming faith, all these religious practices were “rather instigations to irreligion than religious exercises.”

The effect of this captivity to unBiblical practices and the traditions of men was to “eradicate faith” and substitute for it “the most ungodly superstition of works. For when faith dies, and the word of faith is dumb, works soon take its place, and the tradition of works.”

The need for reform
Luther insisted that Church leaders were “relying on things that are wrong” because they were not doing what Jesus and the apostle did, but only what they had inherited of traditions and practices from the leaders who preceded them. Sure, the numbers were good, and those who opposed him were quick to point out that he alone, among the millions of Christendom, seemed troubled by the way of things. He replied, “Oh! blind Pharisees who measure righteousness and sanctity by size or number, or some such standard; although, in God’s sight, it is measures solely by faith.” Those leaders who drew the masses to their programs and traditions were simply taking them captive to worldly forms and depriving them of the freedom to know, love, serve, and grow in our Lord Jesus Christ.

Luther called for an end to every practice and all teaching that did not derive explicitly from the Scriptures. He challenged church leaders to examine themselves and their ways of leading the Church, to desist from everything that Scripture did not commend, and to take up all and only what Scripture requires. He knew, from bitter personal experience, that there would be a cost in taking such a stance: “Do not be disturbed if the whole world is of contrary opinion and practice. Thou hast the utmost certainty in the gospel. Trust it, and thou canst well afford to despise man-made beliefs and opinions.”

Luther’s call for reform quickly began to strike a resonant chord in the hearts of many. In our day, many are calling for us to examine ourselves and our practices of the faith. Have we entered a new season of captivity to wrong teaching, bogus practices, and misguided good intentions? Have we lost sight of the true meaning of faith, and are we guilty of despising the examples and heritage of our forebears? Were it so, this would be a terrible tragedy, as Cornelius Plantiga explained: “The Babylonian captivity of the church to popular culture is too often true and always tragic.”

Let it not be said of this generation of church leaders that, for the sake of numbers, convenience, or any other false standard, we have robbed the followers of Christ of their true liberty in the Gospel.

Wherefore it ought to be the first concern of every Christian to lay aside all confidence in works and increasingly to strengthen faith alone and through faith to grow in the knowledge, not of works, but of Christ Jesus…No other work makes a Christian.

- Martin Luther, The Freedom of a Christian[2]

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Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Unless otherwise indicated, quotes from Church fathers are from The Ancient Christian Commentary Series (InterVarsity Press).

[1]All quotes from Martin Luther, The Pagan Servitude of the Church, in John Dillenberger, ed. Martin Luther: Selections From His Writings (Doubleday: Garden City, NY, 1961), pp. 249 ff.

[2]Martin Luther, The Freedom of a Christian, in Dillengerger, ibid. p. 56.

T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in Essex Junction, VT.
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