When I was in graduate school about 15 years ago, I took a class on the Reformation. As you can imagine, the class focused largely on the life of Martin Luther. The professor imagined Luther as a figure set squarely between the fading medieval world and the unfolding European Renaissance. Luther enjoyed certain qualities of a Renaissance humanist but wasn’t an Erasmus or even a Melanchthon. His life was thus emblematic of the change that was overtaking Europe in the 16th century. He was both a throwback to an earlier time and a harbinger of the approaching Age of Enlightenment. What I found interesting about Luther then, and still do, was the way he attacked the Catholic Church not from a Renaissance humanist standpoint, but rather by holding the church to its own lofty standards. To be sure, Luther’s 95 Theses were largely concerned with ending the corrupt practice of selling indulgences that had gotten way out of hand. Luther bristled at the sale of indulgences not just because of the way the practice worked its corrupting influence on men in positions of authority in the church but because the practice itself seemed to exemplify the Pelagian heresy condemned by the church’s own leading theologians, including Augustine (to whose order Luther had belonged before becoming a professor in Wittenberg).
When Luther presented his 95 Theses to the world in 1517, he was not just criticizing certain church practices. He attacked the very idea that the pope or any church authority could overrule scripture and the authoritative scriptural interpretations promulgated by the early church fathers and councils. He did not attack the pope or the church per se; he simply asserted limits on the right of the pope to go against scripture and tradition. He believed, in short, that the leaders of the church were apostates, and the church needed to be reformed by the “priesthood of believers” who would cleanse the church of its iniquity. He refused to offer the Papacy the blind obedience it demanded from him. You might say Martin Luther was, for a time, a “New Order Catholic.”
Of course, we all know how things turned out. The Catholic Church eventually did adopt some of Luther’s reforms, but only long after Luther and the church parted ways. By June 1520, after the pope demanded that Luther recant 41 of his theses, Luther’s optimism about reforming the church from within was a fading memory. Said Luther, “As for me, the die is cast; I despise alike the favor and fury of Rome; I do not wish to be reconciled with her; or even to hold any communication with her. Let her condemn and burn my books; I, in turn, unless I can find no fire, will condemn and publicly burn the whole pontifical law, that swamp of heresies.” Luther discovered that reforming a bureaucracy the size of the Catholic Church was a Herculean task. A year later, having refused to bend to the will of Rome, Luther was excommunicated, declared a heretic, and forced to flee for refuge to Wartburg Castle.
I appreciate what Luther did. He spoke out against corruption in the most powerful institution in Europe at the time. At a time when the decision to raise a voice of dissent or protest could be met with not only excommunication but also arrest, imprisonment, torture, and painful death, his actions are justly praised as valiant and courageous. He was a flawed human being, of course, as are we all. He was ignorant on many matters, as are we all. But he was animated by a zeal for truth and justice, and he took his mission as a disciple of Christ seriously. He claimed no prophetic gift or calling. But he had convictions and the courage to proclaim.
I don’t pretend that there is any comparison between being a disaffected Mormon in 21st-century America and being a disaffected Catholic monk in early 16th-century Europe. I have freedoms Luther could only dream about (and some, probably, that would elicit nightmares in him). And while there is something of a culture of suppression in the modern LDS church, the only power the LDS church has over its members is ecclesiastical—if my Bishop learns my identity, I won’t be sent to a dungeon, tried for heresy, or burned at the stake. Nonetheless, I can relate to Luther. Like Luther, I once believed fervently in the church of which I am a member. I once loved it even. Like Luther, I have discovered things about my church that I find disturbing. Like Luther, I will not sit silently by and allow the organization of which I am a part, and to which I have devoted so much of my life, to continue to peddle falsehoods and perpetuate injustices with impunity. Like Luther, I may not be able to remain affiliated with my church indefinitely. Unlike Luther, I don’t expect anything of historic proportions to come of my little protest. Still, I do feel inspired by the German monk to express my thoughts about the problems I see in the LDS church, and to suggest a course of action the church should undertake to right itself and become the kind of organization of which I would not only be pleased but proud to be a member.
So, in that vein, I have composed a précis of my most pronounced issues with the LDS church. I call it my 96 Theses. Not that I am trying to one-up Martin Luther. Not by any means. I have chosen 96 rather than 95 for a couple reasons. First, I don’t want some poor high-school schlub who waits until the last minute to do research for his History paper to Google “95 Theses” and end up at my little blog. Second, my theses are arranged in mirrored pairs and so need an even number. I present a criticism of a particular church teaching, practice, or policy and then I present a corresponding suggestion on how the church can address the criticism. In this way, I hope that my project will be seen as positive, constructive criticism and not as negative carping. In the coming weeks, I will be posting my 96 Theses in segments, probably about 12 at a time (6 paired statements). I hope this will make reading and commenting on them more wieldy than if I posted all 96 at once.